Ceramic vs. Zirconia Abrasives: Which is the best option?

Apr 17th 2020

 Ceramic vs. Zirconia Abrasives: Which is the best option?

When you are working on a project you want to make sure it is completed to the best of your ability and look like it too. One of the important factors for that is choosing the best tools for your workpiece. A common question we have at Empire Abrasives is, “What is the difference between Zirconia and Ceramic?” Understanding that will allow you to make the most informed decision regarding your purchases, tools, and materials you are using. You can find a variety of sanding belts, discs, and more in both zirconia and ceramic. While both are great for aggressive work and excel at a 24-120 grit, their differences become more apparent in their longevity, structure, and abilities. 

As mentioned before, an abrasive material’s ability becomes more apparent in use. Almost everyone is familiar with aluminum oxide as an abrasive and is a great measuring baseline for understanding other abrasive materials. Aluminum oxide was developed to be the replacement for garnet and other brittle grains and it does fantastic on both soft and hard wood. It is also good for some grades of steel and non-ferrous metals. However, you will eventually come across a project or source material that needs a more aggressive abrasive that lasts both longer and is better for grinding metal and that is when you will need ceramic or zirconia. Both ceramic and zirconia are high-performance abrasive grains that last much longer than the aforementioned aluminum oxide due to their ability to sharpen with every use unlike aluminum oxide. This allows zirconia and ceramic to continuously renew themselves for maximum cutting performance until the grain is fully worn.

Zirconia Abrasives

Zirconia Abrasives

Zirconium is made by die-casting and is generally available in the coarser grits up to 120. It is a coarse grain that has a high heat resistance and is substantially stronger than aluminum oxide. You will commonly find Zirconia abrasives in a range of colors from light blues to vibrant greens. Zirconia is a great choice for high-pressured grinding and machining applications. It does require more pressure to sand. The belts and sanding discs will perform better for jobs on harder surfaces and are not an ideal for polishing. Zirconia is most commonly used in steel fabrication shops. But, you will also find zirconia to be a favored choice in stainless steel cutting, grinding, and other abrasive applications. It is great for removing burrs from very hard metals such as carbon steel, steel-iron-nickel alloy, stainless steel, tungsten, tungsten carbide, and titanium just to name a few. Zirconia is generally available on heavy cloth backings.Our closed coated zirconia belts offer more abrasive material as it is fully coated and If you have a lot of rough sanding for rust or other metal work Zirconia would be the best option. Zirconia will have a much longer life than aluminum oxide, be more fiable, and provide a cooler sanding / grinding experience. Zirconia sanding discs and zirconia sanding belts are the most popular types of abrasives found in the marketplace.

Although it is stronger than aluminum oxide, zirconia may have difficulties grinding mill scale.

Use Zirconia on: 

  • Stainless Steel
  • Tool Steel
  • Nickel alloy
  • Aluminum
  • Titanium
  • Cast iron
  • Carbon Steel
  • Blades
  • Rotors
  • Welds

Ceramic Abrasives 

Ceramic Abrasives

Ceramic abrasives are more unique in their micro-grain construction as they have a micro-crystalline habit and are available in the coarser grits up to 120. What that means is that the ceramic is able to break down in a far more controlled manner that extends both the range of application and its’ ability to work on harder metals. This capability is what makes ceramic a favored choice in aerospace applications and metals such as titanium alloy. It also performs well on aluminum castings, stainless steel finishings, and mild steel mill scale. As ceramic is adapted further into the industry, ceramic belts in particular have made a power impact on both the efficiency and quality of metal grinding and sanding applications. Ceramic belts have become increasingly more popular within the knife industry for finishing high carbon steel. It is becoming a quick favorite due to the way the ceramic fractures and self sharpens at lower forces giving it the fastest cut range and the longest life out of all abrasive grains to date. The micro-grain structure of ceramic results in smaller fragments being broken away during the process of grinding or sanding. This fracturing process leaves more abrasive particles available to continue to be worked upon and thus increasing the life of the product. Ceramic is cooler running but is sensitive to both heat and pressure making it ideal for low pressure grinding applications but their use must be thoughtfully engineered as a result for ceramic for the best performance and get the most out of the longest lasting abrasive. 

Use Ceramic on:

  • Aluminum Castings
  • Carbon Steel
  • Ferrous Metals
  • Inconel
  • Mild Steel Scale
  • Non-ferrous Metal
  • Stainless Steel Finishing
  • Titanium Alloy (and other aerospace metals)
  • Tool Steel

Is Zirconia or Ceramic Better?

Both zirconia and ceramic will last longer and remove metal faster than aluminum oxide. However, when you are deciding on what to use it is important to take into account the heat of the project and the pressure required for the project. Ceramic is more sensitive to such and is best for lower pressure projects. Whereas if you need higher pressure, zirconia is the best choice for those applications. 

Although ceramic does last longer than zirconia, they are both excellent choices. Both abrasive grains are self-sharpening as they wear and both are primarily used on metal applications. In the end it is important to revert back to whether it is a high or low pressure as a great starting on your decision making process.

Quick Recap Reference:


  • Self-sharpening with use 
  • Last longer than aluminum oxide
  • Works best under high pressure
  • High heat resistance
  • Does not work on mill scale
  • Not ideal for polishing
  • Performs best on harder surfaces


  • Self-sharpening with use
  • Lasts longer than zirconia.
  • Works best under low to moderate pressure
  • Great for knife finishing
  • Great for titanium and other aerospace metals
  • Works best for low to moderate heat
  • Works on mild mill scale

Zirconia and Ceramic are both excellent choices. Zirconia is overall a more versatile abrasive for the novice and the experienced. It is economically priced while being long lasting and is good for metals and woods. Ceramic has its place in the industry but is better for those who can ensure a low-pressure application or for those working on more exotic metals. 

Chat With Our Team of experts

We offer a wide variety of Zirconia and Ceramic sanding belts and discs. If you’re still unsure or undecided please give us a call at 1-800-816-3824 or open that chat on the bottom right hand of your screen. We’re always happy to help.