What is tool steel? The ABRAMS Steel Guide explains!

Tool steel (DIN EN ISO 4957) is being used to produce cutting tools, moulds or forming tools. It can be categorized, by application, into unalloyed, low alloyed and high alloyed tool steels. High alloyed tool steel crosses fluidly over to “stainless steel” (corrosion resistant steel). Tool steel has a carbon content up to 2.1% and it can be divided further by its quenching methods as an oil, air and water hardening steel as well as its applications as a cold work, hot work steel and High speed steel.

Cold work steel is tool steel that can be used for applications where the surface temperature of the cutting edge does not exceed 200°C. They can be, due to their alloys, have a high through hardenability, polishability, wear resistance and ductility. They find their use in for example cold rolling, machining, and guiding.

Hot work steel can be used for tools which can be used at temperatures up to 400°C. They find their uses for applications such as press punches, die casting molds and dies as they have properties such as high creep resistance, high temperature toughness or heat wear resistance.

What is unalloyed tool steel?

Unalloyed tool steel, also known as carbon steel, has a carbon content of 0.5-1.5% and does not have any other added alloys apart from natural components found in iron like sulphur, manganese, or phosphorus. It is possible with a combined heat treatment to quench and temper (QT) the chosen steel grade, which means that the surface hardness, depending on the carbon content, can be drastically increased.

Unalloyed tool steels are cold work steels for an operating temperature of up to 200°C. They can not be hardened through completely but also have a high surface hardness, high wear resistance and good cutting capabilities.

Unalloyed tool steel can be used to produce simple tools which are subjected to low stress.
Unalloyed tool steels can be further divided into low carbon content, approx. 0.05-0.24% (1.0570 – St52-3), medium carbon content, approx. 0.25-0.6% (1.1730 – 1045), high carbon content, approx. 0.60-1.00% and very high carbon content, approx. 1.00-1.5%.

What is alloy tool steel?

Alloy tool steel specifies steel which contains not only iron (Fe) and carbon (C) but further alloying elements in sufficient quantities to change the properties of the base material. Adding for example chromium, silicon nickel, manganese, molybdenum, or vanadium, with a total alloying content of a mass fraction of 5%, properties such as ductility, creep resistance or tempering resistance can be influenced.

Alloy tool steel can be cold work steels but as well hot work steels for a working temperature up to 400°C (the exception is the 1.2990 mod., as a cold steel it can be used up to 500°C). High speed steel is being used for working temperatures up to 600°C.

Unlike unalloyed tool steel alloyed tool steel can be hardened through. For that process they will be heated and then quenched in oil, air, or water. Alloyed tool steel can be used to produce tools that are exposed to higher stresses as they have a higher creep resistance, higher hardness, and higher tempering resistance.

What are high alloy tool steels?

High alloy tool steel, like for example D2, D3 mod. or D6, as well as high speed steels are being used for tools that are exposed to extreme stresses. They have a carbon content of up to 2.1% and contain other alloying elements with a mass fraction between 6% and 30%. Some high alloy steels can be used at a working temperature up to 600°C and have at least one of the following properties, good machinability, high ductility, high wear resistance or high working hardness.


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