Different techniques are used to quantify material characteristics at smaller scales. Measuring mechanical properties for materials, for instance, of thin films, can not be done using conventional uniaxial tensile testing. As a result, techniques testing material "hardness" by indenting a material with a very small impression have been developed to determine to estimate these properties.
Hardness measurements quantify the resistance of a material to plastic deformation. Indentation hardness tests compose the majority of processes used to determine material hardness, and can be divided into two classes: microindentation and macroindentation tests. Microindentation tests typically have forces less than 2 N (0.45 lbf). Hardness, however, cannot be considered to be a fundamental material property. Classical hardness testing usually creates a number which can be used to provide a relative idea of material properties.As such, hardness can only offer a comparative idea of the material's resistance to plastic deformation since different hardness techniques have different scales.
The main sources of error with indentation tests are poor technique, poor calibration of the equipment, and the strain hardening effect of the process. However, it has been experimentally determined through "strainless hardness tests" that the effect is minimal with smaller indentations.
Surface finish of the part and the indenter do not have an effect on the hardness measurement, as long as the indentation is large compared to the surface roughness. This proves to be useful when measuring the hardness of practical surfaces. It also is helpful when leaving a shallow indentation, because a finely etched indenter leaves a much easier to read indentation than a smooth indenter.
The indentation that is left after the indenter and load are removed is known to "recover", or spring back slightly. This effect is properly known as shallowing. For spherical indenters the indentation is known to stay symmetrical and spherical, but with a larger radius. For very hard materials the radius can be three times as large as the indenter's radius. This effect is attributed to the release of elastic stresses. Because of this effect the diameter and depth of the indentation do contain errors. The error from the change in diameter is known to be only a few percent, with the error for the depth being greater.
Another effect the load has on the indentation is the piling-up or sinking-in of the surrounding material. If the metal is work hardened it has a tendency to pile up and form a "crater". If the metal is annealed it will sink in around the indentation. Both of these effects add to the error of the hardness measurement.
The equation based definition of hardness is the pressure applied over the contact area between the indenter and the material being tested. As a result hardness values are typically reported in units of pressure, although this is only a "true" pressure if the indenter and surface interface is perfectly flat.
The term "macroindentation" is applied to tests with a larger test load, such as 1 kgf or more. There are various macroindentation tests, including
- Vickers hardness test (HV), which has one of the widest scales. Widely used to test hardness of all kinds of metal materials (steel, nonferrous metals, tinsel, cemented carbide, sheet metal, etc.); surface layer / coating (Carburization, nitriding, decarburization layer, surface hardening layer, galvanized coating, etc.).
- Brinell hardness test (HB) BHN and HBW are widely used
- Knoop hardness test (HK), for measurement over small areas, widely used to test glass or ceramic material.
- Janka hardness test, for wood
- Meyer hardness test
- Rockwell hardness test (HR), principally used in the USA. HRA, HRB and HRC scales are most widely used.
- Shore hardness test, for polymers, widely used in rubbler industrials.[
- Barcol hardness test, for composite materials.
There is, in general, no simple relationship between the results of different hardness tests. Though there are practical conversion tables for hard steels, for example, some materials show qualitatively different behaviors under the various measurement methods. The Vickers and Brinell hardness scales correlate well over a wide range, however, with Brinell only producing overestimated values at high loads.