Understanding Wood Properties for CNC Woodworking Projects

Machinists oftentimes confuse wood for being an “easy to machine material” because of how much softer the material is than metal. In some sense this is true, as you can program wood cutting parameters 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

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

Hardwood

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.

Softwood

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:
Balsa90
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
Apple1730
Cherry, Brazilian2350
Olive2700
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 machining. 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.

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.

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.

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. 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

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, machining parameters should be reduced when encountering a knotted portion of the workpiece to avoid shock loading.

Figure 5: Photo of a typical knot

How to Optimize Results While Machining with Miniature End Mills

 The machining industry generally considers 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 machining with them. 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

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.

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.

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

Tool deflection has a much greater impact on the formation of chips and accuracy of the operation in miniature 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.

Machining 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 miniatures 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

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.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 micro milling 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.
Figure 3: Variable pitch tool (yellow) vs. a non-variable pitch tool (black)