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The Heat Treatment of Gray Irons, Gray Iron Castings in China

Gray Irons are a group of cast irons that form flake graphite during solidification, in contrast to the spheroidal graphite morphology of ductile irons. The flake graphite in gray irons is dispersed in a matrix with a microstructure that is determined by composition and heat treatment. The usual microstructure of gray iron is a matrix of pearlite with the graphite flakes dispersed throughout. In terms of composition, gray irons usually contain 2.5 to 4% C, 1 to 3% Si, and additions of manganese, depending on the desired microstructure (as low as 0.1% Mn in ferritic gray irons and as high as 1.2% in pearlitic). Other alloying elements include nickel, copper, molybdenum, and chromium.

The heat treatment of gray irons can considerably alter the matrix microstructure with little or no effect on the size and shape of the graphite achieved during casting. The matrix microstructures resulting from heat treatment can vary from ferrite-pearlite to tempered martensite. However, even though gray iron can be hardened by quenching from elevated temperatures, heat treatment is not ordinarily used commercially to increase the overall strength of gray iron castings because the strength of the as-cast metal can be increased at less cost by reducing the silicon and total carbon contents or by adding alloying elements. The most common heat treatments of gray iron are annealing and stress relieving.

Chemical composition is another important parameter influencing the heat treatment of gray cast irons. Silicon, for example, decreases carbon solubility, increases the diffusion rate of carbon in austenite, and usually accelerates the various reactions during heat treating. Silicon also raises the austenitizing temperature significantly and reduces the combined carbon content (cementite volume). Manganese, in contrast, lowers the austenitizing temperature and increases hardenability. It also increases carbon solubility, slows carbon diffusion in austenite, and increases the combined carbon content. In addition, manganese alloys and stabilizes pearlitic carbide and thus increases the pearlite content.


The heat treatment most frequently applied to gray iron, with the possible exception of stress relieving, is annealing. The annealing of gray iron consists of heating the iron to a temperature high enough to soften it and/or to minimize or eliminate massive eutectic carbides, thereby improving its machinability. This heat treatment reduces mechanical properties substantially. It reduces the grade level approximately to the next lower grade: for example, the properties of a class 40 gray iron will be diminished to those of a class 30 gray iron. The degree of reduction of properties depends on the annealing temperature, the time at temperature, and the alloy composition of the iron.

Gray iron is commonly subjected to one of three annealing treatments, each of which involves heating to a different temperature range. These treatments are ferritizing annealing, medium (or full) annealing, and graphitizing annealing.

Ferritizing Annealing. For an unalloyed or low-alloy cast iron of normal composition, when the only result desired is the conversion of pearlitic carbide to ferrite and graphite for improved machinability, it is generally unnecessary to heat the casting to a temperature above the transformation range. Up to approximately 595°C (1100°F), the effect of short times at temperature on the structure of gray iron is insignificant. For most gray irons, a ferritizing annealing temperature between 700 and 760°C (1300 and 1400°F) is recommended.

Medium (full) annealing. It is usually performed at temperatures between 790 and 900°C (1450 and 1650°F). This treatment is used when a ferritizing anneal would be ineffective because of the high alloy content of a particular iron. It is recommended, however, to test the efficacy of temperatures below 760°C (1400°F) before a higher annealing temperature is adopted as part of a standard procedure.

Holding times comparable to those used in ferritizing annealing are usually employed. When the high temperatures of medium annealing are used, however, the casting must be cooled slowly through the transformation range, from about 790 to 675°C (1450 to 1250°F).

Graphitizing Annealing. If the microstructure of gray iron contains massive carbide particles, higher annealing temperatures are necessary. Graphitizing annealing may simply serve to convert massive carbide to pearlite and graphite, although in some applications it may be desired to carry out a ferritizing annealing treatment to provide maximum machinability.

The production of free carbide that must later be removed by annealing is, except with pipe and permanent mold castings, almost always an accident resulting from inadequate inoculation or the presence of excess carbide formers, which inhibit normal graphitization; thus, the annealing process is not considered part of the normal production cycle.

To break down massive carbide with reasonable speed, temperatures of at least 870°C (1600°F) are required. With each additional 55°C (100°F) increment in holding temperature, the rate of carbide decomposition doubles. Consequently, it is general practice to employ holding temperatures of 900 to 955°C (1650 to 1750°F).


Gray iron is normalized by being heated to a temperature above the transformation range, held at this temperature for a period of about 1 hour per inch of maximum section thickness, and cooled in still air to room temperature. Normalizing may be used to enhance mechanical properties, such as hardness and tensile strength, or to restore as-cast properties that have been modified by another heating process, such as graphitizing or the preheating and postheating associated with repair welding.

The temperature range for normalizing gray iron is approximately 885 to 925°C (1625 to 1700°F). Austenitizing temperature has a marked effect on microstructure and on mechanical properties such as hardness and tensile strength.

The tensile strength and hardness of a normalized gray iron casting depend on the following parameters:

1. Combined carbon content
2. Pearlite spacing (distance between cementite plates)
3. Graphite morphology.

The graphite morphology does not change to any significant extent during normalization, and its effect on hardness and tensile strength is omitted in this discussion on normalizing.
Combined carbon content is determined by the normalizing (austenitizing) temperature and the chemical composition of the casting. Higher normalizing temperatures increase the carbon solubility in austenite (that is, the cementite volume in the resultant pearlite). A higher cementite volume, in turn, increases both the hardness and the tensile strength. The alloy composition of a gray iron casting also influences carbon solubility in austenite. Some elements increase carbon solubility, some decrease it, and others have no effect on it. The carbon content of the matrix is determined by the combined effects of the alloying elements.

The other parameter affecting hardness and tensile strength in a normalized gray iron casting is the pearlite spacing. Pearlite spacing is determined by the cooling rate of the casting after austenitization and the alloy composition. Fast cooling results in small pearlite spacing, higher hardness, and higher tensile strength. Too high a cooling rate may cause partial or full martensitic transformation. The addition of alloying elements may change hardness and tensile strength significantly.

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