Cermet (WC-Co) coatings have been produced on steel substrates by plasma spraying in vacuum and in air. These have been examined microstructurally and characterised in terms of porosity content, stiffness, microhardness and abrasion resistance. Particular attention has been paid to the phase constitution, as revealed by X-ray diffraction and scanning electron microscopy. High precision densitometry has been used to study porosity levels. Coatings with three different metal contents (9, 12 and 17wt.%Co) have been examined. There is a strong tendency for chemical reactions to occur within the plasma plume, particularly for spraying in air. These reactions can result in the formation of various carbides and even of metallic tungsten. Thermodynamic and kinetic aspects of the reactions involved are briefly examined. Such reactions are strongly promoted by the presence of oxygen, and are much less marked during vacuum plasma spraying. Plasma power and substrate temperature have secondary effects on the degree of reaction which occurs. A marked correlation was observed between degree of reaction and resistance to abrasive wear. This is consistent with the reaction products being brittle and causing poor interfacial cohesion. It was also found that wear resistance was greater for the coatings with lower metal contents. This behaviour can be attributed to the wear occurring predominantly by ploughing of the metallic phase and consequent release of ceramic particles. This occurred more readily when the metal content was higher. In coatings which had undergone pronounced chemical reaction, however, metal had been replaced by reaction products which conferred poor cohesive strength, leading to poor wear resistance.

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