At first glance, it might be difficult to distinguish annealing from tempering. Both are heat treatments designed to alter the physical and mechanical properties of a metal, and both involve heating that metal and gradually cooling it. So what makes the annealing steel different, and what are the advantages of this process?
When it comes to annealing, it’s important to remember how dependent the process is on precision and control. Like tempering, annealing involves reheating quenched steel and then allowing it to cool. However, at each stage of the annealing process, careful oversight is crucial to producing the most high-quality result possible.
Annealing involves three separate stages:
- Recovery: simply put, this is applying heat to soften the metal. To ensure the most even heat distribution, air should be allowed to circulate freely around the items being annealed. For this reason, the heating is most often done in large ovens which can be tightly sealed, raised to the desired temperature, and closely monitored. Recovery then occurs when the heat breaks down dislocations and other irregularities within the metal’s structure.
- Recrystallization: during this stage, the heat is raised to above the metal’s recrystallization temperature while still remaining just below its melting point. This means that new smaller grains are formed within the steel, replacing older grains with pre-existing stresses. So while the finished product will be less hard then it was before, the uniform structure of the new grains will give the steel more strength and resiliency.
- Grain growth: this is the cooling stage of the annealing process. In contrast to tempering, which allows the steel to cool naturally at room temperature, the cooling of annealed metals must be highly controlled. To do this, cooling is often done by immersing the hot steel into a low-conductivity environment such as burying it in sand or ashes. It can also be done by switching off the oven and allowing the metal to slowly cool within the machinery’s fading heat. Whatever the method used, the aim is to have as slow and gradual a cooling process as possible. When fully cooled, the steel will now possess a more refined micro-structure. In real terms, this means it has more elasticity, so that it can take the stress of machining or grinding with far less risk of cracking.
While all heat treatments result in a strengthened alloy, annealing is crucial for items that have previously been cold worked. Cold working produces stresses within the metal, which annealing then helps to reverse by bringing it closer to the metal’s original properties. That means the benefits of annealing are twofold: eliminating as much residual stresses as possible while restoring its strength and ductility. So while tempering is used for products such as structural beams, the more ductile steel produced through annealing is found in items like mattress springs, wiring, and tools.