Slaying Stainless Steel: Machining Guide

Stainless steel can be as common as Aluminum in many shops, especially when manufacturing parts for the aerospace and automotive industries. It is a fairly versatile material with many different alloys and grades which can accommodate a wide variety of applications. However, it is also one of the most difficult to machine. Stainless steels are notorious end mill assassins, so dialing in your speeds and feeds and selecting the proper tool is essential for machining success.

Material Properties

Stainless steels are high-alloy steels with superior corrosion resistance to carbon and low-alloy steels. This is largely due to their high chromium content, with most grades of stainless steel alloys containing at least 10% of the element.

Stainless steel can be broken out into one of five categories: Austenitic, Ferritic, Martensitic, Precipitation Hardened (PH), and Duplex. In each category, there is one basic, general purpose alloy. From there, small changes in composition are made to the base in order to create specific properties for various applications.

For reference, here are the properties of each of these groupings, as well as a few examples of the popular grades and their common uses.

Category Properties Popular Grades Common Uses
Austenitic Non-magnetic, outstanding corrosion and heat resistance. 304, 316 Food processing equipment, gutters, bolts, nuts, and other fasteners.
Ferritic Magnetic, lower corrosion and heat resistance than Austenitic. 430, 446 Automotive parts and kitchen appliances.
Martensitic Magnetic, moderate corrosion resistance – not for severe corrosion. 416, 420, 440 Knives, firearms, surgical instruments, and hand tools.
Precipitation Hardened (PH) Strongest grade, heat treatable, severe corrosion resistance. 17-4 PH, 15-5 PH Aerospace components.
Duplex Stronger mixture of both Austenitic and Ferritic. 244, 2304, 2507 Water treatment plants, pressure vessels.

Tool Selection

Choosing the correct tooling for your application is crucial when machining stainless steel. Roughing, finishing, slotting, and high efficiency milling toolpaths can all be optimized for stainless steel by choosing the correct style of end mill.

Traditional Roughing

For traditional roughing, a 4 or 5 flute end mill is recommended. 5 flute end mills will allow for higher feed rates than their 4 flute counterparts, but either style would work well for roughing applications. Below is an excellent example of traditional roughing in 17-4 Stainless Steel.

 

 

Slotting

For slotting in stainless steel, chip evacuation is going to be key. For this reason, 4 flute tools are the best choice because the lower flute count allows for more efficient chip evacuation. Tools with chipbreaker geometry also make for effective slotting in stainless steel, as the smaller chips are easier to evacuate from the cut.

stainless steel machining

Finishing

When finishing stainless steel parts, a high flute count and/or high helix is required for the best results. Finishing end mills for stainless steel will have a helix angle over 40 degrees, and a flute count of 5 or more. For more aggressive finishing toolpaths, flute count can range from 7 flutes to as high as 14. Below is a great example of a finishing run in 17-4 Stainless Steel.

 

High Efficiency Milling

High Efficiency Milling can be a very effective machining technique in stainless steels if the correct tools are selected. Chipbreaker roughers would make an excellent choice, in either 5 or 7 flute styles, while standard 5-7 flute, variable pitch end mills can also perform well in HEM toolpaths.

stainless steel

HEV-5

Helical Solutions offers the HEV-5 end mill, which is an extremely versatile tool for a variety of applications. The HEV-5 excels in finishing and HEM toolpaths, and also performs well above average in slotting and traditional roughing. Available in square, corner radius, and long reach styles, this well-rounded tool is an excellent choice to kickstart your tool crib and optimize it for stainless steel machining.

stainless steel machining

Running Parameters

While tool selection is a critical step to more effective machining, dialing in the proper running parameters is equally important. There are many factors that go into determining the running parameters for stainless steel machining, but there are some general guidelines to follow as a starting point.

Generally speaking, when machining stainless steels a SFM of between 100-350 is recommended, with a chip load ranging between .0005” for a 1/8” end mill up to .006” for a 1” end mill. A full breakdown of these general guidelines is available here.

Machining Advisor Pro

Machining Advisor Pro is a cutting edge resource designed to precisely calculate running parameters for high performance Helical Solutions end mills in materials like stainless steel, aluminum, and much more. Simply input your tool, your exact material grade, and machine setup and Machining Advisor Pro will generate fully customizable running parameters. This free resource allows you to push your tools harder, faster, and smarter to truly dominate the competition.

In Conclusion

Stainless steel machining doesn’t have to be hard. By identifying the proper material grade for each part, selecting the perfect cutting tool, and optimizing running parameters, stainless steel machining headaches can be a thing of the past.

8 Ways You’re Killing Your End Mill

1. Running It Too Fast or Too Slow

Determining the right speeds and feeds for your tool and operation can be a complicated process, but understanding the ideal speed (RPM) is necessary before you start running your machine. Running a tool too fast can cause suboptimal chip size or even catastrophic tool failure. Conversely, a low RPM can result in deflection, bad finish, or simply decreased metal removal rates. If you are unsure what the ideal RPM for your job is, contact the tool manufacturer.

2. Feeding It Too Little or Too Much

Another critical aspect of speeds and feeds, the best feed rate for a job varies considerably by tool type and workpiece material. If you run your tool with too slow of a feed rate, you run the risk of recutting chips and accelerating tool wear. If you run your tool with too fast of a feed rate, you can cause tool fracture. This is especially true with miniature tooling.

3. Using Traditional Roughing

high efficiency milling

While traditional roughing is occasionally necessary or optimal, it is generally inferior to High Efficiency Milling (HEM). HEM is a roughing technique that uses a lower Radial Depth of Cut (RDOC) and a higher Axial Depth of Cut (ADOC). This spreads wear evenly across the cutting edge, dissipates heat, and reduces the chance of tool failure. Besides dramatically increasing tool life, HEM can also produce a better finish and higher metal removal rate, making it an all-around efficiency boost for your shop.

4. Using Improper Tool Holding

tool holding

Proper running parameters have less of an impact in suboptimal tool holding situations. A poor machine-to-tool connection can cause tool runout, pullout, and scrapped parts. Generally speaking, the more points of contact a tool holder has with the tool’s shank, the more secure the connection. Hydraulic and shrink fit tool holders offer increased performance over mechanical tightening methods, as do certain shank modifications, like Helical’s ToughGRIP shanks and the Haimer Safe-Lock™.

5. Not Using Variable Helix/Pitch Geometry

variable helix

A feature on a variety of high performance end mills, variable helix, or variable pitch, geometry is a subtle alteration to standard end mill geometry. This geometrical feature ensures that the time intervals between cutting edge contact with the workpiece are varied, rather than simultaneous with each tool rotation. This variation minimizes chatter by reducing harmonics, which increases tool life and produces superior results.

6. Choosing the Wrong Coating

end mill coatings

Despite being marginally more expensive, a tool with a coating optimized for your workpiece material can make all the difference. Many coatings increase lubricity, slowing natural tool wear, while others increase hardness and abrasion resistance. However, not all coatings are suitable to all materials, and the difference is most apparent in ferrous and non-ferrous materials. For example, an Aluminum Titanium Nitride (AlTiN) coating increases hardness and temperature resistance in ferrous materials, but has a high affinity to aluminum, causing workpiece adhesion to the cutting tool. A Titanium Diboride (TiB2) coating, on the other hand, has an extremely low affinity to aluminum, and prevents cutting edge build-up and chip packing, and extends tool life.

7. Using a Long Length of Cut

optimal length of cut

While a long length of cut (LOC) is absolutely necessary for some jobs, especially in finishing operations, it reduces the rigidity and strength of the cutting tool. As a general rule, a tool’s LOC should be only as long as needed to ensure that the tool retains as much of its original substrate as possible. The longer a tool’s LOC the more susceptible to deflection it becomes, in turn decreasing its effective tool life and increasing the chance of fracture.

8. Choosing the Wrong Flute Count

flute count

As simple as it seems, a tool’s flute count has a direct and notable impact on its performance and running parameters. A tool with a low flute count (2 to 3) has larger flute valleys and a smaller core. As with LOC, the less substrate remaining on a cutting tool, the weaker and less rigid it is. A tool with a high flute count (5 or higher) naturally has a larger core. However, high flute counts are not always better. Lower flute counts are typically used in aluminum and non-ferrous materials, partly because the softness of these materials allows more flexibility for increased metal removal rates, but also because of the properties of their chips. Non-ferrous materials usually produce longer, stringier chips and a lower flute count helps reduce chip recutting. Higher flute count tools are usually necessary for harder ferrous materials, both for their increased strength and because chip recutting is less of a concern since these materials often produce much smaller chips.

The Anatomy of an End Mill

End mills feature many different dimensions that can be listed in a tool description. It is important to understand how each dimension can impact tool selection, and how even small choices can make all the difference when the tool is in motion.

Flutes

Flutes are the easiest part of the end mill to recognize. These are the deep spiraled grooves in the tool that allow for chip formation and evacuation. Simply put, flutes are the part of the anatomy that allows the end mill to cut on its edge.

end mill flutes

One consideration that must be made during tool selection is flute count, something we have previously covered in depth. Generally, the lower the flute count, the larger the flute valley – the empty space between cutting edges. This void affects tool strength, but also allows for larger chips with heavier depths of cut, ideal for soft or gummy materials like aluminum. When machining harder materials such as steel, tool strength becomes a larger factor, and higher flute counts are often utilized.

Profile

The profile refers to the shape of the cutting end of the tool. It is typically one of three options: square, corner radius, and ball.

Square Profile

Square profile tooling features flutes with sharp corners that are squared off at a 90° angle.

Corner Radius

This type of tooling breaks up a sharp corner with a radius form. This rounding helps distribute cutting forces more evenly across the corner, helping to prevent wear or chipping while prolonging functional tool life. A tool with larger radii can also be referred to as “bull nose.”

Ball Profile

This type of tooling features flutes with no flat bottom, rounded off at the end creating a “ball nose” at the tip of the tool.

Cutter Diameter

The cutter diameter is often the first thing machinists look for when choosing a tool for their job. This dimension refers to the diameter of the theoretical circle formed by the cutting edges as the tool rotates.

cutter diameter

Shank Diameter

The shank diameter is the width of the shank – the non-cutting end of the tool that is held by the tool holder. This measurement is important to note when choosing a tool to ensure that the shank is the correct size for the holder being used. Shank diameters require tight tolerances and concentricity in order to fit properly into any holder.

Overall Length (OAL) & Length of Cut (LOC)

Overall length is easy to decipher, as it is simply the measurement between the two axial ends of the tool. This differs from the length of cut (LOC), which is a measurement of the functional cutting depth in the axial direction and does not include other parts of the tool, such as its shank.

Overall Reach/Length Below Shank (LBS)

An end mill’s overall reach, or length below shank (LBS), is a dimension that describes the necked length of reached tools. It is measured from the start of the necked portion to the bottom of the cutting end of the tool.  The neck relief allows space for chip evacuation and prevents the shank from rubbing in deep-pocket milling applications. This is illustrated in the photo below of a tool with a reduced neck.

end mill neck

Helix Angle

The helix angle of a tool is measured by the angle formed between the centerline of the tool and a straight line tangent along the cutting edge. A higher helix angle used for finishing (45°, for example) wraps around the tool faster and makes for a more aggressive cut. A lower helix angle (35°) wraps slower and would have a stronger cutting edge, optimized for the toughest roughing applications.

helix angle

A moderate helix angle of 40° would result in a tool able to perform basic roughing, slotting, and finishing operations with good results. Implementing a helix angle that varies slightly between flutes is a technique used to combat chatter in some high-performance tooling. A variable helix creates irregular timing between cuts, and can dampen reverberations that could otherwise lead to chatter.

Pitch

Pitch is the degree of radial separation between the cutting edges at a given point along the length of cut, most visible on the end of the end mill. Using a 4-flute tool with an even pitch as an example, each flute would be separated by 90°. Similar to a variable helix, variable pitch tools have non-constant flute spacing, which helps to break up harmonics and reduce chatter. The spacing can be minor but still able to achieve the desired effect. Using a 4-flute tool with variable pitch as an example, the flutes could be spaced at 90.5 degrees, 88.2 degrees, 90.3 degrees, and 91 degrees (totaling 360°).

variable pitch

Why Flute Count Matters

One of the most important considerations when choosing an end mill is determining which flute count is best for the job at hand. Both material and application play an important role in this critical part of the tool selection process. Understanding the effects of flute count on other tool properties, and how a tool will behave in different situations is an essential consideration in the tool selection process.

Tool Geometry Basics

Generally, tools with more flutes have a larger core and smaller flute valleys than tools with fewer flutes.  More flutes with a larger core can provide both benefits and restrictions depending on the application.  Simply put, a larger core is directly proportional to tool strength; the larger the core, the stronger a tool will be.  In turn, a larger core also reduces the flute depth of a tool, restricting the amount of space for chips to exist.  This can cause issues with chip packing in applications requiring heavy material removal.  However, these considerations only lead us part way when making a decision on which tool to use, and when.

flute count core

Material Considerations

Traditionally, end mills came in either a 2 flute or 4 flute option.  The widely accepted rule of thumb was to use 2 flutes for machining aluminum and non-ferrous materials, and 4 flutes for machining steel and harder alloys.  As aluminum and non-ferrous alloys are typically much softer than steels, a tool’s strength is less of a concern, a tool can be fed faster, and larger material removal rates (MRR) is facilitated by the large flute valleys of 2 flute tools.  Ferrous materials are typically much harder, and require the strength of a larger core.  Feed rates are slower, resulting in smaller chips, and allowing for the smaller flute valleys of a larger core tool.  This also allows for more flutes to fit on the tool, which in turn increases productivity.

flute count

Recently, with more advanced machines and toolpaths, higher flute count tools have become the norm in manufacturing.  Non-ferrous tooling has become largely centered on 3 flute tools, allowing greater productivity while still allowing proper chip evacuation.  Ferrous tooling has taken a step further and progressed not only to 5 and 6 flutes, but up to 7 flutes and more in some cases.  With a wider range of hardness, sometimes at the very top of the Rockwell hardness scale, many more flutes have allowed longer tool life, less tool wear, stronger tools, and less deflection.  All of this results in more specialized tools for more specific materials.  The end result is higher MRR and increased productivity.

Running Parameters

Just as material considerations will have an impact on the tool you choose, operation type and depth of cut requirements may also have a big impact on the ideal number of flutes for your application.  In roughing applications, lower flute counts may be desirable to evacuate large amounts of chips faster with larger flute valleys.  That said, there is a balance to find, as modern toolpaths such as High Efficiency Milling (HEM) can achieve extreme MRR with a very small step over, and a higher number of flutes.  In a more traditional sense, higher flute counts are great for finishing operations where very small amounts of material are being removed, and greater finish can be achieved with more flutes, not worrying as much about chip evacuation.

flute count

Flute count plays a big role in speeds and feeds calculation as well.  One common rule of thumb is “more flutes, more feed,” but this can be a very detrimental misconception.  Although true in some cases, this is not an infinitely scalable principle.  As stated previously, increasing the number of flutes on a tool limits the size that the flute valleys can be.  While adding a 5th flute to a 4 flute tool theoretically gives you 25% more material removal per revolution with an appropriately increased feed rate, feeding the tool that much faster may overload the tool.  The 25% increase in material removal is more likely closer to 10-15%, given the tool is exactly the same in all other specifications.  Higher flute count tools may require speeds and feeds to be backed off so much in some cases, that a lower flute count may be even more efficient.  Finding the right balance is key in modern milling practices.

How To Avoid Common Part Finish Problems

Finishing cuts are used to complete a part, achieving its final dimensions within tolerance and its required surface finish. Most often an aesthetic demand and frequently a print specification, surface finish can lead to a scrapped part if requirements are not met. Meeting finish requirements in-machine has become a major point of improvement in manufacturing, as avoiding hand-finishing can significantly reduce costs and cycle times.