Hardenability is the ability of a steel to partially or completely transform from austenite to some fraction of martensite at a given depth below the surface, when cooled under a given condition. For example, a steel of a high hardenability can transform to a high fraction of martensite to depths of several millimetres under relatively slow cooling, such as an oil quench, whereas a steel of low hardenability may only form a high fraction of martensite to a depth of less than a millimetre, even under rapid cooling such as a water quench. Hardenability therefore describes the capacity of the steel to harden in depth under a given set of conditions.
Steels with high hardenability are needed for large high strength components, such as large extruder screws for injection moulding of polymers, pistons for rock breakers, mine shaft supports, aircraft undercarriages, and also for small high precision components such as die-casting moulds, drills and presses for stamping coins. High hardenability allows slower quenches to be used (e.g. oil quench), which reduces the distortion and residual stress from thermal gradients.
Steels with low hardenability may be used for smaller components, such as chisels and shears, or for surface hardened components such as gears.
Hardenability can be measured using the Jominy end quench test.