Austempering vs. Tempering

What's the Difference?

Austempering and tempering are two heat treatment processes used to improve the mechanical properties of metals, particularly steel. Austempering involves heating the metal to a high temperature and then quenching it in a bath of molten salt or oil. This process results in a structure called bainite, which is known for its high strength and toughness. On the other hand, tempering involves reheating the metal to a lower temperature and then cooling it slowly. This process reduces the hardness and brittleness of the metal, while increasing its ductility and toughness. While both processes aim to enhance the mechanical properties of the metal, austempering is typically used for achieving high strength and toughness, while tempering is used for balancing hardness and toughness.


ProcessAustempering is a heat treatment process that involves quenching the material from a high temperature and holding it at a specific temperature range for a certain period of time.Tempering is a heat treatment process that involves heating the material to a specific temperature and holding it at that temperature for a certain period of time.
HardnessAustempering results in a higher hardness compared to tempering.Tempering results in a lower hardness compared to austempering.
ToughnessAustempering improves the toughness of the material.Tempering does not significantly affect the toughness of the material.
BrittlenessAustempering reduces the brittleness of the material.Tempering does not significantly affect the brittleness of the material.
Residual StressesAustempering reduces the residual stresses in the material.Tempering does not significantly affect the residual stresses in the material.
Dimensional StabilityAustempering provides better dimensional stability compared to tempering.Tempering may cause some dimensional changes in the material.
Quenching MediumAustempering typically uses a salt bath or molten salt as the quenching medium.Tempering can use various quenching mediums, including oil, water, or air.

Further Detail


Heat treatment processes play a crucial role in enhancing the mechanical properties of metals, particularly steel. Austempering and tempering are two widely used heat treatment techniques that aim to improve the strength, hardness, and toughness of steel. While both processes involve heating and cooling, they differ in terms of temperature ranges, cooling rates, and resulting microstructures. In this article, we will explore the attributes of austempering and tempering, highlighting their advantages and limitations.


Austempering is a heat treatment process that involves heating the steel to a temperature just above its transformation range, typically between 750°C and 900°C, depending on the specific steel composition. The steel is then quenched in a bath of molten salt or oil at a relatively high temperature, typically around 300°C to 400°C. This rapid quenching rate allows for the formation of a unique microstructure known as bainite.

Bainite is characterized by its fine needle-like structure, which provides excellent strength and toughness to the steel. The absence of martensite, a hard and brittle microstructure formed during rapid quenching in other processes, makes austempered steel less prone to cracking and distortion. Additionally, the bainitic microstructure offers good wear resistance and improved ductility compared to conventionally quenched and tempered steels.

One of the key advantages of austempering is its ability to achieve high hardness levels while maintaining a desirable balance between strength and toughness. This makes it particularly suitable for applications where both wear resistance and impact resistance are critical, such as gears, shafts, and automotive components. Furthermore, austempering can be performed on a wide range of steel grades, including low alloy steels, tool steels, and ductile irons.

However, austempering also has some limitations. The process requires precise control of the austempering temperature and quenching time to ensure the desired microstructure is obtained. This can be challenging, especially for large and complex parts, as maintaining uniform heating and cooling rates throughout the entire component can be difficult. Additionally, the relatively high austempering temperatures may limit its application to steels with lower hardenability.


Tempering, also known as annealing, is a heat treatment process that follows the quenching of steel. Unlike austempering, tempering involves reheating the quenched steel to a temperature below its transformation range, typically between 150°C and 700°C, depending on the desired properties. The steel is then held at this temperature for a specific period before being cooled in still air.

The main objective of tempering is to relieve the internal stresses induced during quenching and to modify the microstructure to achieve the desired balance of hardness and toughness. During tempering, the excess hardness and brittleness of the quenched steel are reduced, resulting in improved ductility and toughness. This is achieved by the precipitation of fine carbides within the steel matrix, which act as obstacles to dislocation movement and enhance the material's ability to absorb energy.

Tempering offers several advantages over other heat treatment processes. Firstly, it provides greater control over the mechanical properties of the steel, allowing for a wide range of hardness levels to be achieved. This makes it suitable for various applications, from high-strength structural components to cutting tools. Secondly, tempering can effectively reduce the risk of cracking and distortion, which can occur during quenching. This is particularly important for large and complex parts where dimensional stability is critical.

However, tempering also has its limitations. The process may result in a slight reduction in hardness compared to other heat treatment techniques, such as quenching and tempering. Additionally, the microstructure obtained through tempering may not provide the same level of wear resistance as bainite in austempered steel. Therefore, tempering is often combined with other processes, such as carburizing or nitriding, to enhance the surface hardness and wear resistance of the steel.


In conclusion, both austempering and tempering are valuable heat treatment processes that offer distinct advantages depending on the desired mechanical properties and application requirements. Austempering provides excellent strength, toughness, and wear resistance through the formation of a bainitic microstructure, making it suitable for various applications. On the other hand, tempering allows for greater control over hardness and provides improved ductility and toughness by precipitating fine carbides within the steel matrix.

Ultimately, the choice between austempering and tempering depends on factors such as the steel composition, desired mechanical properties, and the specific application. By understanding the attributes and limitations of each process, engineers and metallurgists can make informed decisions to optimize the performance and reliability of steel components.

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