What To Know About Helical Solution’s Zplus Coating

Non-ferrous and non-metallic materials are not usually considered difficult to machine, and therefore, machinists often overlook the use of tool coatings. But while these materials may not present the same machining difficulties as hardened steels and other ferrous materials, a coating can still vastly improve performance in non-ferrous applications. For instance, materials such as aluminum and graphite can cause machinists headaches because of the difficulty they often create from abrasion. To alleviate these issues in non-ferrous machining applications, a popular coating choice is Helical Solution’s Zplus coating.

zplus coating

What is Helical Solutions’ Zplus Coating?

Helical’s Zplus is a Zirconium Nitride-based coating, applied by a Physical Vapor Deposition (PVD) process. This method of coating takes place in a vacuum and forms layers only microns thick onto the properly prepared tool. Zirconium Nitride does not chemically react to a variety of non-ferrous metals, increasing the lubricity of the tool and aiding in chip evacuation.

zplus coating

When Should a Machinist Use Helical Solution’s Zplus?

Working with Abrasive Materials

While Zplus was created initially for working in aluminum, its hardness level and maximum working temperature of 1,110°F enables it to work well in abrasive forms of other non-ferrous materials, as well. This coating decreases the coefficient of friction between the tool and the part, allowing it to move easier through more abrasive materials. This abrasion resistance decreases the rate of tool wear, prolonging tool life.

Concerns with Efficient Chip Evacuation

One of the primary functions of this coating is to increase the smoothness of the flutes of the tool, which allows for more efficient chip removal. By decreasing the amount of friction between the tool and the material, chips will not stick to the tool, helping to prevent chip packing. The increased lubricity and smoothness provided by the coating allows for a higher level of performance from the cutting tool. Zplus is also recommended for use in softer, gummy alloys, as the smooth surface encourages maximum lubricity within the material – this decreases the likelihood of those gummier chips sticking to the tool while machining.

Large Production Runs

Uncoated tools can work well in many forms of non-ferrous applications. However, to get a genuinely cost-effective tool for your job, the proper coating is highly recommended. Large production runs are known for putting a lot of wear and tear on tools due to their increased use, and by utilizing an appropriate coating, there can be a significant improvement in the tools working life.

When is Zplus Coating Not Beneficial to My Application?

Finishing Applications

When your parts finish is vital to its final application, a machinist may want to consider going with an uncoated tool. As with any coating, ZrN will leave a very minor rounded edge on the tip of the cutting edge. The best finish often requires an extremely sharp tool, and an uncoated tool will have a sharper cutting edge than its coated version.


Workholding Styles & Considerations

Machinists have a number of variables to consider when setting up workholding devices for a machining operation. When it comes to workholding, there are some major differences between holding a loosely toleranced duplicate part with a 10-minute cycle time and holding a tightly toleranced specialized part with a 10-hour cycle time. Determining which method works best for your machining job is essential to maintaining an efficient operation.

Workholding Devices

Ideal workholding devices have easily repeatable setups. For this reason, some machines have standard workholding devices. Vises are generally used with milling machines while chucks or collets are used when running a lathe machine. Sometimes, a part may need a customized workholding setup in order to secure the piece properly during machining. Fixtures and jigs are examples of customized workholding devices.

Fixtures and Jigs

A jig is a work holding device that holds, supports and locates a workpiece and guides the cutting tool into a specific operation (usually through the use of one or more bushings). A fixture is essentially the same type of device, but the main difference is that it does not guide the cutting tool into a specified operation. Fixtures are typically used in milling operations while jigs are generally used in drilling, reaming, tapping and boring. Jigs and fixtures are more precise relative to standard workholding devices, which leads to tighter tolerances. They can also be indexable, allowing them to control the cutting tool movement as well as workpiece movement. Both jigs and fixtures are made up of the same basic components: fixture bodies, locators, supports, and clamps.

The 4 Fixture Bodies

There are 4 basic types of fixture bodies: faceplates, baseplates, angle plates, and tombstones.

Faceplates: Typically used in lathe operations, where components are secured to the faceplate and then mounted onto the spindle.

Baseplates: Common in milling and drilling operations and are mounted to the worktable.

Angle plates: Two plates perpendicular to each other but some are adjustable or customized to change the angle of the workpiece.

Tombstones: Large vertically oriented rectangular fixtures that orients a workpiece perpendicular to the worktable. Tombstones also have two sides to accommodate multiple parts.



Locators are characterized by four criteria: assembled, integral, fixed, and adjustable. Assembled locators, can be attached and removed from the fixture, which is contrary to integral locators that are built into the fixture. Fixed locators allow for no moving components, while adjustable locators permit movement through the use of threads and/or springs, and can adjust to a workpiece’s size. These can be combined to provide the appropriate rigidity-assembly convenience ratio. For example, a V-locator fixture is the combination of assembled and fixed locators. It can be secured to a fixture but has no moving components.



Supports do exactly what their name suggests, they support the workpiece during the machining process to avoid workpiece deformation. These components can double as locators and also come fixed, adjustable and integral, or assembled. Generally, supports are placed under the workpiece during manufacturing but this also depends on the geometry of the workpiece, the machine being operated and where the cutting tool will make contact. Supports can come in different shapes and sizes. For example, rest buttons are smaller support components used in series either from underneath the workpiece or from the sides. Concurrently, parallel supports are placed on either side of the part to provide general support.



Clamps are devices used for strengthening or holding things together, and come in different shapes, sizes and strengths. Vises and chucks have movable jaws and are considered standard clamps. One atypical example is the toggle clamp, which has a pivot pin that acts as a fulcrum for a lever system. One of the more convenient types is a power clamping system. There are two type of power clamping methods: hydraulic and pneumatic.


Example of a standard fixture setup.

Hydraulic Systems

Hydraulic Systems create a gripping force by attaining power from compressing a liquid. This type of power clamp is generally used with larger workpieces as it usually takes up less space relative to pneumatic clamps.

Pneumatic clamps

Pneumatic clamps attain their gripping force from the power created by a compressed gas (usually air). These systems are generally bulkier and are used for smaller workpieces that require less room on the worktable. Power clamping offers a few advantages over conventional clamping. First, these systems can be activated and deactivated quickly to save on changeover time. Second, they place uniform pressure on the part, which help prevent errors and deformation. A significant disadvantage they pose is the cost of a system but this can be quickly offset by production time saved.

Key Guidelines to Follow

Lastly, there are a few guidelines to follow when choosing the appropriate fixture or jig setup.

Ensure Proper Tolerancing

The tolerances of the workholding device being used should be 20%-50% tighter than those of the workpiece.

Utilize Acceptable Locating & Supporting Pieces

Locating and supporting pieces should be made of a hardened material to prevent wear and allow for several uses without the workpieces they support falling out of tolerance. Supports and locators should also be standardized so that they can be easily replaced.

Place Clamps in Correct Locations

Clamps should be placed above the locations of supports to allow the force of the clamp to pass into the support without deforming the workpiece. Clamps, locators and supports should also be placed to distribute cutting forces as evenly as possible throughout the part. The setup should allow for easy clamping and not require much change over time

Maximize Machining Flexibility

The design of the fixture or jigs should maximize the amount of operations that can be performed in one orientation. During the machining operation, the setup should be rigid and stable.

Bottom Line

Workholding can be accomplished in a number of different ways and accomplish the same task of successfully gripping a part during a machining operation with the end result being in tolerance. The quality of this workholding may differ greatly as some setups will be more efficient than others. For example, there is no reason to create an elaborate jig for creating a small slot down the center of a rectangular brick of aluminum; a vise grip would work just fine. Maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of an operators’ workholding setup will boost productivity by saving on changeover, time as well as cost of scrapped, out of tolerance parts.

Get to Know Machining Advisor Pro

Machining Advisor Pro (MAP) is a tool to quickly, seamlessly, and accurately deliver recommended running parameters to machinists using Helical Solutions end mills. This download-free and mobile-friendly application takes into account a user’s machine, tool path, set-up, and material to offer tailored, specific speeds and feed parameters to the tools they are using.

How to Begin with Machining Advisor Pro

This section will provide a detailed breakdown of Machining Advisor Pro, moving along step-by- step throughout the entire process of determining your tailored running parameters.

Register Quickly on Desktop or Mobile

To begin with Machining Advisor Pro, start by accessing its web page on the Harvey Performance Company website, or use the mobile version by downloading the application from the App Store or Google Play.

Whether you are using Machining Advisor Pro from the web or from your mobile device, machinists must first create an account. The registration process will only need to be done once before you will be able to log into Machining Advisor Pro on both the mobile and web applications immediately.

machining advisor pro

Simply Activate Your Account

The final step in the registration process is to activate your account. To do this, simply click the activation link in the email that was sent to the email address used when registering. If you do not see the email in your inbox, we recommend checking your spam folders or company email filters. From here, you’re able to begin using MAP.

Using MAP

A user’s experience will be different depending on whether they’re using the web or mobile application. For instance, after logging in, users on the web application will view a single page that contains the Tool, Material, Operation, Machine, Parameter, and Recommendation sections.

machining advisor pro


On the mobile application, however, the “Input Specs” section is immediately visible. This is a summary of the Tool, Material, Operation, and Machine sections that allows a user to review and access any section. Return to this screen at any point by clicking on the gear icon in the bottom left of the screen.

machining advisor pro

Identify Your Helical Tool

To get started generating your running parameters, specify the Helical Solutions tool that you are using. This can be done by entering the tool number into the “Tool #” input field (highlighted in red below). As you type the tool number, MAP will filter through Helical’s 3,400-plus tools to begin identifying the specific tool you are looking for.

machining advisor pro

Once the tool is selected, the “Tool Details” section will populate the information that is specific to the chosen tool. This information will include the type of tool chosen, its unit of measure, profile, and other key dimensional attributes.

machining advisor pro

Select the Material You’re Working In

Once your tool information is imported, the material you’re working in will need to be specified. To access this screen on the mobile application, either swipe your screen to the left or click on the “Material” tab seen at the bottom of the screen. You will move from screen to screen across each step in the mobile application by using the same method.

In this section, there are more than 300 specific material grades and conditions available to users. The first dropdown menu will allow you to specify the material you are working in. Then, you can choose the subgroup of that material that is most applicable to your application. In some cases, you will also need to choose a material condition. For example, you can select from “T4” or “T6” condition for 6061 Aluminum.

machining advisor pro

Machining Advisor Pro provides optimized feeds and speeds that are specific to your application, so it is important that the condition of your material is selected.

Pick an Operation

The next section of MAP allows the user to define their specific operation. In this section, you will define the tool path strategy that will be used in this application. This can be done by either selecting the tool path from the dropdown menu, or clicking on “Tool Path Info” for a visual breakdown and more information on each available toolpath.

machining advisor pro

Tailor Parameters to Your Machine’s Capabilities

The final section on mobile, and the fourth web section, is the machine section. This is where a user can define the attributes of the machine that you are using. This will include the Max RPM, Max IPM, Spindle, Holder, and work holding security. Running Parameters will adjust based on your responses.

machining advisor pro

Access Machining Advisor Pro Parameters

Once the Tool, Material, Operation, and Machine sections are populated there will be enough information to generate the initial parameters, speed, and feed. To access these on the mobile app, either swipe left when on the machine tab or tap on the “Output” tab on the bottom menu.

machining advisor pro

Please note that these are only initial values. Machining Advisor Pro gives you the ability to alter the stick out, axial depth of cut, and radial depth of cut to match the specific application. These changes can either be made by entering the exact numeric value, the % of cutter diameter, or by altering the slider bars.machining advisor pro

The parameters section also offers a visual representation of the portion of the tool that will be engaged with the materials as well as the Tool Engagement Angle.

MAP’s Recommendations

At this point, you can now review the recommended feeds and speeds that Machining Advisor Pro suggests based on the information you have input. These optimized running parameters can then be further refined by altering the speed and feed dials.

machining advisor pro

Machining Advisor Pro recommendations can be saved by clicking on the PDF button that is found in the recommendation section on both the web and mobile platforms. This will automatically generate a PDF of the recommendations, allowing you to print, email, or share with others.

Machining Advisor Pro Summarized

The final section, exclusive to the mobile application, is the “Summary” section. To access this section, first tap on the checkmark icon in the bottom menu. This will open a section that is similar to the “Input Specs” section, which will give you a summary of the total parameter outputs. If anything needs to change, you can easily jump to each output item by tapping on the section you need to adjust.

machining advisor pro

This is also where you would go to reset the application to clear all of the inputs and start a new setup. On the web version, this button is found in the upper right hand corner and looks like a “refresh” icon on a web browser.

Contact Us

For the mobile application we have implemented an in-app messaging service. This was done to give the user a tool to easily communicate any question they have about the application from within the app. It allows the user to not only send messages, but to also include screen shots of what they are seeing! This can be accessed by clicking on the “Contact Us” option in the same hamburger menu that the Logout and Help & Tips are found.

Have more questions? Check out our MAP FAQs for more information.

B&R Custom Machining- Featured Customer

B&R Custom Machining is a rapidly expanding aerospace machine shop located in Ontario, Canada, focused primarily on aerospace and military/defense manufacturing. Over the past 17 years, B&R has grown from a 5 person shop with a few manual mills and lathes, into one of Canada’s most highly respected manufacturing facilities, with nearly 40 employees and 21 precision CNC machines.

B&R focuses on quality assurance and constant improvement, mastering the intimacies of metal cutting and maintaining the highest levels of quality through their unique shop management philosophies. They seek to consistently execute on clear contracts through accurate delivery, competitive price, and high quality machined components.

We talked with Brad Jantzi, Co-Founder and Technical Manager of B&R Custom Machining, to learn about how he started in the industry, his experience with High Efficiency Milling, what he looks for most in a cutting tool, and more!

B&R Custom machining

Can you tell us a little bit about how B&R Custom Machining started, and a little background about yourself and the company?

My brother (Ryan Jantzi, CEO/Co-Founder) and I started working in manufacturing back in 2001, when we were just 20/21 years old. We had 5 employees (including ourselves), a few manual mills and lathes, and we were wrapping our parts in newspaper for shipping. We took over from a preexisting shop and assumed their sales and machines.

We bought our first CNC machine in 2003, and immediately recognized the power of CNC and the opportunities it could open up for us. Now, we have 21 CNC machines, 38 employees, and more requests for work than we can keep up with, which is a good thing for the business. We are constantly expanding our team to elevate the business and take on even more work, and are currently hiring for multiple positions if anyone in Ontario is looking for some challenging and rewarding work!

What kind of CNC machines are you guys working with?

Right now we have a lot of Okuma and Matsuura machines, many of which have 5 axis capabilities, and all of them with high RPM spindles. In fact, our “slowest” machine runs at 15k RPM, with our fastest running at 46k. One of our high production machines is our Matsuura LX160, which has the 46k RPM spindle. We use a ton of Harvey Tool and Helical product on that machine and really get to utilize the RPMs.

B&R Custom Machining

What sort of material are you cutting?

We work with Aluminum predominantly, but also with a lot of super alloys like Invar, Kovar, Inconel, Custom 455 Stainless, and lots of Titanium. Some of those super alloys are really tricky stuff to machine. Once we learn about them and study them, we keep a recorded database of information to help us dial in parameters. Our head programmer/part planner keeps track of all that information, and our staff will frequently reference old jobs for new parts.

Sounds like a great system you guys have in place. How did B&R Custom Machining get into aerospace manufacturing?

It is a bit of a funny story actually. Just about 12 years ago we were contacted by someone working at Comdev, which is close to our shop, who was looking to have some parts made. We started a business relationship with him, and made him his parts. He was happy with the work, and so we eventually got involved in his company’s switch division and started to make more and more aerospace parts.

aerospace machining

We immediately saw the potential of aerospace manufacturing, and it promoted where we wanted to go with CNC machining, so it was a natural fit. It really was a case of being in the right place at the right time and seizing the moment. If an opportunity comes up and you aren’t ready for it, you miss it. You have to be hungry enough to see an opportunity, and confident enough to grab it, while also being competent enough to handle the request. So, we took advantage of what we were given, and we grew and went from there.

Who are some of the major players who you work with?

We have great relationships with Honeywell, MDA Brampton, and MDA Quebec. We actually worked on parts for a Mars Rover with MDA that was commissioned by the Canadian Space Agency, which was really cool to be a part of.

Working with large companies like that means quality is key. Why is high quality tool performance important to you?

High quality and superior tool performance is huge. Aside from cutting conditions, there are two quick things that cause poor performance on a tool: tool life and consistency of the tool quality. One without the other means nothing. We all can measure tool life pretty readily, and there is a clear advantage that some tools have over others, but inconsistent quality can sneak up on you and cause trouble. If you have a tool manufacturer that is only producing a quality tool even 95% of the time, that might seem ok, but that means that 5% of the time you suffer something wrong on the machine. Many times, you won’t know where that trouble is coming from. This causes you to pause the machine, investigate, source the problem, and then ultimately switch the tool and create a new program. It becomes an ordeal. Sometimes it is not as simple as manually adjusting the feed knob, especially when you need to rely on it as a “proven program” the next time around.

So, say the probability of a shortcoming on a machine is “x” with one brand of tooling, but is half of that with a brand like Harvey Tool. Sure, the Harvey Tool product might be 10-20% higher in upfront cost, but that pales in comparison to buying cheaper tools and losing time and money due to machine downtime caused by tool failure. The shop rate for an average machine is right around $100/hour, so machine downtime is much more expensive than the added cost of a quality tool.

B&R Custom machining

Inconsistent tool quality can be extremely dangerous to play around with, even outside of machine downtime. We create based on a specific tool and a certain level of expected performance. If that tool cannot be consistent, we now jeopardize an expensive part. The machine never went down, but the part is no good because we programmed based on consistency in tool quality. Again, the cost of scrapped parts heavily outweighs the upfront cost of quality tooling. Tooling is a low cost of what we do here, but poor tooling can cost us thousands versus a few dollars more for quality tools. Too many people focus on the upfront cost, and don’t look downstream through the rest of the process to see how poor quality tooling can affect your business in a much bigger way. We get to see the whole picture because I am involved from cradle to grave, gaining feedback and knowledge along the way.

That’s great feedback Brad, and I think it is important for people to understand what you have laid out here. Speaking of tool performance, have you guys been using High Efficiency Milling techniques in the shop?

Absolutely. We feel that we are on the front edge of efficient milling. We are quite capable of all the latest techniques, as our programmers are well-versed and up to date. For our larger production work, we have programs dialed in that allow us to push the tools to their limits and significantly cut down our cycle times.

What advice would you have for others who are interested in High Efficiency Milling?

Make sure you are smart about using HEM. If we have one-off parts, particularly expensive ones, that do not have time restraints, we want to make sure we have a safe toolpath that will get us the result we want (in terms of quality and cutting security), rather than pushing the thresholds and taking extra time to program the HEM toolpaths. HEM makes total sense for large production runs, but make sure you know when to, and when not to use these techniques to get the most out of HEM.

B&R Custom machining

Have you been using Machining Advisor Pro in your shop when you run Helical end mills?

We have been, and it makes for a great point of reference for the Helical end mills. It has become a part of our new employee training, teaching them about speeds and feeds, how hard they can push the Helical tools, and where the safe zones are. Our more experienced guys also frequent it for new situations where they have no data. Machining Advisor Pro helps to verify what we thought we knew, or helps us get the confidence to start planning for a new job.

If you could give one piece of advice to a new machinist, or someone looking to take the #PlungeIntoMachining for the first time, what would it be?

Learn the intimacies of metal cutting. Get ultra-familiar with the results of what is actually happening with your tool, your setup, your part, and your machine. As well, don’t be limited to thinking “it sounds good,” or “it’s going good so far, so that must be acceptable.” In order to push the tools and confirm they are performing well and making money, you need to identify and understand where the threshold of failure is, and back off the right amount. This doesn’t end here though. Cutting conditions change as the tools, holders, machines, and parts change. Learning the nuances of this fluctuating environment and adapting accordingly is essential. Verify your dimensions, mitigate against risk, and control the variables.

Also, get intimate with what causes tools to succeed and fail, and keep a log of it for reference. Develop a passion for cutting; don’t just punch in and punch out each shift. Here at B&R, we are looking for continuous improvement, and employees who can add value. Don’t stand around all day with your arms folded, but keep constant logs of what’s going on and always be learning and thinking of how to understand what is happening, and improve on it. That is what makes a great machinist, and a successful shop.

B&R custom machining

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.




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


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


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.

Attacking Aluminum: A Machining Guide

Aluminum is one of the most commonly machined materials, as most forms of the material feature excellent machinability, and is thus a commonly used material in manufacturing. Because of this, the competition for aluminum machining can be intense. Understanding the basics behind tool selection, running parameters, and advanced milling techniques for aluminum can help machinists earn a competitive advantage.

Material Properties

Aluminum is a highly formable, workable, lightweight material. Parts made from this material can be found in nearly every industry. Additionally, Aluminum has become a popular choice for prototypes due to its low-cost and flexibility.

Aluminum is available in two basic forms: Cast and Wrought. Wrought Aluminum is typically stronger, more expensive, and contains a lower percentage of outside elements in its alloys. Wrought Aluminum is also more heat-resistant than Cast and has a higher level of machinability.

Cast Aluminum has less tensile strength but with a higher flexibility. It costs less, and has higher percentages of outside elements (silicon, magnesium, etc.) in its alloys, making it more abrasive than Wrought.

Tool Geometry

There are a few coating options available for Aluminum tooling, including the popular gold-colored ZrN (Zirconium Nitride) and the lesser known but highly effective TiB2 (Titanium Diboride). Uncoated tooling can also provide solid machining performance. However, the real key to high performance machining in Aluminum is knowing the proper flute count and helix angle required for your operation.

Flute Count

End mills for aluminum are often available in either 2 flute or 3 flute styles. With higher flute counts, it would become difficult to evacuate chips effectively at the high speeds at which you can run in aluminum. This is because aluminum alloys leave a large chip, and chip valleys become smaller with each additional flute on an end mill.

flute count for aluminum

Traditionally, 2 flute end mills have been the preferred choice for Aluminum. However, 3 flute end mills have proven to be more successful in many finishing operations, and with the right parameters they can also work successfully as roughers. While much of the debate between 2 and 3 flute end mills for Aluminum boils down to personal preference, the operation, rigidity, and desired material removal rates can also have an effect on tool selection.

Helix Angles

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. Cutting tools for aluminum typically feature higher helix angles than standard end mills. Specialized helix angles for Aluminum are typically either 35°, 40°, or 45°. Variable helix tools are also available and make a great choice for reducing chatter and harmonics while also increasing material removal rates.

Aluminum Machining

A helix angle of 35° or 40° is a good choice for traditional roughing and slotting applications. A 45° helix angle is the preferred choice for finishing, but also for High Efficiency Milling toolpaths as the high helix angle wraps around the tool faster and makes for a more aggressive cut.

Tooling Options

When machining aluminum, standard 2 or 3 flute tools will often get the job done. However, for certain applications and machine setups there are some more tooling options to consider for even better performance.

Chipbreaker Tooling

One of the most important things to consider when machining aluminum (and many other materials) is effective chip evacuation. Standard 2-3 flute end mills running at recommended speeds and feeds and proper chip loads can evacuate chips fairly well. However, 3 flute chipbreaker tooling can run at increased speed and feed rates for even better performance. The unique offset chip breaker geometry creates smaller chips for optimal evacuation while still leaving a semi-finished surface.

Chipbreaker Aluminum

These tools are excellent for more advanced toolpaths like High Efficiency Milling, which is another important tool for a successful aluminum machining experience.

High Balance End Mills

High balance end mills are designed to significantly increase performance in highly balanced machining centers capable of elevated RPMs and feed rates. These tools are precision balanced specifically for high velocity machining in aluminum (up to 33,000 RPM).

High Balance Tools for Aluminum

Helical Solutions offers high balance tooling in standard 2 flute styles, as well as coolant-through 3 flute styles for reduced heat, enhanced chip evacuation, and increased material removal rates. These tools, like the chipbreakers, are also an excellent choice for High Efficiency Milling toolpaths.

Running Parameters

Setting the right parameters for aluminum applications is vital to optimizing productivity and achieving better machining results. Since aluminum is an easier material to machine, pushing your machine to its limits and getting the most out of your tool is vital to stay ahead of the competition and keep winning business.

While there are many factors that go into the parameters for every job, there are some general guidelines to follow when machining aluminum. For cast aluminum alloys (i.e. 308, 356, 380), a surface footage of 500-1000 SFM is recommended, with RPMs varying based on cutter diameter. The basic calculation to find a starting point for RPMs would be (3.82 x SFM) / Diameter.

In wrought aluminum alloys (i.e. 2024, 6061, 7075), a surface footage of 800-1500 SFM is recommended, with the same calculation being used to find a starting point for RPMs.

High Efficiency Milling

High Efficiency Milling, commonly known as HEM, is a strategy that is rapidly gaining popularity in the manufacturing industry. Many CAM programs are now including HEM toolpaths, and while virtually any machine can perform HEM, the CNC controller must feature a fast processor to keep up with the additional lines of code. A great example of High Efficiency Milling toolpaths in Aluminum can be seen below.

At its core, HEM is a roughing technique that utilizes a low Radial Depth of Cut (RDOC) and a high Axial Depth of Cut (ADOC) to take full advantage of the cutting edge of the tool. To learn more about how High Efficiency Milling can increase your efficiency, extend your tool life to keep costs down, and get greater performance for aluminum (and other materials), click here to download the HEM Guidebook.

In Summary

Aluminum is a versatile material with a high level of machinability, but it should not be overlooked. Understanding the best ways to tackle it is important for achieving the desired results. Optimizing your tool crib, machine setups, and toolpaths for aluminum is essential to stay ahead of the competition and make your shop more efficient.

3 Steps to Shutting Up Tool Chatter

Cutting tools undergo a great deal of force during the machining process, which cause vibrations – also known as chatter or harmonics. Avoiding these vibrations entirely is not possible, though minimizing them is pivotal for machining success. Vibrations become damaging when proper machining steps are not followed. This leads to strong, part-ruining chatter. In these situations, parts have what is known as “chatter marks,” or clear vibration marks along the surface of a part. Tools can experience an increased rate of wear due to excess vibration.

Tool Chatter can be kept at bay by following three simple, yet often overlooked steps:

1. Select the Right Tool for Your Job

It seems elementary, but selecting the best tool for your application can be confusing. With so many different geometric styles for tooling – overall length, length of cut, reach, number of flutes – it can sometimes be difficult to narrow down one specific tool for your job. Oftentimes, machinists opt for general purpose tooling that can perform a variety of operations, overlooking the option that’s optimized for one material and job.

Opting for Material Specific Tooling is helpful, as each material has different needs. For example, steels are machined differently than aluminum materials. Everything from the chip size, to chip evacuation, is different. Variable Helix or Variable Pitch designs help to minimize chatter by reducing harmonics, which are caused by the cutting edge having repeated contact with the workpiece. In order to reduce harmonics, the time intervals between flute contact with the workpiece are varied.

Overall length is another important factor to consider when deciding on a tool for your job. The more overhang, or length the tool hangs from the spindle, the less secure the spindle-to-tool connection is, and the more vibration. Ensuring that your tool is only as long as needed for your operation is important to minimizing chatter and harmonics. If machining deep within a part, opt for reached tooling or an extended reach tool holder to help solidify the connection.

2. Ensure a Secure Connection

When it comes to secure tool holding approaches, both the tool shank and the collet are important. A loose tool, unsurprisingly, has more ability to move, or vibrate, during machining. With this in mind, Helical offers Shank Configurations to help the connection including the ToughGRIP Shank, which replaces a smooth, mirror-like surface with a rougher, coarser one for increased friction. Helical is also a licensee of the HAIMER Safe-Lock™, added grooves on the shank of a tool that work opposite of the spindle rotation, securely fastening the tool in place.

Machinists must also know the different types of collets available to them to identify if a better solution might be necessary. For example, Hydraulic Tool Holders or Shrink Fit Tool Holders promote a stronger connection than a Mechanical Spindle Tightening method.

For more information, see Key Tool Holding Considerations

3. Choose a Chatter Minimizing Strategy

How a tool is run can mean the difference between stellar job results and a ruined part. This includes both the parameters a tool is run at, as well as the direction by which it rotates – either a Conventional Milling or a Climb Milling technique.

Conventional Milling

In this method, the chip width starts from zero and increases gradually, causing more heat to diffuse into the workpiece. This can lead to work hardening, creating more headaches for a machinist.

tool chatter

Climb Milling

Most modern machine shops will use a climb milling technique, or when the chip width starts at its maximum and decreases during the cut. Climb Milling will offer a more consistent cut than traditional methods, and puts less stress on the tool. Think of it like weight lifting – doing the heavy lifting will be easiest at the beginning of your workout. Similarly, a cut in which the thickest chip is removed first helps the tool maintain its strength. Because the chip cutting process is more swift, vibrations are minimized.

decrease tool chatter

For more information, see Climb Milling Vs. Conventional Milling

In Conclusion

Vibrations are unavoidable during the machining process, but minimizing them can mean the difference between successful machining and scrapped parts. Following three simple rules can help to keep your chatter and harmonics under control, including: Selecting the right tool, ensuring a secure machine-tool connection, and using it in a climb milling strategy. Both Harvey Tool and Helical Solutions have tools that can help, including shank modifications and Variable Helix or Variable Pitch end mills.

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 Composite Delamination with Compression Cutters

Composites are a group of materials made up of at least two unique constituents that, when combined, produce mechanical and physical properties favorable for a wide array of applications. These materials usually contain a binding ingredient, known as a matrix, filled with particles or fibers called reinforcements. Composites have become increasingly popular in the Aerospace, Automotive, and Sporting Goods industries because they can combine the strength of metal, the light weight of plastic, and the rigidity of ceramics.

Unfortunately, composite materials present some unique challenges to machinists. Many composites are very abrasive and can severely reduce tool life, while others can melt and burn if heat generation is not properly controlled. Even if these potential problems are avoided, the wrong tool can leave the part with other quality issues, including delamination.

While composites such as G10 and FR4 are considered “fibrous”, composites can also be “layered,” such as laminated sheets of PEEK and aluminum. Layered composites are vulnerable to delamination, when the layers of the material are separated by a tool’s cutting forces. This yields less structurally sound parts, defeating the purpose of the combined material properties in the first place. In many cases, a single delaminated hole can result in a scrapped part.

Using Compression Cutters in Composite Materials

Composite materials are generally machined with standard metal cutting end mills, which generate exclusively up or down cutting forces, depending on if they have right or left hand flute geometry. These uni-directional forces cause delamination (Figure 1).


Conversely, compression cutters are designed with both up and down-cut flutes. The top portion of the length of cut, closest to the shank, has a left hand spiral, forcing chips down. The bottom portion of the length of cut, closest to the end, has a right hand spiral, forcing chips up. When cutting, the opposing flute directions generate counteracting up-cut and down-cut forces. The opposing cutting forces stabilize the material removal, which compresses the composite layers, combatting delamination on the top and bottom of a workpiece (Figure 2).

compression cutters

Since compression cutters do not pull up or press down on a workpiece, they leave an excellent finish on layered composites and lightweight materials like plywood. It is important to note, however, that compression cutters are suited specifically to profiling, as the benefits of the up and down-cut geometry are not utilized in slotting or plunging operations.

Something as simple as choosing a tool suited to a specific composite material can have significant effects on the quality of the final part. Consider utilizing tools optimized for different composites and operations or learn how to select the right drill for composite holemaking.

Tackling Titanium: A Guide to Machining Titanium and Its Alloys

In today’s manufacturing industry, titanium and its alloys have become staples in aerospace, medical, automotive, and firearm applications. This popular metal is resistant to rust and chemicals, is recyclable, and is extremely strong for its weight. However, there are several challenges that must be considered when machining titanium and selecting the appropriate tools and parameters for the job.

Titanium Varieties

Titanium is available in many varieties, including nearly 40 ASTM grades, as well as several additional alloys. Grades 1 through 4 are considered commercially pure titanium with varying requirements on ultimate tensile strength. Grade 5 (Ti6Al4V or Ti 6-4) is the most common combination, alloyed with 6 percent aluminum and 4 percent vanadium. Although titanium and its alloys are often grouped together, there are some key differences between them that must be noted before determining the ideal machining approach.


A custom AR15, with the lower machined in titanium.
Photo courtesy of @TitaniumSpecialty (Instagram)

Titanium Concerns


Although titanium may have more desirable material properties than your average steel, it also behaves more flexibly, and is often not as rigid as other metals. This requires a secure grip on titanium workpieces, and as rigid a machine setup as is possible. Other considerations include avoiding interrupted cuts, and keeping the tool in motion at all times of contact with the workpiece. Dwelling in a drilled hole or stopping a tool next to a profiled wall will cause the tool to rub – creating excess heat, work-hardening the material, and causing premature tool wear.

Heat Generation

Heat is a formidable enemy, and heat generation must be considered when selecting speeds and feeds. While commercially pure grades of titanium are softer and gummier than most of its alloys, the addition of alloying elements typically raises the hardness of titanium. This increases concerns regarding generated heat and tool wear. Maintaining a larger chipload and avoiding unnecessary rubbing aids with tool performance in the harder titanium alloys, and will minimize the amount of work hardening produced. Choosing a lower RPM, paired with a larger chipload, can provide a significant reduction in temperature when compared to higher speed options. Due to its low conduction properties, keeping temperatures to a minimum will put less stress on the tool and reduce wear. Using high-pressure coolant is also an effective method to reduce heat generation when machining titanium.

cutting tools for titanium

These camshaft covers were custom made in titanium for Mitsubishi Evos.
Photo courtesy of @RebootEng (Instagram)

Galling and Built-Up Edge

The next hurdle to consider is that titanium has a strong tendency to adhere to a cutting tool, creating built up edge. This is a tricky issue which can be reduced by using copious amounts of high pressure coolant aimed directly at the cutting surface. The goal is to remove chips as soon as possible to prevent chip re-cutting, and keep the flutes clean and clear of debris. Galling is a big concern in the commercially pure grades of titanium due to their “gummy” nature. This can be addressed using the strategies mentioned previously, such as continuing feed at all times of workpiece contact, and using plenty of high-pressure coolant.

Titanium Solutions

While the primary concerns when machining titanium and its alloys may shift, the methods for mitigating them remain somewhat constant. The main ideas are to avoid galling, heat generation, work hardening, and workpiece or tool deflection. Use a lot of coolant at high pressure, keep speeds down and feeds up, keep the tool in motion when in contact with the workpiece, and use as rigid of a setup as possible.

In addition, selecting a proper tool coating can help make your job a successful one. With the high heat being generated during titanium machining operations, having a coating that can adequately deal with the temperature is key to maintaining performance through an operation. The proper coating will also help to avoid galling and evacuate chips effectively. Coatings such as Harvey Tool’s Aluminum Titanium Nitride (AlTiN Nano) produce an oxide layer at high temperatures, and will increase lubricity of the tool.

As titanium and its many alloys continue to grow in use across various industries, more machinists will be tasked with cutting this difficult material. However, heat management and appropriate chip evacuation, when paired with the correct coating, will enable a successful run.

machining titanium