What is Tool Steel – Definition

Tool steel refers to a variety of carbon and alloy steels that are particularly well-suited to be made into tools (punches, dies, molds, tools for cutting, blanking, forming, drawing, steering and slitting tools).
Tool steel
Tool steel refers to a variety of carbon and alloy steels that are particularly well-suited to be made into tools.

Tool steel refers to a variety of carbon and alloy steels that are particularly well-suited to be made into tools (punches, dies, molds, tools for cutting, blanking, forming, drawing, steering and slitting tools). Their suitability comes from their distinctive hardness, resistance to abrasion and deformation, and their ability to hold a cutting edge at elevated temperatures. With a carbon content between 0.5% and 1.5%, tool steels are manufactured under carefully controlled conditions to produce the required quality. The presence of carbides in their matrix plays the dominant role in the qualities of tool steel.

They are generally grouped into two classes:

  • Plain carbon steels containing a high percentage of carbon, about 0.80-1.50%
  • Alloy tool steels, in which other elements (chromium, molybdenum, vanadium, tungsten and cobalt) are added to provide greater strength, toughness, corrosion and heat resistance of steel.

One of subgroups of tool steels is high-speed steels (HSS), which were named primarily for their ability to machine and cut materials at high speeds (high hot hardness). It is often used in power-saw blades and drill bits. This group of tool steels is described in a separate article.

Alloying Agents in Alloy Tool Steels

High-speed steel - M8
High-speed steel – M8

Pure iron is too soft to be used for the purpose of structure, but the addition of small quantities of other elements (carbon, manganese or silicon for instance) greatly increases its mechanical strength. The synergistic effect of alloying elements and heat treatment produces a tremendous variety of microstructures and properties. The four major alloying elements that form carbides in tool and die steel are: tungsten, chromium, vanadium and molybdenum. These alloying elements combine with carbon to form very hard and wear-resistant carbide compounds.

  • Tungsten. Produces stable carbides and refines grain size so as to increase hardness, particularly at high temperatures. Tungsten is used extensively in high-speed tool steels and has been proposed as a substitute for molybdenum in reduced-activation ferritic steels for nuclear applications.
  • Chromium. Chromium increases hardness, strength, and corrosion resistance. The strengthening effect of forming stable metal carbides at the grain boundaries and the strong increase in corrosion resistance made chromium an important alloying material for steel. Generally speaking, the concentration specified for most grades is approximately 4%. This level appears to result in the best balance between hardness and toughness. Chromium plays an important role in the hardening mechanism and is considered irreplaceable. At higher temperatures, chromium contributes increased strength. It is ordinarily used for applications of this nature in conjunction with molybdenum.
  • Molybdenum. Molybdenum (about 0.50-8.00%) when added to a tool steel makes it more resistant to high temperature. Molybdenum increases hardenability and strength, particularly at high temperatures due to the high melting point of molybdenum. Molybdenum is unique in the extent to which it increases the high-temperature tensile and creep strengths of steel. It retards the transformation of austenite to pearlite far more than it does the transformation of austenite to bainite; thus, bainite may be produced by continuous cooling of molybdenum-containing steels.
  • Vanadium. Vanadium is generally added to steel to inhibit grain growth during heat treatment. In controlling grain growth, it improves both the strength and toughness of hardened and tempered steels. The size of the grain determines the properties of the metal. For example, smaller grain size increases tensile strength and tends to increase ductility. A larger grain size is preferred for improved high-temperature creep properties.

Example of Tool Steel – A2 Steel

A2 tool steel is an air hardening, cold work steel of group A steels containing molybdenum and chromium. A2 steel contains 5% of chromium steel which provides high hardness after heat treatment with good dimensional stability. The carbon content in A2 tool steels is high. A2 offers good toughness with medium wear resistance and is relatively easy to machine. A2 tool steel can be used in many applications which require good wear resistance as well as good toughness. Typical applications for A2 steel:

  • Forming dies
  • Slitters
  • Gauges
  • Shear blades
  • Blanking tools
  • Punch dies

A2 tool steel

Properties of Tool Steel – A2 Steel

Material properties are intensive properties, that means they are independent of the amount of mass and may vary from place to place within the system at any moment. The basis of materials science involves studying the structure of materials, and relating them to their properties (mechanical, electrical etc.). Once a materials scientist knows about this structure-property correlation, they can then go on to study the relative performance of a material in a given application. The major determinants of the structure of a material and thus of its properties are its constituent chemical elements and the way in which it has been processed into its final form.

Mechanical Properties of Tool Steel – A2 Steel

Materials are frequently chosen for various applications because they have desirable combinations of mechanical characteristics. For structural applications, material properties are crucial and engineers must take them into account.

Strength of Tool Steel – A2 Steel

In mechanics of materials, the strength of a material is its ability to withstand an applied load without failure or plastic deformation. Strength of materials basically considers the relationship between the external loads applied to a material and the resulting deformation or change in material dimensions. Strength of a material is its ability to withstand this applied load without failure or plastic deformation.

Ultimate Tensile Strength

Ultimate tensile strength of tool steel – A2 steel depends on heat treatment process, but it is about 1860 MPa.

Yield Strength - Ultimate Tensile Strength - Table of MaterialsThe ultimate tensile strength is the maximum on the engineering stress-strain curve. This corresponds to the maximum stress that can be sustained by a structure in tension. Ultimate tensile strength is often shortened to “tensile strength” or even to “the ultimate.”  If this stress is applied and maintained, fracture will result. Often, this value is significantly more than the yield stress (as much as 50 to 60 percent more than the yield for some types of metals). When a ductile material reaches its ultimate strength, it experiences necking where the cross-sectional area reduces locally. The stress-strain curve contains no higher stress than the ultimate strength. Even though deformations can continue to increase, the stress usually decreases after the ultimate strength has been achieved. It is an intensive property; therefore its value does not depend on the size of the test specimen. However, it is dependent on other factors, such as the preparation of the specimen, the presence or otherwise of surface defects, and the temperature of the test environment and material. Ultimate tensile strengths vary from 50 MPa for an aluminum to as high as 3000 MPa for very high-strength steels.

Yield Strength

Yield strength of tool steel – A2 steel depends on heat treatment process, but it is about 1400 MPa.

The yield point is the point on a stress-strain curve that indicates the limit of elastic behavior and the beginning plastic behavior. Yield strength or yield stress is the material property defined as the stress at which a material begins to deform plastically whereas yield point is the point where nonlinear (elastic + plastic) deformation begins. Prior to the yield point, the material will deform elastically and will return to its original shape when the applied stress is removed. Once the yield point is passed, some fraction of the deformation will be permanent and non-reversible. Some steels and other materials exhibit a behaviour termed a yield point phenomenon. Yield strengths vary from 35 MPa for a low-strength aluminum to greater than 1400 MPa for very high-strength steels.

Young’s Modulus of Elasticity

Young’s modulus of elasticity of tool steel – A2 steel is 200 GPa.

The Young’s modulus of elasticity is the elastic modulus for tensile and compressive stress in the linear elasticity regime of a uniaxial deformation and is usually assessed by tensile tests. Up to a limiting stress, a body will be able to recover its dimensions on removal of the load. The applied stresses cause the atoms in a crystal to move from their equilibrium position. All the atoms are displaced the same amount and still maintain their relative geometry. When the stresses are removed, all the atoms return to their original positions and no permanent deformation occurs. According to the Hooke’s law, the stress is proportional to the strain (in the elastic region), and the slope is Young’s modulus. Young’s modulus is equal to the longitudinal stress divided by the strain.

Hardness of Tool Steel – A2 Steel

Rockwell hardness of tool steel – A2 steel depends on heat treatment process, but it is approximately 60 HRC.

Brinell hardness number

Rockwell hardness test is one of the most common indentation hardness tests, that has been developed for hardness testing. In contrast to Brinell test, the Rockwell tester measures the depth of penetration of an indenter under a large load (major load) compared to the penetration made by a preload (minor load). The minor load establishes the zero position. The major load is applied, then removed while still maintaining the minor load. The difference between depth of penetration before and after application of the major load is used to calculate the Rockwell hardness number. That is, the penetration depth and hardness are inversely proportional. The chief advantage of Rockwell hardness is its ability to display hardness values directly. The result is a dimensionless number noted as HRA, HRB, HRC, etc., where the last letter is the respective Rockwell scale.

The Rockwell C test is performed with a Brale penetrator (120°diamond cone) and a major load of 150kg.

Thermal Properties of Tool Steel – A2 Steel

Thermal properties of materials refer to the response of materials to changes in their temperature and to the application of heat. As a solid absorbs energy in the form of heat, its temperature rises and its dimensions increase. But different materials react to the application of heat differently.

Heat capacity, thermal expansion, and thermal conductivity are properties that are often critical in the practical use of solids.

Melting Point of Tool Steel – A2 Steel

Melting point of tool steel – A2 steel is around 1420°C.

In general, melting is a phase change of a substance from the solid to the liquid phase. The melting point of a substance is the temperature at which this phase change occurs. The melting point also defines a condition in which the solid and liquid can exist in equilibrium.

Thermal Conductivity of Tool Steel – A2 Steel

The thermal conductivity of tool steel – A2 steel is 26 W/(m.K).

The heat transfer characteristics of a solid material are measured by a property called the thermal conductivity, k (or λ), measured in W/m.K. It is a measure of a substance’s ability to transfer heat through a material by conduction. Note that Fourier’s law applies for all matter, regardless of its state (solid, liquid, or gas), therefore, it is also defined for liquids and gases.

The thermal conductivity of most liquids and solids varies with temperature. For vapors, it also depends upon pressure. In general:

thermal conductivity - definition

Most materials are very nearly homogeneous, therefore we can usually write k = k (T). Similar definitions are associated with thermal conductivities in the y- and z-directions (ky, kz), but for an isotropic material the thermal conductivity is independent of the direction of transfer, kx = ky = kz = k.

Materials Science:

U.S. Department of Energy, Material Science. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 1 and 2. January 1993.
U.S. Department of Energy, Material Science. DOE Fundamentals Handbook, Volume 2 and 2. January 1993.
William D. Callister, David G. Rethwisch. Materials Science and Engineering: An Introduction 9th Edition, Wiley; 9 edition (December 4, 2013), ISBN-13: 978-1118324578.
Eberhart, Mark (2003). Why Things Break: Understanding the World by the Way It Comes Apart. Harmony. ISBN 978-1-4000-4760-4.
Gaskell, David R. (1995). Introduction to the Thermodynamics of Materials (4th ed.). Taylor and Francis Publishing. ISBN 978-1-56032-992-3.
González-Viñas, W. & Mancini, H.L. (2004). An Introduction to Materials Science. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-07097-1.
Ashby, Michael; Hugh Shercliff; David Cebon (2007). Materials: engineering, science, processing and design (1st ed.). Butterworth-Heinemann. ISBN 978-0-7506-8391-3.
J. R. Lamarsh, A. J. Baratta, Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, 3d ed., Prentice-Hall, 2001, ISBN: 0-201-82498-1.

See above:

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