Hardness Testing (HT)


The Metals Handbook defines hardness as "Resistance of metal to plastic deformation, usually by indentation. However, the term may also refer to stiffness or temper, or to resistance to scratching, abrasion, or cutting. It is the property of a metal, which gives it the ability to resist being permanently, deformed (bent, broken, or have its shape changed), when a load is applied. The greater the hardness of the metal, the greater resistance it has to deformation.

In mineralogy the property of matter commonly described as the resistance of a substance to being scratched by another substance. In metallurgy hardness is defined as the ability of a material to resist plastic deformation.

The dictionary of Metallurgy defines the indentation hardness as the resistance of a material to indentation. This is the usual type of hardness test, in which a pointed or rounded indenter is pressed into a surface under a substantially static load.


There are three types of tests used with accuracy by the metals industry; they are the Brinell hardness test, the Rockwell hardness test, and the Vickers hardness test. Since the definitions of metallurgic ultimate strength and hardness are rather similar, it can generally be assumed that a strong metal is also a hard metal. The way the three of these hardness tests measure a metal's hardness is to determine the metal's resistance to the penetration of a non-deformable ball or cone. The tests determine the depth which such a ball or cone will sink into the metal, under a given load, within a specific period of time. The followings are the most common hardness test methods used in today`s technology:

  1. Rockwell hardness test
  2. Brinell hardness
  3. Vickers
  4. Knoop hardness
  5. Shore

Brinell Hardness Test

Brinell hardness is determined by forcing a hard steel or carbide sphere of a specified diameter under a specified load into the surface of a material and measuring the diameter of the indentation left after the test. The Brinell hardness number, or simply the Brinell number, is obtained by dividing the load used, in kilograms, by the actual surface area of the indentation, in square millimeters. The result is a pressure measurement, but the units are rarely stated.

The Brinell hardness test uses a desk top machine to press a 10mm diameter, hardened steel ball into the surface of the test specimen. The machine applies a load of 500 kilograms for soft metals such as copper, brass and thin stock. A 1500 kilogram load is used for aluminum castings, and a 3000 kilogram load is used for materials such as iron and steel. The load is usually applied for 10 to 15 seconds. After the impression is made, a measurement of the diameter of the resulting round impression is taken. It is measured to plus or minus .05mm using a low-magnification portable microscope. The hardness is calculated by dividing the load by the area of the curved surface of the indention, (the area of a hemispherical surface is arrived at by multiplying the square of the diameter by 3.14159 and then dividing by 2). To make it easier, a calibrated chart is provided, so with the diameter of the indentation the corresponding hardness number can be referenced. A well structured Brinell hardness number reveals the test conditions, and looks like this, "75 HB 10/500/30" which means that a Brinell Hardness of 75 was obtained using a 10mm diameter hardened steel with a 500 kilogram load applied for a period of 30 seconds. On tests of extremely hard metals a tungsten carbide ball is substituted for the steel ball. Among the three hardness tests discussed, the Brinell ball makes the deepest and widest indentation, so the test averages the hardness over a wider amount of material, which will more accurately account for multiple grain structures, and any irregularities in the uniformity of the alloy.

The Brinell hardness test was one of the most widely used hardness tests during World War II. For measuring armour plate hardness the test is usually conducted by pressing a tungsten carbide sphere 10mm in diameter into the test surface for 10 seconds with a load of 3,000kg, then measuring the diameter of the resulting depression. The BHN is calculated according to the following formula:

BHN = the Brinell hardness number
     F = the imposed load in kg
     D = the diameter of the spherical indenter in mm
     Di = diameter of the resulting indenter impression in mm
Several BHN tests are usually carried out over an area of armour plate. On a typical plate each test would result in a slightly different number. This is due not only to minor variations in quality of the armour plate (even homogenous armour is not absolutely uniform) but also because the test relies on careful measurement of the diameter of the depression. Small errors in this measurement will lead to small variations in BHN values. As a result, BHN is usually quoted as a range of values (e.g. 210 to 245, or 210-245) rather than as a single value.

The BHN of face hardened armour uses a back slash ?\? to separate the value of the face hardened surface from the value of the rear face. For example, a BHN of 555\353-382 indicates the surface has a hardness of 555 and the rear face has a hardness of 353 to 382.

The Brinell Hardness Test described above is called? HB 10/3000 WC? and was the type of test used by the Germans in World War II. Other types of hardness tests use different materials for the sphere and/or different loads. Softer materials deform at high BHN which is why tungsten carbide (a very hard material) is used to measure armour plate. Even so, as the BHN goes above 650 the tungsten carbide ball begins to flatten out and the BHN values indicate a greater difference in hardness than there actually is, while above 739 the ball flattens out so badly that it cannot be used.

When there are widely different values for quoted BHN then the cause may be use of a Poldi Hardness Tester instead of the Brinell Hardness Test. The Poldi Hardness Tester is less accurate but could be used in the field. The Poldi Hardness Test has the advantage that the testing unit is portable, so measurements can be carried out in the field, e.g., on captured enemy vehicles after a battle. The Poldi portable unit relies on a hammer blow impression in a standardized sample. This test is much less accurate than the Brinell Hardness Test.

ASTM E-10 is a standard test for determining the Brinell hardness of metallic materials. The load applied in this test is usually 3,000, 1,500, or 500 kgf, so that the diameter of the indentation is in the range 2.5 to 6.0 mm. The load is applied steadily without a jerk. The full test load is applied for 10 to 15 seconds. Two diameters of impression at right angles are measured, and the mean diameter is used as a basis for calculating the Brinell hardness number (BHN), which is done using the conversion table given in the standard.