Grain refinement and the avoidance of columnar solidification is a great challenge in the deep penetration laser welds of thick-section steels. Further knowledge about the heat distribution and the temperature gradients in laser welds is vital for future attempts on the grain refinement of such welds. In this study, a comparative investigation was carried out for full and partial penetration hybrid laser welding of structural steel. The transient temperature distribution and temperature gradients were calculated for the experiments using a simplified three-dimensional finite element analysis. A comparative analysis was presented to investigate the influence of penetration mode on the temperature gradient in the liquid at different weld depths. The results of the numerical analysis suggested that, for given welding process parameters, full penetration welds have lower temperature gradients at the solidification front, meaning that they potentially have a higher chance of grain refinement, compared with partial penetration welds.