The machinability of steel bars is determined by three primary factors. Those factors are 1) Cold Work; 2) Thermal Treatment; 3) Chemical Composition.

Machinability is the result of Cold Work, Thermal Processing and Chemical composition- as well as the ability of the machine tool and the machinist.

Cold Work improves the machinability of low carbon steels by reducing the high ductility of the hot rolled product. Cold working the steel by die drawing or cold rolling results in chips that are harder, more brittle, and curled, prodcuing less built up edge on the tools cutting edge.. The improved Yield to Tensile Strength ratio means that your tools and machines have less work to do to get the chip to separate. Steels between 0.15- 0.30 wt% carbon are best machining; above 0.30 wt% the machinability decreases as carbon content (and hardness) increase.

Thermal Treatment improves the machinability of steel by reducing stresses, controlling microstructure, and lowering hardness and strength. While this is usually employed in higher carbon steels, sometimes a Spheroidize Anneal is employed in very low carbon steels to improve their formability. Stress Relief Anneal, Lamellar Pearlitic Anneal, and Spheroidize Anneals are the treatments applied to improve machinability in bar steels for machining.

Chemical composition is a major factor that contributes to the steel’s machinability or lack thereof. There are a number of chemical factors that promote machinability including

Carbon- low carbon steels are too ductile, resulting in gummy chips and the build up of workpiece material on the tool edge (BUE). Between 0.15 and 0.30 wt% carbon machinability is at its best; machinability decreases as carbon content increases beyond 0.30.

Additives that promote machining include

  • Sulfur combines with Manganese to form Manganese Sulfides which help the chip to break and improve surface finish.
  • Lead is added to steel to reduce friction during cutting by providing an internal lubricant. Lead does not alter the mechanical properties of the steel.
  • Phosphorus increases the strength of the softer ferrite phase in the steel, resulting in a harder and stronger chip (less ductile) promoting breakage and improved finishes.
  • Nitrogen can promote a brittle chip as well, making it especially beneificial to internal machining operations like drilling and tapping which constrain the chip’s movement.
  • (Nitrogen also can make the steel unsuitable for subnsequent cold working operations like thread rolling, crimping, swaging or staking.)

Additives that can have a detrimental effect on machining include deoxidizers and grain refiners.

Deoxidizing and grain refining elements include

  • Silicon,
  • Aluminum,
  • Vanadium
  • Niobium

These elements reduce machinability by promoting a finer grain structure and increasing the edge breakdown on the tool by abrasion.

Alloying elements can be said to inhibit machinability by their contribution to microstructure and properties, but this is of small impact compared to the factors listed above.

Some things you want to have bubbles, some you don’t.

Usually, Bubbles are good.

In beermaking, yeast consumes the sugars in the wort and convert them into CO2 gas bubbles- carbonation.
In steel making the main reaction is the combination of Carbon in the melt with Oxygen to form a gas. At the high temperatures involved, this gas is very soluble in the molten bath.
If the Oxygen that is available for this chemical reaction isn’t completely removed before the steel is cast the gases will continue to be forced out of the melt during solidification, resulting in porosity in the steel.
Bubbles and where the gas goes can be important in your steel part.

In order to control the evolution of gas, chemicals called deoxidizers are added to the steel. These chemicals, Silicon or Aluminum, Vanadium, Columbium, Niobium scavenge the available oxygen in the molten steel, react chemically to form solid oxide particles dispersed throughout the steel, rather than bubbles of Carbon Dioxide.
The amount and type of deoxidizer added determines the type of steel. If sufficent deoxidizers are added, no gas is evolved from the solidifying steel, and the steel is said to be “killed.” The ingot drawing labelled number 1 shows a fully killed (deoxidized) steel showing only a shrinkage cavity, and no bubbles or porosity. ( This shrinkage cavity would be cropped off in normal rolling practice.)
Because gas is still evolving, this beer is NOT KILLED.

Killed steel has more uniform chemical composition and properties than rimmed, semi-killed, or non-killed steels, and generally less segregation. The uniformity of killed steel and and its freedom from porosity makes these steels more suitable for critical components and for applications involving heat treatment.
Killed steels generally contain 0.15-.35 weight percent Silicon as a deoxidizer, and may contain  some of the other elements as mentioned above. These other elements may be used as deoxidizers or as grain refiners.
Steel grades with a Carbon maximum of 0.30 weight % and above, and all alloy steels are typically provided as “killed steels.”
Free machining steels such as 12L14, 1215, and some 11XX series steels are not “killed” with Silicon, Aluminum, etc., due to their deleterious effects on tool life and machinability. The high amounts of Manganese  in these steels form Manganese Sulfides to promote machinability, and also the Manganese scavenges excess Oxygen, preventing  evolution of CO2.
Killed steel is specified so your critical parts won't have bubbles in them.

Killed steel- for critical parts. Non-killed beer for critical  after work down time.
Beer Bubbles Photo Credit
Ingot scan from a handout in my files originally after Making Shaping and Treating of Steel.
 Beer Head Photo Credit
Bread with Holes

As machinists, we seldom encounter microalloy steels. but what do we need to know?

  1. Microalloy steel is manufactured like any other, but the chemical ingredients added at the initial  melt of the steel  to make it a microalloy include elements like Vanadium, Columbium (sorry, Niobium for us IUPAC  purists), Titanium, and higher amounts of Manganese and perhaps Molybdenum or Nickel.
  2. Vanadium, Columbium Niobium, and Titanium are also grain refiners and aggressive Oxygen scavengers, so these steels tend to also have a very fine austenitic grain size.
  3. In forgings, microalloy steels are able to develop higher mechanical properties (yield strengths greater than say 60,000 psi) and  higher toughness as forged by just cooling in air or with a  light mist water spray.
  4. Normal alloy steels  require a full austenitize, quench and temper heat treatment to develop properties greater than as rolled or cold worked.

Since microalloyed steels are able to get higher properties  using forging process heat- rather than an additional heating quenching tempering cycle- they can be less expensive to process to get improved mechanical properties.
 The developed microstructure ultimately makes the difference. The  microstructure developed in the steel depends on the grade and type.

Tempered martensite for normal alloys.

  • Normal alloy steels require a transformation to martensite  that is then tempered in order to achieve higher properties.
Bainite comparable hardness improved toughness.
  • Microalloy steel precipitates out various nitirides or carbides and may result in either a very fine ferrite- pearlite microstructure or may transform to bainite.

For machinists, if the steel is already at  its hardest condition, the microalloyed microstructure of either ferrite pearlite or bainite  is less abrasive than that of a fully quench and tempered alloy steel.
P.S. The non- martensitic structures also have higher toughness.
We don’t tend to machine prehardened steels in the precision machining industry, but if you ever are part of a team developing a process path for machining forgings, or finish cuts after induction hardening, these facts might be good to know.
Georges Basement Bainite 1000X

The weldability of steels is influenced primarily by the carbon content. At higher carbon levels, steels may need either pre- or post- weld heat treatment in order to prevent stress build up and weld cracking.
Generally speaking, if the Carbon Equivalent (CE) is 0.35 or below, no pre- or post- weld  thermal treatment  is needed. In our experience with maintenance welding, we have found that preheating was beneficial between 0.35 and 0.55 CE. Above 0.55 CE we usually both pre- and post- weld heated to relieve stress and prevent cracking.
So CE= .35 max.
However the other elements that are contained in the steel also have an effect on the steel’s “carbon equivalence.” These additional elements can really add up in scrap fed electric arc  furnace steels that now predominate in our market.

Electric Arc Furnaces are predominately scrap fed.

Photo credit.
Here are two formulas for calculating Carbon Equivalents.
CE=%C+(%Mn/6)+(%Cr+%Mo+%Va)/5 + (%Si+%Ni+%Cu)/15
This is the first formula I learned when I took over metallurgical support for  maintenance ‘back in the day.’
In this formula you can see that 6 points of Manganese are approximately equal to one point of Carbon.  5 points of Chrome, Moly or Vanadium are roughly equal to a point of Carbon, while it takes about 15 points of Silicon, Nickel or Copper to get about the same effect as one point of Carbon.
The GE formula for Carbon Equivalency is CE= C+(Mn/6)+(Ni/20)+(Cr/10)+(Cu/40)+(Mo/50)+(Va/10). If this is less than .35 max, you should have no need to pre or post weld thermal treat in most cases.
As long as CE is no more than .35, you probably won’t need to preheat or post weld stress relieve your welded parts. above .35 CE, you may need either or both depending on section thickness and CE.
* (I) added (extra parentheses) to keep (the terms) clear in (this post); no (scathing rebukes) from (math teachers) please!

While Austenitic Grain Size is a result of chemistry (composition), the changes that it evokes in our process are a result of material structure and properties, not just the chemical ‘ingredients.’
Steel that is fully deoxidized and grain refined is more sound, less susceptible to cracking and distorting, and more easily controlled in heat treat. Well worth it in final performance compared to the machinist’s increased tooling costs.
 Here are 5 Ways Austenitic Fine Grained steels can affect your shop:

  1. Poorer Machinability than Coarse Grained Steels. (The hard oxides and nitrides resulting from deoxidation and grain refinement abrade the edge of tools and coatings- this is one reason that you go through more tooling on Fine Grained Steels.)
  2. Poorer Plastic Forming than Coarse Grained Steels.
  3. Less Distortion in Heat Treating than Coarse Grained Steels
  4. Higher Ductility at the same hardness than Coarse Grained Steels
  5. Shallower Hardenability than Coarse Grained Steels.

This is a look at Austenitic Fine Grain Steel.

Fine Austenitic Grain Size is a result of  DELIBERATELY ADDDING grain refining elements to a heat of steel. Because these grain refining elements have been added, the steel has a “Fine Austenitic Grain Size.”
In order to make steels with this Austenitic Fine Grained Structure, the steel is first deoxidized , (usually with  Silicon) and then Aluminum, or Vanadium or Niobium are added. Aluminum, Vanadium, and Niobium are called grain refiners.
 After  the Silicon has scavenged most of the Oxygen out of the  molten steel, the grain refiner is added. (In this post I’ll stick with Aluminum as the example.) The added Aluminum reacts with Nitrogen in the molten steel to form Aluminum Nitride particles. These tiny particles precipitate along the boundaries of the Austenite as well as with in the Austenite grains. This restricts the  growth of the grains.
Because the deoxidation and grain refinement  create hard abrasive oxide and nitride particles, they machine and process differently than coarse grained steels.
Fine Austenitic Grain Size appears on the material test report as an ASTM value of 5 or greater. Values of 5, 6, 7, 8, or “5 and finer”  indicate that  the material is Austenitic Fine Grained. Typically 7 or 8 was  reported for the Aluminum  Fine Grain steels that I certified.
The methods for determining Austenitic Grain Size are detailed in ASTM Standard E112, Standard Test Methods for determining Average Grain Size.
To get the Coarse Austenitic Grain Size Story, see our post here.