The mechanism by which negatively charged substances such as celite, kaolin, or ellagic acid contribute to the surface-dependent activation of Hageman factor (Factor XII) was studied. Kinetic studies of the proteolytic activation of (125)I-labeled human Hageman factor by human plasma kallikrein, plasma, activated Factor XI, and trypsin were performed in the presence and absence of high molecular weight kininogen and surface materials such as celite, kaolin, or ellagic acid. The results showed that surface-bound Hageman factor was 500 times more susceptible than soluble Hageman factor to proteolytic activation by kallikrein in the presence of high molecular weight kininogen. Surface binding of Hageman factor enhanced its cleavage by plasmin, activated Factor XI, and trypsin by 100-fold, 30-fold, and 5-fold, respectively. On a molar basis, trypsin was twice as potent as kallikrein in the cleavage of the surface-bound Hageman factor, while plasmin and activated Factor XI were an order of magnitude less potent than kallikrein. Kallikrein even at concentrations as low as 0.5 nM (i.e., 1/1000th of the concentration of prekallikrein in plasma) was very potent in the limited proteolysis of the surface-bound Hageman factor. These results suggest that substances classically known as "activating surfaces" promote the activation of Hageman factor indirectly by altering its structure such that it is much more susceptible to proteolytic activation by other plasma or cellular proteases.