What Is Malleability in Metal?

Blacksmith using a power hammer to shape hot steel in his workshop

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Malleability is a physical property of metals that defines their ability to be hammered, pressed, or rolled into thin sheets without breaking. In other words, it is the property of a metal to deform under compression and take on a new shape.

A metal's malleability can be measured by how much pressure (compressive stress) it can withstand without breaking. Differences in malleability among different metals are due to variances in their crystal structures.

Malleable Metals

On a molecular level, compression stress forces atoms of malleable metals to roll over each other into new positions without breaking their metallic bond. When a large amount of stress is put on a malleable metal, the atoms roll over each other and permanently stay in their new position.

Examples of malleable metals are:

Products made from these metals can demonstrate malleability as well, including gold leaf, lithium foil, and indium shot.

Malleability and Hardness

The crystal structure of harder metals, such as antimony and bismuth, makes it more difficult to press atoms into new positions without breaking. This is because the rows of atoms in the metal don't line-up.

In other words, more grain boundaries exist, which are areas where atoms are not as strongly connected. Metals tend to fracture at these grain boundaries. Therefore, the more grain boundaries a metal has, the harder, more brittle, and less malleable it will be.

Malleability vs. Ductility

While malleability is the property of a metal that allows it to deform under compression, ductility is the property of a metal that allows it to stretch without damage.

Copper is an example of a metal that has both good ductility (it can be stretched into wires) and good malleability (it can also be rolled into sheets).

While most malleable metals are also ductile, the two properties can be exclusive. Lead and tin, for example, are malleable and ductile when they are cold but become increasingly brittle when temperatures start rising towards their melting points.

Most metals, however, become more malleable when heated. This is due to the effect that temperature has on the crystal grains ​within ​metals.

Controlling Crystal Grains Through Temperature

Temperature has a direct effect on the behavior of atoms, and in most metals, heat results in atoms having a more regular arrangement. This reduces the number of grain boundaries, thereby making the metal softer or more malleable.

An example of temperature's effect on metals can be seen with zinc, which is a brittle metal below 300 degrees Fahrenheit (149 degrees Celsius). However, when it's heated above this temperature, zinc can become so malleable it can be rolled into sheets.

Cold working stands in contrast to heat treatment. This process involves rolling, drawing, or pressing a cold metal. It tends to result in smaller grains, making the metal harder.

Beyond temperature, alloying is another common method of controlling grain sizes to make metals more workable. Brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, is harder than both individual metals because its grain structure is more resistant to compression stress.