Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Metal Hardening
Name: Peter
Status: other
Grade: other
Location: WI

Why does steel seem to get tougher or harder to drill as it gets old?

Hi Peter,

Steel, in fact, does not get harder with age. It is true that some alloys (notably some aluminum alloys) do undergo an "age hardening" process (more correctly called Precipitation Hardening), but the time required for this is only on the order of hours or days, not weeks or longer.

Heat treating of high carbon steel to harden it is an instantaneous process. The steel is heated red hot, causing the formation of crystals of very hard type of Iron Carbide called "Martinsite". If cooled slowly, the Martensite reverts to iron and carbon again and the steel remains soft. But if cooled rapidly by plunging the red hot steel in water or oil, there is insufficient time for the Martinsite to break down to iron and carbon, and it remains as crystals of very hard Martinsite, imparting hardness to the steel. Once this process is complete (in seconds), any further time makes no difference at all.

Note that in order for this hardening process to work, the steel must have at least 0.8% carbon in it, and preferably 1% to 1.2% carbon content. This is called "high carbon steel". Steel with less than this amount of carbon cannot be hardened, and remains relatively soft, even if hardening is attempted. This type of steel is commonly called "mild steel", and is the most common type for most applications such as sheet steel, and other steel objects that do not specifically require extreme hardness.

Note also that to improve the "machinability" of some steel (for example, steel rods that is machined in a lathe or a milling machine), a special alloy of mild (low carbon) steel is commonly used that includes a small percentage of lead in its makeup. This makes machining much easier, and is generally referred to as "free machining steel".

But to repeat, age has no effect whatsoever on the hardness of steel alloys.

Bob Wilson

Click here to return to the Material Science Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory