Is Tungsten Carbide a Ceramic?

Is Tungsten Carbide a Metal or Ceramic?

Tungsten carbide possesses properties of both metals and ceramics, which leads to confusion about how to definitively classify it. There are reasonable arguments for categorizing tungsten carbide as either a metal, ceramic, or even a hybrid material.

Is Tungsten Carbide Considered a Ceramic?

Addressing the similarities between tungsten carbide and ceramics

As discussed above, tungsten carbide is similar to conventional ceramics in several key ways:

  • It has exceptional hardness and rigidity, with a Vickers hardness number in the same range as many ceramic materials.
  • It is manufactured by sintering powdered metals and carbon, which is analogous to how many ceramics are produced.
  • It displays brittleness under stress like ceramics, although not to the same degree.
  • Why there is confusion about whether Tungsten Carbide is a metal or ceramic

    Despite the similarities with ceramics, there is still debate over tungsten carbide's classification because it does have some properties in common with metals:

  • It contains metallic elements like tungsten and is often bonded with cobalt, a metal.
  • It conducts electricity reasonably well unlike most ceramics.
  • It has some ductility and toughness unlike traditional brittle ceramics.

Tungsten Carbide vs. Traditional Ceramics


Like ceramics, tungsten carbide is an extremely hard material. Its Vickers hardness ranges from 1300 to 2200 HV, which puts it on par with or even above some ceramics. For example, alumina ceramics have a typical hardness around 2000 HV. The high hardness of tungsten carbide is one reason it gets classified as a ceramic.


Tungsten carbide is a brittle material, prone to chipping or cracking under impact forces, similar to ceramics. This brittleness comes from its intergranular structure and is one of the biggest differences from metals.

High Melting Point

Tungsten carbide has an extremely high melting point of about 2870°C, comparable to many ceramics. For example, alumina melts around 2050°C. This refractory property allows tungsten carbide and ceramics to withstand very high temperatures.

What was tungsten originally called?

Tungsten was originally known as wolfram. The name "wolfram" originated from the mineral wolframite, which is one of the main ores of tungsten. The word ""wolfram"" itself has an interesting history. It comes from the Swedish words ""wolf"" (meaning wolf) and ""ram"" (meaning foam), referring to the difficulties miners faced when extracting tungsten from the ore.

tungsten history

Tungsten Carbide vs. Metals


Tungsten carbide has an extremely high hardness rating, between 8-9 on the Mohs hardness scale. This is significantly harder than most metals, which tend to have Mohs hardness values between 2-4. For example, stainless steel has a hardness around 4-5. Tungsten carbide's extreme hardness makes it highly resistant to wear and abrasion.


In addition to hardness, tungsten carbide also has very high strength for its density. Its compressive strength can reach up to 6,000 MPa, compared to under 1,000 MPa for many alloy steels. This gives tungsten carbide components and tools made from it excellent durability under high mechanical stresses.

High Melting Point

Tungsten carbide has an extremely high melting point of around 2,800°C. This is much higher than traditional metals like steel or aluminum. Tungsten carbide's high melting point allows it to retain its strength and hardness properties at very high temperatures where metals would fail.

Tungsten Carbide as a Composite Material

Components of Tungsten Carbide

  • Tungsten metal - Provides hardness and high temperature resistance
  • Carbon - Combines with tungsten to form hard tungsten carbide particles
  • Cobalt or nickel binder - Holds tungsten carbide particles together and provides toughness
  • Manufacturing Process

  • Tungsten and carbon powders are mixed together
  • Powder mixture is pressed into shape and sintered at high temperature
  • Sintering fuses tungsten and carbon into tungsten carbide particles
  • Binder metal is infiltrated into the porous tungsten carbide mass
  • Final sintering fully densifies the composite structure
  • What Makes Tungsten Carbide Unique?

    Extreme Hardness

    With a hardness rating of 8.5-9 on the Mohs scale, tungsten carbide is one of the hardest materials known. It maintains its hardness at high temperatures, making it ideal for metal cutting and forming applications where other materials would wear away. Tungsten carbide's hardness comes from its interlocked tungsten carbide grains and cobalt binder.

    High Density

    Tungsten carbide has a density of 15.63 g/cm3, comparable to that of precious metals like gold. This high density allows tungsten carbide to be used for applications requiring weight and compactness like drill bits and armor-piercing ammunition.

    Corrosion Resistance

    The tungsten carbide structure provides excellent resistance to chemical attack and corrosion. Tungsten carbide maintains its strength and hardness in acidic and alkaline environments, making it suitable for use in the harshest industrial conditions.

    Tungsten Carbide: A Metal, Ceramic, or Both?

    Arguments for Classifying as a Metal

    Tungsten carbide shares some key traits with metals:

  • It has metallic luster and appearance.
  • It conducts electricity well.
  • It is extremely dense, with a density similar to precious metals like gold.
  • Arguments for Classifying as a Ceramic

    However, tungsten carbide also shares important properties with ceramics:

  • It is made up of a metal (tungsten) bonded with a non-metal (carbon), a key trait of ceramics.
  • It is very hard and rigid like conventional ceramics.
  • It maintains strength and stability at high temperatures.
  • The Classification of Carbides

    Key Properties of Tungsten Carbide

  • Extremely hard - high abrasion/wear resistance
  • High elasticity and rigidity
  • High compressive strength
  • Chemically stable
  • High melting point - retains properties at high temps
  • Comparison to Traditional Ceramics

    Unlike most ceramics, tungsten carbide has some key differences:

  • Higher toughness and impact resistance
  • Higher thermal conductivity
  • Lower electrical resistivity
  • Lower coefficient of thermal expansion
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