Working Magnesium

Warning: Keep magnesium particles away from sources of ignition. Small particles of magnesium burn very easily. In sufficient concentration, these small particles can cause an explosion. If water touches molten magnesium, a steam explosion could occur. Extinguish magnesium fires with dry talc, calcium carbonate, sand, or graphite. Apply the powder on the burning metal to a depth of 1⁄2-inch or more. Do not use foam, water, carbon tetrachloride, or carbon dioxide. Magnesium alloys must not touch methyl alcohol.

Magnesium is the world’s lightest structural metal. Like many other metals, this silvery-white element is not used in its pure state for stressed application. Instead, magnesium is alloyed with certain other metals (aluminum, zinc, zirconium, manganese, thorium, and rare earth metals) to obtain the strong, lightweight alloys needed for structural uses. When alloyed with these other metals, magnesium, yields alloys with excellent properties and high strengthto-weight ratios. Proper combination of these alloying constituents provide alloys suitable for sand, permanent mold and die castings, forging, extrusions, rolled sheet, and plate with good properties at room temperature, as well as at elevated temperatures.

Light weight is the best known characteristic of magnesium, an important factor in aircraft design. In comparison, aluminum weighs one and one half times more, iron and steel weigh four times more, and copper and nickel alloys weigh five times more. Magnesium alloys can be cut, drilled, and reamed with the same tools that are used on steel or brass, but the cutting edges of the tool must be sharp. Type B rivets (5056-F aluminum alloy) are used when riveting magnesium alloy parts. Magnesium parts are often repaired with clad 2024-T3 aluminum alloy.

While magnesium alloys can usually be fabricated by methods similar to those used on other metals, remember that many of the details of shop practice cannot be applied. Magnesium alloys are difficult to fabricate at room temperature; therefore, most operations must be performed at high temperatures. This requires preheating of the metal or dies, or both. Magnesium alloy sheets may be cut by blade shears, blanking dies, routers, or saws. Hand or circular saws are usually used for cutting extrusions to length. Conventional shears and nibblers should never be used for cutting magnesium alloy sheet because they produce a rough, cracked edge.

Shearing and blanking of magnesium alloys require close tool tolerances. A maximum clearance of 3 to 5 percent of the sheet thickness is recommended. The top blade of the shears should be ground with an included angle of 45° to 60ยบ. The shear angle on a punch should be from 2° to 3°, with a 1° clearance angle on the die. For blanking, the shear angle on the die should be from 2° to 3° with a 1° clearance angle on the punch. Hold-down pressures should be used when possible. Cold shearing should not be accomplished on a hard-rolled sheet thicker than 0.064-inch or annealed sheet thicker than 1⁄8-inch. Shaving is used to smooth the rough, flaky edges of a magnesium sheet that has been sheared. This operation consists of removing approximately 1⁄32-inch by a second shearing.

Hot shearing is sometimes used to obtain an improved sheared edge. This is necessary for heavy sheet and plate stock. Annealed sheet may be heated to 600 °F, but hardrolled sheet must be held under 400 °F, depending on the alloy used. Thermal expansion makes it necessary to allow for shrinkage after cooling, which entails adding a small amount of material to the cold metal dimensions before fabrication.

Sawing is the only method used in cutting plate stock more than 1⁄2-inch thick. Bandsaw raker-set blades of 4- to 6-tooth pitch are recommended for cutting plate stock or heavy extrusions. Small and medium extrusions are more easily cut on a circular cutoff saw having six teeth per inch. Sheet stock can be cut on handsaws having raker-set or straight-set teeth with an 8-tooth pitch. Bandsaws should be equipped with nonsparking blade guides to eliminate the danger of sparks igniting the magnesium alloy filings.

Cold working most magnesium alloys at room temperature is very limited, because they work harden rapidly and do not lend themselves to any severe cold forming. Some simple bending operations may be performed on sheet material, but the radius of bend must be at least 7 times the thickness of the sheet for soft material and 12 times the thickness of the sheet for hard material. A radius of 2 or 3 times the thickness of the sheet can be used if the material is heated for the  forming operation.

Since wrought magnesium alloys tend to crack after they are cold-worked, the best results are obtained if the metal is heated to 450 °F before any forming operations are attempted. Parts formed at the lower temperature range are stronger because the higher temperature range has an annealing effect on the metal.

The disadvantages of hot working magnesium are:
  1. Heating the dies and the material is expensive and troublesome.
  2. There are problems in lubricating and handling materials at these temperatures.
The advantages to hot working magnesium are:
  1. It is more easily formed when hot than are other metals.
  2. Spring-back is reduced, resulting in greater dimensional accuracy.
When heating magnesium and its alloys, watch the temperature carefully as the metal is easily burned. Overheating also causes small molten pools to form within the metal. In either case, the metal is ruined. To prevent burning, magnesium must be protected with a sulfur dioxide atmosphere while being heated.

Proper bending around a short radius requires the removal of sharp corners and burrs near the bend line. Layouts should be made with a carpenter’s soft pencil because any marring of the surface may result in fatigue cracks.

Press brakes can be used for making bends with short radii. Die and rubber methods should be used where bends are to be made at right angles, which complicate the use of a brake. Roll forming may be accomplished cold on equipment designed for forming aluminum. The most common method of forming and shallow drawing of magnesium is to use a rubber pad as the female die. This rubber pad is held in an inverted steel pan that is lowered by a hydraulic press ram. The press exerts pressure on the metal and bends it to the shape of the male die.

The machining characteristics of magnesium alloys are excellent, making possible the use of maximum speeds of the machine tools with heavy cuts and high feed rates. Power requirements for machining magnesium alloys are about one-sixth of those for mild steel.

Filings, shavings, and chips from machining operations should be kept in covered metal containers because of the danger of combustion. Do not use magnesium alloys in liquid deicing and water injection systems or in the integral fuel tank areas.