Fasteners are manufactured in a wide range of materials from common steel to titanium, plastic and other exotic materials. Many materials are further separated into different grades to describe specific alloy mixtures, hardening processes, etc. In addition, some materials are available with a variety of coatings or platings to enhance the corrosion resistance or alter the appearance of the fastener.
Fastener material can be important when choosing a fastener due to differences between materials in strength, brittleness, corrosion resistance, galvanic corrosion properties and, of course, cost.
When replacing fasteners, it is generally best to match what you are replacing. Replacing a bolt with a stronger one is not always safe. Harder bolts tend to be more brittle and may fail in specific applications. Also some equipment is designed so that the bolts will fail before more expensive or critical items are damaged. In some environments, such as salt water, galvanic corrosion must also be considered if changing fastener materials.
Stainless steel is an alloy of low carbon steel and chromium for enhanced corrosion characteristics. Stainless steel is highly corrosion resistant for the price. Because the anti-corrosive properties are inherent to the metal, it will not lose this resistance if scratched during installation or use.
It is a common misconception that stainless steel is stronger than regular steel. In fact, due to their low carbon content, many stainless steel alloys cannot be hardened through heat treatment. Therefore, when compared to regular steel, the stainless alloys used in bolts are slightly stronger than an un-hardened (grade 2) steel but significantly weaker than hardened steel fasteners. Unless great care is taken, stainless fasteners are susceptible to seizing up during installation, a phenomenon known as galling.
- 18-8 Stainless
- 18-8 refers to any stainless steel containing approximately 18% chromium and 8% nickel. This is the most common stainless designation for hardware.
- Stainless 316
- A highly corrosion resistant grade of stainless steel. Ideal in salt water and chlorine environments. More expensive than 18-8.
- Stainless 410
- A stainless alloy that is harder than 18-8 stainless steel, but not as resistant to corrosion.
Most stainless steel fasteners are much less magnetic than regular steel fasteners though some grades will be slightly magnetic.
Steel is the most common fastener material. Steel fasteners are available plain as well as with various surface treatments such as zinc plating, galvanization, and chrome plating.
Steel fasteners are commonly available in 4 grades: Grade 2, Grade 5, Grade 8, and Alloy Steel. Many other grades exist but are used far less often. Grade 2, 5, and 8 are usually plated with a slightly blue-ish or yellow zinc coating, or are galvanized, to resist corrosion.
Determining Bolt Grade
Bolts are typically marked on the head to show what grade bolt they are. For a list of the most common grade markings see our Material Grade Identification and Properties Chart. Note that, in addition to the grade marking, many bolts also have a manufacturer’s mark.
Silicon bronze, often referred to simply as bronze, is an alloy made mostly of copper and tin with a small amount of silicon. Bronze is used primarily in marine environments. It is preferred over stainless in wooden boat construction and re-fastening due to its superior corrosion resistance, and over brass due to its higher strength. Bronze is similar to copper in color and is also sometimes seen in fine woodworking where it is used for its appearance. The main drawback of bronze is its high cost.
Brass is an alloy of primarily copper and zinc. Brass is highly corrosion resistant and electrically conductive. However, its use as a fastener is somewhat limited due to its relative softness. It is used primarily for its appearance.
Aluminum is a light, soft, corrosion resistant metal. Like stainless steel, aluminum’s corrosion resistance is inherent to the material. Therefore, scratches and nicks will not effect the corrosion resistance.
Fasteners are made from a variety of aluminum alloys, with elements such as manganese, silicon, iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, and silicon being added to increase strength and melting point.
Rivets are often made from aluminum alloys in the 5000-series, which uses magnesium as the primary alloying element.
Many steel fasteners are electroplated with zinc for better corrosion resistance. Fasteners that have been zinc plated have a shiny, silvery or golden appearance, referred to as clear or yellow zinc respectively. They are fairly corrosion resistant but will rust if the coating is destroyed or if exposed to a marine environment.
Galvanizing is another coating involving the application of a layer of zinc. Hot dip galvanizing puts the thickest possible coating on the metal, resulting in superior corrosion resistance. Due to the thickness of the coating hot dipped galvanized bolts are not compatible with other nuts. Galvanized nuts are tapped slightly larger than other nuts to accommodate this coating.
Hot dipped galvanized fasteners are frequently used outdoors, especially in coastal environments.
Fasteners are chrome plated and polished for appearance. Chrome plating provides similar corrosion resistance to zinc plating. The main drawback of polished chrome is its high cost. If more corrosion resistance is required, stainless steel may be chrome plated, preventing any corrosion should the chrome be penetrated.