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What is High Speed Steel?

By Ken Black
Updated May 17, 2024
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High speed steel, or HSS, is a type of steel that is used in high speed applications, such as in things like drill bits and power saw blades. It is a replacement for carbon steel tools, specifically bits and blades, though both may still be used commonly. Its development has a number of advantages over carbon and thus is considered a more popular choice for such applications.

Several very important factors allow high speed steel to work. The first is the type of metals used. Together, they can provide a heat resistance that can keep the metal hard even under extreme temperatures. High temperature treatment further helps the steel remain hard under extremely high temperatures.

High speed steel is an alloy that combines several metals. Combinations often include tungsten, chromium, molybdenum, cobalt and others. Tungsten is the most common type of steel currently used in these products. However, there are many different types and designations of high speed steel, each having its own special combination. Some may use very little tungsten.

The heat treatment that high speed steel undergoes is a product of modern advancements of technology. Usually, a laser or electron beam is used to treat the steel at high temperatures. While there have been some high speed products dating back to the 19th century, this new technology creates a particularly effective product by being able to reach much higher temperatures than via traditional means.

High speed steel is very important because heat has the ability to melt metals. This can even happen from friction created by drilling and sawing. Anyone who works with power tools can attest to how hot a drill bit can get after just a few seconds of use. Thus, to some extent, how fast a tool can cut or drill depends on how much heat it can withstand. The faster it can go, the quicker the job can get done.

Most toolmakers, understanding the value of high speed steel, will make certain to note it in product descriptions and marketing pieces. This adds value to the tool and ensures the consumer gets the product he or she needs. While there may not be any logo that is standard in the industry for this type of steel, it is usually noted on the packaging. If there is any question, buyers should ask before making the purchase.

About Mechanics is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By omgnotagain — On Jun 30, 2011

The article says tungsten is used in nearly all high speed steel types. I’m a science major and I want to explain why tungsten is used so often.

Pure tungsten has the highest melting point of all metals. It doesn’t melt until it reaches 6,192 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also very strong, which means a blade made from it will stay sharp for a long time.

Because tungsten is so strong, even a tiny amount can make steel much more durable. That’s why it’s often used when making high speed steel.

By Animalz — On Jun 28, 2011

@qwertyq – I just did a report for this for school, too. I’ll share my research with you. Some types of high speed steel are the following (with alloy percentages by weight):

T1: Carbon(.65-.80%); Chromium(3.75-4%); Tungsten(17.25-18.75%); Vanadium(.9-1.3%); Manganese(.1-.4%); Silicon(.2-.4%)

M2: Carbon(.95%); Chromium(4.2%); Molybdenum(5%); Tungsten(2%); Vanadium(2%)

M7: Carbon(1%); Chromium(3.8%); Molybdenum(8.7%); Tungsten(2%); Vanadium(2%)

M35: Carbon(.94%); Chromium(4.1%); Molybdenum(5%); Tungsten(2%); Vanadium(2%); Cobalt(5%)

M42: Carbon(1.1%); Chromium(3.8%); Molybdenum(9.5%); Tungsten(2%); Vanadium(1.2%); Cobalt(8%)

By qwertyq — On Jun 26, 2011

Is there only one type of high speed steel? I thought there were different combinations of the alloys, and therefore different types. Does anyone know the types and the amounts of each alloy they contain? I need to know for a school project.

By Vegemite — On Jun 25, 2011

I learned in class today that steel starts melting at around 400 degrees Fahrenheit, which is pretty hot. But I would think that that’s an easy temperature to achieve with the friction created while using a power tool. Does anyone know how hot a high speed steel drill bit can get before it starts melting? I imagine it’s pretty high, considering the metals HSS is made of.

By anon109529 — On Sep 08, 2010

Thanks, very informative.

By anon44492 — On Sep 08, 2009

thanks for the information. it's very helpful.

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