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Thread: Ever Done Your Own Color Case Hardening?

  1. #1
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    Ever Done Your Own Color Case Hardening?

    I know the basic principles, but does anyone know of an actual set of detailed instructions for the do-it-yourselfer?

  2. #2
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    I've always wanted to try. I've heard you can stick your part in an old tin can (with a tight fitting lid) with some pieces of bone, leaves, twine, leather, any organic carbon based junk really. Then you stick the can in the fire for a while until all the junk burns off. Then you have to quench it unevenly somehow. If you quench it evenly it'll be case hardened but won't be as purty. Here's some info from people who know what they're talking about:

    The following is a composite of two excellent posts on case hardening by subscribers Bruce Conner and Ward French.

    It can be found at: http://members.aol.com/illinewek/faqs/case.htm

    For readers wishing to pursue colour case hardening further, I strongly recommend a series of two articles by Mr. Oscar Gaddy on the subject, found in the winter 1996 and spring 1997 issues of the Double Gun Journal.

    Bruce begins:

    Case hardening involves putting carbon (or a combination of carbon and nitrogen) into the surface of the steel to make it a high-carbon steel which can be hardened by heat treatment, just as if it were tool steel or any other high carbon steel. Only the outer skin gets hard this way, the center is still tough and malleable. This makes for a strong part with a tough surface.

    Ward continues:

    Low carbon steel, i.e. steel with about 20 points or less of carbon, cannot be made to harden by heating and quenching, as higher carbon steels can. Low carbon steels are tough, soft and flexible. They wear quickly and batter easily.

    Many parts, including gun actions in days gone by, were made with low carbon steel. It was cheap, strong and easy to machine. Unfortunately it would not stand up to the battering of use in the field. Case hardening added carbon to the surface skin of the steel part and left it in a state which could be hardened by quenching.

    To case harden a part (the process is also known as pack hardening) the finished low carbon steel part is placed in a sealed container, packed with a high carbon compound. In the old days this was simply animal hide or bone. The container filled with parts and carbon bearing material was brought to a red heat and held at that temperature for a time determined by the size of the part. The time might be from a half hour up to several hours. As the bone or hide became carbon in the container, and a carbon rich gas formed, some of the carbon would infuse into the surface of the steel. Over time this would penetrate several thousandths of an inch, producing a high carbon surface on the low carbon steel part.

    At the proper time the container is removed from the furnace and the contents dumped into a quenching bath, usually water with perhaps a surface coat of oil to lessen the shock of the quench. The high carbon surface skin becomes glass hard, but the low carbon body of the piece remains soft and very ductile and able to resist shock. Properly done it made a simple and very durable system for treating metal action parts.

    Colors are produced when the steel surface is cooled unevenly, capturing the natural blues, oranges and yellows of cooling steel. Several methods are employed to do this. Stevens moved the parts into the quench in a jerky fashion, producing a barred effect of color. Perazzi did the same. In the London trade the quench bath, usually a barrel with soft water and a skim of oil, was agitated by stirring, or with bubbles of air, producing a mottled effect on the steel.

    Bruce adds:

    Color case hardening is done much the same way except that generally only leather and bone are used as the carbon source. I don't know why this works better than charcoal, but it does. You get more brilliant colors with them. The other thing you do is modify the quenching bath. You need a source of bubbles. LOTS of bubbles to really rile up the quench bath. Adding a bit of potassium nitrate to the water increases the brilliance of the colors as well, but isn't a requirement. You have to watch the temperature more closely with color case hardening or the colors won't come out well. Don't go over 1350 F.

    Kasenit and similar compounds are a lot easier to use and you can just use a torch. You heat the part up red, dunk it into the Kasenit compound and get a good coating of it sticking to the steel in the places you want hardened. Then reheat it up to a good red and quench it in water. This can be repeated to increase the depth of the case hardening. It works very well and is quite fast, but leaves a kind of dull grey color to the surface. For parts that are internal it works great and if you make the hardening deep enough, you can polish the metal and still have a hard surface.

    Ward continues:

    The colors have nothing to do with the effectiveness of the case hardening. Many, if not most, parts are hardened without colors. The surface takes on a dull gray look. The London makers usually polish this surface bright. It is glass hard, but without the decorative affect of the colors.

    Anyone who has a case colored part should be aware that colors will fade on exposure to direct sunlight over an extended time period. Parts must be protected. Clear fingernail polish or a similar lacquer will protect the surface and a gun case or cabinet will do the rest. Case hardening was widely used on all lock parts except springs, and the process could be carried out even on the frontier with a minimum of equipment and knowledge.

    Good shooting,

    Ward and Bruce
    Try it! (and post pics!)

  3. #3
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    Kasenit and similar compounds are a lot easier to use and you can just use a torch. You heat the part up red, dunk it into the Kasenit compound and get a good coating of it sticking to the steel in the places you want hardened. Then reheat it up to a good red and quench it in water. This can be repeated to increase the depth of the case hardening. It works very well and is quite fast, but leaves a kind of dull grey color to the surface.
    My only experiences have been with Kasenit, and they mirror the post above. I was experimenting with forging a variety of steels, and attempted case coloring on a few of the pieces. I did not get any color; instead an even grey.

    However, I did get a glass hard surface on the parts that made a file sing.
    "If I said it, I must have meant it; so I owe him an apology, or nothing at all." -HST

  4. #4
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    Yeah, I've done case hardening. I want the color case, just for the decorative effects. I know the basics of how it works, as described above, but I'm looking for specifics. Maybe that's all there is to it, and I just need to experiment. Obviously I'll have to try it on some scrap steel before doing it on an expensived lock plate.

    My thought was to build a "furnace" out of loose brick, load it with charcoal, and use a blower to control combustion-- a makeshift forge, or a BBQ on steroids.

    This is a long way off, as I haven't even ordered the kit, but I'm wanting to build a longrifle and I'd like a color case finish on the lockplate.

  5. #5
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    The lock plate of a long rifle was usually left white or at most browned to match the barrel. It does not need to be hardened.

    Check out the books by Kindig or Johnson or Shumway (and others) for photos and ideas for longrifles.

    Some muskets had color on the lockplates but not longrifles.

  6. #6
    Just use casenit to harden it and then go back with B-C PermaBlue and streak it on with your finger or a shop swab.

    heat it up with a hair dryer, then put more paste on.

    Buff it with flitz and a cotton rag/old sock and it will look not too bad. You will NOT get "bright" colors, but, it will have that old-timey look.

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