Abstract Structural ceramic nanocomposites are reviewed with emphasis on the Al 2O 3 SiC and Si 3N 4 SiC systems. The incorporation of a nanosized second phase, such as SiC, into a ceramic matrix can lead to an improvement in mechanical properties. It is still unclear, however, whether those improvements can directly be related to an intrinsic ‘nanocompossite effect’ or to other factors. This review is divided into three parts. First, basic processing routes for nanocomposites, namely conventional powder processing, sol-gel processing and polymer pyrolysis are presented in detail. Second, the mechanical properties of different nanocomposites are compared. Finally, models which attempt to explain the improvements in these properties are explored. It will be shown that the strength increase can best be related to a reduction in processing defect size. For applications the most interesting properties of nanocomposites are their wear, creep and high temperature performance.