The Hendrix Group Reporter

May 13, 1998 (Vol. VIII No. 2)

Maximum hardness questioned for fasteners in atmospheric service

(reprinted from Materials Performance, Vol. 37, No. 5.)


I have three comments regarding statements made on p. 55 of the article, "Hydrogen Embrittlement of High-Strength Fasteners in Atmospheric Service," by David E. Hendrix (December 1997 MP, p. 54-56).

First, socket head capscrews do not only "have a minimum hardness requirement instead of a maximum." Paragraph 7.1 of ASTM A 574-92a specifies a Rockwell hardness C (HRC) range of 39 to 45, or 37 to 45 HRC for 0.625-in, diameter and larger.

Second, the references apparently got scrambled in editing. It is stated that fasteners made to specifications in references 6 through 9 should be resistant to hydrogen embrittlement (HE). Fasteners made to references 7 through 10 should be resistant to HE cracking in most atmospheric applications; reference 6 is to ASTM A 574, which may crack.

Third, it is stated that "insufficient field data points are available to recommend a maximum hardness for fasteners in atmospheric service." In fact, for low-alloy steels, the upper limit of 38 HRC for ASTM A 490 structural bolts (and very similar 39 HRC for automotive bolts in SAE J429 Grade 8 and J1199 Class 10.9) is about as well based on field data as the 22 HRC upper limit in NACE MRO175 for sour service.

Blake1 points out that "Extensive research, coupled with highly unfortunate field experience, has shown that unless exceptional precautionary steps are taken during manufacture, products of hardness higher than C39 have an unacceptably high susceptibility to stress embrittlement." However, he does not include literature references to support this statement. Two large studies were done on structural bolts after field failures were encountered. Boyd & Hyler2conducted a combination of lab and field tests that led to the recommended 170 ksi (~1,200 kPa) tensile strength limit (equivalent to 38 HRC) for ASTM A 490 bolts. Kanao3 reported the results of another study involving more than 8 years of field tests. Hughel4 analyzed field failures of SAE J1199 Class 12.8 bolts (39 to 44 HRC), which led to a recall of more than 5 million vehicles. This grade did not reappear in the 1983 revision of the standard.


  1. A. Blake, What Every Engineer Should Know About Threaded Fasteners, Materials and Design (New York, NY: Marcel Dekker, 1986), p. 73.
  2. W.K. Boyd, WS. Hyler, "Factors Affecting Environmental Performance of High-Strength Bolts," American Society of Civil Engineers, J. Structural Division 99(1973): p. 1,571.1,588.
  3. M. Kanao, "Delayed Fracture of High-Strength Bolts--Technical Sub-committee Report, Society of Steel Construction of Japan," Transactions of the Iron and Steel Institute of Japan 22 (1982): p. 462-477.
  4. T.J. Hughel, ASM Handbook, 9th ed., Fractography, Vol. 12 (Materials Park, OH: ASM International), p. 248.

Richard I. Garber
SEAL Laboratories
250 North Nash Street
El Segundo, CA 90245-4529


First, I want to thank Richard Garber for taking the time to read the subject article and provide his welcome feedback. I originally wrote the article in an effort to increase the technical and end-user communities' awareness of the dangers of HE failures of high-strength fasteners in atmospheric service. It is my belief that the risk of equipment failure and human injury from long-term HE failures of atmospheric-service fasteners is less appreciated in the chemical/refining industry than in other industries, such as automotive.

Dr. Garber made three comments regarding perceived inaccuracies in the article, which I address as follows:

Comment 1: Regarding the hardness limits for ASTM A 574 capscrews, Dr. Garber is correct. A 574 capscrews have a minimum and a maximum hardness limit (39 to 45 HRC). The practical significance of the distinction, however, is minimal, as A 574 fasteners may crack at their specified minimum hardness range.

Comment 2: Again, Dr. Garber is correct and the reference inaccuracies are important to clear up. The numbered references were inadvertently offset by one when a reference was added during article revisions. The correct references to fastener specifications that should be resistant to HE are 7 through 9. References 3 through 6 refer to fastener specifications where HE might be anticipated.

Comment 3: This comment refers to an unfortunate choice of wording. The sentence was meant to refer to my personal experience data points. Also, there was a reluctance to recommend an absolute upper hardness limit based on the litigious society we are living in. Dr. Garber stated that, in his opinion, an upper limit of 38 HRC to prevent HE of ASTM 490 fasteners (and a similar hardness limit for other low-alloy fasteners) was as well based on field data as the 22 HRC limit in MRO1-75 for sour service. I might argue whether published field data regarding upper hardness limits for low-alloy fasteners is as extensive as field and laboratory MRO175 data; however, I will not debate that point.

I do believe that, within a HRC unit or two, Dr. Garber's stated upper limit of 38 HRC is a reasonable one for low-alloy steels. However, in the article I was not confining my comments to low-alloy steels. Table I referred to a data point for HE of a 17-4 pH stainless steel (SS) fastener at 35 HRC. Also, I think it inadvisable to place excessive emphasis on 38 HRC as an absolute upper limit, based on his cited references. His reference 3, where he appears to have obtained the 38 HRC limit, was based on laboratory and field testing where material strength was reported in kg/mm2units. The 38 HRC value was apparently converted from HE resistance vs. tensile strength data. As the tensile strength to hardness conversion is an approximate one (~2%), his 38 HRC could actually range from 37 to 39 HRC. My preference is to state that a reasonable safe upper hardness limit for low-alloy steel fasteners to prevent HE is 36 HRC +-2. This limit also is intended to apply to properly manufactured fasteners that have uniform material properties and minimal nonmetallic inclusions. I cannot state an accurate limit for precipitation hardening SS fasteners. Perhaps other MP readers will write to share their experiences. The important point to be gained from the article is that fastener specifiers should be aware of the HE cracking phenomena and not specify fastener strength any higher than is needed.

I want to again thank Dr. Garber for taking the time to submit his comments about the article. They have acted not only to make the article more technically accurate, but I hope they also have stimulated interest in the subject and will generate comments from other readers. I suspect that many atmospheric-service fasteners have experienced HE and have gone undiagnosed or unreported.

David Hendrix
The Hendrix Group, Inc.
15823 N. Barkers Landing
Houston, TX 77079


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