Tool steel refers to a variety of carbon and alloy steels that are particularly well-suited to be made into tools. Their suitability comes from their distinctive hardness, resistance to abrasion, their ability to hold a cutting edge, and/or their resistance to deformation at elevated temperatures (red-hardness). Tool steel is generally used in a heat-treated state.
With a carbon content between 0.7% and 1.4%, tool steels are manufactured under carefully controlled conditions to produce the required quality. The manganese content is often kept low to minimize the possibility of cracking during water quenching. However, proper heat treating of these steels is important for adequate performance, and there are many suppliers who provide tooling blanks intended for oil quenching.
Tool steels are made to a number of grades for different applications. Choice of grade depends on, among other things, whether a keen cutting edge is necessary, as in stamping dies, or whether the tool has to withstand impact loading and service conditions encountered with such hand tools as axes, pickaxes, and quarrying implements. In general, the edge temperature under expected use is an important determinant of both composition and required heat treatment. The higher carbon grades are typically used for such applications as stamping dies, metal cutting tools, etc.
Tool steels are also used for special applications like injection molding because the resistance to abrasion is an important criterion for a mold that will be used to produce hundreds of thousands of parts.
W-grade tool steel gets its name from its defining property of having to be water quenched. W-grade steel is essentially high carbon plain-carbon steel. This type of tool steel is the most commonly used tool steel because of its low cost compared to other tool steels. They work well for small parts and applications where high temperatures are not encountered; above 150 °C (302 °F) it begins to soften to a noticeable degree. Hardenability is low so W-grade tool steels must be quenched in water. These steels can attain high hardness (above HRC 60) and are rather brittle compared to other tool steels.
The toughness of W-grade tool steels are increased by alloying with manganese, silicon and molybdenum. Up to 0.20% of vanadium is used to retain fine grain sizes during heat treating.
The first air hardening grade tool steel:
A2 is the most common air hardening grade currently used.
Grade-O refers to oil hardening tool steels, while grade-A refers to air hardening tool steels. These tool steels are used on larger parts or parts that require minimal distortion during hardening. The use of oil quenching and air hardening helps reducing distortion as opposed to higher stress caused by quicker water quenching. More alloying elements are used in these steels, as compared to water-hardening grades. These alloys increase the steels’ hardenability, and thus require a less severe quenching process. These steels are also less likely to crack and are often used to make knife blades.
D-grade tool steels contain between 10% and 18% chromium. These steels retain their hardness up to a temperature of 425 °C (797 °F). Common applications for these grade of tool steel is forging dies, die-casting die blocks, and drawing dies. Due to high chromium content, certain D-grade tool steel grades are often considered stainless or semi-stainless tool steels.
Here are composition for some of the most common cold-working tool steels, quantities of minor ingredients may vary slightly with manufacturer:
O-1 steel contains 0.90% carbon 1.0%–1.4% manganese, 0.50% chromium, 0.50% nickel, and 0.50% tungsten. It is a very good cold work steel and also makes very good knives. It can be hardened to about 57-61 HRC.
A-2 steel contains 1.0% carbon, 5.0% chromium, and 1.0% molybdenum.
D-2 steel contains 1.5% carbon and 11.0 – 13.0% chromium; additionally it is composed of 0.45% manganese, 0.030% max phosphorus, 0.030% max sulfur, 1.0% vanadium, 0.7% molybdenum, and 0.30% silicon. D2 is very wear resistant but not as tough as lower alloyed steels. It is widely used for shear blades, planer blades and industrial cutting tools, sometimes used for knives.
Shock resisting grades
S-grade tool steel are designed to resist shock at both low and high temperatures. A low carbon content is required for the necessary toughness (approximately 0.5% carbon). Carbide-forming alloys provide the necessary abrasion resistance, hardenability, and hot-working characteristics. This family of steels displays very high impact toughness and relatively low abrasion resistance, it can attain relatively high hardness (HRC 58/60). This type of steel is used in applications such as jackhammer bits.
High speed grades
T-grade and M-grade tool steels are used for cutting tools where strength and hardness must be retained at temperatures up to or exceeding 760 °C (1,400 °F). M-grade tool steels were developed to reduce the amount of tungsten and chromium required.
T1 (also known as 18-4-1) is a common T-grade alloy. Its composition is 0.7% carbon, 18% tungsten, 4% chromium, and 1% vanadium. M2 is a common M-grade alloy.
H-grade tool steels were developed for strength and hardness during prolonged exposure to elevated temperatures. All of these tool steels use a substantial amount of carbide forming alloys. H1 to H19 are based on a chromium content of 5%; H20 to H39 are based on a tungsten content of 9%-18% and a chromium content of 3%–4%; H40 to H59 are molybdenum based.
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