Case Hardening Methods

Depth of Hardening:

There is no technical limit to the depth of hardening with carburizing techniques, but it is not common to carburize to depths in excess of 0.050 in.

Carburizing Time:

4 to 10 hours

Carburizing Temperature:

1750 oF (above the upper critical temperature-Austenite area)


All of the carburizing processes (pack, gas, liquid) require quenching from the carburizing temperature or a lower temperature or reheating and quenching. Parts are then tempered to the desired hardness.

Figure 1. Case depth vs. Carburizing time.

Pack Carburizing:

In this process, the part that is to be carburized is packed in a steel container so that it is completely surrounded by granules of charcoal. The charcoal is treated with an activating chemical such as Barium Carbonate (BaBO3) that promotes the formation of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). This gas in turn reacts with the excess carbon in the charcoal to produce carbon monoxide, CO.Carbon Monoxide reacts with the low-carbon steel surface to form atomic carbon which diffuses into the steel. Carbon Monoxide supplies the carbon gradient that is necessary for diffusion. The carburizing process does not harden the steel. It only increases the carbon content to some predetermined depth below the surface to a sufficient level to allow subsequent quench hardening.

Carbon Monoxide reaction:

CO2 + C ---> 2 CO

Reaction of Cementite to Carbon Monoxide:

2 CO + 3 Fe --->Fe3C + CO2

Figure 2. Pack carburizing process

Quenching Process:

It is difficult to quench the part immediately, as the sealed pack has to be opened and the part must be removed from the pack. One technique that is used often is to slow cool the entire pack and subsequently harden and temper the part after it is removed from the sealed pack.

Depth of Hardening:

There is no technical limit to the depth of hardening with carburizing techniques, but it is not common to carburize to depths in excess of 0.050 in.

Carburizing Time:

4 to 10 hours

Gas Carburizing:

Can be done with any carbonaceous gas, such as methane, ethane, propane, or natural gas. Most carburizing gases are flammable and controls are needed to keep carburizing gas at 1700 oF from contacting air(oxygen). The advantage of this process over pack carburizing is an improved ability to quench from the carburizing temperature. Conveyor hearth furnaces make quenching in a controlled atmosphere possible.

Liquid Carburizing:

Can be performed in internally or externally heated molten salt pots. Carburizing salt contains cyanide compounds such as sodium cyanide (NaCN). Cycle times for liquid cyaniding is much shorter (1 to 4 hours) than gas and pack carburizing processes. Disadvantage is the disposal of salt. ( environmental problems)and cost (safe disposal is very expensive).


In this process, nitrogen is diffused into the surface of the steel being treated. The reaction of nitrogen with the steel causes the formation of very hard iron and alloy nitrogen compounds. The resulting nitride case is harder than tool steels or carburized steels. Th advantage of this process is that hardness is achieved without the oil, water or air quench. As an added advantage, hardening is accomplished in a nitrogen atmosphere that prevents scaling and discoloration. Nitriding temperature is below the lower critical temperature of the steel and it is set between 925 oF and 1050oF. The nitrogen source is usually Ammonia (NH3). At the nitriding temperature the ammonia dissociates into Nitrogen and Hydrogen.

2NH3 ---> 2N + 3H2

The nitrogen diffuses into the steel and hydrogen is exhausted. A typical nitriding setup is illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Nitriding process

Figure 4.

The white layer shown in Figure 4 has a detrimental effect on the fatigue life of nitrided parts, and it is normally removed from parts subjected to severe service. Two stage gas-nitriding processes can be used to prevent the formation of white layer. White layer thickness may vary between 0.0003 and 0.002 in. which depends on nitriding time. The most commonly nitrided steels are chromium-molybdenum alloy steels and Nitralloys. Surface hardnesses of 55 HRC to 70 HRC can be achieved with case depths varying from 0.005 in to 0.020 in. Nitrided steels are very hard and grinding operations should not be performed after nitriding. White layer is removed by lapping.

Figure 5. Nitriding time for various types of alloy steels


This process involves with the diffusion of both carbon and nitrogen into the steel surface.The process is performed in a gas atmosphere furnace using a carburizing gas such as propane or methane mixed with several percent (by volume) of ammonia. Methane or paropane serve as the source of carbon, the ammonia serves as the source of nitrogen. Quenching is done in a gas which is not as severe as water quench. As a result of les severe quench, there is less distortion on the material to be treated. A typical carbonitriding system is shown in the following slide. Case hardnesses of HRC 60 to 65 are achieved at the surface.( Not as high as nitrided surfaces.) Case depths of 0.003 to 0.030 in can be accomplished by carbonitriding. One of the advantages of this process is that it can be applied to plain carbon steels which give significant case depths. Carbonitriding gives less distortion than carburizing. Carbonitriding is performed at temperatures above the transformation temperature of the steels (1400 oF -to 1600 oF)

Figure 6


It is similar to carbonitriding, and involves the diffusion of both carbon and nitrogen into the surface of the steel . The source of the diffusing element in this method is a molten cyanide salt such as sodium cyanide. It is a supercritical treatment involving temperatures in the range of 1400oF to 1600oF. Case depths are between 0.010 in. and 0.030 in. Diffusion times are less than one hour. Water or oil quench is required. This type of cases present a significant distortion. Advantage of this method is the short time it requires to complete the diffusion, otherwise it should be avoided because of high distortion.

Induction Hardening:

In this process an electric current flow is induced in the workpiece to produce a haeting action. Every electrical conductor carrying a current has a magnetic field surrounding the conductor. Since the core wire is a dead-end circuit, the induced current cannot flow anyplace, so the net effect is heating of the wire. The induced current in the core conductor alternates at frequencies from 60 cycles per second (60 Hz) to millions of Herz. The resistance to current flow causes very rapid haeting of the core material. Heating occurs from the outside inward. Indusction hardening process includes water quench after the haeting process. The big advantage of this system is its speed and ability to confine haeting on small parts. The major disadvantage is the cost.

Figure 7. Induction hardening

Flame Hardening:

Flame hardening is the process of selective hardening with a combustible gas flame as the source of heat for austenitizing. (The material should have at least 0.40 % Carbon content to allow hardening.) Water quenching is applied as soon as the transformation temperature is reached. The heating media can be oxygen acetylene, propane, or any other combination of fuel gases that will allow reasonable heating rates. This procedure is applied to the gear teeth, shear blades, cams, ways on the lathes, etc. Flame hardening temperatures are around 1500oF. Up to HRC 65 hardness can be achieved. For best results the hardness depth is 3/16 inch.There are three methods:

(1) SPOT Flame Hardening: Flame is directed to the spot that needs to be heated and hardened.

(2) SPIN Flame Hardening: The workpiece is rotated while in contavct with the flame

(3) PROGRESSIVE Flame Hardening: The torch and the quenching medium move across the surface of the workpiece.

Laser and Electron Beam Hardening:

These methods can be used to perform selective hardening of hardenable steels. They perform the same function as the flame in flame hardening or the induction coil in induction hardening. It is only appliacble to stels that have sufficient carbon and alloy content to allow quench hardening. The laser or electron bam is used to raise the surface temperature of the part. Electron Beam Hardening requires vacuum. Laser beam do not require vacuum and quenching can be done by using a gas. Electron beam spot sizes are about 0.010 to 0.015 in2. Lasers can be larger but usually no larger than about 0.150 in2. Both methods present two disadvantages:

(1) Equipment cost

(2) High alloys may not respond. These methods are limited to plain carbon steels and low alloy steels and irons.

How to Select the Right Surface Hardening Method:

(1) Carburizing is the best method for low carbon steels.

(2) Nitriding is a lower distortion process than carburizing but it can be used for certain type of steels such as chromium-molybdenum alloy steels or Nitralloy-type steels.

(3) Flame hardening is preferred for heavy cases or selective hardening of large machine components.

(4) Induction hardening works best on parts small enough and suitable in shape to be compatible with the induction coil.

(5) Electron beam and laser hardening are limited to the low alloy steels and plain carbon steels only.


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Last Update: November 11, 1999

Prepared by: Serdar Z. Elgun