CNC Machining & 3D Printing: A Hybrid Approach to Precision Manufacturing

With recent advancements in 3D printing capabilities, it is becoming easier for manufacturers to use additive manufacturing to create parts from a wide variety of materials, including polymers like ABS, TPE, and PLA as well as carbon fiber composites, nylon, and polycarbonates. Even pricey metals like Titanium, Stainless Steel, and Inconel are becoming increasingly common in the world of additive manufacturing as well.

There is no doubt that the additive manufacturing space will continue to develop and grow in the coming years, but will it render subtractive manufacturing methods like CNC Machining obsolete? Absolutely not. In fact, precision CNC machining is likely more important to the additive manufacturing process than you may think, as a new process called “hybrid manufacturing” is quickly taking hold in the industry.

3d printing metal
3D printing of metal parts is becoming more common, but subtractive manufacturing is an important part of manufacturing precision additive parts.

Additive Manufacturing vs. Subtractive Manufacturing

Before implementing a hybrid manufacturing approach, it is important to understand the pros and cons of each method. Here is a quick breakdown of both additive and subtractive manufacturing, and the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Additive ManufacturingSubtractive Manufacturing
Adds material layers to create partsRemoves material layers to create parts
Slower process, better for small production runsFaster process, better for large production runs
Better for smaller partsBetter for larger parts
Rough surface finish that requires significant post-operation finishingMore definied surface finish with minimal post-operation finishing required
Less precise part tolerancesAble to hold extremely precise part tolerances
Cheaper material costsMore expensive material costs
Less material wasteMore material waste
Intricate details easier to createIntricate details can require complex programs and additional capabilities (5 axis)

Using CNC Machining to Create Precise 3D Printed Parts

Looking at the chart above, you will notice that one of the key differences between additive manufacturing and subtractive manufacturing is the surface finish and tolerances that can be achieved with each method. This is where a hybrid approach to additive manufacturing can be extremely beneficial.

As parts come off the printer, they can be quickly moved into a CNC machine with a program designed for part completion. The CNC machine will be able to get 3D printed parts down to the tight tolerances required by many industries and reach the desired surface finish. Advanced finishing tools and long reach, tapered tools from brands like Harvey Tool can easily machine the tight geometries of 3D printed parts, while extremely sharp diamond-coated tooling and material-specific tools designed for plastics and composites can work to create a beautiful, in-tolerance finished part regardless of the material.

long reach end mill
Long reach tools can easily machine hard to reach, intricate part details on 3D printed parts.

By designing a workflow like this in your shop, you can spend less time worrying about the precision of printed parts by adding in subtractive operations to keep material costs low, create less waste, and keep parts in tight tolerances for precision machining excellence.

Using 3D Printing to Increase CNC Machining Efficiency

If your shop is focused completely on subtractive manufacturing methods, you are probably thinking that there is no need for an additive option in your shop. Can’t a CNC machine create everything a 3D printer can, and in less time? Not necessarily. Again, by using the two methods together and taking a hybrid approach, you may be able to lower your manufacturing and material costs.

For example, you could machine the bulk of a part with typical subtractive machines, which would likely take a very long time using additive methods. Then you can go back to that part with a 3D printer to add intricate features to the part that may take complex programming and hours of planning on a subtractive machine. An impeller is a great example, where the bulk of that part can be machined, but the tricky fins and blades could be printed onto the part, and then finished back on the CNC machine.

3d printed metal parts
3D printed impeller waiting for finishing operations

The ability of additive machines to literally “add-on” to a part can also make for a cheaper approach to part design. Instead of using expensive materials like Inconel or Titanium to machine an entire part, portions of the part that do not require extreme heat resistance could be machined out of cheaper steel, while the heat resistant portions using expensive materials can be added later through additive methods.

Hybrid Manufacturing Machines

As hybrid manufacturing workflows become more popular, so do new hybrid manufacturing machines. These hybrid machines are all-in-one machines where both additive and subtractive manufacturing can be performed in a single setup. Many of these machines offer metal 3D printing as well as multi-axis machining capabilities, ready for even the most complex parts thrown their way. With a bit of customization, large-scale 3D printing machines or CNC mills can be retrofit to allow for hybrid manufacturing with add-ons from companies like Hybrid Manufacuring Technologies.

hybrid manufacturing machines
Example of a hybrid machine add-on from Hybrid Manufacturing Technologies, featuring 3D printing spindles and milling tools in the same machine carousel.

As manufacturing and design techniques get progressively “smarter” with CAM/CAD programs offering generative design and artificial intelligence, these hybrid machines could become a new standard in high-end machine shops working in advanced manufacturing industries like aerospace, medical, defense, and the mold, tool & die market.

Overall, in 2021 we are still early on in this new revolution of hybrid machining and advanced design methods, but it is important to understand the role that adding a CNC machine could have in your additive-focused shop, and vice versa. By combining additive and subtractive together, shops can mitigate the cons of each method and take full advantage of the benefits of having both options available on the shop floor.

The Secret Mechanics of High Feed End Mills

A High Feed End Mill is a type of High-Efficiency Milling (HEM) tool with a specialized end profile that allows the tool to utilize chip thinning to have dramatically increased feed rates. These tools are meant to operate with an extremely low axial depth so that the cutting action takes place along the curved edge of the bottom profile. This allows for a few different phenomena to occur:

  • The low lead angle causes most of the cutting force to be transferred axially back into the spindle. This amounts to less deflection, as there is much less radial force pushing the cutter off its center axis.
  • The extended curved profile of the bottom edge causes a chip thinning effect that allows for aggressive feed rates.

Low Lead Angle

As seen in Figure 1 below, when a High Feed End Mill is properly engaged in a workpiece, the low lead angle, combined with a low axial depth of cut, transfers the majority of the cutting force upward along the center axis of the tool. A low amount of radial force allows for longer reaches to be employed without the adverse effects of chatter, which will lead to tool failure. This is beneficial for applications that require a low amount of radial force, such as machining thin walls or contouring deep pockets.

high feed mill roughing
Figure 1: Isometric view of a feed mill engaged in a straight roughing pass (left), A snapshot front-facing view of this cut (right)

Aggressive Feed Rates

Figure 1 also depicts an instantaneous snapshot of the chip being formed when engaged in a proper roughing tool path. Notice how the chip (marked by diagonal lines) thins as it approaches the center axis of the tool. This is due to the curved geometry of the bottom edge. Because of this chip thinning phenomenon, the feed of the tool must be increased so that the tool is actively engaged in cutting and does not rub against the workpiece. Rubbing will increase friction, which in turn raises the level of heat around the cutting zone and causes premature tool wear. Because this tool requires an increased chip load to maintain a viable cutting edge, the tool has been given the name “High Feed Mill.”

Other Phenomena Due to Curved Geometry of Bottom Edge

The curved geometry of the bottom edge also sanctions for the following actions to occur:

  • A programmable radius being added to a CAM tool path
  • Scallops forming during facing operations
  • Different-shaped chips created during slotting applications, compared to HEM roughing

Programmable Radius

Helical Solutions’ High Feed End Mills has a double radius bottom edge design. Because of this, the exact profile cannot be easily programmed by some CAM software. Therefore, a theoretical radius is used to allow for easy integration.  Simply program a bullnose tool path and use the theoretical radius (seen below in Figure 2) from the dimensions table as the corner radius.

high feed mill programmable radius
Figure 2: Programmable radius of a double radius profile tool

Managing Scallops:

A scallop is a cusp of material left behind by cutting tools with curved profiles. Three major factors that determine the height and width of scallops are:

  1. Axial Depth of Cut
  2. Radial Depth of Cut
  3. Curvature of Bottom Edge or Lead Angle

Figure 3 below is a depiction of the scallop profile of a typical roughing cut with a 65% radial step over and 4% axial depth of cut. The shaded region represents the scallop that is left behind after 2 roughing passes and runs parallel to the tool path.

roughing cut scallop profile
Figure 3: Back view of roughing cut with a 65% radial step over

Figures 4 and 5 show the effects of radial and axial depth of cuts on the height and width of scallops. These figures should be viewed in the context of Figure 3. Percentage by diameter is used rather than standard units of measurement to show that this effect can be predicted at any tool size. Figure 4 shows that a scallop begins to form when the tool is programmed to have a radial step over between 35% and 40%. The height increases exponentially until it is maximized at the axial depth of cut. Figure 5 shows that there is a linear relationship between the radial step over and scallop width. No relationship is seen between scallop width and axial depth of cut as long as ADOC and the radius of curvature of the bottom cutting edge remains consistent.

graph of scallop height versus depth of cut
Figure 4: Graph of Scallop Height vs. Depth of Cut
graph of scallop width versus depth of cut
Figure 5: Scallop Width vs. Depth of Cut

From the graphs in Figures 4 and 5 we get the following equations for scallop dimensions.

Notes regarding these equations:

  • These equations are only applicable for Helical Solutions High Feed End Mills
  • These equations are approximations
  • Scallop height equation is inaccurate after the axial depth of cut is reached
  • RDOC is in terms of diameter percentage (.55 x Diameter, .65 x Diameter, etc…)

Curvature of Bottom Edge

The smaller the radius of curvature, the larger the height of the scallop. For example, the large partial radius of the Helical Solutions High Feed End Mill bottom cutting edge will leave a smaller scallop when compared to a ball end mill programmed with the same tool path. Figure 6 shows a side by side comparison of a ball end mill and high feed mill with the same radial and axial depth of cut. The scallop width and height are noticeably greater for the ball end mill because it has a smaller radius of curvature.

feed mill versus ball end mill
Figure 6: Scallop diagram of High Feed Mill and Ball End Mill with the same workpiece engagement

Full Slotting

When slotting, the feed rate should be greatly reduced relative to roughing as a greater portion of the bottom cutting edge is engaged. As shown in Figure 7, the axial step down does not equate to the axial engagement. Once engaged in a full slot, the chip becomes a complex shape. When viewing the chip from the side, you can see that the tool is not cutting the entirety of the axial engagement at one point in time. The chip follows the contour on the slot cut in the form of the bottom edge of the tool. Because of this phenomenon, the chip dips down to the lowest point of the slot and then back up to the highest point of axial engagement along the side. This creates a long thin chip that can clog up the small flute valleys of the tool, leading to premature tool failure. This can be solved by decreasing the feed rate and increasing the amount of coolant used in the operation.

high feed mill chip formation
Figure 7: Formation of a chip when a feed mill is engaged in a full slotting operation.

In summary, the curved profile of the bottom edge of the tool allows for higher feed rates when high feed milling, because of the chipping thinning effect it creates with its low lead angle. This low lead angle also distributes cutting forces axially rather than radially, reducing the amount of chatter that a normal end mill might experience under the same conditions. Machinists must be careful though as the curved bottom edge also allows for the formation of scallops, requires a programmable radius when using some CAM packages, and make slotting not nearly as productive as roughing operations.

Understanding Wood Properties for CNC Woodworking Projects

Machinists oftentimes confuse wood for being an “easy to machine material” during CNC Woodworking because of how much softer the material is than metal. In some sense this is true, as you can program wood cutting parameters in CNC Woodworking with much higher feed rates compared to that of most metals. On the other hand, however, wood has many unique properties that need to be accounted for in order to optimize the cutting process for maximum efficiency.

Types of Wood for CNC Woodworking

There are 3 main categories of wood for woodworking: hardwood, softwood and engineered wood.


The textbook definition of a hardwood tree is an angiosperm, more commonly referred to as a broadleaf tree. A few examples would be oak, birch, and maple trees. These types of trees are often used for making high quality furniture, decks, flooring, and construction components.


A softwood is a coniferous tree, sometimes known as a gymnosperm. These are typically less dense than hardwoods and are therefore associated with being easier to machine. Do not let the name fool you: some soft woods are harder than some hardwoods. Harvey Tool’s Speeds and Feeds Charts for its offering of Material Specific End Mills for Wood are categorized by Janka hardness for this exact reason. Janka hardness is a modified hardness scale with a test specifically designed for classifying types of wood.

Softwood is used to make furniture, but can also be used for doors, window panes, and paper products. A couple of examples are pine and cedar trees. Table 1 lists 20 common woods with their Janka hardness.

Common Name:Janka Imperial Hardness:
Buckeye, Yellow350
Willow, Black360
Pine, Sugar380
Cottonwood, Eastern430
Chesnut, American540
Pine, Red560
Douglas-Fir, Interior North600
Birch, Gray760
Ash, Black850
Cedar, Eastern Red900
Cherry, American Black950
Walnut, Black1010
Beech, American1300
Oak, White1360
Maple, Sugar1450
Cherry, Brazilian2350
Rosewood, Indian3170
Table 1: Janka Hardness of Common Woods

Engineered Woods

Engineered wood, or composite wood, is any type of wood fiber, particle, or strand material held together with an adhesive or binding agent. Although some of these materials are easier to machine than solid woods, the adhesive holding the material together can be extremely abrasive. This can cause premature tool wear and create difficulties when cnc woodworking. It’s important to note that some types of engineered woods are more difficult to machine than others, specifically those with a higher amount of binding material. These types should be programmed with less aggressive speeds and feeds. For example, medium density fiberboard (MDF) if more difficult to machine than plywood, but much easier to machine than phenolic.

stack of medium density fiberboard pieces for cnc woodworking
Figure 1: Example of Medium Density Fiberboard

Properties of Wood

Grain Size

Technically speaking, wood can be considered a natural composite material as it consists of strong and flexible cellulose fibers held together by a stiffer glue-like matrix composed of lignin and hemicellulose. If you think in terms of construction, the cellulose fibers would be the steel rebar, and the concrete would be the lignin and hemicellulose. Wood with large cellulose fibers are considered to be coarse-grained (oak and ash). Woods that have smaller and fewer fibers are considered fine-grained (pine and maple). Softwoods tend to be fine-grained and are therefore stereotyped as being easier to machine since they do not have as many strong fibers to shear. It’s important to note that not all hardwood trees are coarse grained and not all softwood trees are fine-grained.

diagram of natural wood fibers for cnc woodworking
Figure 2: Simplified diagram of fibers that constitute natural wood. The cellulose fibers run vertically in this depiction.

Moisture Content (MC)

Moisture content (MC) is one of the most important variables to consider when machining wood. An extremely common problem with building anything with wood is its tendency to warp. Moisture variability in the air inevitably affects the moisture content within the wood. Any change in moisture content (whether an increase or a decrease) will disturb the shape of the workpiece. This is why one must take into account what type of moisture a product will be exposed to in its final resting place.

Equilibrium Moisture Content (EMC)

Equilibrium moisture content (EMC) occurs when wood has reached a balance point in its moisture content. Interior EMC values across the United States average at about 8%, with exterior values averaging around 12%. These values vary around the country due to the differences in temperature and humidity. For example, the southeastern United States have an average interior EMC of 11% while the southwest averages about 6% (excluding the coastal region). It’s important to consider what region and application the final product is going to encounter so that the wood with the correct moisture content can be selected before machining. Most species of flat-grain wood will change size 1% for every 4% change in MC. The direction of warping depends on the grain orientation.

United States map showing average regional indoor EMC
Figure 4: Average regional indoor EMC

Generally, power requirements for an operation rise with increasing moisture content, mainly because of the surge in density. Density of wood increases with rising MC. The additional power may be necessary to push a heavier chip out of the cutting zone during CNC Woodworking. It’s worth noting that, like synthetic polymers, wood is a viscoelastic material that absorbs energy as it becomes wetter. The proportional limit of its mechanical properties intensifies as MC increases.

When machining some types of wood, cutting region temperature will surge with increasing MC, but in other species it will decline. Be safe and avoid rapid tool wear by decreasing SFM when machining a wood with a moisture content above 10%. Harvey Tool Speeds and Feeds Charts suggest a decrease of 30 per MC percentage point. As always, though, it depends on the type of wood being machined and the type of operation being performed.

Temperature change is not the only reason higher moisture content is associated with rapid tool wear. Moisture within wood isn’t just associated with water, but also with resins, sugars, oils, starches, alkaloids, and tannin present within the water. These substances react particularly well with high speed steel, and to a lesser degree with carbide.

Knots and Their Effect on CNC Woodworking

A knot is a portion of a branch or limb that has become incorporated in the trunk of a tree. The influence of knots on the mechanical properties of wood is due to the interruption of continuity and change in direction of wood fibers associated with it. These properties are lower in this portion of the wood because the fibers around the knot are distorted and lead to stress concentrations. “Checking” (cracking due to shrinking) often occurs around knots during drying. Hardness and strength perpendicular to the grain are exceptions to generally lower mechanical properties. Because of these last two exceptions, woodworking machining parameters should be reduced when encountering a knotted portion of the workpiece to avoid shock loading.

typical natural wood knot in hardwood
Figure 5: Photo of a typical knot

Successful Slotting With Miniature Cutting Tools

Whether your tool is a 1” diameter powerhouse rougher or a .032” precision end mill, slotting is one of the hardest operations on the tool. During slotting operations, a lot of force and pressure is placed on the entire cutting edge of the tool. This results in slower speeds and feeds and increased tool wear, making it one of the nastier processes even for the best cutting tools.

With miniature tooling (for the purposes of this blog, under 1/8” diameter) the game changes. The way we approach miniature tooling is completely different as it relates to slotting. In these instances, it is vitally important to select the correct tool for these operations. A few of the suggestions may surprise you if you are used to working with larger tooling, but rest assured, these are tried and tested recommendations which will dramatically increase your success rate in miniature slotting applications.

Use as Many Flutes as Possible

When running traditional slotting toolpaths, the biggest concern with the cutting tool is getting the best chip evacuation by using the proper flute count. Traditionally speaking, you want to use the fewest amount of flutes possible. In Aluminum/Non-Ferrous jobs, this is typically no more than 2/3 flutes, and in Steel/Ferrous applications, 4 flutes is recommended. The lower flute count leaves room for the chips to evacuate so you are not re-cutting chips and clogging the flutes on your tool in deep slots.

When slotting with miniature tools, the biggest concerns are with tool rigidity, deflection, and core strength. With micro-slotting we are not “slotting”, but rather we are “making a slot”. In traditional slotting, we may drive a ½” tool down 2xD into the part to make a full slot, and the tool can handle it! But this technique simply isn’t possible with a smaller tool.

graphic showing difference between core sizes on 3 flute and 5 flute slotting tools

For example, let’s take a .015” end mill. If we are making a slot that is .015” deep with that tool, we are likely going to take a .001” to .002” axial depth per pass. In this case, chips are no longer your problem since it is not a traditional slotting toolpath. Rigidity and core strength are now key, which means we need to add as many flutes as possible! Even in materials like Aluminum, 4 or 5 flutes will be a much better option at smaller diameters than traditional 2/3 flute tools. By choosing a tool with a higher flute count, some end users have seen their tool life increase upwards of 50 to 100 times over tools with lower flute counts and less rigidity and strength.

Use the Strongest Corner Possible When Slotting

Outside of making sure you have a strong core on your miniature tools while making a slot, you also need to take a hard look at your corner strength. Putting a corner radius on your tooling is a great step and does improve the corner strength of the tool considerably over a square profile tool. However, if we want the strongest tip geometry, using a ball nose end mill should also be considered.

A ball nose end mill will give you the strongest possible tip of the three most common profiles. The end geometry on the ball nose can almost work as a high feed end mill, allowing for faster feed rates on the light axial passes that are required for micro-slotting. The lead angle on the ball nose also allows for axial chip thinning, which will give you better tool life and allow you to decrease your cycle times.

A .078″ ball nose end mill was used for this miniature slotting operation

Finding the Right Tool for Miniature Slotting Operations

Precision and accuracy are paramount when it comes to miniature tooling, regardless of whether you are slotting, roughing, or even simply looking to make a hole in a part. With the guidelines above, it is also important to have a variety of tooling options available to cater to your specific slotting needs. Harvey Tool offers 5 flute end mills down to .015” in diameter, which are a great option for a stronger tool with a high flute count for slotting operations.

miniature .010
Harvey Tool offers many miniature end mill options, like the .010″ long reach end mill above.

If you are looking to upgrade your corner strength, Harvey Tool also offers a wide selection of miniature end mills in corner radius and ball nose profiles, with dozens of reach, length of cut, and flute count options. Speeds and feeds information for all of these tools is also available, making your programming of these difficult toolpaths just a little bit easier.


To wrap things up, there are three major items to focus on when it comes to miniature slotting: flute count, corner strength, and the depth of your axial passes.

It is vital to ensure you are using a corner radius or ball nose tool and putting as many flutes as you can on your tool when possible. This keeps the tool rigid and avoids deflection while providing superior core strength.

For your axial passes, take light passes with multiple stepdowns. Working your tool almost as a high feed end mill will make for a successful slotting operation, even at the most minuscule diameters.

How to Optimize Results While Machining With Miniature End Mills

 The machining industry generally considers micromachining and miniature end mills to be any end mill with a diameter under 1/8 of an inch. This is also often the point where tolerances must be held to a tighter window. Because the diameter of a tool is directly related to the strength of a tool, miniature end mills are considerably weaker than their larger counterparts, and therefore, lack of strength must be accounted for when micromachining. If you are using these tools in a repetitive application, then optimization of this process is key.

Key Cutting Differences between Conventional and Miniature End Mills


Runout during an operation has a much greater effect on miniature tools, as even a very small amount can have a large impact on the tool engagement and cutting forces. Runout causes the cutting forces to increase due to the uneven engagement of the flutes, prompting some flutes to wear faster than others in conventional tools, and breakage in miniature tools. Tool vibration also impacts the tool life, as the intermittent impacts can cause the tool to chip or, in the case of miniature tools, break. It is extremely important to check the runout of a setup before starting an operation. The example below demonstrates how much of a difference .001” of runout is between a .500” diameter tool and a .031” diameter tool.

chart comparing tool diameter for runout in micromachining
The runout of an operation should not exceed 2% of the tool diameter. Excess runout will lead to a poor surface finish.

Chip Thickness

The ratio between the chip thickness and the edge radius (the edge prep) is much smaller for miniature tools. This phenomena is sometimes called “the size effect” and often leads to an error in the prediction of cutting forces. When the chip thickness-to-edge radius ratio is smaller, the cutter will be more or less ploughing the material rather than shearing it. This ploughing effect is essentially due to the negative rake angle created by the edge radius when cutting a chip with a small thickness.

If this thickness is less than a certain value (this value depends of the tool being used), the material will squeeze underneath the tool. Once the tool passes and there is no chip formation, part of the plowed material recovers elastically. This elastic recovery causes there to be higher cutting forces and friction due to the increased contact area between the tool and the workpiece. These two factors ultimately lead to a greater amount of tool wear and surface roughness.

chart of edge radius in relation to chip thickness for micromachining
Figure 1: (A) Miniature tool operation where the edge radius is greater than the chip thickness (B) Conventional operation where the edge radius is small than the chip thickness

Tool Deflection in Conventional vs. Micromachining Applications

Tool deflection has a much greater impact on the formation of chips and accuracy of the operation in micromachining operations, when compared to conventional operations. Cutting forces concentrated on the side of the tool cause it to bend in the direction opposite the feed. The magnitude of this deflection depends upon the rigidity of the tool and its distance extended from the spindle. Small diameter tools are inherently less stiff compared to larger diameter tools because they have much less material holding them in place during the operation. In theory, doubling the length sticking out of the holder will result in 8 times more deflection. Doubling the diameter of an end mill it will result in 16 times less deflection. If a miniature cutting tool breaks on the first pass, it is most likely due to the deflection force overcoming the strength of the carbide. Here are some ways you can minimize tool deflection.

Workpiece Homogeny

Workpiece homogeny becomes a questionable factor with decreasing tool diameter. This means that a material may not have uniform properties at an exceptionally small scale due to a number of factors, such as container surfaces, insoluble impurities, grain boundaries, and dislocations. This assumption is generally saved for tools that have a cutter diameter below .020”, as the cutting system needs to be extremely small in order for the homogeny of the microstructure of the material to be called into question.

Surface Finish

Micromachining may result in an increased amount of burrs and surface roughness when compared to conventional machining. In milling, burring increases as feed increases, and decreases as speed increases. During a machining operation, chips are created by the compression and shearing of the workpiece material along the primary shear zone. This shear zone can be seen in Figure 2 below. As stated before, the chip thickness-to-edge radius ratio is much higher in miniature applications. Therefore, plastic and elastic deformation zones are created during cutting and are located adjacent to the primary shear zone (Figure 2a). Consequently, when the cutting edge is close to the border of the workpiece, the elastic zone also reaches this border (Figure 2b). Plastic deformation spreads into this area as the cutting edge advances, and more plastic deformation forms at the border due to the connecting elastic deformation zones (Figure 2c). A permanent burr begins to form when the plastic deformation zones connect (Figure 2d) and are expanded once a chip cracks along the slip line (Figure 2e). When the chips finally break off from the edge of the workpiece, a burr is left behind (Figure 2f).

Tool Path Best Practices for Miniature End Mills

Because of the fragility of miniature tools, the tool path must be programmed in such a way as to avoid a sudden amount of cutting force, as well as permit the distribution of cutting forces along multiple axes. For these reasons, the following practices should be considered when writing a program for a miniature tool path:

Ramping Into a Part

Circular ramping is the best practice for moving down axially into a part, as it evenly distributes cutting forces along the x, y, and z planes. If you have to move into a part radially at a certain depth of cut, consider an arching tool path as this gradually loads cutting forces onto the tool instead of all at once.

Micromachining in Circular Paths

You should not use the same speeds and feed for a circular path as you would for a linear path. This is because of an effect called compounded angular velocity. Each tooth on a cutting tool has its own angular velocity when it is active in the spindle. When a circular tool path is used, another angular velocity component is added to the system and, therefore, the teeth on the outer portion of tool path are traveling at a substantially different speed than expected. The feed of the tool must be adjusted depending on whether it is an internal or external circular operation. To find out how to adjust your feed, check out this article on running in circles.

Slotting with a Miniature Tool

Do not approach a miniature slot the same way as you would a larger slot. With a miniature slot, you want as many flutes on the tool as possible, as this increases the rigidity of the tool through a larger core. This decreases the possibility of the tool breaking due to deflection. Because there is less room for chips to evacuate with a higher number of flutes, the axial engagement must be decreased. With larger diameter tools you may be stepping down 50% – 100% of the tool diameter. But when using miniature end mills with a higher flute count, only step down between 5% – 15%, depending on the size of the diameter and risk of deflection. The feed rate should be increased to compensate for the decreased axial engagement. The feed can be increased even high when using a ball nose end mill as chip thinning occurs at these light depths of cut and begins to act like a high feed mill.

Slowing Down Your Feed Around Corners

Corners of a part create an additional amount of cutting forces as more of the tool becomes engaged with the part. For this reason it is beneficial to slow down your feed when machining around corners to gradually introduce the tool to these forces.

Climb Milling vs. Conventional Milling in Micromachining Applications

This is somewhat of a tricky question to answer when it comes to micromachining. Climb milling should be utilized whenever a quality surface finish is called for on the part print. This type of tool path ultimately leads to more predictable/lower cutting forces and therefore higher quality surface finish. In climb milling, the cutter engages the maximum chip thickness at the beginning of the cut, giving it a tendency to push away from the workpiece. This can potentially cause chatter issues if the setup does not have enough rigidity.  In conventional milling, as the cutter rotates back into the cut it pulls itself into the material and increases cutting forces. Conventional milling should be utilized for parts with long thin walls as well as delicate operations.

Combined Roughing and Finishing Operations

These operations should be considered when micromachining tall thin walled parts as in some cases there is not sufficient support for the part for a finishing pass.

Helpful Tips for Achieving Successful Micromachining Operations

Try to minimize runout and deflection as much as possible when micromachining. This can be achieved by using a shrink-fit or press-fit tool holder. Maximize the amount of shank contact with the collet while minimizing the amount of stick-out during an operation. Double check your print and make sure that you have the largest possible end mill because bigger tools mean less deflection.

  • Choose an appropriate depth of cut so that the chip thickness to edge radius ratio is not too small as this will cause a ploughing effect.
  • If possible, test the hardness of the workpiece before machining to confirm the mechanical properties of the material advertised by the vender. This gives the operator an idea of the quality of the material.
  • Use a coated tool if possible when working in ferrous materials due to the excess amount of heat that is generated when machining these types of metals. Tool coatings can increase tool life between 30%-200% and allows for higher speeds, which is key in micro-machining.
  • Consider using a support material to control the advent of burrs during a micromachining application. The support material is deposited on the workpiece surface to provide auxiliary support force as well as increase the stiffness of the original edge of the workpiece. During the operation, the support material burrs and is plastically deformed rather than the workpiece.
  • Use flood coolant to lower cutting forces and a greater surface finish.
  • Scrutinize the tool path that is to be applied as a few adjustments can go a long way in extending the life of a miniature tool.
  • Double-check tool geometry to make sure it is appropriate for the material you are machining. When available, use variable pitch and variable helix tools as this will reduce harmonics at the exceptionally high RPMs that miniature tools are typically run at.
variable pitch versus non-variable pitch
Figure 3: Variable pitch tool (yellow) vs. a non-variable pitch tool (black)

Titanium Machining Cost Savings With Helical Solutions

When the manufacturing team at Geospace Technologies was looking for better tool life and improved performance on a Titanium CNC milling job, they turned to Harvey Performance Company and local Application Engineer Mike Kanigowski to dial in some Helical Solutions End Mills. With Mike’s help, Geospace Technologies, led by Lead Mill Programmer Tranquilino Sosa, achieved massive success and extensive titanium machining cost savings, which led them to completely shift their tooling repertoire to Helical’s high-performance end mills in their shop.

Struggling with Tool Life

Prior to switching to Helical, Geospace Technologies was experiencing trouble with tool life on a job that required both roughing and finishing toolpaths on a Titanium (Ti-6AL-4V) part. For their roughing pass, Geospace was using a competitor’s 4 flute, 3/8” diameter end mill with a 30° helix angle and TiALN coating. In traditional roughing toolpaths, this tool was running at 1,750 RPM with a 10 IPM feed rate. The tool would take four step downs, three with an axial depth of cut of .200”, and a final pass at .100” for a total depth of .700”.

When finishing, the team used a 1/2” version of the same competitor tool, running at 900 RPM with an 8 IPM feed rate. This would take two passes, one at .400” deep and the last down to the bottom of the part at .700”.

geospace technologies fadal VMC 4020

With this strategy and tooling, the team was creating high-quality parts at a cycle time of 15 minutes and 22 seconds per part, but were only seeing the roughing tool last for 60 parts on average, and the finishing tool for around 120 parts. This was causing tool costs to be higher than they would like, and costing the team precious time with frequent tool changes.

Sosa had seen some of the success that other shops were having with Titanium milling using Helical Solutions end mills, and so they reached out to Kanigowski to see how Helical could help them lower their cost per part while achieving an even better finish.

Dialing in Tool Selection

When Mike got in touch with the team at Geospace, he knew there were some immediate benefits to changing the toolpaths used in this job. Using their ESPRIT software, the team was able to dial in a new program using high efficiency milling (HEM) toolpaths through ESPRIT’s “Profit Milling” technology.

With HEM toolpaths in place, Geospace was going to need new high performance tools to take full advantage of the programming adjustments. After much testing and evaluating several options from Helical’s extensive line of end mills for Titanium, Geospace settled on two solid tools.

Helical offers many different options for Titanium milling in HEM toolpaths. During testing, the team at Geospace decided on Helical EDP 59424, a 3/8” diameter, 7 flute, corner radius end mill. This tool features variable pitch geometry and offset chipbreakers for optimal chip evacuation, reduced harmonics, and minimized tool pressure, as well as Helical’s Aplus coating for high temperature resistance, decreased wear, and improved tool life.

7 flute chipbreaker
7 Flute Chipbeaker Tools Fresh Off the Grinder

When looking at the finishing toolpath, Geospace decided on Helical EDP 82566, a 3/8”, 6 flute, square end mill from Helical’s well known HEV-6 product line. This tool featured a variable pitch design to help mitigate chatter and leave a superior finish. While Helical also offers several tools for finishing toolpaths in Titanium, during testing this tool provided Geospace with the best finish for their specific part geometry.

Helical Solutions HEV-6
Example of a Tool from Helical Solutions HEV-6 Tooling Line

Experiencing the “Helical Difference”

With the new tools in place, Sosa’s team reached out to Helical for help dialing in speeds and feeds. The Helical tech team was able to get them set up on Machining Advisor Pro, an advanced speeds and feeds calculator developed by the experts behind Helical Solutions tooling. With this “miracle worker” application in their arsenal, the team was able to easily dial in their new tools for their specific material grade, depth of cut, and machine setup.  

The team saw immediate positive results and cost-savings on this job. They were able to increase their roughing toolpaths to 4,500 RPM and 157 IPM. The finishing path remained largely the same, but resulted in a much improved final part. In total, cycle time dropped from 15 minutes and 22 seconds per part to 12 minutes and 17 seconds per part, which was great, but the improvement in tool life was where Sosa was most impressed.

Geospace technologies employee inspecting titanium end mills

With the new Helical end mill in the shop, Geospace was able to run both tools for 580 parts with very minimal wear on the tool. This was a nearly 1000% improvement in tool life for their roughing passes and a 483% improvement in tool life for the finishing operation. In total, one roughing tool was able to last more than 42 hours in the cut before needing to be replaced.

Eliminating the need for a tool change every 60 parts was also a significant time-saver. Constant tool changes were causing serious machine downtime, which was eliminated with the longer tool life experienced with the Helical end mills. What seems like a minor inconvenience will truly add up to dozens of hours in saved time over the course of a few months for Sosa’s team.

titanium machining tool wear
A Closeup of the 7 Flute Chipbreaker After 42 Hours In The Cut

Geospace was thrilled with the results they saw on this Titanium job, as they had never experienced long tool life in Titanium with any other competitor brand. Sosa and his team are excited to continue using Helical Solutions product across all of their other jobs going forward and to continue working with Kanigowski and the Helical tech team on dialing in tool selection and speeds and feeds on future projects.

Please see below for a head-to-head breakdown of the Helical end mills’ performance in terms of total costs and productivity gained versus that of the competitor. These numbers are measured per 1,000 parts, taking into account tooling costs, tool change time, labor costs, running parameters, and cycle times.

titanium machining cost savings

Chipbreaker Tooling: Not Just for Roughing

When many people think about solid carbide tools with chip breakers, they are usually tooling up for a roughing application. While the chip breaker tool is a great choice for such applications, it can be utilized in a number of other areas too. In this post, we’ll examine many other benefits of the chip breaker style of tooling.

High Efficiency Milling (HEM)

High Efficiency Milling (HEM) uses CAM software to program advanced toolpaths that reduce cutting forces. These tool paths employ smaller end mills with a higher number of flutes (for a stronger core) running at higher speeds and feeds. This strategy includes a light radial depth of cut (RDOC), high axial depth of cut (ADOC), and a controlled angle of engagement.

Helical’s chipbreaking tools include serrated indents along the edge of flute for the entire length of cut. Because HEM utilizes heavy axial depths of cuts, these tools are able to break long chips into smaller ones. In addition to improving chip control and reducing cutting resistance, chipbreaker tools also help in decreasing heat load within the chips. This delays tool wear along the cutting edge and improves cutting performance. 

Check out this testimony from a Helical Solutions customer:

“We were able to get going with the 7 flute tools with the chipbreaker. I have to say the difference was INCREDIBLE! We can now rough the entire part with one tool. Also, the operator doesn’t have to open the door to clear chips hardly at all. We were able to rough and finish a 4.15 dia. bore 2 inches deep through the part without having to clear chips at all. Before we had to clear the chips out at least 15-20 times. Many thanks for your support.”


When slotting, a major concern is chip control. A large buildup of chips can cause the recutting of chips, which adds a lot of heat back into the tool. Chip buildup can also cause a heavy amount of chattering. Both of these conditions are detrimental to tool life. A chip breaking tool can help reduce chip build-up when slotting which will extend tool life. Remember when slotting that 4 flute tools should be utilized in steel. For aluminum and other non- ferrous materials, a 3 flute tool is best.

Trochoidal Slotting

Trochoidal slotting is a form of slotting that uses HEM techniques to form a slot. Trochoidal milling implements a series of circular cuts to create a slot wider than the cutting tool’s cutting diameter. Using the logic listed in the earlier paragraphs of this article, a chipbreaker should be used when performing this operation.

Advantages of Trochoidal Slotting:

Decreased cutting forces

Reduced heat

Greater machining accuracy

Improved tool life

Faster cycle times

One tool for multiple slot sizes


A little known fact about Helical’s chipbreaker style tool is that the chip breakers are offset flute to flute, which allows for a quality finish on the walls of the part. When utilizing light depths of cuts, high-quality finishes can be achieved.

Hardenability of Steel

Many types of steel have a beneficial response to a method of heat treatment known as quenching. One of the most important criteria in the selection process of a workpiece material is hardenability. Hardenability describes how deep a metal can be hardened upon quenching from high temperature, and can also be referred to as the depth of hardening.

Steel At Microscopic Scale:

The first level of classification of steels at a microscopic level is their crystal structure, the way in which atoms are arranged in space. Body-Centered Cubic (BCC) and Face Centered Cubic (FCC) configurations are examples of metallic crystal structures. Examples of BCC and FCC crystal structures can be seen below in Figure 1. Keep in mind that the images in Figure 1 are meant to display atomic position and that the distance between the atoms is exaggerated.

depiction of BBC and FCC crystal structures in steel
Figure 1: Example of a BCC crystal structure (left) and FCC crystal structure (right)

The next level of classification is a phase. A phase is a uniform portion of a material that has the same physical and chemical properties. Steel has 3 different phases:

  1. Austenite: Face-Centered cubic iron; also iron and steel alloys that have the FCC crystal structure.
  2. Ferrite: Body-centered cubic iron and steel alloys that have a BCC crystal structure.
  3. Cementite: Iron carbide (Fe3C)

The final level of classification discussed in this article is the microstructure. The three phases seen above can be combined to form different microstructures of steel. Examples of these microstructures and their general mechanical properties are shown below:

  • Martensite: the hardest and strongest microstructure, yet the most brittle
  • Pearlite: Hard, strong, and ductile but not particularly tough
  • Bainite: has desirable strength-ductility combination, harder than pearlite but not as hard as martensite

Hardening at Microscopic Scale:

The hardenability of steel is a function of the carbon content of the material, other alloying elements, and the grain size of the austenite. Austenite is a gamma phase iron and at high temperatures its atomic structure undergoes a transition from a BCC configuration to an FCC configuration.

High hardenability refers to the ability of the alloy to produce a high martensite percentage throughout the body of the material upon quenching. Hardened steels are created by rapidly quenching the material from a high temperature. This involves a rapid transition from a state of 100% austenite to a high percentage of martensite. If the steel is more than 0.15% carbon, the martensite becomes a highly strained body-centered cubic form and is supersaturated with carbon. The carbon effectively shuts down most slip planes within the microstructure, creating a very hard and brittle material. If the quenching rate is not fast enough, carbon will diffuse out of the austenitic phase. The steel then becomes pearlite, bainite, or if kept hot long enough, ferrite. None of the microstructures just stated have the same strength as martensite after tempering and are generally seen as unfavorable for most applications.

The successful heat treatment of a steel depends on three factors:

  1. The size and shape of the specimen
  2. The composition of the steel
  3. The method of quenching

1. The size and shape of the specimen

During the quenching process, heat must be transferred to the surface of the specimen before it can be dissipated into the quenching medium. Consequently, the rate at which the interior of the specimen cools is dependent on its surface area to volume ratio. The larger the ratio, the more rapid the specimen will cool and therefore the deeper the hardening effect. For example, a 3-inch cylindrical bar with a 1-inch diameter will have a higher hardenability than a 3-inch bar with a 1.5-inch diameter. Because of this effect, parts with more corners and edges are more amendable to hardening by quenching than regular and rounded shapes. Figure 2 is a sample time-temperature transformation (TTT) diagram of the cooling curves of an oil-quenched 95 mm bar. The surface will transform into 100% martensite while the core will contain some bainite and thus have a lower hardness.

graph of sample time temperature transformation
Figure 2: Sample time temperature transformation (TTT) diagram also known as an isothermal transformation diagram

2.  The composition of the steel

It’s important to remember that different alloys of steel contain different elemental compositions. The ratio of these elements relative to the amount of iron within the steel yield a wide variety of mechanical properties. Increasing the carbon content makes steel harder and stronger but less ductile. The predominant alloying element of stainless steels in chromium, which gives the metal its strong resistance to corrosion. Since humans have been tinkering with the composition of steel for over a millennium, the number of combinations is endless.

Because there are so many combinations that yield so many different mechanical properties, standardized tests are used to help categorize different types of steel. A common test for hardenability is the Jominy Test, shown in Figure 3 below. During this test a standard block of material is heated until it is 100% austenite. The block is then quickly moved to an apparatus where it is water quenched. The surface, or the area in contact with the water, is immediately cooled and the rate of cooling drops as a function of distance from the surface. A flat is then ground onto the block along the length of the sample. The hardness at various points is measured along this flat. This data is then plotted in a hardenability chart with hardness as the y-axis and distance as the x-axis.

diagram of Jominy end quench specimen for hardened steel
Figure 3: Diagram of a Jominy end quench specimen mounted during quenching (left) and post hardness testing (right)

Hardenability curves are constructed from the results of Jominy Tests. Examples of a few steel alloy curves are shown in Figure 4. With a diminishing cooling rate (steeper drop in hardness over a short distance), more time is allowed for carbon diffusion and the formation of a greater proportion of softer pearlite. This means less martensite and a lower hardenability. A material that retains higher hardness values over relatively long distances is considered highly hardenable. Also, the greater the difference in hardness between the two ends, the lower the hardenability. It is typical of hardenability curves that as the distance from the quenched end increases, the cooling rate decreases. 1040 steel initially has the same hardness as both 4140 and 4340 but cools extremely quickly over the length of the sample. 4140 and 4340 steel cool at a more gradual rate and therefore have a higher hardenability. 4340 has a less extreme rate of coolness relative to 4140 and thus has the highest hardenability of the trio.

chart of hardenability for 4140, 1040, and 4340 steel
Figure 4: Hardenability charts for 4140, 1040 and 4340 steels

Hardenability curves are dependent on carbon content. A greater percentage of carbon present in steel will increase its hardness. It should be noted that all three alloys in Figure 4 contain the same amount of carbon (0.40% C).  Carbon is not the only alloying element that can have an effect on hardenability. The disparity in hardenability behavior between these three steels can be explained in terms of their alloying elements. Table 1 below shows a comparison of the alloying content in each of the steels. 1040 is a plain carbon steel and therefore has the lowest hardenability as there are no other elements besides iron to block the carbon atoms from escaping the matrix. The nickel added to 4340 allows for a slightly greater amount of martensite to form compared to 4140, giving it the highest hardenability of these three alloys. Most metallic alloying elements slow down the formation of pearlite, ferrite and bainite, therefore they increase a steel’s hardenability.

Table 1: Shows the alloying contents of 4340, 4140, and 1040 steel

Type of Steel: Nickel (wt %): Molybdenum (wt %): Chromium (wt %):
4340 1.85% 0.25% 0.80%
4140 0.00% 0.20% 1.00%
1040 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%

There can be a variation in hardenability within one material group. During the industrial production of steel, there are always slight unavoidable variations in the elemental composition and average grain size from one batch to another. Most of the time a material’s hardenability is represented by maximum and minimum curves set as limits.

Hardenability also increases with increasing austenitic grain size. A grain is an individual crystal in a polycrystalline metal. Think of a stained glass window (like the one seen below), the colored glass would be the grains while the soldering material holding it altogether would be the grain boundaries. Austenite, ferrite, and cementite are all different types of grains that make up the different microstructures of steel. It is at the grain boundaries that the pearlite and bainite will form. This is detrimental to the hardening process as martensite is the desired microstructure, the other types get in the way of its growth. Martensite forms from the rapid cooling of austenite grains and its transformation process is still not well understood. With increasing grain size, there are more austenite grains and fewer grain boundaries. Therefore, there are fewer opportunities for microstructures like pearlite and bainite to form and more opportunities for martensite to form.

colorful glass representing austenite
Figure 5: The colorful glass pieces represent grains of austenite which transforms into the desirable martensite upon quenching. The black portions in between the color portions represent grain boundaries. Sites where pearlite or bainite will form upon quenching.

3. The method of quenching

As previously stated, the type of quench affects the cooling rate. Using oil, water, aqueous polymer quenchants, or air will yield a different hardness through the interior of the workpiece. This also shifts the hardenability curves. Water produces the most severe quench followed by oil and then air. Aqueous polymer quenchants provide quenching rates between those of water and oil and can be tailored to specific applications by changing the polymer concentration and temperature. The degree of agitation also affects the rate of heat removal. The faster the quenching medium moves across the specimen, the greater the quenching effectiveness. Oil quenches are generally used when a water quench may be too severe for a type of steel as it may crack or warp upon treatment.

metalworker quenching casts in an oil bath
Figure 6: Metalworker quenching casts in an oil bath

Machining Hardened Steels:

The type of cutter that should be chosen for processing tools chosen for machining a workpiece after hardening depends on a few different variables. Not counting the geometric requirements specific to the application, two of the most important variables are the material hardness and its hardenability. Some relatively high-stress applications require a minimum of 80% martensite to be produced throughout the interior of the workpiece. Usually, moderately stressed parts only require about 50% martensite throughout the workpiece. When machining a quenched metal with very low hardenability a standard coated solid carbide tool may work without a problem. This is because the hardest portion of the workpiece is limited to its surface. When machining a steel with a high hardenability it is recommended that you use a cutter with specialized geometry that is for that specific application. High hardenability will result in a workpiece that is hard throughout its entire volume. Harvey Tool has a number of different cutters for hardened steel throughout the catalog, including drills, end mills, keyseat cutters, and engravers.


Hardenability is a measure of the depth to which a ferrous alloy may be hardened by the formation of martensite throughout its entire volume, surface to core. It is an important material property you must consider when choosing a steel as well as cutting tools for a particular application. The hardening of any steel depends on the size and shape of the part, the molecular composition of the steel, and the type of quenching method used.

Save Time With Quick Change Tooling

Making a manual tool change on any CNC machine is never a timely or rewarding process. Typically, a tool change in a standard holder can take up to 5 minutes. Add that up a few times, and suddenly you have added significant minutes to your production time.

As CNC machine tool and cutting tool technology has advanced, there are more multi-functional tools available to help you avoid tool changes. However, sometimes it just isn’t feasible, and multiple tool changes are needed. Luckily, Micro 100 has developed a revolutionary new method to speed up tool changes significantly.

What is the Micro-Quik™ Tooling System?

Developed in Micro 100’s world-class grinding facility in Meridian, Idaho, the Micro 100 Micro-Quik™ tooling system is held to the same standards and tight tolerances as all of the Micro 100 carbide tooling.

quick change system with micro 100 boring bar

The quick change tooling system allows for highly repeatable tool changes that save countless hours without sacrificing performance. This system combines a unique tool holder with a unique tool design to deliver highly repeatable and accurate results.

Each quick change tool holder features a locating/locking set screw to secure the tool and a locating pin which helps align the tool for repeatability. Removing a tool is as simple as loosening the set screw and inserting its replacement.

removing tool from quick change system

During tool changes, the precision ground bevel on the rear of the tool aligns with a locating pin inside the tool holder. The distance from this locational point to the tip of the tool is highly controlled under tight tolerances, meaning that the Micro-Quik™ tooling system ensures a very high degree of tool length and centerline repeatability. The “L4” dimension on all of our quick change tools, as seen in the image above, remains consistent across the entire product line. Check out the video below for a demonstration of the Micro 100 Micro-Quik™ system in action!

Quick Change Tooling Benefits

The most obvious benefit to using Micro 100’s Micro-Quik™ Quick Change Tooling System is the time savings that come with easier tool changes. By using the quick change holders in combination with quick change tooling, it is easy to reduce tool changes from 5 minutes to under 30 seconds, resulting in a 90% decrease in time spent swapping out tools. This is a significant benefit to the system, but there are benefits once the tool is in the machine as well.

As mentioned above, the distance from the locational point on each tool shank to the tip of the tool is highly controlled, meaning that regardless of which type of tool you insert into the holder, your stick out will remain the same. This allows you to have confidence in the tooling and does not require additional touch offs, which is another major time saver.

assortment of boring bars with quick change system

By removing additional touch-offs and tool changes from your workflow, you also reduce the chances for human or machine error. Improper touch-offs or tool change errors can cause costly machine crashes and result in serious repairs and downtime. With the Micro 100 Micro-Quik™ Quick Change Tooling System, initial setups become much easier, allowing you to hit the cycle start button with total confidence for each run.

By making a few simple changes to your tool holding configurations and adopting the Micro-Quik™ system, your shop can save thousands in time saved, with less machine downtime and increased part production. To learn more about the Micro 100 Micro-Quik™ cutting tools and tool holders, please visit (URL here to quick change page).

Grappling With Graphite: A Machining Guide

Despite being a softer material, graphite is actually one of the most difficult materials to machine. There are many considerations machinists need to make in terms of tooling, coolant use, and personal safety when it comes to machining these parts. This “In The Loupe” post will examine the material properties, key machining techniques to consider, and tips for properly selecting cutting tools to achieve success in this tricky material.

What is Graphite?

While graphite is an allotrope of carbon, the two terms are not simply interchangeable. Carbon is an element that can form into several different allotropes including graphite, diamond, and fullerite. Graphite happens to be the most stable form of carbon, and is the most common, as carbon naturally occurs as graphite under standard conditions.

Graphite is most recognized for its superior conductivity and resistance to high heat and corrosion. This makes it a common material in high heat, high-pressure situations in the aerospace, electrode, nuclear, energy, and military industries.

graphite cnc material

Even though graphite can handle intense high-pressure situations with ease, it is actually a very soft, abrasive, and brittle material. This can cause serious challenges when machining, as graphite can eat up cutting tools, and severely minimize a tool’s usable life. However, with the proper tooling and techniques, there are ways to optimize graphite machining to be more cost-effective than the competition.

Graphite Machining Techniques

Since graphite is such a soft and brittle material, special consideration needs to be made when machining to avoid chipping it. To get a good cut, it is recommended that you take light chip loads and use lower feed rates in graphite. If you were to take a heavy cut at a fast feed rate, you would start chipping the graphite and could cause it to fracture completely. To give a comparison point, chip loads for graphite are similar to those for Aluminum materials, but with less than half the feed rate.

To give you an idea of speeds and feeds for graphite, here is an example using a 1/4″ Harvey Tool CVD Diamond Coated, 4 flute Square End Mill. If that tool was running at a standard RPM of 12,000 at 780 SFM, the recommended chip load would be .00292 for a feed rate of 140 IPM.

electrode machining

In terms of machine setup, the one major tip to remember is to always avoid using coolant. Graphite is a fairly porous material, and so it can absorb coolant and act as a “coolant sponge,” which will cause problems with finished parts. Inside the machine and on the tooling, the coolant can actually react with the graphite dust and create an abrasive slurry, which will cause problems while machining. A vacuum system is recommended for clearing material while machining graphite. Otherwise, coated tools should be able to run dry.

Another thing to note when machining graphite is that because graphite does not produce chips, but rather a cloud of very abrasive dust, it can be harmful to operators and machines without proper care. Operators should be wearing a protective mask to avoid inhaling the graphite dust. Proper ventilation and maintaining air quality in the shop is also key for the protection of machinists when working in graphite.

Since the graphite dust is also extremely conductive, it can easily damage non-protective circuits inside your CNC machine, which can cause major electrical issues. While coolant is not recommended, a vacuum system can help to remove the dust, keeping it from accumulating too much inside the machine and preventing serious problems.

Cutting Tools for Graphite Machining

As previously mentioned, graphite is a notorious cutting tool-killer due to its extremely abrasive nature. Even the highest quality carbide end mills, if left uncoated, will wear quickly on most jobs. This extreme wear may force a tool change during an operation, which could lead to an imperfection in the part when trying to restart the operation where the worn tool left off.

graphite cutting tools

When selecting a cutting tool for graphite machining, the coating and cutting edge is the most important consideration. Flute count, helix angles, and other key features of the tool geometry ultimately come second to the coating when purchasing tooling.

For graphite machining, a CVD (Chemical Vapor Deposition) diamond coating is recommended whenever possible to maximize tool life and tool performance. These coatings are grown directly into the carbide end mill, improving the hardness and leaving the tool with a coating layer that is 5 times thicker than a PVD Diamond Coating. While not the sharpest edge, the CVD diamond coating provides much longer tool life than other diamond coatings due to the thicker diamond layer.

Even though initial tooling costs may be higher with CVD coated tools versus uncoated tools, since CVD coated tools see considerably longer tool life than uncoated tools, this makes the cost per part shrink significantly. In difficult, abrasive materials like graphite, the uncoated carbide tool will last a short time before the abrasiveness of the graphite completely wears down the cutting edge. Having a CVD coated tool will give you a leg up over the competition, keep your machine running with less downtime for tool changes, and ultimately deliver substantial cost savings.

end mills for graphite
CVD Diamond Coated End Mill from Harvey Tool

Overall, graphite can be a difficult material to machine, but with the right cutting tools and proper speeds and feeds you will be making quality parts in no time. Harvey Tool offers a wide selection of CVD coated end mills in various diameters, reaches, and lengths of cut to ensure you have what you need for any job that comes your way.