Whether you are working with machines that are designed for cutting, drilling, punching, grinding, or other similar jobs, all tools must be designed with enough hardness and toughness to optimally carry out tasks while facing little integrity loss over time. As such, many machine tools are made from wear-resistant steel alloys that provide ample toughness, hardness, and reliability. Based on whether the tool in question is a drill bit or cutting tool, the exact characteristics of the tool steel may differ. As such, it is important to understand what tool steel is, how it is produced, and what categories exist.
As tool steels need to be exceptionally hard to perform with reliability, they are generally subjected to a process known as quenching which changes the microstructure of the alloy. To conduct this process, the steel alloy is first heated to a specific temperature that is based on the ratio of carbon in the mix. Upon reaching and maintaining the required temperature, the steel alloy is then quenched by being placed in a cool gas or liquid. This cooling causes the metal to rapidly freeze through shock cooling, that of which results in a plethora of metal crystal grains freezing at the same time instead of in gradual, circular blooms. With shock cooling, the molecular structure of the alloy is not given any time to adjust by a significant degree, meaning that denting is more likely to occur as a result of trauma as compared to breaking. While air quenching is a much slower process as compared to water quenching, it is important to consider the chemistry of each particular alloy, as some may actually crack or become distorted if their cooling is too rapid.
While there are many ways in which a tool steel may be produced, all fall under six broad categories for ease of classification and identification. Across these types, water-hardened, cold-work, hot-work, and high-speed tool steels are the most common, while the other two tool steels are most often reserved for special applications.
Water-hardened tool steels encompass various heat-treated carbon steels, and options often range from 0.5% to 1.5% carbon for their mix ratio. For the other metal, nickel, tungsten, or molybdenum are all common. Generally, water-hardened tool steel is commonly used for light-duty applications where environments are not extreme.
Cold-work tool steel is best used in a cold environment as it will lose hardness, toughness, and wear resistance when operating in high temperatures. It is important to note that cold in this context is any temperature under 200 degrees Celsius, and metals in these environments will necessitate increased force. For hotter environments, hot-work tool steel with an increased ratio of alloying elements and carbides is used so that hotter temperatures may be withstood. While cold-work tool steel is relied on for gages, shears, plastic molds, and other such applications, hot-work tool steel is used for dies, stamps, extruders, and compressors.
The final common type of tool steel is the high speed variation, and these alloys are used in high speed operations where machine buts may become hot as a result of friction. High-speed tool steels are often made up of 14-18% tungsten, about 5% chromium, and 0.6% carbon, allowing them to serve modern applications where a rapid rate of production is needed. Beyond such examples, shock resisting and special purpose tool steels may also be used based on the application.
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