Despite their excellent properties, adhesion problems are common for B4C and BCN thin films on different substrates when the film thickness exceeds about 500 nm. Three functionally graded multilayer designs; surface boronizing of the steel substrate before deposition (Boride underlayer/B4C), Ti/TiC/B4C and Ti/TiN/BCN structures were discussed in this study, to alleviate the adhesion problems. Cross-sectional FE-SEM examinations and elemental depth profiling by SIMS revealed the graded structure of the films. The elemental film composition measured by EPMA and the mechanical properties determined by nanoindentation demonstrated the graded chemical composition and the transition of the hardness and Young's modulus values between different layers respectively. The results demonstrated the possibility of growing well adherent boron containing ceramic coatings with thicknesses in the pm range by means of different graded underlayer designs. (C) 2012 Elsevier Masson SAS. All rights reserved.