Machinability of carbon and alloy steels is a shear process. Working the metal (Shearing to create chip) provides heat. The subsequent sliding of the produced chip on the face of the cutting tool provides heat as well.

Three ways to improve machinability include

  1. Optimizing the chemistry to provide for a minimum shear strength
  2. Adding internally contained lubricants
  3. Adjusting cold work

The steels that we are talking about are in large part composed of the ferrite phase. This is advantageous to us as machinists, because it has a relatively low shear strength.

Because ferrite is also ductile, it does not cut cleanly and tends to tear. Grade 1008 or 1010 are prime examples of  how pure ferrite machines. Long stringy, unbroken chips, torn surface finishes and lots of machine down time to clear “birds nests” are typical results.

Adding carbon up to a point improves machinability by adding a second harder phase (pearlite) into the ferrite. The good news is that up to a point, the chip formation is greatly improved, and surface finish improves somewhat. The bad news is that the shear strength of the steel is also increased. This requires more work to be done by the machine tool.

Addition of Nitrogen and Phosphorous can not only increase the shear strength of the ferrite, but also reduce the ductility (embrittle it).This ferrite embrittlement promotes the formation of short chips, very smooth surface finishes, and the ability to hold high dimensional accuracy on the part being produced. The downside is that these additions can make the parts prone to cracking if subsequebnt cold work operations are performed.

The graph below shows how cold work (cold drawing reduction) works in combination to reduce chip toughness, resulting in controlled chip length, improved surface finish, and improved dimensional accuracy of the part. To read the graphs, the Nitrogen content is shown in one of two ranges, and Phosphorous content is varied as is  the amount (%) cold work. You can see how the synergistic effects of these two chemical elements  when appropriately augmented by cold work, can drop the materials toughness  by as much as 80-90%.


Phosphorous and Nitrogen affect ductility; Cold work further activates their effect.

Add to that internal lubrication by a separate manganese sulfide phase or a lead addition, and now you can see how these factors can make grade 1215 or 12L14 machinable at speeds far, far, faster than their carbon equivalent 1008-1010. With greater uptime and tool life.

Internal Lubricant- Manganese Sulfides

And you thought that cold drawing just made the bar surface prettier and held closer in size…

1) Martensite is the hardest and most brittle microstructure obtainable in a given steel.
2) Martensite hardness of the steel is a function of the carbon content in that steel.
3) Martensite results from cooling from austenitic temperatures rapidly by pulling the heat out using a liquid quenchant before pearlite can form.
4) As quenched Martensitic structures are too brittle for economic use-they must be tempered.
5) Reheating as quenched Martensite to a temperature just below the AC1 results in the best combinations of strength and toughness.

This is what you get when you cool faster than the critical cooling (pearlite transition) rate- Martensite

Hardness of martensite is a function of carbon content

Softening of martensite in 0.35%C, 0.8% C, and 1.2% C carbon steels by tempering at the indicated temperature for 1 hour.

Because Martensite transformation is almost instantaneous, the Martensite has the identical composition of the parent phase, unlike ferrite and pearlite which result  from a slower chemical diffusion process, so each have different chemical compositions than the parent austenite.
Formation of Martensite involves a transformation from a body-centered cubic structure to  body-centered tetragonal structure. The large increase in volume that results  creates a highly stressed structure. This is why Martensite has a higher hardness than Austenite for the exact same chemistry…
Photo  and Graphs Credit: Cold Finished Steel Bar Handbook

Here are 5 reasons to anneal steel. 
To alter the grain structure;
To develop formability;
To improve machinability;
To modify mechanical properties;
To relieve residual stresses.
The annealing process is a combination of a heating cycle, a holding period or “soak” at temperature, and a controlled cooling cycle. Atmospheric controls are generally used to protect the steel from oxidation. 
The temperatures used and the cooling rates are carefully selected to correspond with each steel grade’s chemical composition in order to produce the results desired. 
For bar steels used in our precision machining shops, there are three kinds of annealing that may be encountered:
Subcritical Anneal
Solution Anneal
Spheroidize Anneal
Subcritical Anneal 
 A subcritical anneal is the metallurgical name for what is termed a process anneal or stress relief anneal in North American commercial practice. It consists of heating the steel to a temperature close, but below, the steel’s lower critical temperature or Ac1. This simple anneal reduces stress and hardness in the material and makes modest changes in its microstructure. Steel mills often employ this to improve cold shearing or cold forming. This is sometimes used between cold forming operations to reduce hardness. 
Solution Anneal 

Lamellar Pearlite.

Solution annealing is referred to in commercial practice as ‘LP Anneal’ or Lamellar Pearlite Anneal. Lamellar pearlite is the microstructure that predominates when doing this kind of anneal. The cycle for this anneal involves heating the material above the critical range (Ac3) and holding the steel (soaking) at that temperature for a length of time followed by slow cooling below the critical range (Ar1) temperature. This cycle reduces hardness and reprecipitates the carbide phase as lamellar pearlite. Controlling the time and temperature gives the metallurgist a means to alter the resulting lamellar pearlite structure, and refine the ferritic (as rolled) grain size. 
LP anneals are usually applied to medium carbon (0.40-0.65 weight %) plain carbon and alloy steels for precision machining in order to reduce hardness and improve machinability. 
Spheroidize Anneal   
Spheroidized Microstructure.

Spheroidize annealing is the term that describes a thermal process which results in a globular or spheroidal type of carbide after heating and cooling. There are several types of spheroidize cycles which we will write about in a future post. 
Spheroidized microstructures are desireable for machinability and improved surface finish when machining higher carbon steels. Spheroidized microstructures are also preferred when the steel is to be severely cold worked: cold extruded, cold upsetting, or bent. Most bearing steels are first spheroidize annealed prior to machining. 
Lamellar Pearlite photo 
Spheroidized Photo