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Stress Relief Basics

By S. Hornsey B.Sc VSR (Africa) cc August 2004

Structural designers and engineers must be aware of residual stresses in fabrications and of the common
methods used to relieve these unwanted stresses.

Stress – the sources are numerous, but fortunately there are a variety of ways to relieve it. No I’m not talking
about the hectic pace of our personal lives, although it certainly can apply, but instead I’m referring to the
fabrication and machining of metals. Residual stress is an internal stress that is not a result of externally
applied loads. If stress build up in the structure is excessive, the fatigue life of the metal is considerably

Importance of Stress Relief

Cold working, hot rolling, grinding, machining operations, quenching treatments, welding and thermal
cutting can all induce high levels of residual stresses into metal. The nature of residual stress, its
distribution, and prediction of the level within a metal is a complex and not completely understood
phenomenon, but you can be sure it is present.
Welding in particular, because of the rapid thermal expansion and contraction created along a very
localised area, is a prime source of residual stress. A very high heat source is applied to a small area
relative to the cooler surrounding area. That point, where the arc is directed is rapidly heated from
ambient temperatures to a temperature that can often be in excess of 4,500°C. The metal expands as it is
brought to a molten state. As the molten weld pool solidifies along the joint, there is resistance to its
shrinkage by the already solidified weld metal and the unmelted base metal adjacent to the weld. This
resistance creates a tensile strain in the longitudinal and transverse directions of the weld. Distortion is
often the result, and if the stress is excessive, buckling, stress corrosion cracking and a shortened fatigue
life is often possible.
All welds will have some residual stress, and it can never be totally reduced to zero strain. But the level of
stress can be very high depending upon certain conditions. Heat input, base material thickness, rate of
cooling, the restraint of the component and of course the welding process all play major roles in the level
of residual stress induced into a component.

Thermal or Non-thermal
There are two major approaches to stress relieving; thermal and mechanical. A major difference between
the two is thermal treatment, which in addition to relieving stress, will also effect a metallurgical change
in the material, which is often unwanted. A postweld heat treatment entails uniform heating of the
weldments, holding at temperature, and then a carefully controlled cooling.
As the base metal becomes hotter, it becomes weaker. Once a certain temperature is reached, there is a
reduction in the material yield strength, and it is thereby relieved. The effect often visibly manifests itself
in the partial straightening of a distorted component.
For carbon and low alloy steels, stress relieving is commonly performed in the range of 570°C-760°C
although many specifications call for temperatures of up to 1050°C. The temperature at which stress relief
occurs varies from 100°C up to 500°C according to the particular metal concerned. In general the higher
the melting point, the higher is the temperature for stress relieving. The time at which the component is
held at temperature is dependant upon the thickness of the material and its chemical composition.
A commonly used method of stress relieving weldments is by postweld heat treatment its effectiveness is
dependant on the control exercised in bringing the component to temperature and then its subsequent
cooling. It therefore should only be performed by those knowledgeable in its application.

Shot Peening
Shot peening is a cold working method that reduces stress. Small round balls, or shot, are projected onto
the surface of the component. The shot imparts small indentations into the surface which induces a
compressive stress. The tensile residual stresses at the surface of the component must overcome the
compressive stress for a fatigue crack to initiate. If properly applied the compression works to counteract
the tensile stresses. Fatigue cracks have a low probability of developing in the shot peened area. Caution
must be taken to ensure the shot peening operation is performed with knowledge of its variables. There
are three important variables to control its application; surface compressive stress, maximum compressive
stress, and depth of compressive stress. The velocity of the shot is another controlling factor. If the
impingement of the shot is too deep, detrimental stresses may be induced negating the desired results.

Vibratory Stress Relief

A commonly used method of stress relief is by vibration. A mechanical vibrating device is attached to the
component. The vibrations resonant frequency can be accurately controlled and monitored by specially
designed machines. The amount of time the component is subjected to the vibration is usually dependant
upon its weight. The advantage of the process is that the vibration can be applied during or after welding
and in the case of machined components very close to final machined sizes and in some cases following
machining to achieve complete stability. Many theories abound as to how the process achieves the results
the most common of which is that the applied force redistributes the stress distribution within the
component by means of plastic deformation of the metals grains and thereby reducing sharp peaks of
residual stress. As with Thermal treatment the effect often visibly manifests itself in the partial
straightening of a distorted component. Many test reports indicate that Vibratory Stress Relief can obtain
results compatible and in many cases exceeding those achieved using Thermal Treatment. An ever-
increasing list of users serves to confirm this. With comparison to the previous mentioned methods of
stress relief VSR offers the user the following advantages:

1. A time reduction of up to 50:1.

2. No discoloration or scaling of materials.
3. No reduction in material yield strength.
4. Graphic printouts upon completion of VSR.
5. No surface damage e.g. shot peening
6. Complete portability of the equipment.
7. Enormous savings in cost as the work is carried out at the client’s premises.
8. The ability to treat up to final machined sizes.
9. The ability to treat large components (up to 200 ton) on site
10. Energy savings of up to 500:1 in comparison with TSR

Should you require further information regarding any of the afore mentioned processes or additional
technical reports please contact:

Steve Hornsey B.Sc(Eng)MSAIW,CGLI (Dist weld),HND(MechEng)M.S.A.I.MechEngs

PO Box 12272

tell (013) 6500702 / 6500287

fax (013) 6501308