Heat Treatment Tempering

Heat Treatment Tempering

Heat treatment is a group of industrial and metalworking process used to alter the physical, and sometimes chemical, properties of a material. The most common application is metallurgical.

Heat treatment involves the use of heating or chilling, normally to extreme temperatures, to achieve a desired result such as hardening or softening of a material.

Heat treatment techniques include annealing, case hardening, precipitation strengthening, tempering, normalizing and quenching.

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Untempered martensitic steel, while very hard, is too brittle to be useful for most applications. A method for alleviating this problem is called tempering. Most applications require that quenched parts be tempered. Tempering consists of heating steel below the lower critical temperature, (often from 400 to 1105 ˚F or 205 to 595 ˚C, depending on the desired results), to impart some toughness. Higher tempering temperatures (may be up to 1,300 ˚F or 700 ˚C, depending on the alloy and application) are sometimes used to impart further ductility, although some yield strength is lost.


Tempering may also be performed on normalized steels. Other methods of tempering consist of quenching to a specific temperature, which is above the martensite start temperature, and then holding it there until pure bainite can form or internal stresses can be relieved. These include austempering and martempering

Tempering colors

Tempering colors of steel

Steel that has been freshly ground or polished will form oxide layers when heated. At a very specific temperature, the iron oxide will form a layer with a very specific thickness, causing thin-film interference. This causes colors to appear on the surface of the steel. As temperature is increased, the iron oxide layer grows in thickness, changing the color. These colors, called tempering colors, have been used for centuries to gauge the temperature of the metal. At around 350˚F (176˚C) the steel will start to take on a very light, yellowish hue. At 400˚F (204˚C), the steel will become a noticeable light-straw color, and at 440˚F (226˚C), the color will become dark-straw. At 500˚F (260˚C), steel will turn brown, while at 540˚F (282˚C) it will turn purple. At 590˚F (310˚C) the steel turns a very deep blue, but at 640˚F (337˚C) it becomes a rather light blue.


The tempering colors can be used to judge the final properties of the tempered steel. Very hard tool steel is often tempered in the light to dark straw range, whereas spring steel is often tempered to the blue. However, the final hardness of the tempered steel will vary, depending on the composition of the steel. The oxide film will also increase in thickness over time. Therefore, steel that has been held at 400˚F for a very long time may turn brown or purple, even though the temperature never exceeded that needed to produce a light straw color. Other factors affecting the final outcome are oil films on the surface and the type of heat source used.