Heat Treating 4140 Steel for Optimal Strength and Toughness


Heat treating is a critical process for 4140 alloy steel that develops the microstructure and properties required for exceptional performance in demanding applications. Proper heat treatment of 4140 steel results in an optimal combination of high strength, hardness, and wear resistance along with good ductility and toughness.

In this detailed guide, we will examine the heat treating procedures used for 4140 chromium-molybdenum steel to achieve the desired balance of characteristics. We’ll look at the effects of normalizing, hardening, tempering, and stress relieving on the microstructure and properties of this versatile low alloy steel.

Gaining an in-depth understanding of the heat treatment of 4140 steel will provide insights into producing components capable of withstanding extreme stresses, fatigue, wear, and harsh operating conditions across industrial sectors.

Overview of 4140 Alloy Steel

4140 is a low alloy chromium-molybdenum steel that offers an excellent combination of strength, toughness, and machinability. With a chemistry of:

  • 0.38-0.43% Carbon
  • 0.75-1.0% Manganese
  • 0.8-1.1% Chromium
  • 0.15-0.25% Molybdenum

4140 can be heat treated to achieve:

  • Tensile strength up to 120,000 psi
  • Yield strength exceeding 100,000 psi
  • Surface hardness from 22-32 HRC
  • Elongation over 18%
  • Notch toughness and fatigue strength for impact loads

This versatility makes 4140 suitable for critical components in demanding applications across automotive, aerospace, oil and gas, construction, mining, and other industrial equipment.

Now let’s look at how these well-balanced properties are developed through heat treating.

The Importance of Heat Treating 4140 Steel

In the as-rolled annealed condition, 4140 steel is relatively soft with low strength and hardness. The alloying elements are present but the microstructure has not been transformed to gain the full advantages of the chromium, molybdenum and carbon present.

It is only through proper heat treatment that the alloying elements can combine with the iron and carbon to form hard metallic carbide compounds and a martensitic matrix structure with high dislocation density.

This optimized microstructure imparts:

  • Increased hardness and wear resistance
  • Significantly higher strength
  • Enhanced toughness and fatigue life

Without heat treatment, 4140 steel would not offer the properties needed for critical components and applications. Heat treating unlocks the full potential of this versatile low alloy steel.

Heat Treating Steps for 4140 Steel

To develop the desired balance of characteristics, 4140 steel is heat treated in three main steps:

Normalizing – Heating to 1650°F and air cooling. Refines the pearlite grain structure.

Hardening – Heating to 1550°F then quenching in oil or water to form martensite. This is also called austenitizing.

Tempering – Reheating to 1000-1100°F then air cooling. Reduces brittleness while enhancing toughness.

Additionally, welded fabrications will require stress relieving at 1100-1200°F to prevent cracking from weld stresses.

Let’s look at each of these heat treating processes in detail and their effects on 4140’s properties.

Normalizing 4140 Steel

Normalizing is performed prior to hardening to refine and homogenize the microstructure. This produces a more uniform fine-grained pearlitic structure.

The normalizing process involves:

  • Heating 4140 steel to 1650°F, above the upper critical temperature. This transforms the microstructure to austenite.
  • Soaking long enough for the temperature to become uniform throughout the section thickness.
  • Allowing the steel to cool in open air back to room temperature. The slower cooling transforms the austenite back to fine grained pearlite and ferrite.

Normalizing has several benefits:

  • Refines the grains for more uniform properties
  • Improves machinability in the annealed state
  • Relieves internal stresses from prior cold working
  • Enhances hardening response in preparation for austenitizing

For plate, bar, and weldments over 2” thick, normalizing prior to hardening is recommended to optimize properties. Thinner sections can usually skip normalizing.

Hardening 4140 Steel

The primary purpose of hardening is to transform the microstructure from pearlite to martensite. This forms a very hard, strong phase capable of achieving the desired properties in 4140 steel.

Hardening, also called austenitizing, involves:

  • Heating to 1550°F and holding until temperature is fully uniform throughout the part.
  • Quenching by rapid cooling in oil or water to room temperature. This quick cooling traps carbon atoms in a metastable martensitic phase.
  • Cooling must be fast enough to prevent softer phases like bainite from forming. Quench severity depends on section thickness.

The resulting martensitic structure gives 4140 steel:

  • Exceptional strength from interstitial carbon atoms
  • High hardness from dense dislocation structure
  • Increased wear resistance

But martensite is also quite brittle – so a tempering treatment must follow.

Tempering of 4140 Steel

Tempering is performed after quenching to reduce brittleness and restore a portion of ductility and toughness to 4140 steel.

Tempering involves reheating quenched 4140 to 1000-1100°F for 1-2 hours then air cooling. This allows some diffusion of carbon from martensite and the formation of tempered martensite.

  • Tempering reduces strength and hardness slightly, but dramatically increases ductility, notch toughness and machinability.
  • The temperature range balances needed hardness with improved toughness.
  • Multiple tempering cycles can be used for larger sections. Tempering should be completed before machining.

With tempering, 4140 steel regains the combination of high strength and hardness along with good ductility and impact strength that makes it so advantageous for varied industrial uses.

Stress Relieving Heat Treatment

For welded fabrications and weld repairs, stress relieving is required after welding to prevent cracking from residual stresses:

  • Stress relieving involves heating to 1100-1200°F, soaking for a period based on thickness, then slow cooling.
  • This allows weld stresses to relax at temperature and dissipate.
  • Slow furnace cooling or buried welded assemblies prevents cracking upon cooling.
  • Stress relieving restores ductility and toughness in the heat affected zones.

Stress relieving is a vital step in the heat treatment process whenever 4140 steel sections are joined using fusion welding processes.

The Effects of Heat Treating on 4140 Steel Properties

Now that we have looked at the various heat treating steps for 4140 alloy steel, let’s examine the effects they have on the final properties:


  • In the annealed state, 4140 has a hardness around 20 HRC.
  • Quenching forms martensite that significantly increases hardness to over 50 HRC when tempered below 400°F.
  • Tempering from 1000-1100°F lowers hardness to the optimal range of 22-32 HRC.


  • Normalized 4140 has a tensile strength around 83,000 psi.
  • Quenching increases tensile strength up to 200,000 psi.
  • Tempering reduces strength but values still exceed 120,000 psi.


  • Quenching makes the steel quite brittle.
  • Tempering restores needed ductility and notch toughness. Elongation improves from under 10% to over 18%.


  • Intercritical annealing forms ferrite + fine pearlite.
  • Hardening transforms microstructure to lath martensite.
  • Tempering leads to tempered martensite + fine carbides.

Proper heat treatment results in just the right combination of hardness, strength, and retained ductility needed in 4140 steel for critical components and applications.

Effects of Alloying Elements on Heat Treatment

The alloying elements in 4140 steel influence its hardening and tempering response:

  • Carbon – Forms hard martensite and carbides. Higher carbon increases hardness and strength.
  • Chromium – Increases hardenability for thicker sections and improves tempering resistance. Enhances corrosion resistance.
  • Molybdenum – Contributes to high temperature strength by solid solution strengthening. Improves hardenability.
  • Manganese – Acts as a mild deoxidizer. Increases hardenability and strength.
  • Silicon – Deoxidizes and increases strength without reducing ductility and toughness.

Understanding the roles of each alloying element helps maximize performance through optimized heat treatment.

Optimal Heat Treating Practices for 4140 Steel

To obtain the best combination of properties, 4140 steel must be heat treated properly:

  • Strictly control temperatures and hold times during normalizing, hardening, and tempering operations. Follow specified procedures.
  • For quenching, use proper quench mediums and agitation – water vs oil depends on section thickness.
  • Verify even heat penetration throughout large sections and complex geometries.
  • Normalize prior to hardening for heavy sections to refine structure.
  • Double temper plate or forgings for maximum toughness.
  • Always stress relieve welds at 1150°F before machining and assembly.

With close attention to heat treating details, 4140 steel can achieve the high hardness and strength necessary while retaining the critical toughness and ductility for durability in service.

Industrial Heat Treating Equipment for 4140 Steel

To properly process large volumes of 4140 steel components, industrial heat treating furnaces are utilized:

  • Normalizing is performed in standard air circulation batch furnaces.
  • For austenitizing, fluidized bed furnaces provide rapid uniform heating.
  • Quenching uses agitated hot oil or water baths for rapid, severe cooling.
  • Tempering baths or re-circulation air furnaces provide consistent temperature control.
  • Draw, sear, and induction hardening selectively heat treat areas of components.
  • Vacuum furnaces effectively minimize surface oxidation.

Proper heat treating equipment matched to the application is vital for mass production heat treatment of 4140 steel on an industrial scale.

Effects of Improper Heat Treating

If not properly heat treated, 4140 steel will not provide the optimal combination of properties needed for many critical applications:

  • Insufficient hardening temperature fails to form full martensite, reducing wear resistance.
  • Slow quenching may allow softer phases like bainite to form rather than martensite.
  • Excessive tempering temperature decreases hardness below requirements needed for strength and wear resistance.
  • Poor temperature uniformity leads to non-uniform properties across large sections.
  • Neglecting stress relieving may result in brittle, cracked welds and heat affected zones.
  • Overheating leads to grain coarsening, loss of ductility, and increased risk of distortion and cracking.

Careful control and validation of heat treating procedures for 4140 is crucial to achieve correct properties.

Quality Control of Heat Treated 4140 Steel

To confirm proper heat treatment and acceptable properties, 4140 steel should be quality control tested:

  • Hardness testing using Rockwell or Brinell methods verifies proper hardening and tempering. Readings should be within specified ranges.
  • Tensile testing validates tensile strength meets engineering requirements. Test both weld and base metal.
  • Charpy impact testing ensures adequate notch toughness, especially for welds. Ductile fracture is essential.
  • Metallography confirms grain structure and microconstituents are acceptable. Shows evidence of quench and tempering.
  • Non-destructive testing like magnetic particle, penetrant, or ultrasonic testing detects cracks or flaws.

Careful quality control testing provides assurance that heat treatment was performed correctly and resulted in acceptable component properties.

Heat Treating Safely and Efficiently

For safe, efficient heat treatment of 4140 steel:

  • Ensure protective gear like eye protection, insulated gloves, aprons etc. are used around furnaces.
  • Have quench tanks and baths fully enclosed to prevent splashing and steam.
  • Properly maintain temperature monitoring and control instruments.
  • Stage loads near furnace to minimize handling hot steel and prevent burns.
  • Use fixtures and trays that can withstand high temperatures.
  • Have fire safety and suppression equipment available near furnaces.
  • Optimize batch loads for energy efficiency and productivity.

Proper safety procedures and equipment in heat treat operations are critical for operator safety and optimal performance.

Key Takeaways on Heat Treating 4140 Steel

  • Normalizing refines the microstructure prior to hardening
  • Quenching rapidly cools transformed austenite to form very hard martensite
  • Tempering restores needed ductility and toughness to the martensite
  • Proper heat treatment results in an ideal balance of hardness, strength and toughness
  • Alloying elements like Cr, Mo and Mn enhance hardenability and strength
  • Careful control over temperatures, times, and quench rates is essential
  • Quality testing verifies heat treatment achieved engineering requirements
  • Heat treating properly develops the properties that make 4140 steel advantageous for critical applications.

FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions About Heat Treating 4140 Steel

What are the key heat treating steps for 4140 alloy steel?

The three main heat treating steps are:

  1. Normalizing – Heating to 1650°F then air cooling
  2. Hardening – Austenitizing at 1550°F followed by oil or water quenching
  3. Tempering – Reheating to 1000-1100°F and air cooling

Why temper 4140 steel after quenching?

Tempering is critical for restoring needed ductility and toughness after the steel is made very hard and brittle through quenching. Tempering reduces brittleness while maintaining high hardness and strength.

What happens if you over-temper 4140 steel?

Excessive tempering above approximately 1200°F will significantly decrease the hardness and strength of 4140 steel, resulting in inadequate wear resistance and load capacity for most applications.

What are the optimal mechanical properties of heat treated 4140 steel?

When properly quenched and tempered, 4140 typically achieves:

  • Hardness of 22-32 HRC
  • Tensile Strength of 120,000 psi
  • Yield Strength of 100,000 psi
  • Elongation over 18%
  • Notch Toughness above 20 ft-lbs

What thickness should be normalized before hardening?

For plate, bar, and weldments over 2” in thickness, normalizing is recommended prior to hardening to refine the coarse grained structure. Thinner sections can skip normalizing in most cases.

Why stress relieve welded 4140 steel fabrications?

Stress relieving at 1100-1200°F allows weld stresses to relax to prevent cracking and restore ductility and toughness to the critically stressed heat affected zone. Slow cooling is required.

What temperature should 4140 steel be tempered at for maximum toughness?

A tempering temperature of 1000-1100°F will produce nearly the best combination of hardness and toughness in 4140 steel for most applications. Double tempering can further enhance toughness.

What causes cracking when heat treating 4140 steel?

Cracking can result from improper quenching, tempering at too low a temperature, or neglecting to properly stress relieve welded components. Proper heat treating procedures are critical.

In summary, heat treating transforms the microstructure of 4140 alloy steel to achieve an exceptional balance of high strength, hardness, ductility, and toughness for use in critical components and applications.

Share your love
Update cookies preferences