Hardnesses Steels: A comprehensive guide to choice

Understanding the hardnesses of steels is vital in the engineering industry and in selecting materials for a wide range of applications. “Hardness” in this context refers to a steel’s ability to resist plastic deformation, abrasion, penetration and shear. It varies greatly depending on the chemical composition of the steel and the heat or mechanical treatments to which it has been subjected.

hardnesses steels

Types of Testing to Measure the Hardness of Steels

Brinell hardness (HB):

Method: This test measures the impression left by a ball of tungsten carbide or hardened steel, with a precise diameter and load, on the surface of the steel.
Applications: It is widely used in heavy industry for non-heat-treated steels because of its ability to provide reliable results on homogeneous materials.

Rockwell hardness (HR):

Method: Measures the depth of penetration of an indenter (diamond cone or steel ball) under a defined load. The HRC (diamond cone indenter) scale is preferred for harder, heat-treated steels, while HRB is suitable for softer materials.
Advantages: The Rockwell test is faster and more versatile than the Brinell test, allowing a more practical and less destructive measurement.

Vickers hardness (HV):

Method: Similar to Brinell, but uses a diamond pyramid-shaped indenter with a variable load, allowing for greater accuracy, especially for thin materials or surface layers.
Versatility: Vickers is used for both micro and macro measurements, making it suitable for a wide range of steels, from the softest to the hardest.

Factors Affecting the Hardnesses of Steels

Chemical composition: The most influential element on hardness is carbon, but other elements such as chromium, vanadium, molybdenum, and tungsten can also significantly increase hardness.
Heat treatments: Quenching, followed by tempering, is the most common heat treatment to increase hardness. Carburization and nitriding are surface treatments that increase external hardness while maintaining a tough core.
Cold working: Work hardening, which occurs during cold plastic deformation, changes the crystalline structure of steel by increasing its hardness.

Hardness Classification of Steels

Based on hardness, steels can be classified into several categories:

Soft steels: Generally with a hardness below 140 HB. They are easy to machine and are found in applications where ductility is more important than wear resistance.
Medium-hard steels: With hardnesses between 140 and 200 HB, these steels are used in mechanical components that need a good balance between strength and toughness.
Hard steels: They exceed 200 HB and are typically used in cutting tools, tooling, and applications where wear resistance is critical.

Employment of the Hardnesses of Steels

Each hardness range finds its specific application in industry:

Low Hardness: Suitable for supporting structures, containers, and machinery components where workability and formability are required.
Medium Hardness: Used in gears, bearings, shafts, and machine parts where a good compromise between fatigue strength and ability to withstand moderate loads is needed.
High Hardness: Ideal for cutting tools, dies, punches and components subjected to high abrasive stress.

Standards and Specifications for Steel Hardnesses.

International standards such as ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) and ISO (International Organization for Standardization) establish precise methods and scales for measuring and classifying the hardness of steels. It is essential to refer to these standards to ensure consistency and comparability of results.

Practical Considerations in the Selection of Steel Hardnesses.

Selection of Measurement Method: The selection of the most appropriate method depends on the type of steel, its shape and size, and the required accuracy.
Balance between Hardness and Other Properties: Harder steel often results in lower toughness and higher brittleness. This aspect is crucial in steel selection, especially in applications subject to impact loads or extreme temperatures.
Cost and Machinability: Harder steels can be more expensive to produce and more difficult to machine. These factors must be balanced with the required mechanical performance.

Case Histories: Practical Examples of the Hardnesses of Steels

Construction of Heavy Machinery:

Challenge: Create components that can withstand high wear and heavy loads.
Solution: Using high-hardness steels (over 200 HB), heat-treated to maximize wear and fatigue resistance. For example, hardened and tempered AISI 4140 steel has a hardness of up to 28-32 HRC, balancing strength and toughness.

Production of Cutting Tools:

Challenge: Maintain high sharpness of the cutting edge under continuous stress.
Solution: Tool steels such as A2 or D2 (with hardnesses between 55 and 62 HRC) were selected for their high wear and deformation resistance, with a good compromise between toughness and ability to maintain a sharp edge.

Automotive Sector:

Challenge: To produce security components, such as anti-intrusion bars in doors, that are both strong and flexible.
Solution: Use of low-alloy steels with a medium hardness (around 150-180 HB) that, after forming, are hardened to improve their impact resistance without losing too much in terms of ductility.

FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about Steel Hardnesses

Q: What is the main difference between Brinell, Rockwell and Vickers hardness measurement methods?

A: The Brinell method uses a sphere and measures the width of the impression left, which is ideal for homogeneous materials. Rockwell measures depth of penetration, being faster and less destructive, good for heat-treated steels. Vickers uses a pyramid-shaped penetrator, which is suitable for precise measurements on micro and macro scales.
Q: How does the chemical composition affect the hardness of steel?

A: Elements such as carbon, chromium, molybdenum and vanadium increase hardness by forming carbides in the material and changing the crystalline matrix of the steel. The higher the percentage of these elements, the harder the steel will be.
Q: Is it possible to increase the hardness of a steel after its production?

A: Yes, through heat treatments such as quenching (heating followed by rapid cooling) and tempering (heating to lower temperatures to eliminate residual stresses), or through machining such as cold hardening.
Q: How do you balance hardness with other properties such as toughness?

A: The balance between hardness and toughness is achieved mainly through chemical composition selection and heat treatment process. For example, a steel can be hardened to increase its hardness and then tempered to a temperature that allows it to recover the toughness needed for the specific application.
Q: Are harder steels always the best choice?

A: Not necessarily. Although increased hardness improves wear and cut resistance, it can also make steel more brittle. The choice depends on the specific application and the required balance between different properties, such as hardness, corrosion resistance, workability and cost.


The in-depth study of steel hardnesses reveals that the selection of steel type depends not only on the required hardness but on a complex balance of material properties, heat and mechanical treatments, and specific application requirements. Detailed understanding of how these factors interact enables designers and engineers to choose the optimal steel for each specific need, ensuring performance, safety and efficiency in various industries.

Thorough knowledge of the hardnesses of steels is essential for selecting the appropriate material in terms of performance, machinability, and cost. Considering the wide range of properties and applications of steels, an informed choice can make a difference in effectiveness and efficiency in many industries.

See. Chemical Nickel Treatment