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What is Metallography? (A Complete Guide)


Metallography is the study of the physical microstructure of metals and alloys, often via microscopy. Metallographic analysis is essential for understanding the mechanical properties of materials, including their grain size, crystal structure, and the presence of any defects such as cracks or non-metallic inclusions. Metallography plays a crucial role in many fields, including aerospace engineering, automotive engineering, and industrial manufacturing.

The processinvolves the mechanical preparation of specimens for analysis using various methods, such as grinding, polishing, and etching. This preparation typically involves cutting a specimen into slices and polishing these sections ready for examination under a microscope. This creates a highly magnified image so that the microstructure can be studied in detail, allowing for analysis to interpret the results.

 Metallography is an important tool for understanding metals and their properties. It helps engineers design better products by providing an insight into how different metals behave under different conditions. It also helps manufacturers ensure that their products meet quality standards by identifying any defects or inconsistencies before the materials are used in production.


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How Does it Work?

Metallography works from the principle that the microstructure of a metal or alloy can be revealed through careful specimen preparation and analysis using techniques such as light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy (SEM), or X-ray diffraction.

The specimen preparation process involves cutting, mounting, grinding, polishing, and etching the metal or alloy to produce a thin, flat surface that can be analysed under a microscope to identify the composition and structure of metals.

Once the specimen has been prepared, there are several different metallographic techniques that can be used to assess the microstructure.

The most common method is light microscopy in brightfield (BF) mode, although there are a range of other metallographic techniques available including darkfield illumination, differential interference contrast (DIC), and colour etching, as follows:

1. Brightfield (BF) Illumination:

This simple yet effective technique uses light from the top of a microscope to illuminate the specimen. This light is reflected from the sample and picked up for observation by an eyepiece or camera

2. Darkfield (DF) Microscopy:

This less well-known technique involves the specimen being illuminated indirectly, creating a lower intensity of light that makes it easier to see minor imperfections

3. Differential Interference Contrast (DIC):

This technique examines height differences on the specimen surface using a prism, polariser and an analyser

4. Colour Etching:

Colour etching involves the application of tint etchants to a specimen. Applied chemically or electrochemically, these etchants create a thin film on the surface of a specimen onto which light from a microscope is reflected to reveal additional microstructural features

 Polarised Light microscopy and differential interference contrast can both be used for quantitative metallography.


The field of metallography has its roots in the mid-19th Century, having been pioneered by scientist Henry Clifton Sorby. Sorby, who was born in Woodburne near Sheffield on 10 May 1826, was an English microscopist and geologist who developed a method for the study of the microscopic structure of rocks and minerals, later called petrography. He also discovered that the properties of metals and alloys could be related to microstructure constituents, such as grain size and non-metallic inclusions.


Metallography can be broken down into three main types – optical metallography, scanning metallography and X-ray diffraction metallography.

Each of these types of metallography has its own advantages and limitations, meaning that they are best suited to different applications.

The most common preparation method is optical metallography, which uses light microscopy to examine specimens. Scanning electron metallography offers a higher level of magnification and resolution, making it useful for analysing surface features and interfaces, while X-ray diffraction metallography is used to analyse the crystal structure of metals and alloys.


The advantages of metallography include being able to deliver accurate and reproducible results for the evaluation of the quality, capacity, and reproducibility of metals and alloys. Cost-effective to perform, it requires only basic equipment, making it accessible to a wide range of industries and applications.

 Metallography helps to determine if a material has been processed correctly, identify any material defects or flaws, and assess its suitability for a range of applications. It also evidences material properties like corrosion resistance, ductility, hardness, and strength.

These results can optimise component design and improve performance and reliability, while also playing an important role in failure analysis by helping engineers to identify potential causes of failure.  


The main disadvantage of metallography is that it can be time-consuming, especially when preparing complex or large specimens.

It also requires a high level of skill and expertise to ensure that specimens are processed correctly ahead of examination.

Lack of automation can also be a limitation, as it can be challenging to analyse large quantities of specimens.


Metallography is used in many fields, including aerospace engineering, automotive engineering, and industrial manufacturing. It is used to determine microstructural characteristics, analyse the composition of alloys, evaluate stress corrosion cracking, detect porosity, and assess the quality of welds.

It is also used to study ancient metals to determine their composition and structure. Metallography can be used to determine how metals will behave under different conditions or when exposed to certain elements.

Used for quality control and failure analysis in a range of industries, metallography also shows how materials will perform under certain conditions or when exposed to certain elements, allowing for the design of more reliable products with improved performance characteristics.


Metallography can be used for a range of applications from detecting non-metallic inclusions in cast iron, to analysing grain composition in a solid solution and assessing weld quality. Some common uses for metallography include:

  • Corrosion Analysis: The microstructure of metals and alloys can be examined using metallography following exposure to corrosive environments in order to determine the cause and extent of corrosion damage
  • Failure Analysis: The microstructure of failed alloy or metal components can be examined with metallography to determine a potential root cause for the failure and to prevent further failures
  • Grain Structure Analysis: The mechanical properties of alloys and metals, such as strength, can be assessed by using metallography to examine the material grain size and distribution
  • Heat Treatment Analysis: Using metallography following heat treatment allows you to assess a metal or alloy microstructure for anything that could impact mechanical properties or performance
  • Phase Identification: Metallography can identify the different phases that are present in an alloy or metal, providing information on properties and behaviour
  • Weld Analysis: Metallography for weld analysis by examining the microstructure for indicators of strength and failure modes


Metallography is a useful tool for understanding the microstructure and mechanical properties of alloys and metals. It is a cost-effective method, used in a range of industries, that provides accurate, reliable and reproducible results that can be used to determine material properties and performance under different conditions such as pressures and temperatures.

Metallography can be used to help optimise designs as well as detect defects and determine the causes of failures.


What is the difference between metallography and metallurgy?

Although they are closely related fields, there is a distinct different between metallography and metallurgy. Metallurgy is the study of the physical and chemical properties of metals and alloys, while metallography is the study of their microstructure.

While metallurgy is concerned with the science and technology behind extracting metals from ores before refining them and preparing them for use, metallography is used to gain information on the properties and behaviour of metals.

What are the benefits of metallography?

Metallography provides a detailed understanding of the microstructure and mechanical properties of metals and alloys. This information is essential for evaluating their performance and reliability in different applications.

What kind of equipment is needed for metallography?

Basic equipment for metallography includes a cutting machine, a polishing machine, and a microscope, although additional equipment may be required depending on the specific application.

What are some common metallographic techniques?

Common metallographic techniques include optical microscopy, scanning electron microscopy, X-ray diffraction, and differential interference contrast (DIC) microscopy.

What industries use metallography?

Metallography is used in a wide range of industries, ranging from aerospace and automotive engineering to industrial manufacturing and materials science.

What are some challenges in metallography?

The primary challenges in metallography involve the preparation of large or complex specimens, ensuring that specimens are processed correctly, and analysing large quantities of specimens.

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