What is the Difference: Tempering vs. Annealing?

  • By: Charles Brown
  • Date: March 8, 2022
  • Time to read: 8 min.

Tempering is a process that involves heating metal to make it more challenging. It can also be what you are doing when cooking certain dishes to give the food flavor. Annealing, on the other hand, means softening or relieving strain. This happens when the metal has been cooled to be too brittle or stiff. Metal usually needs to go through an annealing process after being tempered to break easily under stress and pressure.

Tempering vs. Annealing Steel: Heat Treatments for Metal Products

Steel is one of the most commonly used metals in industry. It has an extensive range of uses, and its properties are highly desirable for many applications. However, steel can be challenging to work with because it is hard and brittle under pressure. To ensure that your steel product does not break easily or suffer from fatigue, you need to know how to temper it or anneal it.

Three things affect how metal is cooled:

  1. the rate at which manufacturers allow the metal to cool,
  2. how long they let it stay at its heated state before allowing for cooling,
  3. whether or not they use quenching methods like water or oil.

The Annealing Process

Annealing is a process of heating and cooling metals to alter their physical properties. Since antiquity, this process has been used to make metal objects such as swords more durable, but it also has applications in the modern-day world.

For example, annealed glass panes can be shaped to not be brittle when hit by hail or other projectiles. It’s essential for people who work with metals to understand this process because they will need to know how an object should be heated and cooled to get the desired result. Annealing is just one way to manipulate metal alloys through heat treatment processes.

How Does Annealing Work?

Most people have heard of tempering metal, which is often used to strengthen the metal. Annealing is another process that does not involve heat but instead consists in heating up and then cooling off an object very slowly. This causes the molecules within the material to move freely again, making it more pliable and less brittle.

The best way to visualize this is by thinking about a cold drink in a warm room – as the drink cools down, so do its molecules. And because they are moving around more freely than before, when you pick up an ice-cold glass, you can tell it will be much easier for your hand to bend or flex around it without breaking. The same principle applies with annealed metals: as they become malleable, they are less likely to snap or shatter when bent.

The Three Stages of Annealing

The annealing process includes three distinct stages:

  • Recovery
  • Recrystallization
  • Grain Growth.

Let’s take a closer look at what happens during each stage. Recovery is the first stage of annealing, which occurs when the heated metal cools down after being worked on by a blacksmith.

During this phase, the metal is still in its softened state, and it can be hammered without breaking or deforming too much. This softening makes it easier to flatten out any irregularities that may have been left behind by other processes like forging or rolling (for instance).

The second annealing stage takes place when the metal has cooled down sufficiently enough for recrystallization to happen. In this stage, the metal crystals reorganize themselves and grow in size. This is what gives the metal its final shape and makes it stronger.

The third and last stage of annealing is Grain Growth. During this stage, the metal crystals grow in size, but they also start to merge. This process results in a solid and durable metal that can withstand a lot of wear and tear.

Annealing Stage 1: Recovery

If you’ve ever watched a blacksmith work with metal, you know that the process starts by heating it up until it becomes red-hot. But eventually, the metal needs to be cooled down to keep from becoming distorted and brittle. That is called annealing.

The word “anneal” comes from the Old English meaning “to subject to heat.” It sounds like something we do when we cook a turkey, but this thermal processing has nothing to do with cooking food.

In fact, some people think that’s where the term came from because they felt any time you heated metal up and then let it cool off again (which happens during both tempering and annealing) must be the same process.

Actually, annealing and tempering are two different processes, even though they involve heating and cooling metal. Annealing is a way to soften metal to be worked into the desired shape.

Tempering is a way to make the metal more complex and less likely to break or shatter. The main difference between them is the temperature at which they occur: annealing takes place at a low temperature (around 600 degrees Fahrenheit) while tempering takes place at a much higher temperature (about 1200-1500 degrees Fahrenheit).

Annealing Stage 2: Recrystallization

Recrystallization occurs when iron atoms in a solid solution can move freely again, so they can’t do their job as well. The result is less complex steel with lower wear resistance. An example would be an ice cube that has melted and refrozen—its crystals have grown more extensive because there was water in between them before freezing this time around, which means they’re not packed together tightly anymore. In effect, recrystallization makes the steel softer.

Annealing Stage 3: Grain Growth

When a metal is heated and then cooled in a controlled manner, the atoms will realign in a pattern that creates an even distribution of hardness throughout the object. This process is called “annealing.” Annealing can also be understood as softening or weakening the metal. In the third stage of annealing, grain growth occurs when microscopic crystals form on the surface of the steel to relieve stress from internal forces, which could cause cracking.

The grains are visible to the naked eye and appear as tiny lines that radiate outward from where they originated. These small crystalline structures have two purposes: enhancing flexibility by reducing brittleness; another is increasing strength by preventing further cracks from forming.

The Tempering Process

Tempering is the process of toughening a material by heating it to a specific temperature and then cooling it. Tempering is usually applied to steel to become less brittle under stress. The tempering process occurs in three stages: heating, quenching, and slow cooling. During the first stage, the metal is heated above its recrystallization temperature (the point at which all constituents are still mobile).

Once this happens, any remaining alloying elements will start migrating towards boundaries between grains that have already started forming. This leads to increased hardness near grain boundaries while leaving other regions softer. For these changes to be permanent (so they can’t be undone by annealing), the metal must go through the second stage: quenching.

This is where the metal is rapidly cooled, usually by plunging it into oil or water. The third stage of tempering occurs when the metal is slowly cooled over time (usually hours). During this stage, any martensite formed will start to transform back into ferrite and cementite. By controlling the temperature and rate of cooling, you can fine-tune the final hardness and toughness of the tempered steel.

How Does Tempering Work?

Tempering is a process that alters the physical and mechanical properties of steel. Tempered steel is more flexible than non-tempered steel but less so than wrought iron; it does not form large amounts of slag as the non-tempered variety does when quenched too quickly.

Steel that has been tempered often will appear almost like a piece of white gold in color. It can be used more efficiently for specific applications such as springs, knives, and other things which need to be very hard on one side and relatively soft on the opposite side.

This makes tempered steel ideal for use in chisels or tools with only one working edge (such as an ax). However, because tempering reduces its hardness, it may not be suitable for applications where both sides will need to hold up equally well.

The Visual Impact of Tempering vs. Annealing Steel

The different ways of tempering and annealing steel significantly impact how the metal looks. Using a slow heating process called “tempering,” the steel will take on a darker color with a pronounced grain pattern that is not as reflective as the other two methods.

Annealing, which uses faster heating, creates an even more reflective surface than regular polishing. The third method of heat-treating metal is to case harden it by using an intense localized heat source such as a torch or oven at very high temperatures for short periods. This makes for a challenging but brittle surface that can be shiny through buffing or grinding.


What are the benefits of annealing?

The benefits of annealing are:

  • It stabilizes the metal’s microstructure.
  • It removes stresses from the metal that may have been introduced during manufacturing or use.
  • It can improve the hardness, toughness, and flexibility of the metal.
  • It can reduce warping and cracking.
  • It can enhance the color and brightness of metals.
  • Annealing usually results in a more uniform grain size throughout the metal. This makes it easier to machine or polish into the desired shape or finish.

When should you use tempering?

Tempering should increase the hardness and strength of the metal while maintaining some degree of toughness and flexibility. The tempering process will also reduce the likelihood of warping or cracking. Tempering is typically performed after the annealing process. However, it can also be done on metals that have not been previously heated.

How does tempering differ from annealing?

Tempering and annealing are two different processes that achieve different results. Tempering is a process used to increase the hardness and strength of metal while maintaining some degree of toughness and flexibility. On the other hand, annealing is a process used to soften the metal, remove stresses, improve the grain size, and reduce warping or cracking.

What metals can be tempered and annealed?

Metal can be tempered and annealed if it is heat-treatable, meaning the material has a high enough carbon content to allow for changes in structure. Some common metals that are used in tempering or annealing processes include:

  • Metal Type
  • Titanium
  • Stainless Steel (304)
  • Carbon Steel (1010)
  • Aluminum Alloys (6061)
  • Magnesium Alloy (AZ31B/3511C90MnNiSiA15-13CrMo44 /5052H32MgCuZr )

Note: For more information on these specific alloys, refer to their individual datasheets here. These alloy data sheets will detail what metal type, tempering or annealing temperature range, and time range should be used.

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