The weldability of stainless steels

Once thought of as a major challenge the welding of stainless steels and most other corrosion resistant alloys is more often described as ‘different’ in stead of ‘more difficult’ amongst welders today. The welding of stainless steels and the properties of the welds with regard to corrosion resistance and mechanical properties do involve a mixture of metallurgical, geometrical and surface finishing aspects.

Nickel (plus carbon, manganese and nitrogen) promotes the formation of austenite and chromium (plus silicon, molybdenum and niobium) encourages the formation of ferrite, so the structure of welds in stainless steels can be largely predicted on the basis of their chemical composition. Because of their different microstructures, the alloy groups have both different welding characteristics and susceptibility to defects.

Austenitic stainless steel

Austenitic stainless steels typically have 16-26% chromium (Cr) and 8-22% nickel (Ni). Type 304, which contains approximately 18%Cr and 10%Ni, is a commonly used alloy for welded fabrications and these alloys can be readily welded using any of the arc welding processes (TIG, MIG, MMA and SA). They exhibit good toughness because they are non-hardenable on cooling, and there is no need for pre- or post-weld heat treatment.

Avoiding weld imperfections

Austenitic stainless steel is readily welded, but weld metal and HAZ cracking can occur. Weld metal solidification cracking is more likely to occur in fully austenitic structures, which are more crack sensitive than those containing a small amount of ferrite as ferrite has the capacity to dissolve harmful impurities which would otherwise form low melting point segregates and interdendritic cracks. The presence of 5-10% ferrite in the microstructure is extremely beneficial, so the choice of filler material composition is crucial in suppressing the risk of cracking. An indication of the ferrite-austenite balance for different compositions is provided by the Schaeffler diagram. For example, when welding Type 304 stainless steel, a Type 308 filler material, which has a slightly different alloy content, is used.

Ferritic stainless steel

Ferritic stainless steels have a Cr content of 11-28%. Commonly used alloys include the 430 grade, having 16-18% Cr and 407 grade having 10-12% Cr. As these alloys can be considered to be predominantly single phase and non-hardenable, they can be readily fusion welded. However, a coarse grained HAZ will have poor toughness.

Avoiding weld imperfections
The main problem when welding this ferritic stainless steel is poor HAZ toughness. Excessive grain coarsening can lead to cracking in highly restrained joints and thick section material. When welding thin section material, (less than 6mm) no special precautions are necessary. In thicker material, it is necessary to employ a low heat input to minimise the width of the grain-coarsened zone and an austenitic filler to produce a tougher weld metal. Although preheating will not reduce the grain size, it will reduce the HAZ cooling rate, maintain the weld metal above the ductile-brittle transition temperature and may reduce residual stresses. Preheat temperature should be within the range 50-250 °C depending on material composition.

Martensitic stainless steel

The most common martensitic alloys e.g. type 410, have a moderate chromium content of 12-18% with low Ni but, more importantly, have a relatively high carbon content. The principal difference compared with welding the austenitic and ferritic grades of stainless steel is the potentially hard HAZ martensitic structure and the matching composition weld metal. The material can be successfully welded providing precautions are taken to avoid cracking in the HAZ, especially in thick section components and highly restrained joints.

Avoiding weld imperfections

High hardness in the HAZ makes this type of stainless steel very prone to hydrogen cracking. The risk of cracking generally increases with the carbon content. Precautions which must be taken to minimise the risk by:
• using low hydrogen process (TIG or MIG) and ensure the flux or flux coated consumable are dried (MMA and SAW) according to the manufacturer's instructions;
• preheating to around 200 to 300°C. Actual temperature will depend on welding procedure, chemical composition (especially Cr and C content), section thickness and the amount of hydrogen entering the weld metal;
• maintaining the recommended minimum interpass temperature;
• carrying out post-weld heat treatment, e.g. at 650-750°C. The time and temperature will be determined by chemical composition.

Thin section, low carbon material, typically less than 3mm, can often be welded without preheat, providing that a low hydrogen process is used, the joints have low restraint and attention is paid to cleaning the joint area. Thicker section and higher carbon (> O.1%) material will probably need preheat and post-weld heat treatment. The post-weld heat treatment should be carried out immediately after welding not only to temper (toughen) the structure but also to enable the hydrogen to diffuse away from the weld metal and HAZ.

Duplex stainless steels

Duplex stainless steels have a two-phase structure of almost equal proportions of austenite and ferrite. The composition of the most common duplex steels lies within the range 22-26% Cr, 4-7% Ni and 0-3% Mo normally with a small amount of nitrogen (0.1-0.3%) to stabilise the austenite. Modern duplex steels are readily weldable but the procedure, especially maintaining the heat input range, must be strictly followed to obtain the correct weld metal structure.

Avoiding weld imperfections
Although most welding processes can be used, low heat input welding procedures are usually avoided. Preheat is not normally required and the maximum interpass temperature must be controlled. Choice of filler is important as it is designed to produce a weld metal structure with a ferrite-austenite balance to match the parent metal. To compensate for nitrogen loss, the filler may be overalloyed with nitrogen or the shielding gas itself may contain a small amount of nitrogen.