Mixing epoxy resin and hardener begins a chemical reaction that transforms the combined liquid ingredients to a solid. The time it takes for this transformation is the cure time. As it cures, the epoxy passes from the liquid state, through a gel state, before it reaches a solid state (Figure 1).
As it cures, mixed epoxy pass from a liquid state, through a gel state, to a solid state.
A new application of epoxy will no longer chemically link to it, so the surface of the epoxy must be properly prepared and sanded before recoating to achieve a good mechanical, secondary bond. See Surface Preparation
Open time and cure time govern much of the activity of building and repairing with epoxy. Open time dictates the time available for mixing, application, smoothing, shaping, assembly and clamping. Cure time dictates how long you must wait before removing clamps, or before you can sand or go on to the next step in the project. Two factors determine an epoxy mixture's open time and overall cure time-hardener cure speed and epoxy temperature.
Each hardener has an ideal temperature cure range. At any given temperature, each resin/hardener combination will go through the same cure stages, but at different rates. Select the hardener that gives you adequate working time for the job you are doing at the temperature and conditions you are working under. The product guide and container labels describe hardener pot lives and cure times.
Pot life is a term used to compare the cure speeds of different hardeners. It is the amount of time a specific mass of mixed resin and hardener remains a liquid at a specific temperature. (A 100g-mass mixture in a standard container, at 72°F). Because pot life is a measure of the cure speed of a specific contained mass (volume) of epoxy rather than a thin film, a hardener's pot life is much shorter than its open time.
The warmer the temperature of curing epoxy, the faster it cures (Figure 1). The temperature of curing epoxy is determined by the ambient temperature plus the exothermic heat generated by its cure.
Ambient temperature is the temperature of the air or material in contact with the epoxy. Air temperature is most often the ambient temperature unless the epoxy is applied to a surface with a different temperature. Generally, epoxy cures faster when the air temperature is warmer.
Exothermic heat is produced by the chemical reaction that cures epoxy. The amount of heat produced depends on the thickness or exposed surface area of mixed epoxy. In a thicker mass, more heat is retained, causing a faster reaction and more heat. The mixing container's shape and the mixed quantity have a great affect on this exothermic reaction. A contained mass of curing epoxy (8 fl. oz. or more) in a plastic mixing cup can quickly generate enough heat to melt the cup and burn your skin. However, if the same quantity is spread into a thin layer, exothermic heat is dissipated, and the epoxy's cure time is determined by the ambient temperature. The thinner the layer of curing epoxy, the less it is affected by exothermic heat, and the slower it cures.
In warm conditions use a slower hardener, if possible. Mix smaller batches that can be used up quickly, or pour the epoxy mixture into a container with greater surface area (a roller pan, for example), thereby allowing exothermic heat to dissipate and extending open time. The sooner the mixture is transferred or applied (after thorough mixing), the more of the mixture's useful open time will be available for coating, lay-up or assembly.
In cool conditions use a faster hardener, or use supplemental heat to raise the epoxy temperature above the hardener's minimum recommended application temperature. Use a hot air gun, heat lamp or other heat source to warm the resin and hardener before mixing or after the epoxy is applied. At room temperature, supplemental heat is useful when a quicker cure is desired.
For detailed information on working with epoxy at low temperatures, refer to 002-915 Cold Temperature Bonding and Coating with Epoxy.
CAUTION! Heating epoxy that has not gelled will lower its viscosity, allowing the epoxy to run or sag more easily on vertical surfaces. In addition, heating epoxy applied to a porous substrate (softwood or low-density core material) may cause the substrate to "out-gas" and form bubbles in the epoxy coating. To avoid out-gassing, wait until the epoxy coating has gelled before warming it. Never heat mixed epoxy in a liquid state over 120°F (49°C).
Regardless of what steps are taken to control the cure time, thorough planning of the application and assembly will allow you to make maximum use of epoxy's open time and cure time.