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What Is Puddling?

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  • Written By: Adam Hill
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  • Last Modified Date: 22 September 2014
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Puddling is a metallurgical process which was used during the Industrial Revolution as a means of making iron and steel. It is used by subjecting pig iron or any other impure metal to intense heat and frequent stirring inside a furnace, and in the presence of oxidizing substances. This process frees the metal from some of its impurities, such as sulfur and carbon.

The process of puddling begins by preparing the furnace. While at a low temperature, the furnace is painted on the inside with iron oxides such as hematite. This step prevents molten iron from burning through. Scrap iron or cast iron is then added and heated until it melts at approximately 2,800°F (1,538°C). The liquid mixture is then hit with a strong current of air, using long bars with hooks at one end, called puddling bars. This helps oxygen react with the impurities in the liquid metal, which then form gases that escape from the furnace as exhaust.

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At this stage, more fuel is added to the furnace to raise its temperature. Once the mixture gets hot enough, carbon starts to burn off. Fuel must be added constantly at this step, because the burning off of the carbon raises the melting point of the metal. Once the carbon has mostly burned off, the metal is removed by the hooks on the end of the puddling bars. The metal then goes through the process of shingling, which expels leftover impurities, and closes any internal cracks in the cooling metal.

Puddling was one of several methods for producing iron that were developed in Europe during the 1700s. It has the distinction, however, of being the most successful method in the history of metallurgy for making pig iron into bar iron without using charcoal. Its success made possible the great expansion of iron production in Great Britain in the late 1800s, making the Industrial Revolution much more notable than it would have otherwise been.

The puddling process began to be obsolete as it was replaced by the Bessemer and Aston processes, which greatly reduced the cost and time requirements of making steel when compared to puddling. Puddling was also limited because it could only be done on a small scale, and could only be expanded by building more furnaces. Nevertheless, it represented a significant advance for its time in the field of metallurgy.

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gimbell
Post 4

@TheGraham - Don't they have vents for the exhaust to exit the furnace in puddling so that it doesn't end up right in the workers' faces? It sounds bad for it to go out into the air we breathe, but remember that once it disperses it dilutes so much that the particles end up isolated and probably aren't enough to hurt anybody.

Does anybody know if puddling is still practiced anywhere in the world in modern times? Maybe in some of the less developed countries?

TheGraham
Post 3

@SkittisH - Is puddling really that environmentally friendly? It may not use charcoal, but it does create exhaust -- exhaust filled with all of the impurities that have just been boiled out of the iron in the furnace!

The idea of inhaling metal particle impurities sounds extremely unpleasant. I wonder if anybody ever died or got direly ill from something like that back when puddling was the chosen method for iron production in England?

Metallurgy is historically not a very healthy or safe field to be in, which may be why as you noted, it's not often something kids want to be when they grow up. Parents are a lot less likely to tell their kid all about a job that might eventually kill them than they would about one of the typical sought-after jobs for kids, like being a doctor or a car mechanic.

SkittisH
Post 2

@malmal - Puddling may not make huge batches, but I think it's an efficient method for making iron because it doesn't seem to require many different substances or fancy equipment to work. Maybe some "back to basics" with smaller-scale batches of higher-quality materials instead of mass=produced cheap materials is what we need in this day and age.

We've gotten used to (and spoiled on) big-batch mass-produced things like metal products, so now we've got to get some kind of environmentally aware production going that can sustain the huge demands we've created for ourselves.

That's my two cents. Metallurgy is an extremely necessary field that doesn't often get much credit. How often do you hear a kid say "I'm going to be a metallurgist when I grow up"?

malmal
Post 1

When I read about processes like this, I have to stop and wonder who first thought of the idea. I mean, did somebody just sit up one day and go, "We should coat the furnace walls with hematite! That'll stop that pesky melting!"?

It's cool that puddling works to convert pig iron into bar iron without needing to use any charcoal -- too bad we couldn't figure out a larger-scale version of that so that we didn't have to use coal and charcoal in the modern day either.

Actually, I don't know, do we still use charcoal for metallurgy? At any rate, puddling was probably one of the more environmentally friendly things performed during the Industrial Revolution.

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