The Ultimate Guide to Tool Steel: Properties, Types, and Applications

What is Tool Steel? A Comprehensive Overview

Tool steel is a specialized type of steel that is designed to create tools, dies, and molds for various industries. It is known for its unique properties, such as high hardness, wear resistance, and toughness, which make it ideal for demanding applications. The development of tool steel has a long and rich history, dating back to the early 19th century when the first types of tool steel were introduced.

The importance of tool steel cannot be overstated, as it plays a crucial role in numerous industries, including:

  • Manufacturing
  • Automotive
  • Aerospace
  • Construction
  • Metalworking
  • Woodworking
  • Plastics

Without tool steel, many of the products and components we rely on in our daily lives would not be possible. From the precise cutting tools used in machining to the durable dies used in stamping and forging, tool steel is essential for creating high-quality, long-lasting tools that can withstand the rigors of industrial applications.

In this comprehensive guide, we will dive deep into the world of tool steel, exploring its properties, types, and applications. By the end of this article, you will have a thorough understanding of tool steel and be equipped with the knowledge needed to choose the right type of tool steel for your specific needs.

Properties of Tool Steel

Tool steel is renowned for its unique set of properties that make it suitable for a wide range of demanding applications. These properties include:

High Hardness and Wear ResistanceMaintains hardness under high temperatures and pressures, ideal for cutting and forming applications
Toughness and DurabilityExcellent toughness, can withstand shock and impact forces
Heat Resistance and Red HardnessMaintains hardness and strength at elevated temperatures
Machinability and GrindabilityCan be easily machined and ground for precise tool geometries
Dimensional StabilityMinimal dimensional changes during heat treatment and use
Properties of Tool Steel
  1. High hardness and wear resistance: Tool steel is designed to maintain its hardness even under high temperatures and pressures, making it ideal for cutting, forming, and molding applications where wear resistance is crucial.
  2. Toughness and durability: Despite its high hardness, tool steel also exhibits excellent toughness, which allows it to withstand the shock and impact forces encountered in various industrial processes.
  3. Heat resistance and red hardness: Tool steel maintains its hardness and strength at elevated temperatures, a property known as red hardness. This makes it suitable for high-speed cutting and hot-working applications.
  4. Machinability and grindability: Certain types of tool steel are designed to be easily machined and ground, allowing for the creation of precise and intricate tool geometries.
  5. Dimensional stability: Tool steel exhibits minimal dimensional changes during heat treatment and use, ensuring that tools and dies maintain their accuracy and precision over time.

These properties are achieved through careful control of the steel’s composition and the use of specialized heat treatment processes. By understanding these properties and how they relate to specific applications, engineers and tool makers can select the most appropriate type of tool steel for their needs.

Types of Tool Steel

There are several main categories of tool steel, each with its own unique composition, properties, and applications. The most common types of tool steel include:

TypeDescriptionCommon Applications
Carbon Tool SteelBasic type with primarily carbon and ironHand tools, small cutting tools, springs
Alloy Tool SteelContains alloying elements like chromium, vanadium, molybdenum, and tungstenCutting tools, dies, molds
High-Speed Tool SteelHigh hardness and wear resistance at elevated temperaturesHigh-speed cutting tools, milling cutters
Specialty Tool SteelDesigned for specific applications or manufacturing processesAdvanced cutting tools, medical instruments
Types of Tool Steel

Carbon Tool Steel

Carbon tool steel is the most basic type of tool steel, containing primarily carbon and iron. The carbon content typically ranges from 0.6% to 1.4%, with higher carbon levels resulting in increased hardness but reduced toughness. Some common subcategories of carbon tool steel include:

  • W1 and W2: Water-hardening tool steels used for hand tools, small cutting tools, and springs.
  • O1 and O2: Oil-hardening tool steels used for dies, punches, and gauges.
  • A2: An air-hardening tool steel used for larger cutting tools and forming dies.

Carbon tool steels are relatively inexpensive and easy to heat treat, making them a popular choice for general-purpose tooling applications.

Alloy Tool Steel

Alloy tool steels contain additional alloying elements, such as chromium, vanadium, molybdenum, and tungsten, which enhance specific properties like hardness, wear resistance, and toughness. Some common subcategories of alloy tool steel include:

  • D2: A high-carbon, high-chromium cold-work tool steel used for cutting tools, dies, and molds.
  • H13: A chromium-molybdenum hot-work tool steel used for die casting, extrusion, and forging dies.
  • M2: A molybdenum-tungsten high-speed tool steel used for cutting tools and milling cutters.
  • S7: A shock-resistant tool steel used for punches, chisels, and shear blades.

Alloy tool steels offer superior performance compared to carbon tool steels, but they are more expensive and require more complex heat treatment processes.

High-Speed Tool Steel

High-speed tool steels (HSS) are designed to maintain high hardness and wear resistance at elevated temperatures, making them suitable for high-speed cutting applications. They contain high levels of tungsten, molybdenum, and cobalt. Some common subcategories of high-speed tool steel include:

  • M1: A general-purpose HSS used for drills, taps, and milling cutters.
  • M35: A cobalt-containing HSS used for high-performance cutting tools.
  • M42: A high-vanadium HSS used for advanced cutting tools and high-speed machining.
  • T1: A tungsten-based HSS used for cutting tools and forming dies.

High-speed tool steels are more expensive than other types of tool steel, but they offer unmatched performance in demanding high-speed cutting applications.

Specialty Tool Steel

Specialty tool steels are designed for specific applications or manufacturing processes. Examples include:

  • CPM (Crucible Particle Metallurgy) tool steels: Made using advanced powder metallurgy techniques, these tool steels offer superior wear resistance and toughness.
  • PM (Powder Metallurgy) tool steels: Similar to CPM tool steels, these are made using powder metallurgy methods and offer enhanced performance compared to conventional tool steels.
  • PH (Precipitation Hardening) tool steels: These tool steels are hardened through a precipitation hardening process, which results in excellent dimensional stability and toughness.

Specialty tool steels are often used in demanding applications where conventional tool steels may not provide the required performance or durability.

Heat Treatment of Tool Steel

Heat treatment is a critical process in the production of tool steel, as it significantly influences the final properties and performance of the material. The main objectives of heat treating tool steel are to:

  1. Increase hardness and wear resistance
  2. Improve toughness and durability
  3. Relieve internal stresses
  4. Refine grain structure

The three primary stages of heat treatment for tool steel are:

  1. Annealing: Annealing is a softening process that involves heating the steel to a specific temperature, holding it at that temperature for a set time, and then slowly cooling it. This process relieves internal stresses, improves machinability, and prepares the steel for subsequent hardening.
  2. Hardening: Hardening involves heating the steel to a temperature above its critical point, typically between 1,000°C and 1,200°C (1,832°F and 2,192°F), and then rapidly cooling it, usually in oil or air. This process transforms the steel’s microstructure into a hard, wear-resistant form called martensite.
  3. Tempering: After hardening, the steel is brittle and prone to cracking. Tempering involves reheating the steel to a lower temperature, typically between 150°C and 600°C (302°F and 1,112°F), and then cooling it to room temperature. This process reduces brittleness, increases toughness, and relieves internal stresses caused by hardening.

The specific heat treatment parameters, such as temperatures and holding times, depend on the type of tool steel and the desired final properties. Proper heat treatment is essential for achieving the optimal balance of hardness, toughness, and wear resistance required for specific applications.

Choosing the Right Tool Steel

Selecting the appropriate tool steel for a given application involves considering several key factors:

  1. Application requirements: Consider the specific demands of the application, such as the type of material being processed, the operating temperatures, and the required tool life.
  2. Working conditions: Evaluate the environmental factors that may affect tool performance, such as exposure to corrosive media, high temperatures, or impact forces.
  3. Balancing properties: Determine the relative importance of hardness, toughness, and wear resistance for the application, and select a tool steel that provides the best balance of these properties.
  4. Budget considerations: Compare the costs of different tool steel options, taking into account factors such as raw material price, heat treatment costs, and tool life.

When in doubt, consult with tool steel suppliers, manufacturers, or experts who can provide guidance based on their experience and knowledge of specific applications. They can help you navigate the wide range of tool steel options and select the most suitable material for your needs.

Applications of Tool Steel

Tool steel is used in a wide variety of industries and applications, ranging from cutting and forming tools to molds and dies. Some of the most common applications include:

Cutting ToolsDrills, taps, reamers, milling cutters, saw blades, knives
Forming ToolsPunches, dies, stamping and drawing tools, forging dies, extrusion tooling
Molding ToolsInjection molding and die casting dies, blow molding and thermoforming molds
Other ApplicationsBearings, gears, measuring and gauging tools, surgical and dental instruments
Applications of Tool Steel

Cutting Tools

  • Drills, taps, and reamers: These tools are used for creating and finishing holes in various materials. High-speed tool steels, such as M2 and M35, are commonly used for these applications due to their excellent wear resistance and ability to maintain hardness at high temperatures.
  • Milling cutters and broaches: Milling cutters are used for removing material and creating complex shapes, while broaches are used for creating internal profiles and keyways. Alloy tool steels, such as M2 and M42, are often used for these tools.
  • Saw blades and knives: Tool steel is used for the production of high-quality saw blades and knives, which require a combination of hardness, toughness, and wear resistance. Alloy tool steels, such as D2 and M2, are commonly used for these applications.

Forming Tools

  • Punches and dies: These tools are used for shaping and cutting sheet metal and other materials. Alloy tool steels, such as D2 and A2, are often used for punches and dies due to their high wear resistance and toughness.
  • Stamping and drawing tools: Stamping and drawing tools are used for forming sheet metal parts, such as car body panels and appliance components. High-strength alloy tool steels, such as S7 and D2, are commonly used for these applications.
  • Forging dies and extrusion tooling: These tools are used for shaping metal parts through forging and extrusion processes. Hot-work tool steels, such as H13 and H11, are often used for these applications due to their ability to maintain strength and hardness at elevated temperatures.

Molding Tools

  • Injection molding and die casting dies: These tools are used for producing plastic and metal parts through injection molding and die casting processes. Tool steels with good wear resistance and toughness, such as P20 and H13, are commonly used for these applications.
  • Blow molding and thermoforming molds: Blow molding and thermoforming molds are used for producing hollow plastic parts and containers. Corrosion-resistant tool steels, such as 420 and 440C, are often used for these applications.
  • Compression and transfer molding tools: These tools are used for molding rubber and composite parts. Wear-resistant tool steels, such as D2 and M2, are commonly used for these applications.

Other Applications

  • Bearings and gears: Tool steel is used for producing high-performance bearings and gears that require excellent wear resistance and fatigue strength. Case-hardening tool steels, such as 8620 and 4340, are often used for these applications.
  • Measuring and gauging tools: Precision measuring tools, such as calipers, micrometers, and gauges, are often made from tool steel due to its stability and wear resistance. Alloy tool steels, such as O1 and A2, are commonly used for these applications.
  • Surgical and dental instruments: Tool steel is used for creating high-quality surgical and dental instruments that require a combination of hardness, toughness, and corrosion resistance. Stainless tool steels, such as 420 and 440C, are often used for these applications.

The versatility and performance of tool steel make it an essential material for countless industrial and commercial applications, enabling the production of high-quality, long-lasting tools and components.

Maintaining and Troubleshooting Tool Steel

Proper maintenance and troubleshooting are essential for ensuring the longevity and performance of tool steel components. Here are some key considerations:

Proper Storage and Handling

  • Store tool steel in a clean, dry environment to prevent rust and corrosion.
  • Avoid exposing tool steel to extreme temperatures or humidity, which can cause dimensional changes and affect its properties.
  • Handle tool steel carefully to prevent damage, such as nicks, dents, or scratches, which can lead to premature failure.

Regular Inspection and Maintenance

  • Inspect tool steel components regularly for signs of wear, damage, or cracking.
  • Clean and lubricate tools and dies as recommended by the manufacturer to reduce friction and prevent buildup of debris.
  • Monitor tool performance and replace worn or damaged components proactively to avoid unexpected failures and downtime.

Identifying and Addressing Common Issues

  • Wear: Excessive wear can lead to decreased tool performance and accuracy. Address wear by regrinding or resurfacing tools, or by replacing severely worn components.
  • Chipping: Chipping can occur due to impact, misalignment, or improper heat treatment. Identify and address the root cause of chipping, and consider using a tougher tool steel grade if necessary.
  • Cracking: Cracks can form due to fatigue, thermal stress, or improper heat treatment. Investigate the cause of cracking and take corrective actions, such as adjusting process parameters or using a more suitable tool steel grade.

When to Replace or Refurbish Tool Steel Components

  • Replace tool steel components when they no longer meet performance or accuracy requirements, even after regrinding or resurfacing.
  • Consider refurbishing tools and dies that have significant remaining value, such as those with complex geometries or expensive coatings.
  • Conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether replacement or refurbishment is the most economical option, taking into account factors such as tool life, downtime, and labor costs.

By implementing a comprehensive maintenance and troubleshooting program, manufacturers can extend the life of their tool steel components, reduce unplanned downtime, and improve overall equipment effectiveness.


Tool steel is a versatile and essential material that plays a critical role in numerous industries, from manufacturing and metalworking to healthcare and construction. Its unique combination of properties, including high hardness, wear resistance, and toughness, makes it ideal for creating high-performance tools, dies, and molds.

Understanding the different types of tool steel, their properties, and their applications is crucial for selecting the right material for a given task. Equally important is proper heat treatment, which enables tool steel to achieve its optimal balance of properties.

As technology advances, tool steel continues to evolve, with new grades and heat treatment techniques being developed to meet the ever-increasing demands of modern manufacturing. By staying informed about these developments and working closely with tool steel suppliers and experts, manufacturers can ensure they are using the best possible materials for their applications.

In summary, tool steel is a vital component of modern industry, and its importance will only continue to grow as manufacturers seek to improve the quality, efficiency, and durability of their products. By mastering the use of tool steel, manufacturers can gain a competitive edge and drive innovation in their respective fields.

This article presented Tool Steel, explaining what it is and discussing its different attributes. To learn more about Tool Steel how UTM can assist with your Tool Steel requirements, get in touch with UTM

UTM offers a comprehensive range of manufacturing capabilities and value-added services to meet all your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to explore our offerings.

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