5 Questions to Ask Before Selecting an End Mill

Few steps in the machining process are as important as proper end mill selection. Complicating the process is the fact that each individual tool has its own unique geometries, each pivotal to the eventual outcome of your part. We recommend asking yourself 5 key questions before beginning the tool selection process. In doing so, you can ensure that you are doing your due diligence in selecting the best tool for your application. Taking the extra time to ensure that you’re selecting the optimal tool will reduce cycle time, increase tool life, and produce a higher quality product.

Question 1: What Material am I Cutting?

Knowing the material you are working with and its properties will help narrow down your end mill selection considerably. Each material has a distinct set of mechanical properties that give it unique characteristics when machining. For instance, plastic materials require a different machining strategy – and different tooling geometries – than steels do. Choosing a tool with geometries tailored towards those unique characteristics will help to improve tool performance and longevity.

Harvey Tool stocks a wide variety of High Performance Miniature End Mills. Its offering includes tooling optimized for hardened steels, exotic alloys, medium alloy steels, free machining steels, aluminum alloys, highly abrasive materials, plastics, and composites. If the tool you’re selecting will only be used in a single material type, opting for a material specific end mill is likely your best bet. These material specific tools provide tailored geometries and coatings best suited to your specific material’s characteristics. But if you’re aiming for machining flexibility across a wide array of materials, Harvey Tool’s miniature end mill section is a great place to start.

Helical Solutions also provides a diverse product offering tailored to specific materials, including Aluminum Alloys & Non-Ferrous Materials; and Steels, High-Temp Alloys, & Titanium. Each section includes a wide variety of flute counts – from 2 flute end mills to Multi-Flute Finishers, and with many different profiles, coating options, and geometries.

Question 2: Which Operations Will I Be Performing?

An application can require one or many operations. Common machining operations include:

  • Traditional Roughing
  • Slotting
  • Finishing
  • Contouring
  • Plunging
  • High Efficiency Milling

By understanding the operations(s) needed for a job, a machinist will have a better understanding of the tooling that will be needed. For instance, if the job includes traditional roughing and slotting, selecting a Helical Solutions Chipbreaker Rougher to hog out a greater deal of material would be a better choice than a Finisher with many flutes.

Question 3: How Many Flutes Do I Need?

One of the most significant considerations during end mill selection is determining proper flute count. Both the material and application play an important role in this decision.


When working in Non-Ferrous Materials, the most common options are the 2 or 3-flute tools. Traditionally, the 2-flute option has been the desired choice because it allows for excellent chip clearance. However, the 3-flute option has proven success in finishing and High Efficiency Milling applications, because the higher flute count will have more contact points with the material.

Ferrous Materials can be machined using anywhere from 3 to 14-flutes, depending on the operation being performed.


Traditional Roughing: When roughing, a large amount of material must pass through the tool’s flute valleys en route to being evacuated. Because of this, a low number of flutes – and larger flute valleys – are recommend. Tools with 3, 4, or 5 flutes are commonly used for traditional roughing.

Slotting: A 4-flute option is the best choice, as the lower flute count results in larger flute valleys and more efficient chip evacuation.

Finishing: When finishing in a ferrous material, a high flute count is recommended for best results. Finishing End Mills include anywhere from 5-to-14 flutes. The proper tool depends on how much material remains to be removed from a part.

High Efficiency Milling: HEM is a style of roughing that can be very effective and result in significant time savings for machine shops. When machining an HEM toolpath, opt for 5 to 7-flutes.

guide for proper end mill selection

Question 4: What Specific Tool Dimensions are Needed?

After specifying the material you are working in, the operation(s) that are going to be performed, and the number of flutes required, the next step is making sure that your end mill selection has the correct dimensions for the job. Examples of key considerations include cutter diameter, length of cut, reach, and profile.

Cutter Diameter

The cutter diameter is the dimension that will define the width of a slot, formed by the cutting edges of the tool as it rotates. Selecting a cutter diameter that is the wrong size – either too large or small – can lead to the job not being completed successfully or a final part not being to specifications.  For example, smaller cutter diameters offer more clearance within tight pockets, while larger tools provide increased rigidity in high volume jobs.

Length of Cut & Reach

The length of cut needed for any end mill should be dictated by the longest contact length during an operation. This should be only as long as needed, and no longer. Selecting the shortest tool possible will result in minimized overhang, a more rigid setup, and reduced chatter. As a rule of thumb, if an application calls for cutting at a depth greater than 5x the tool diameter, it may be optimal to explore necked reach options as a substitute to a long length of cut.

Tool Profile

The most common profile styles for end mills are square, corner radius, and ball. The square profile on an end mill has flutes with sharp corners that are squared off at 90°. A corner radius profile replaces the fragile sharp corner with a radius, adding strength and helping to prevent chipping while prolonging tool life. Finally, a ball profile features flutes with no flat bottom, and is rounded off at the end creating a “ball nose” at the tip of the tool. This is the strongest end mill style.  A fully rounded cutting edge has no corner, removing the mostly likely failure point from the tool, contrary to a sharp edge on a square profile end mill. An end mill profile is often chosen by part requirements, such as square corners within a pocket, requiring a square end mill.  When possible, opt for a tool with the largest corner radius allowable by your part requirements. We recommend a corner radii whenever your application allows for it. If square corners are absolutely required, consider roughing with a corner radius tool and finishing with the square profile tool.

end mill selection

Question 5: Should I use a Coated Tool?

When used in the correct application, a coated tool will help to boost performance by providing the following benefits:

  • More Aggressive Running Parameters
  • Prolonged Tool life
  • Improved Chip Evacuation

Harvey Tool and Helical Solutions offer many different coatings, each with their own set of benefits. Coatings for ferrous materials, such as AlTiN Nano or TPlus, typically have a high max working temperature, making them suitable for materials with a low thermal conductivity. Coatings for non-ferrous applications, such as TiB2 or ZPlus, have a low coefficient of friction, allowing for easier machining operations. Other coatings, such as Amorphous Diamond or CVD Diamond Coatings, are best used in abrasive materials because of their high hardness rating.

Ready to Decide on an End Mill

There are many factors that should be considered while looking for the optimal tooling for the job, but asking the aforementioned five key question during the process will help you to make the right decision. As always, The Harvey Performance Company Technical Service Department is always available to provide recommendations and walk you through the tool selection process, if need be.

Harvey Tool Technical Support: 800-645-5609

Helical Solutions Technical Support: 866-543-5422

Contouring Considerations

What is Contouring?

Contouring a part means creating a fine finish on an irregular or uneven surface. Dissimilar to finishing a flat or even part, cnc contouring involves the finishing of a rounded, curved, or otherwise uniquely shaped part.

CNC Contouring & 5-Axis Machining

5-axis machines are particularly suitable for contouring applications. Because contouring involves the finishing of an intricate or unique part, the multiple axes of movement in play with 5-axis Machining allow for the tool to access tough-to-reach areas, as well as follow intricate tool paths.

Recent  Advances

Advanced CAM software can now write the G-Code (the step-by-step program needed to create a finished part) for a machinists application, which has drastically simplified contouring applications. Simply, rather than spend several hours writing the code for an application, the software now handles this step. Despite these advances, most young machinists are still required to write their own G-Codes early on in their careers to gain valuable familiarity with the machines and their abilities. CAM software, for many, is a luxury earned with time.

Benefits of Advanced CAM Software

1. Increased Time Savings
Because contouring requires very specific tooling movements and rapidly changing cutting parameters, ridding machinists of the burden of writing their own complex code can save valuable prep time and reduce machining downtime.

2. Reduced Cycle Times
Generated G-Codes can cut several minutes off of a cycle time by removing redundancies within the application. Rather than contouring an area of the part that does not require it, or has been machined already, the CAM Software locates the very specific areas that require machining time and attention to maximize efficiency.

3. Improved Consistency
CAM Programs that are packaged with CAD Software such as SolidWorks are typically the best in terms of consistency and ability to handle complex designs. While the CAD Software helps a machinist generate the part, the CAM Program tells a machine how to make it.

Proper Tips

Utilize Proper Cut Depths

Prior to running a contouring operation, an initial roughing cut is taken to remove material in steps on the Z-axis so to leave a limited amount of material for the final contouring pass. In this step, it’s pivotal to leave the right amount of material for contouring — too much material for the contouring pass can result in poor surface finish or a damaged part or tool, while too little material can lead to prolonged cycle time, decreased productivity and a sub par end result.

CNC Contouring planes

The contouring application should remove from .010″ to 25% of the tool’s cutter diameter. During contouring, it’s possible for the feeds to decrease while speeds increases, leading to a much smoother finish. It is also important to keep in mind that throughout the finishing cut, the amount of engagement between the tool’s cutting edge and the part will vary regularly – even within a single pass.

Use Best Suited Tooling

Ideal tool selection for contouring operations begins by choosing the proper profile of the tool. A large radius or ball profile is very often used for this operation because it does not leave as much evidence of a tool path. Rather, they effectively smooth the material along the face of the part. Undercutting End Mills, also known as lollipop cutters, have spherical ball profiles that make them excellent choices for contouring applications. Harvey Tool’s 300° Reduced Shank Undercutting End Mill, for example, features a high flute count to benefit part finish for light cut depths, while maintaining the ability to reach tough areas of the front or back side of a part.

CNC Contouring ball end mill

Fact-Check G-Code

While advanced CAM Software will create the G-Code for an application, saving a machinist valuable time and money, accuracy of this code is still vitally important to the overall outcome of the final product. Machinists must look for issues such as wrong tool call out, rapids that come too close to the material, or even offsets that need correcting. Failure to look G-Code over prior to beginning machining can result in catastrophic machine failure and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage.

Inserting an M01 – or a notation to the machine in the G-Code to stop and await machinist approval before moving on to the next step – can help a machinist to ensure that everything is approved with a next phase of an operation, or if any redundancy is set to occur, prior to continuation.

Contouring Summarized

CNC contouring is most often used in 5-axis machines as a finishing operation for uniquely shaped or intricate parts. After an initial roughing pass, the contouring operation – done most often with Undercutting End Mills or Ball End Mills, removes anywhere from .010″ to 25% of the cutter diameter in material from the part to ensure proper part specifications are met and a fine finish is achieved. During contouring, cut only at recommended depths, ensure that G-Code is correct, and use tooling best suited for this operation.

The Advances of Multiaxis Machining

CNC Machine Growth

As the manufacturing industry has developed, so too have the capabilities of machining centers. CNC Machines are constantly being improved and optimized to better handle the requirements of new applications. Perhaps the most important way these machines have improved over time is in the multiple axes of direction they can move, as well as orientation. For instance, a traditional 3-axis machine allows for movement and cutting in three directions, while a 2.5-axis machine can move in three directions but only cut in two. The possible number of axes for a multiaxis machine varies from 4 to 9, depending on the situation. This is assuming that no additional sub-systems are installed to the setup that would provide additional movement. The configuration of a multiaxis machine is dependent on the customer’s operation and the machine manufacturer.

Multiaxis Machining

With this continuous innovation has come the popularity of multiaxis machines – or CNC machines that can perform more than three axes of movement (greater than just the three linear axes X, Y, and Z). Additional axes usually include three rotary axes, as well as movement abilities of the table holding the part or spindle in place. Machines today can move up to 9 axes of direction.

Multiaxis machines provide several major improvements over CNC machines that only support 3 axes of movement. These benefits include:

  • Increasing part accuracy/consistency by decreasing the number of manual adjustments that need to be made.
  • Reducing the amount of human labor needed as there are fewer manual operations to perform.
  • Improving surface finish as the tool can be moved tangentially across the part surface.
  • Allowing for highly complex parts to be made in a single setup, saving time and cost.

9-Axis Machine Centers

The basic 9-axis naming convention consists of three sets of three axes.

multiaxis machining

Set One

The first set is the X, Y, and Z linear axes, where the Z axis is in line with the machine’s spindle, and the X and Y axes are parallel to the surface of the table. This is based on a vertical machining center. For a horizontal machining center, the Z axis would be aligned with the spindle.

Set Two

The second set of axes is the A, B, and C rotary axes, which rotate around the X, Y, and Z axes, respectively. These axes allow for the spindle to be oriented at different angles and in different positions, which enables tools to create more features, thereby decreasing the number of tool changes and maximizing efficiency.

Set Three

The third set of axes is the U, V, and W axes, which are secondary linear axes that are parallel to the X, Y, and Z axes, respectively. While these axes are parallel to the X, Y, and Z axes, they are managed by separate commands. The U axis is common in a lathe machine. This axis allows the cutting tool to move perpendicular to the machine’s spindle, enabling the machined diameter to be adjusted during the machining process.

The Growing Industry of Multiaxis Machining

In summary, as the manufacturing industry has grown, so too have the abilities of CNC Machines. Today, tooling can move across nine different axes, allowing for the machining of more intricate, precise, and delicate parts. Additionally, this development has worked to improve shop efficiency by minimizing manual labor and creating a more perfect final product.

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 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 flute patterns

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.


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 End Mills

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

Corner Radius End Mills

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 End Mills

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.

end mill 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 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

Ball Nose Milling Strategy Guide

Ball Nose Milling Without a Tilt Angle

Ball nose end mills are ideal for machining 3-dimensional contour shapes typically found in the mold and die industry, the manufacturing of turbine blades, and fulfilling general part radius requirements. To properly employ a ball nose end mill (with no tilt angle) and gain the optimal tool life and part finish, follow the 2-step process below (see Figure 1).

ball nose

Step One: Calculate Your Effective Cutting Diameter

A ball nose end mill’s Effective Cutting Diameter (Deff) differs from its actual cutting diameter when utilizing an Axial Depth of Cut (ADOC) that is less than the full radius of the ball. Calculating the effective cutting diameter can be done using the chart below that represents some common tool diameters and ADOC combinations or by using the traditional calculation (see Figure 2).

ball nose effective cutting diameter chart

ball nose cutting diameter calculation

Step Two: Calculate Your Compensated Speed

Given the new effective cutting diameter a “Compensated Speed” will need to be calculated. If you are using less than the cutter diameter, then its likely your RPM’s will need to be adjusted upward (see Figure 3).

ball nose compensated speed calculation

ADOC = Axial Depth of Cut
D = Cutting Diameter
Deff = Effective Cutting Diameter
R = Tool Radius (Dia./2)
RDOC = Radial Depth of Cut
SFM = Surface Feet per Minute
Sc = Compensated Speed

Ball Nose Milling With a Tilt Angle

If possible, it is highly recommended to use ball nose end mills on an incline (ß) to avoid a “0” SFM condition at the center of the tool, thus increasing tool life and part finish (Figure 4). For ball nose optimization (and in addition to tilting the tool), it is highly recommended to feed the tool in the direction of the incline and utilize a climb milling technique.

ball nose milling with tilt angle

To properly employ a ball nose end mill with a tool angle and gain the most optimal tool life and part finish, follow the 2-step process below.

Step One: Calculate Your Effective Cutting Diameter

The chart below that represents some common effective cutting diameters and ADOCs at a 15º tilt angle. Otherwise, the traditional calculation below may be used (see Figure 5).

ball nose cutting diameter

ball nose cutting diameter calculation

Step Two: Calculate Your Compensated Speed

Given the new effective cutting diameter a compensated speed will need to be calculated. If you are using less than the cutter diameter, then its likely your RPM’s will need to be adjusted upward (see Figure 6).

ball nose compensated speed calculation

Deff = Effective Cutting Diameter
SFM = Mfg Recommended Surface Feet per Minute
Sc = Compensated Speed