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, contouring involves the finishing of a rounded, curved, or otherwise uniquely shaped part.

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 Contouring 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.

Contouring 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.

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.

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

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 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 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.


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 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

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.

Undercutting End Mills: Well-Rounded Tools That Offer Maximum Versatility

Undercutting end mills, also known as lollipop cutters or spherical ball end mills, are a common choice for machining undercuts. An undercut is a common part feature characterized by one part of a workpiece “hanging” over another. Undercuts are typically difficult, or even impossible, to machine with a standard end mill, especially on 3-axis machines. In many cases, a specialty tool is needed to tackle this feature. Although they are frequently associated with a singular use, undercutting end mills are actually very versatile tools that are worth keeping on hand for a variety of operations.


undercutting machining

Unsurprisingly, undercutting end mills are very well suited to undercutting operations. Creating an undercut on a part can be tricky and time consuming, especially when forced to rotate the workpiece. Fortunately, this can be greatly simplified with an undercutting end mill.

Exactly what tool to use depends on the geometry of the feature and the part. Undercutting end mills are available with a range of wrap angles like 220°, 270°, and 300°. Greater wrap angles are the result of a thinner neck and create a more spherical cutting end. This style offers more clearance at the cost of rigidity. Likewise, undercutting end mills with lower wrap angles sacrifice clearance for greater rigidity.

Deburring & Edgebreaking


Since undercuts have a wrap angle that is greater than 180°, they are very well-suited to deburring or edgebreaking anywhere on your workpiece, including the underside. Deburring your parts by hand can be inefficient for your shop – using an undercutting end mill instead will save you time and money. Edgebreaking operations are often a critical final step to create a part that looks and feels like a finished product and that is safe to handle.

All undercutting end mills can be used to deburr and edgebreak, which makes them a useful tool to have on hand in any shop. Some manufacturers also offer specialized deburring undercutting end mills that are designed with a right and left hand flute orientation, giving them “teeth” that make them particularly useful for deburring complex shapes. Using a deburring undercutting end mill in a 5-axis machine often makes it possible to deburr or edgebreak an entire workpiece in one shot.



Most machinists might not think of undercutting end mills for slotting, but they are fully capable of this operation. An equivalent slot can be machined with a regular ball end mill, but doing so might not be feasible due to clearance issues – an undercutting end mill has a reduced neck, unlike a standard ball end mill. Additionally, using an undercutter to slot can save time switching to an equivalent ball end mill.

Since only 180° of the cutting end can be used to slot, undercutting end mills with lower wrap angles and thicker necks are best suited to slotting. However, high helix undercutting end mills may be ideal if improved finish and increased chip removal are important to the operation.

Contouring & Profiling


With their wrap angle and increased clearance, undercutting end mills are very useful for both simple and complicated contouring and profiling operations. Their versatility means that it is sometimes possible to accomplish the entire operation with a single tool, rather than several, especially when 5-axis milling.

Reduced shank undercutting end mills offer the most versatility in complex contouring and profiling operations. The ability to chuck these tools at any depth means that they are capable of maximum clearance.

Choosing An Undercutting End Mill

While most undercutting end mills are conceptually similar, there are a few key differences that must be considered when picking the right tool for your job. Harvey Tool offers the following undercutting end mill styles as stock standard tools.

undercutting end mills

Increase Productivity with Tapered End Mills

In today’s manufacturing industry, the reach necessary for many complex parts is pushing the boundaries of plausibility. Deep cavities and complex side milling operations are typical to the mold, tool, and die industry but are also quite common in many machining applications requiring angled walls. Fortunately, many long reach applications include angled walls extending into deep pockets and mold cavities. These slight angles afford machinists the opportunity to gain the necessary strength of tapered reach tool designs.

Increased Tool Performance & Productivity

The benefits of tapered end mills become clear when considering the increase in cross-sectional area compared to tools with straight reaches. Generally speaking, the larger a tool’s diameter is, the stronger it will be. A tool with a tapered neck will offer an increasing cross section, resulting in less tool deflection and increased strength over straight reach options.

tapered end mills


When considering an end mill with a straight reach versus the same end mill with a slightly tapered reach, there are clear gains in tool performance and productivity. With just a 3° angle per side, feed rates may be increased by an average of 10% over a straight neck. In long-run jobs, or long run-time operations, this can offer a significant reduction in production time and cost. The same 3° angle also affords a tool as much as 60% less deflection than a straight neck tool (Figure 1). A taper as small as half a degree also provides a 10% decrease in deflection even for shorter reaches. This reduction in deflection results in less chatter, better finish, and ultimately a higher quality product.

Tapered End Mills vs. Straight End Mills


tapered end mills

Tapered Reach

Compared with straight reach end
mills, tapered reach end mills have the
following pros and cons:


• Increased tool strength
• Reduced tool deflection
• Less chatter, better finish
• Higher speeds and feeds capability
• Increased productivity


• Reduced clearance
• Not plausible for use in certain situations


tapered end mills


Tapered Length of Cut

End mills with a tapered length of cut experience
the following pros and cons when compared with
end mills with a straight length of cut:


• Easier to create flat tapered walls on 3-axis machines
• Avoid witness marks caused by multiple passes with other tools
• Better, more consistent finish


• “Single-use” tools, suited only to specific wall angles
• Inconsistent cutting diameter can complicate optimizing speeds and feeds


Despite the potential significant benefits of even a slight taper, it is important to note that tapered end mills are not a plausible choice for every job. Depending on the wall angle of your part, a tapered end mill can interfere with the work piece in situations where a straight tool would not. In Figure 2 below, the top two images show the ideal use of a tapered tool, while the bottom two images show when using a tapered end mill is implausible and a straight tool is necessary. Where clearances allow, an end mill with the largest possible tapered reach should be chosen for optimal tool performance.

tapered end mills


Even a slight taper offers an increase in tool performance over the same tool with a straight neck. With added strength and reduced deflection, the benefits of a tapered end mill can be significant, and extend to a much broader range of industries and applications beyond just mold tool and die.

Tapered Reach Tooling Interference Charts

Where clearances allow, an end mill with the largest possible tapered reach angle should be chosen to allow for optimal tool performance. Refer to Harvey Tool’s interference charts for our Square and Ball clearance cutters to ensure that you pick the ideal tapered end mill based on the parameters of your operation.

tapered end mills

tapered end mills