Demystifying H-13 Tool Steel vs. 4140 Alloy Steel: A Machinist’s Guide


Tool steels are widely used in the manufacturing industry for making tools, dies, and machine components. Two of the most common tool steels are H-13 and 4140 alloy steel. As a machinist, understanding the properties and applications of these two materials is critical for selecting the right steel for specific projects. This comprehensive guide examines H-13 and 4140 alloy steels, compares their properties and performance, and provides recommendations on when to use each material.

An Overview of H-13 Tool Steel

H-13 tool steel, also known as EN X40CrMoV5-1 or DIN 1.2344, is a versatile chromium-molybdenum-vanadium alloy steel that is characterized by:

  • High hardness (48-54 HRC)
  • Good resistance to softening at high temperatures
  • Excellent thermal fatigue and thermal shock resistance
  • Good toughness and ductility
  • Good machinability compared to other tool steels

H-13 gets its hardness from molybdenum, vanadium, and chromium carbides distributed throughout its microstructure. It has become the workhorse hot work tool steel for die casting, forging, extrusion, and stamping applications where it needs to withstand prolonged exposure to high temperatures without losing its shape or mechanical properties.

Some of the typical applications of H-13 tool steel include:

  • Die casting dies: Used extensively for aluminum, magnesium, and zinc die casting. Withstands metal temperatures up to 1000°F (538°C).
  • Forging dies: Used for hot and warm forging processes for steels and non-ferrous alloys. Withstands repeated thermal cycling.
  • Extrusion dies: Used for hot extrusion of steel, copper, aluminum and titanium alloys. Resists erosion wear and thermal fatigue cracking.
  • Plastic injection molds: Withstands repeated cyclical heating and cooling for molding plastics. Offers good polishability.
  • Stamping/Forming dies: Used for hot stamping, forming, and trimming dies. Provides good wear resistance.

H-13 tool steel has a typical composition of:

  • 0.32-0.45% Carbon
  • 0.20-0.50% Silicon
  • 0.80-1.20% Manganese
  • 0.030% Max Phosphorus
  • 0.030% Max Sulfur
  • 4.75-5.50% Chromium
  • 1.10-1.75% Molybdenum
  • 0.80-1.20% Vanadium

It has the following properties:

  • Density: 7.7 g/cm3
  • Thermal conductivity: 24 W/m-K
  • Modulus of elasticity: 210 GPa
  • Melting point: 1450-1510°C

With its combination of hardness, toughness, and hot strength, H-13 is an extremely versatile tool steel suitable for a wide range of hot work, die casting, and molding applications. Proper heat treatment is critical to developing the full capabilities of this alloy.

An Overview of 4140 Alloy Steel

4140 alloy steel, also known as chromium-molybdenum alloy steel, is a versatile low-alloy steel that derives its strength from the presence of chromium and molybdenum as strengthening agents. It offers a good balance of toughness, wear resistance, and machinability.

The main characteristics of 4140 alloy steel include:

  • Medium carbon steel with 0.38-0.43% carbon content
  • Good toughness and fatigue strength
  • Reasonably good ductility
  • High tensile strength and yield strength
  • Good impact and abrasion resistance
  • Excellent machinability and weldability

4140 alloy steel is available in bar, plate, and tube forms. In the annealed condition, it has a hardness of 217 HB and tensile strength of 655 MPa. It can be further heat treated to achieve hardness between 32-38 HRC and tensile strength up to 1000 MPa.

Some typical applications of 4140 alloy steel include:

  • Gears and shafts: Used for making gears, shafts, spindles that require good torsional strength and fatigue resistance.
  • Bolts, nuts, fasteners: Used for high strength threaded components and fasteners. Offers a good combination of strength and toughness.
  • Tools and dies: Used for blanking, punching, bending, and drawing dies. Provides good wear resistance under compressive loads.
  • Axles, drive shafts: Used for automobile and truck axles and drive shafts that require impact and fatigue resistance.
  • Pumps and valves: Used for high strength pump shafts, plungers, valve bodies and stems.

4140 has a typical composition of:

  • 0.38-0.43% Carbon
  • 0.75-1.00% Manganese
  • 0.15-0.25% Silicon
  • 0.80-1.10% Chromium
  • 0.15-0.25% Molybdenum
  • 0.040% Phosphorus
  • 0.040% Sulfur

It has the following properties:

  • Density: 7.87 g/cm3
  • Thermal conductivity: 42 W/m-K
  • Modulus of elasticity: 205 GPa
  • Melting point: 1440°C

With its good combination of strength, toughness, and wear resistance, 4140 is widely used for medium-strength structural components requiring greater impact toughness and fatigue resistance compared to low alloy steels. It can be further surface hardened by carburizing or nitriding to improve wear resistance.

Comparing H-13 Tool Steel vs. 4140 Alloy Steel

While both H-13 and 4140 are low alloy steels, there are some distinct differences in their properties and intended applications:


  • H-13 has higher alloying content of chromium, molybdenum, and vanadium to provide hot strength and hardness for use in hot work tooling applications.
  • 4140 has slightly lower amounts of chromium and molybdenum to provide a better balance of properties for structural components.


  • H-13 achieves much higher hardness in the hardened condition, up to 54 HRC. This provides good wear resistance when used for dies and tooling.
  • 4140 has lower hardness after heat treatment, up to 38 HRC maximum. This gives it better toughness but lower wear resistance.


  • H-13 has lower tensile strength compared to 4140 – around 655 MPa in annealed condition versus up to 1000 MPa for 4140 when heat treated.
  • 4140 can be used for higher strength structural applications requiring good toughness.

Heat Resistance

  • H-13 retains its strength and hardness at elevated temperatures up to 1000°F. This allows it to withstand prolonged exposure to heat in hot work die casting, forging, extrusion applications.
  • 4140 has lower heat resistance and is not suitable for hot work applications. It is mainly used at room or slightly elevated temperatures.


  • H-13 has slightly better machinability than 4140 due to its higher sulfur content which creates manganese sulfide inclusions that aid chip breaking.
  • 4140 has good machinability for a medium carbon steel but is not quite as easy to machine as H-13.


  • H-13 has lower weldability than 4140. Precautions must be taken to preheat and post weld heat treatment to avoid cracking.
  • 4140 has fairly good weldability for a medium carbon steel and can be welded using proper procedures.


  • H-13 is more expensive than 4140 due to its higher alloy content and the specialized heat treatment required.
  • 4140 is more economical for general engineering applications not requiring high heat resistance.

So in summary, H-13 is specially designed for hot work die applications requiring hardness, heat resistance, and temper resistance whereas 4140 is more suitable for medium strength structural components requiring toughness and good fatigue strength.

Heat Treating H-13 Tool Steel

To achieve optimal properties, H-13 needs to be properly heat treated. The standard heat treatment process for H-13 tool steel consists of:

Step 1: Annealing

  • Heat to 1550-1650°F and soak for 1 hour per inch of thickness
  • Cool slowly at 10-15°F per hour to 1000°F, then air cool

Annealing softens H-13 for improved machinability. It produces a coarse pearlitic structure with hardness around 217 HB.

Step 2: Hardening

  • Preheat to 1200-1250°F
  • Austenitize by heating to 1850-1900°F and hold for 30 minutes
  • Quench in forced air or oil

This forms a hard martensitic structure and achieves maximum hardness of 50-54 HRC. Oil quenching gives faster cooling rates.

Step 3: Double Tempering

  • Temper at 1000°F for 2 hours, then air cool
  • Temper a second time at 1000°F for another 2 hours, then air cool

Double tempering reduces brittleness and improves toughness and ductility. It also helps reduce residual stresses from quenching.

The hardness after tempering is around 46-50 HRC. For maximum hardness, only a single temper is used. But the double temper gives the best compromise between hardness and toughness.

Proper heat treatment is critical with H-13 to balance wear resistance, strength, and toughness needed for the application. Insufficient hardening reduces wear resistance while over-hardening makes it prone to cracking. Careful temperature control and double tempering produce the best results.

Heat Treating 4140 Alloy Steel

To develop its full properties, 4140 alloy steel also needs proper heat treatment tailored to the specific requirements of the application. Here are some typical heat treatments for 4140:

Full Annealing

  • Heat to 1550-1650°F
  • Soak for 1 hour per inch thickness
  • Cool slowly at 25°F per hour to 1000°F, then air cool

Produces a soft, coarse pearlitic structure with maximum ductility. Hardness around 217 HB.


  • Heat to 100°F above upper critical temperature (1600°F)
  • Soak for 15 minutes
  • Air cool

Refiners grain size for more uniform properties. Hardness around 241 HB.

Stress Relieving

  • Heat to 1100-1250°F
  • Soak for 1 hour
  • Slow cool

Reduces residual stresses from machining, welding, or cold working. Hardness unaffected.

Hardening and Tempering

  • Austenitize at 1550-1625°F
  • Oil quench
  • Temper at 375-925°F depending on hardness desired

Produces maximum hardness of 38 HRC. Tempering improves toughness.

As with H-13, proper heat treatment is critical to achieve the optimal combination of strength and toughness for the intended application of 4140 alloy steel.

Machining Recommendations

Both H-13 and 4140 have fairly good machinability in the annealed condition. However, there are some important considerations when machining these steels:

H-13 Machining Tips

  • Use rigid machine setup to minimize chatter and vibration
  • Use positive rake tool geometry with sharp cutting edge
  • Avoid built-up edge by selecting suitable feed, speed, and depth of cut
  • Use high cutting speeds and low feed rates
  • Use heavy feed during rough machining and lighter feed for finishing
  • Use copious amounts of cutting fluid for cooling and chip flushing
  • Grind at lower wheel speeds to avoid overheating and rehardening

4140 Machining Tips

  • Use coated carbide tools for longest tool life
  • Select lower cutting speeds and higher feed rates than for H-13
  • Use heavy feeds for roughing and lighter feeds for finishing
  • Use high pressure coolant delivery directed at cutting edge
  • Watch for work hardening during interrupted cuts or high feeds
  • Allow for chip curl and rapid chip clearance

In both cases, the use of proper feeds and speeds, carbide tooling, and effective chip control is key to good machinability and surface finishes. Trying to machine too quickly can lead to rapid tool wear, poor finish, and work hardening issues.

Design and Engineering Considerations

Here are some best practices for designing components using H-13 and 4140 alloy steels:

H-13 Design Tips

  • Avoid sharp corners and abrupt changes in cross-section
  • Use generous fillets and radii to reduce stress concentrations
  • Allow for sufficient draft angles on die impressions
  • Ensure uniform wall thickness and even metal flow
  • Allow for shrinkage and machining allowance in die dimensions
  • Locate venting and ejector pins carefully to avoid cracks

4140 Design Tips

  • Design for maximum stiffness and fatigue resistance
  • Use generous radii at corners and fillets
  • Eliminate stress risers which can cause premature failure
  • Take advantage of superior impact strength in high loads
  • Use precision tolerance components if possible
  • Account for potential work hardening during machining

In both cases, the use of finite element analysis software can optimize designs by identifying potential areas of stress concentration or work hardening. This can significantly improve the service life and reliability of components machined from these alloys.

Cost and Availability Considerations

Here are some key factors to consider regarding cost and availability for these two tool steels:

H-13 Tool Steel

  • More expensive than 4140 due to higher alloy content
  • Cost is approximately 30-50% higher than 4140 per pound
  • Requires specialized heat treating which adds to cost
  • Has long lead times of up to several months
  • Supply chain issues have led to tight availability recently
  • Order well in advance for critical applications
  • Consider certified grades for most consistent properties

4140 Alloy Steel

  • More economical material cost than H-13
  • Readily available at most suppliers and distributors
  • Shorter lead times for delivery compared to H-13
  • Supply is generally more abundant than for tool steels
  • Various product grades available depending on quality required
  • Consider pre-hardened grades if heat treating is not required

When possible, it helps to consult with qualified suppliers early in the design process to determine optimal stock size, lead times, and pricing. This can prevent costly delays or shortages during manufacturing.


What are some differences in weldability between H-13 and 4140?

H-13 has more alloying elements that make it prone to weld cracking, so preheating, post heating, and using low hydrogen electrodes are necessary. 4140 has good weldability using proper procedures and can be welded without special precautions.

When would you choose 4140 over H-13 and vice versa?

Choose H-13 for hot strength, heat resistance, and temper resistance needed for die casting and hot forming dies. Choose 4140 when high toughness, good fatigue resistance, and strength are needed but not high heat resistance.

What causes tool failure or cracking in H-13 tooling?

Failure in H-13 dies and molds is often due to overheating, thermal fatigue, or improper heat treatment. Cracking can occur from poor design, abrupt transitions, excessive loads, or uneven cooling. Proper design and heat treatment helps maximize life.

How should you select the hardness for 4140 components?

The optimum 4140 hardness depends on the application. Lower hardness of 25-30 HRC provides good ductility and fracture toughness. Hardness of 30-35 HRC gives the best strength, while over 35 HRC improves wear resistance but lowers impact strength.

What are some differences in finish machining H-13 versus 4140?

H-13 allows faster cutting speeds, while heavier feeds and rigid setups are needed for 4140. H-13 requires heavy roughing cuts and light finishing cuts to avoid work hardening. Use lighter roughing and heavier finishing with 4140.

Should H-13 and 4140 be cryogenically treated? What are the benefits?

Cryogenic treatment can provide modest benefits on wear resistance and tool life. With H-13, it helps precipitation of fine carbides. With 4140, it refines the grain structure. In both cases, proper heat treating is usually more critical than cryo treatment.


H-13 tool steel and 4140 alloy steel possess distinct properties tailored to different applications. When heat treated properly, H-13 provides unmatched heat and temper resistance for hot work die casting, forging, and extrusion applications. 4140 offers a better balance of strength and toughness for structural components requiring fatigue and impact resistance. By understanding the differences between these two popular materials, machinists can select the right steel to optimize performance, life, and cost for their specific project requirements. With the proper precautions during machining and heat treating, both H-13 and 4140 can deliver reliable service in demanding engineering applications.

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