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Distortion - Types and causes

Dishing of the steel plate between longitudinal stiffeners can be seen clearly on the bow of this ship (Courtesy MOD)
Dishing of the steel plate between longitudinal stiffeners can be seen clearly on the bow of this ship (Courtesy MOD)

This article covers several key issues on distortion in arc welded fabrications, especially basic types of and factors affecting the degree of distortion.

What causes distortion?

Because welding involves highly localised heating of joint edges to fuse the material, non-uniform stresses are set up in the component because of expansion and contraction of the heated material. Initially, compressive stresses are created in the surrounding cold parent metal when the weld pool is formed due to the thermal expansion of the hot metal (heat affected zone) adjacent to the weld pool. However, tensile stresses occur on cooling when the contraction of the weld metal and the immediate heat affected zone is resisted by the bulk of the cold parent metal.


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The magnitude of thermal stresses induced into the material can be seen by the volume change in the weld area on solidification and subsequent cooling to room temperature. For example, when welding CMn steel, the molten weld metal volume will be reduced by approximately 3% on solidification and the volume of the solidified weld metal/heat affected zone (HAZ) will be reduced by a further 7% as its temperature falls from the melting point of steel to room temperature.

If the stresses generated from thermal expansion/contraction exceed the yield strength of the parent metal, localised plastic deformation of the metal occurs. Plastic deformation causes a permanent reduction in the component dimensions and distorts the structure.

What are the main types of distortion?

Distortion occurs in six main forms:

  • Longitudinal shrinkage
  • Transverse shrinkage
  • Angular distortion
  • Bowing and dishing
  • Buckling
  • Twisting

The principal features of the more common forms of distortion for butt and fillet welds are shown below:


Contraction of the weld area on cooling results in both transverse and longitudinal shrinkage.

Non-uniform contraction (through thickness) produces angular distortion in addition to longitudinal and transverse shrinkage.

For example, in a single V butt weld, the first weld run produces longitudinal and transverse shrinkage and rotation. The second run causes the plates to rotate using the first weld deposit as a fulcrum. Hence, balanced welding in a double side V butt joint can be used to produce uniform contraction and prevent angular distortion.

Similarly, in a single side fillet weld, non-uniform contraction produces angular distortion of the upstanding leg. Double side fillet welds can therefore be used to control distortion in the upstanding fillet but because the weld is only deposited on one side of the base plate, angular distortion will now be produced in the plate.

Longitudinal bowing in welded plates happens when the weld centre is not coincident with the neutral axis of the section so that longitudinal shrinkage in the welds bends the section into a curved shape. Clad plate tends to bow in two directions due to longitudinal and transverse shrinkage of the cladding; this produces a dished shape. Dishing is also produced in stiffened plating. Plates usually dish inwards between the stiffeners, because of angular distortion at the stiffener attachment welds (see main photograph).

In plating, long range compressive stresses can cause elastic buckling in thin plates, resulting in dishing, bowing or rippling.

Distortion due to elastic buckling is unstable: if you attempt to flatten a buckled plate, it will probably 'snap' through and dish out in the opposite direction.

Twisting in a box section is caused by shear deformation at the corner joints. This is caused by unequal longitudinal thermal expansion of the abutting edges. Increasing the number of tack welds to prevent shear deformation often reduces the amount of twisting.

How much shall I allow for weld shrinkage?

It is almost impossible to predict accurately the amount of shrinking. Nevertheless, a 'rule of thumb' has been composed based on the size of the weld deposit. When welding steel, the following allowances should be made to cover shrinkage at the assembly stage.

Transverse shrinkage

Fillet Welds 0.8mm per weld where the leg length does not exceed 3/4 plate thickness

Butt weld 1.5 to 3mm per weld for 60° V joint, depending on number of runs

Longitudinal shrinkage

Fillet Welds 0.8mm per 3m of weld

Butt Welds 3mm per 3m of weld

Increasing the leg length of fillet welds, in particular, increases shrinkage.

What are the factors affecting distortion?

If a metal is uniformly heated and cooled there would be almost no distortion. However, because the material is locally heated and restrained by the surrounding cold metal, stresses are generated higher than the material yield stress causing permanent distortion. The principal factors affecting the type and degree of distortion, are:

  • Parent material properties
  • Amount of restraint
  • Joint design
  • Part fit-up
  • Welding procedure

Parent material properties

Parent material properties which influence distortion are coefficient of thermal expansion and specific heat per unit volume. As distortion is determined by expansion and contraction of the material, the coefficient of thermal expansion of the material plays a significant role in determining the stresses generated during welding and, hence, the degree of distortion. For example, as stainless steel has a higher coefficient of expansion than plain carbon steel, it is more likely to suffer from distortion.


If a component is welded without any external restraint, it distorts to relieve the welding stresses. So, methods of restraint, such as 'strong-backs' in butt welds, can prevent movement and reduce distortion. As restraint produces higher levels of residual stress in the material, there is a greater risk of cracking in weld metal and HAZ especially in crack-sensitive materials.

Joint design

Both butt and fillet joints are prone to distortion. It can be minimised in butt joints by adopting a joint type which balances the thermal stresses through the plate thickness. For example, a double-sided in preference to a single-sided weld. Double-sided fillet welds should eliminate angular distortion of the upstanding member, especially if the two welds are deposited at the same time.

Part fit-up

Fit-up should be uniform to produce predictable and consistent shrinkage. Excessive joint gap can also increase the degree of distortion by increasing the amount of weld metal needed to fill the joint. The joints should be adequately tacked to prevent relative movement between the parts during welding.

Welding procedure

This influences the degree of distortion mainly through its effect on the heat input. As welding procedure is usually selected for reasons of quality and productivity, the welder has limited scope for reducing distortion. As a general rule, weld volume should be kept to a minimum. Also, the welding sequence and technique should aim to balance the thermally induced stresses around the neutral axis of the component.

The article was prepared by Bill Lucas in collaboration with Geert Verhaeghe and Rick Leggatt.

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