Weld Distortion

Beginning welders and even those that are more experienced commonly struggle with the problem of weld distortion, (warping of the base plate caused by heat from the welding arc). Distortion is troublesome for a number of reasons, but one of the most critical is the potential creation of a weld that is not structurally sound. This article will help to define what weld distortion is and then provide a practical understanding of the causes of distortion, effects of shrinkage in various types of welded assemblies and how to control it, and finally look at methods for distortion control.

What is Weld Distortion?
Distortion in a weld results from the expansion and contraction of the weld metal and adjacent base metal during the heating and cooling cycle of the welding process. Doing all welding on one side of a part will cause much more distortion than if the welds are alternated from one side to the other. During this heating and cooling cycle, many factors affect shrinkage of the metal and lead to distortion, such as physical and mechanical properties that change as heat is applied. For example, as the temperature of the weld area increases, yield strength, elasticity, and thermal conductivity of the steel plate decrease, while thermal expansion and specific heat increase (Fig. 3-1). These changes, in turn, affect heat flow and uniformity of heat distribution.


Fig. 3-1 Changes in the properties of steel with increases in temperature complicate analysis of what happens during the welding cycle - and, thus, understanding of the factors contributing to weldment distortion.


Reasons for Distortion
To understand how and why distortion occurs during heating and cooling of a metal, consider the bar of steel shown in Fig. 3-2. As the bar is uniformly heated, it expands in all directions, as shown in Fig. 3-2(a). As the metal cools to room temperature it contracts uniformly to its original dimensions.

Fig. 3-2 If a steel bar is uniformly heated while unrestrained, as in (a), it will expand in all directions and return to its original dimentions on cooling. If restrained, as in (b), during heating, it can expand only in the vertical direction - become thicker. On cooling, the deformed bar contracts uniformly, as shown in (c), and, thus, is permanently deformed. This is a simplified explanation of basic cause of distortion in welding assemblies.

But if the steel bar is restrained -as in a vise - while it is heated, as shown in Fig. 3-2(b), lateral expansion cannot take place. But, since volume expansion must occur during the heating, the bar expands in a vertical direction (in thickness) and becomes thicker. As the deformed bar returns to room temperature, it will still tend to contract uniformly in all directions, as in Fig. 3-2 (c). The bar is now shorter, but thicker. It has been permanently deformed, or distorted. (For simplification, the sketches show this distortion occurring in thickness only. But in actuality, length is similarly affected.)

In a welded joint, these same expansion and contraction forces act on the weld metal and on the base metal. As the weld metal solidifies and fuses with the base metal, it is in its maximum expanded from. On cooling, it attempts to contract to the volume it would normally occupy at the lower temperature, but it is restrained from doing so by the adjacent base metal. Because of this, stresses develop within the weld and the adjacent base metal. At this point, the weld stretches (or yields) and thins out, thus adjusting to the volume requirements of the lower temperature. But only those stresses that exceed the yield strength of the weld metal are relieved by this straining. By the time the weld reaches room temperature - assuming complete restraint of the base metal so that it cannot move - the weld will contain locked-in tensile stresses approximately equal to the yield strength of the metal. If the restraints (clamps that hold the workpiece, or an opposing shrinkage force) are removed, the residual stresses are partially relieved as they cause the base metal to move, thus distorting the weldment.

Shrinkage Control - What You Can Do to Minimize Distortion

To prevent or minimize weld distortion, methods must be used both in design and during welding to overcome the effects of the heating and cooling cycle. Shrinkage cannot be prevented, but it can be controlled. Several ways can be used to minimize distortion caused by shrinkage:

1.  Do not overweld
 The more metal placed in a joint, the greater the shrinkage forces. Correctly sizing a weld for the requirements of the joint not only minimizes distortion, but also saves weld metal and time. The amount of weld metal in a fillet weld can be minimized by the use of a flat or slightly convex bead, and in a butt joint by proper edge preparation and fitup. The excess weld metal in a highly convex bead does not increase the allowable strength in code work, but it does increase shrinkage forces.

When welding heavy plate (over 1 inch thick) bevelling or even double bevelling can save a substantial amount of weld metal which translates into much less distortion automatically.

In general, if distortion is not a problem, select the most economical joint. If distortion is a problem, select either a joint in which the weld stresses balance each other or a joint requiring the least amount of weld metal.


2. Use intermittent welding
Another way to minimize weld metal is to use intermittent rather than continuous welds where possible, as in Fig. 3-7(c). For attaching stiffeners to plate, for example, intermittent welds can reduce the weld metal by as much as 75 percent yet provide the needed strength.

Fig. 3-7 Distortion can be prevented or minimized by techniques that defeat - or use constructively - the effects of the heating and cooling cycle.


3. Use as few weld passes as possible
Fewer passes with large electrodes, Fig. 3-7(d), are preferable to a greater number of passes with small electrodes when transverse distortion could be a problem. Shrinkage caused by each pass tends to be cumulative, thereby increasing total shrinkage when many passes are used.


4. Place welds near the neutral axis
Distortion is minimized by providing a smaller leverage for the shrinkage forces to pull the plates out of alignment. Figure 3-7(e) illustrates this. Both design of the weldment and welding sequence can be used effectively to control distortion.

Fig. 3-7 Distortion can be prevented or minimized by techniques that defeat - or use constructively - the effects of the heating and cooling cycle.


5. Balance welds around the neutral axis
This practice, shown in Fig. 3-7(f), offsets one shrinkage force with another to effectively minimize distortion of the weldment. Here, too, design of the assembly and proper sequence of welding are important factors.


6. Use backstep welding
In the backstep technique, the general progression of welding may be, say, from left to right, but each bead segment is deposited from right to left as in Fig. 3-7(g). As each bead segment is placed, the heated edges expand, which temporarily separates the plates at B. But as the heat moves out across the plate to C, expansion along outer edges CD brings the plates back together. This separation is most pronounced as the first bead is laid. With successive beads, the plates expand less and less because of the restraint of prior welds. Backstepping may not be effective in all applications, and it cannot be used economically in automatic welding.

Fig. 3-7 Distortion can be prevented or minimized by techniques that defeat - or use constructively - the effects of the heating and cooling cycle.


7. Anticipate the shrinkage forces
Presetting parts (at first glance, I thought that this was referring to overhead or vertical welding positions, which is not the case) before welding can make shrinkage perform constructive work. Several assemblies, preset in this manner, are shown in Fig. 3-7(h). The required amount of preset for shrinkage to pull the plates into alignment can be determined from a few trial welds.

Prebending, presetting or prespringing the parts to be welded, Fig. 3-7(i), is a simple example of the use of opposing mechanical forces to counteract distortion due to welding. The top of the weld groove - which will contain the bulk of the weld metal - is lengthened when the plates are preset. Thus the completed weld is slightly longer than it would be if it had been made on the flat plate. When the clamps are released after welding, the plates return to the flat shape, allowing the weld to relieve its longitudinal shrinkage stresses by shortening to a straight line. The two actions coincide, and the welded plates assume the desired flatness.

Another common practice for balancing shrinkage forces is to position identical weldments back to back, Fig. 3-7(j), clamping them tightly together. The welds are completed on both assemblies and allowed to cool before the clamps are released. Prebending can be combined with this method by inserting wedges at suitable positions between the parts before clamping.

In heavy weldments, particularly, the rigidity of the members and their arrangement relative to each other may provide the balancing forces needed. If these natural balancing forces are not present, it is necessary to use other means to counteract the shrinkage forces in the weld metal. This can be accomplished by balancing one shrinkage force against another or by creating an opposing force through the fixturing. The opposing forces may be: other shrinkage forces; restraining forces imposed by clamps, jigs, or fixtures; restraining forces arising from the arrangement of members in the assembly; or the force from the sag in a member due to gravity.


8.  Plan the welding sequence
A well-planned welding sequence involves placing weld metal at different points of the assembly so that, as the structure shrinks in one place, it counteracts the shrinkage forces of welds already made. An example of this is welding alternately on both sides of the neutral axis in making a complete joint penetration groove weld in a butt joint, as in Fig. 3-7(k). Another example, in a fillet weld, consists of making intermittent welds according to the sequences shown in Fig. 3-7(l). In these examples, the shrinkage in weld No. 1 is balanced by the shrinkage in weld No. 2.

Fig. 3-7 Distortion can be prevented or minimized by techniques that defeat - or use constructively - the effects of the heating and cooling cycle.

Clamps, jigs, and fixtures that lock parts into a desired position and hold them until welding is finished are probably the most widely used means for controlling distortion in small assemblies or components. It was mentioned earlier in this section that the restraining force provided by clamps increases internal stresses in the weldment until the yield point of the weld metal is reached. For typical welds on low-carbon plate, this stress level would approximate 45,000 psi. One might expect this stress to cause considerable movement or distortion after the welded part is removed from the jig or clamps. This does not occur, however, since the strain (unit contraction) from this stress is very low compared to the amount of movement that would occur if no restraint were used during welding.


9.  Remove shrinkage forces after welding
Peening is one way to counteract the shrinkage forces of a weld bead as it cools. Essentially, peening the bead stretches it and makes it thinner, thus relieving (by plastic deformation) the stresses induced by contraction as the metal cools. But this method must be used with care. For example, a root bead should never be peened, because of the danger of either concealing a crack or causing one. Generally, peening is not permitted on the final pass, because of the possibility of covering a crack and interfering with inspection, and because of the undesirable work-hardening effect. Thus, the utility of the technique is limited, even though there have been instances where between-pass peening proved to be the only solution for a distortion or cracking problem. Before peening is used on a job, engineering approval should be obtained.

Another method for removing shrinkage forces is by thermal stress relieving - controlled heating of the weldment to an elevated temperature, followed by controlled cooling. Sometimes two identical weldments are clamped back to back, welded, and then stress-relieved while being held in this straight condition. The residual stresses that would tend to distort the weldments are thus minimized.


10.  Minimize welding time
Since complex cycles of heating and cooling take place during welding, and since time is required for heat transmission, the time factor affects distortion. In general, it is desirable to finish the weld quickly, before a large volume of surrounding metal heats up and expands. The welding process used, type and size of electrode, welding current, and speed of travel, thus, affect the degree of shrinkage and distortion of a weldment. The use of mechanized welding equipment reduces welding time and the amount of metal affected by heat and, consequently, distortion. For example, depositing a given-size weld on thick plate with a process operating at 175 amp, 25 volts, and 3 ipm requires 87,500 joules of energy per linear inch of weld (also known as heat input). A weld with approximately the same size produced with a process operating at 310 amp, 35 volts, and 8 ipm requires 81,400 joules per linear inch. The weld made with the higher heat input generally results in a greater amount of distortion. (note: I don't want to use the words "excessive" and "more than necessary" because the weld size is, in fact, tied to the heat input. In general, the fillet weld size (in inches) is equal to the square root of the quantity of the heat input (kJ/in) divided by 500. Thus these two welds are most likely not the same size.

Other Techniques for Distortion Control

Water-Cooled Jig
Various techniques have been developed to control distortion on specific weldments. In sheet-metal welding, for example, a water-cooled jig (Fig. 3-33) is useful to carry heat away from the welded components. Copper tubes are brazed or soldered to copper holding clamps, and the water is circulated through the tubes during welding. The restraint of the clamps also helps minimize distortion.

Fig. 3-33 A water-cooled jig for rapid removal of heat when welding sheet meta.


The "strongback" is another useful technique for distortion control during butt welding of plates, as in Fig. 3-34(a). Clips are welded to the edge of one plate and wedges are driven under the clips to force the edges into alignment and to hold them during welding.

Fig. 3-34 Various strongback arrangements to control distortion during butt-welding.


Thermal Stress Relieving
Except in special situations, stress relief by heating is not used for correcting distortion. There are occasions, however, when stress relief is necessary to prevent further distortion from occurring before the weldment is finished.


Summary: A Checklist to Minimize Distortion

Follow this checklist in order to minimize distortion in the design and fabrication of weldments:

  • Do not overweld
  • Control fitup
  • Use intermittent welds where possible and consistent with design requirements
  • Use the smallest leg size permissible when fillet welding
  • For groove welds, use joints that will minimize the volume of weld metal. Consider double-sided joints instead of single-sided joints
  • Weld alternately on either side of the joint when possible with multiple-pass welds
  • Use minimal number of weld passes
  • Use low heat input procedures. This generally means high deposition rates and higher travel speeds
  • Use welding positioners to achieve the maximum amount of flat-position welding. The flat position permits the use of large-diameter electrodes and high-
      deposition-rate welding procedures
  • Balance welds about the neutral axis of the member
  • Distribute the welding heat as evenly as possible through a planned welding sequence and weldment positioning
  • Weld toward the unrestrained part of the member
  • Use clamps, fixtures, and strongbacks to maintain fitup and alignment
  • Prebend the members or preset the joints to let shrinkage pull them back into alignment
  • Sequence subassemblies and final assemblies so that the welds being made continually balance each other around the neutral axis of the section


Following these techniques will help minimize the effects of distortion and residual stresses.