Surface Hardening vs. Through Hardening

In the world of heavy industrial maintenance steel, whether you call it Case Hardening, or, Surface Hardening, or, Skin Hardening, it is all the same thing. This is a localized method of hardening employed to develop a wear resistant surface while maintaining a somewhat ductile (shock resistant) core. With production items, such as gear teeth, this may be very fine tuned, sophisticated, accurately measurable. In maintenance, “one-off” items, it can be somewhat erratic and capable of surprise. If you are contemplating increasing the surface hardness of a piece of steel, please recognize that increasing the hardness, especially localized hardness, is also increasing the brittleness which subsequently increases the chances of facture. Wear appropriate safety gear. Any surprises may not be very forgiving. 

IN GENERAL, the two types of hardening are self-explanatory. A through hardened piece of steel is pretty much the same relative hardness from surface to core. Most common prehardened steels, carbon or alloy, are often shipped at a hardness of approx. 30RC. As the cross sections get larger, the hardness will “drop-off to core”. That is, as you get closer to the center of the mass, the hardness may drop a few points. Those are still considered to be Through Hardened. Surface hardened levels, typically those used in hydraulic applications, and precision automation rail applications, will be supplied with a very thin hardened surface “skin”, at about 60RC, with a great drop off in hardness toward core.

The surface hardened material provides great resistance to sliding abrasive wear while resisting bending and torque. The through hardened alloy or carbon material provides a good balance of toughness (a combination of wear, impact, and gouging resistance). The through hardened material makes no pretense to be particularly ductile. In fact, as through hardness increases, the potential for general fracture also increases.

Caution should be exercised when attempting to surface harden small cross sections. Even though your intent and processing method may be aimed at surface hardening, small cross sections cool rapidly. The rapid cooling may actually result in a through hardened condition with potentially dangerous brittle hardness.

-Howard Thomas, Nov 8th 2018

Bearing Quality Vs. Bearing Fit

Be careful, the two are often confused between end-user and vendor. They are not interchangeable. BEARING QUALITY refers to manufacturing restrictions that are employed, when the mill makes the steel. It is commonly referred to as “Clean Steel Production”. The processing refines the steel, removing non-metallic inclusions and generally improving the quality and core integrity of the steel. This is not something that can be achieved in subsequent processing; it either is bearing quality, or it isn’t.

BEARING FIT (TOLERANCE), is achieved by subsequent processing of a steel bar or shaft. You may accomplish this at any point prior to use of the bar; do-able on-site locally, or as a specification for subsequent processing accomplished at the mill. This, as stated, refers to the tolerance alone; making no statement in regards to the integrity nor the cleanliness of the material. Bearing Tolerance is referred to as a “minus/minus” tolerance, as opposed to a plus or minus tolerance.

Typically, and depending on diameter, the tolerance would be something like minus .001″ to minus .0015″

A NOTE ON EXPRESSING BAR TOLERANCES, it is common to hear bar tolerances specified as; “Plus nothing minus .002”, or whatever the downside tolerance is. To avoid potential problems, it is better to state both plus and minus terms with a specific decimal position. Make sure that both parties know how far out that “plus” side is carried. Is it measured to the third decimal place, or the fourth? Many “Plus Nothing” bars actually may only be measured to the third (thousandths) place which allows the bar to actually be a plus tolerance. Such as plus .0005″. Note that Bearing Fit or Bearing Tolerance insures a minus tolerance.

You may further avoid potential headaches by specifying the actual diameter wanted in terms of the actual decimal, both over and under (plus and minus), such as .2500″/.2495″.

Whether it is Bearing Quality or Bearing Fit, keep in mind that there may be an additional cost to obtain that benefit.

-Howard Thomas, Oct 18th 2018

Centerless vs. On-Center Grinding

Bar Grinding Centerless Vs. On-Centers – Second Part of Four Part Set

As we mentioned in our last blog; in the maintenance industry, if someone refers to grinding a steel shaft, they are most likely talking about “Centerless Grinding”. There is another method, however, and that method is called “On-Center Grinding”. A misunderstanding on which method is actually required usually results in expensive errors, and general unhappiness for all parties. Of the two types, centerless is by far the most common. So much so, that if you mention grinding a shaft, the mill or service center will assume you are discussing centerless grinding.

Centerless grinding tends to follow the outside diameter of the bar; think apple peeler. When the skin is off, you still have a recognizable apple; naked, but still looks like an apple. Grind an egg-shaped hot rolled bar, and you will have a precision finished egg. In the hands of an experienced grinding operator, many troubling issues may be corrected. Taking it to an art form, the right operator can minimize irregularities and even affect straightness; to a point. The standard in industry is centerless. So, unless specified, tolerances being discussed are taken to be based on centerless.

On-Center grinding, on the other hand, indexes on the center of both ends of the bar. The grinding head then machines the O.D. of the bar to be concentric with the I.D. (chucked up centering holes). If your bar is egg shaped, now, your ground bar will be concentric. If the bar is bent, the finished ground bar will be straight, depending on how bent it was and how much stock removal you are able to take. The roundness (concentricity) and the straightness come from the “On-Center” grinding. On center grinding requires more stock allowance “to-clean up” than centerless grinding. Where there are low spots, no stock will be removed. The on-center grinding operation will not only true up the diameter size, but, it will “machine” the bar into a true round and straight part. How do you avoid these potential problems if you are not aware of the intended grinding method? Qualify, Qualify, Qualify. If “finish size” is mentioned, ask about the grinding method. And remember; “If it doesn’t clean-up, whos wallet comes out?”

-Howard Thomas, September 5th 2018

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Howard Thomas

Howard Thomas


Sr. Acct. Mgr. (US Southwest) / Metallurgical Consultant
Associated Steel Corporation
Jan 2017 – Present

Past Vice President / General Manager
Associated Steel Corporation
Apr 1998 – Jan 2017

Past Vice President / General Manager
Baldwin International
Apr 1974 – Mar 1997


Cleveland State University
Kent State University
University of Denver