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

ball nose

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

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

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

ball nose

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

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

Corner Engagement: How to Machine Corners

Corner Engagement

During the milling process, and especially during corner engagement, tools undergo significant variations in cutting forces. One common and difficult situation is when a cutting tool experiences an “inside corner” condition. This is where the tool’s engagement angle significantly increases, potentially resulting in poor performance.

Machining this difficult area with the wrong approach may result in:

  • Chatter – visible in “poor” corner finish
  • Deflection – detected by unwanted “measured” wall taper
  • Strange cutting sound – tool squawking or chirping in the corners
  • Tool breakage/failure or chipping

Least Effective Approach (Figure 1)

Generating an inside part radius that matches the radius of the tool at a 90° direction range is not a desirable approach to machining a corner. In this approach, the tool experiences extra material to cut (dark gray), an increased engagement angle, and a direction change. As a result, issues including chatter, tool deflection/ breakage, and poor surface finish may occur.

Feed rate may need to be lessened depending on the “tool radius-to-part radius ratio.”

corner engagement

More Effective Approach (Figure 2)

Generating an inside part radius that matches the radius of the tool with a sweeping direction change is a more desirable approach. The smaller radial depths of cut (RDOC) in this example help to manage the angle of engagement, but at the final pass, the tool will still experience a very high engagement angle.  Common results of this approach will be chatter, tool deflection/breakage and poor surface finish.

Feed rate may need to be reduced by 30-50% depending on the “tool radius-to-part radius ratio.”

corner engagement

Most Effective Approach (Figure 3)

Generating an inside part radius with a smaller tool and a sweeping action creates a much more desirable machining approach. The manageable RDOC and smaller tool diameter allow for management of the tool engagement angle, higher feed rates and better surface finishes. As the cutter reaches full radial depth, its engagement angle will increase, but the feed reduction should be much less than in the previous approaches.

Feed rate may need to be heightened depending on the “tool-to-part ratio.” Utilize tools that are smaller than the corner you are machining.

corner engagement

Ramping to Success

Poor tool life and premature tool failure are concerns in every machining application. Something as simple as tool path selection – and how a tool first enters a part – can make all the difference. Tool entry has a great deal of influence on its overall success, as it’s one of the most punishing operations for a cutter. Ramping into a part, via a circular or linear toolpath, is one of the most popular and oftentimes the most successful methods (Figure 1). Below, learn what ramping is, its benefits, and in which situations it can be used.


What is Ramping?

Ramping refers to simultaneous radial and axial motion of a cutting tool, making an angular tool path. Oftentimes, this method is used to approach a part when there is a need to create closed forms such as pockets, cavities, engravings, and holes. In doing so, the need to plunge with an end mill or drill to create a starting point is eliminated. Ramping is particularly important in micromachining where even the slightest imbalance in cutting forces can cause tool failure.

There are two types of ramping toolpaths: Linear and Circular (Figure 2 ).


Linear Ramping involves moving a cutting tool along two axes (the z-axis and one of the x, y axes). This method has significant more radial engagement with complementary increased cutting forces distributed across only two axes.

Circular Ramping (Helical Interpolation) has a spiral motion of the cutting tool that engages all three axes (x, y, and z axes). This method typically has less radial engagement on the cutting tool, with the cutting forces distributed across the three different axes. This is the recommended method, as it ensures the longest tool life.

Suggested Starting Ramp Angles:

Soft/Non-Ferrous Materials: 3° – 10°

Hard/Ferrous Materials 1° – 3°

Benefits of Ramping

When a tool enters the part via a Ramping method, it gradually increases in depth, preventing any shock loading on end mills. This reduces costs resulting from unnecessary tool breakage. Ramping produces smaller chips when compared to plunging, which makes chip evacuation faster and easier. As a result, cycle time can be decreased by running the end mill at faster parameters. Ramping also creates an extra space in the tool changer that would otherwise be occupied by a drill purposed with machining a starter hole.


Similar to ramping in both method and benefit, arcing is another technique of approaching a workpiece (See Figure 3).

While ramping enters the part from the top, arcing enters from the side. The end mill follows a curved tool path (or arc) when milling, thus gradually increasing the load on the tool as the tool enters the part, as well as gradually decreasing the load as the tool exits the part. In this way, shock loading and possible tool breakage are avoided.

For more information on ramping, arcing, and other tool entry methods, please see Helical Solutions’ “Types of Tool Entry.” 

Dodging Dovetail Headaches: 7 Common Dovetail Mistakes

Cutting With Dovetails

While they are specialty tools, dovetail style cutters have a broad range of applications. Dovetails are typically used to cut O-ring grooves in fluid and pressure devices, industrial slides and detailed undercutting work. Dovetail cutters have a trapezoidal shape—like the shape of a dove’s tail. General purpose dovetails are used to undercut or deburr features in a workpiece. O-ring dovetail cutters are held to specific standards to cut a groove that is wider at the bottom than the top. This trapezoidal groove shape is designed to hold the O-ring and keep it from being displaced.

Avoiding Tool Failure

The dovetail cutter’s design makes it fragile, finicky, and highly susceptible to failure. In calculating job specifications, machinists frequently treat dovetail cutters as larger than they really are because of their design, leading to unnecessary tool breakage. They mistake the tool’s larger end diameter as the critical dimension when in fact the smaller neck diameter is more important in making machining calculations.

As the tools are downsized for micro-applications, their unique shape requires special considerations. When machinists understand the true size of the tool, however, they can minimize breakage and optimize cycle time.

Miniature Matters – Micro Dovetailing

As the trend towards miniaturization continues, more dovetailing applications arise along with the need for applying the proper technique when dovetailing microscale parts and features. However, there are several common misunderstandings about the proper use of dovetails, which can lead to increased tool breakage and less-than-optimal cycle times.

There are seven common mistakes made when dovetailing and several strategies for avoiding them:

1. Not Taking Advantage of Drop Holes

Many O-ring applications allow for a drop hole to insert the cutter into the groove. Take advantage of a drop hole if the part design allows it, as it will permit usage of the largest, most rigid tool possible, minimizing the chance of breakage (Figure 1).

dovetail cutters
Figure 1. These pictured tools are designed to mill a groove for a Parker Hannifin O-ring groove No. AS568A-102 (left). These O-rings have cross sections of 0.103″. There is a large variation in the tools’ neck diameters. The tool at right, with a neck diameter of 0.024″, is for applications without a drop hole, while the other tool, with a neck diameter of 0.088″, is for drop-hole applications. The drop-hole allowance allows application of the more rigid tool.

2. Misunderstanding a Dovetail’s True Neck Diameter.

The dovetail’s profile includes a small neck diameter behind a larger end-cutting diameter. In addition, the flute runs through the neck, further reducing the tool’s core diameter. (In the example shown in Figure 2, this factor produces a core diameter of just 0.014″.) The net result is that an otherwise larger tool becomes more of a microtool. The torque generated by the larger diameter is, in effect, multiplied as it moves to the narrower neck diameter. You must remember that excess stress may be placed on the tool, leading to breakage. Furthermore, as the included angle of a dovetail increases, the neck diameter and core diameter are further reduced. O-ring dovetail cutters have an included angle of 48°. Another common included angle for general purpose dovetails is 90°. Figure 3 illustrates how two 0.100″-dia. dovetail tools have different neck diameters of 0.070″ vs. 0.034″ and different included angles of 48° vs. 90°.

dovetail cutters
Figure 2. The dovetail tool pictured is the nondrop-hole example from Figure 1. The cross section illustrates the relationship between the end diameter of the tool (0.083″) and the significantly smaller core diameter (0.014″). Understanding this relationship and the effect of torque on a small core diameter is critical to developing appropriate dovetailing operating parameters.
dovetail cutters
Figure 3: These dovetail tools have the same end diameter but different neck diameters (0.070″ vs. 0.034″) and different included angles (48° vs. 90°).

3. Calculating Speeds and Feeds from the Wrong Diameter.

Machinists frequently use the wrong tool diameter to calculate feed rates for dovetail cutters, increasing breakage. In micromachining applications where the margin for error is significantly reduced, calculating the feed on the wrong diameter can cause instantaneous tool failure. Due to the angular slope of a dovetail cutter’s profile, the tool has a variable diameter. While the larger end diameter is used for speed calculations, the smaller neck diameter should be used for feed calculations. This yields a smaller chip load per tooth. For example, a 0.083″-dia. tool cutting aluminum might have a chip load of approximately 0.00065 IPT, while a 0.024″-dia. mill cutting the same material might have a 0.0002-ipt chip load. This means the smaller tool has a chip load three times smaller than the larger tool, which requires a significantly different feed calculation.

4. Errors in Considering Depth of Cut.

In micromachining applications, machinists must choose a depth of cut (DOC) that does not exceed the limits of the fragile tool. Typically, a square end mill roughs a slot and the dovetail cutter then removes the remaining triangular-shaped portion. As the dovetail is stepped over with each subsequent radial cut, the cutter’s engagement increases with each pass. A standard end mill allows for multiple passes by varying the axial DOC. However, a dovetail cutter has a fixed axial DOC, which allows changes to be made only to the radial DOC. Therefore, the size of each successive step-over must decrease to maintain a more consistent tool load and avoid tool breakage (Figure 4).

dovetail cutters
Figure 4: In microdovetailing operations, increased contact requires diminishing stepover to maintain constant tool load.

5. Failing to Climb Mill.

Although conventional milling has the benefit of gradually loading the tool, in low-chip load applications (as dictated by a dovetail cutter’s small neck diameter) the tool has a tendency to rub or push the workpiece as it enters the cut, creating chatter, deflection and premature cutting edge failure. The dovetail has a long cutting surface and tooth pressure becomes increasingly critical with each pass. Due to the low chip loads encountered in micromachining, this approach is even more critical to avoid rubbing. Although climb milling loads the tool faster than conventional milling, it allows the tool to cut more freely, providing less deflection, finer finish and longer cutting-edge life. As a result, climb milling is recommended when dovetailing.

6. Improper Chip Flushing.

Because dovetail cuts are typically made in a semi-enclosed profile, it is critical to flush chips from the cavity. In micro-dovetailing applications, chip packing and recutting due to poorly evacuated chips from a semi-enclosed profile will dull the cutter and lead to premature tool failure. In addition to cooling and lubricating, a high-pressure coolant effectively evacuates chips. However, excessive coolant pressure placed directly on the tool can cause tool vibration and deflection and even break a microtool before it touches the workpiece. Take care to provide adequate pressure to remove chips without putting undue pressure on the tool itself. Specific coolant pressure settings will depend upon the size of the groove, the tool size and the workpiece material. Also, a coolant nozzle on either side of the cutter cleans out the groove ahead of and behind the cutter. An air blast or vacuum hose could also effectively remove chips.

7. Giving the Job Away.

As discussed in item number 3, lower chip loads result in significantly lower material-removal rates, which ultimately increase cycle time. In the previous example, the chip load was three times smaller, which would increase cycle time by the same amount. Cycle time must be factored into your quote to ensure a profitable margin on the job. In addition to the important micro-dovetailing considerations discussed here, don’t forget to apply the basics critical to all tools. These include keeping runout low, using tools with application-specific coatings and ensuring setups are rigid. All of these considerations become more important in micro-applications because as tools get smaller, they become increasingly fragile, decreasing the margin of error. Understanding a dovetail cutter’s profile and calculating job specifications accordingly is critical to a successful operation. Doing so will help you reach your ultimate goal: bidding the job properly and optimizing cycle time without unnecessary breakage.

This article was written by Peter P. Jenkins of Harvey Tool Company, and it originally appeared in MicroManufacturing Magazine.

Circular Interpolation: Machining Circular Tool Paths

When machining, proper speeds and feeds are very important to avoid breakage and maximize performance. Traditional end milling formulas use Surface Footage (SFM) and Chip Load (IPT) to calculate Speed (RPM) and Feed (IPM) rates. These formulas dictate the correct machining parameters for use in a linear path in which the end mill’s centerline is travelling in a straight line. Since not all parts are made of flat surfaces, end mills will invariably need to move in a non-linear path. In the case of machining circular tool paths, the path of the end mill’s centerline is circular. Not surprisingly, this is referred to as Circular Interpolation.

Cutting Circular Tool Paths

All rotating end mills have their own angular velocity at the outside diameter. But when the tool path is circular, there is an additional component that is introduced, resulting in a compound angular velocity. Basically, this means the velocity of the outside diameter is travelling at a substantially different velocity than originally expected. The cause of the compound angular velocity is seen in the disparity between the tool path lengths.

Internal Circular Tool Paths

Figure A shows the cross section of a cutting tool on a linear path, with the teeth having angular velocity due to tool rotation, and the center of the tool having a linear feed. Note that the tool path length will always be equal to the length of the machined edge. Figure B shows the same cutting tool on an internal circular path, as done when machining a hole. In this case, the angular velocity of the teeth is changed as a result of an additional component from the circular path of the tool’s center. The diameter of the tool path is smaller than that of the major diameter being cut. Or, in other words, the tool path length is shorter than the machined edge length, increasing the angular velocity of the teeth. To prevent overfeeding and the possibility of tool breakage, the increased angular velocity of the teeth must be made the same as in the linear case in Figure A. The formula below can be used to properly lower the feed rate for internal machining:

Internal Adjusted Feed = (Major Diameter-Cutter Diameter) / (Major Diameter) × Linear Feed


External Circular Tool Paths

Figure C shows the same cutting tool on an external circular path, as done when machining a post. In this case, the diameter of the tool path is larger than the major diameter being cut. This means that the tool path length is longer than the machined edge length, resulting in a decreased angular velocity. To prevent premature dulling and poor tool life due to over-speeding, use the formula below to properly raise the feed rate for external machining. In this way, the decreased angular velocity of the teeth is made the same as in the linear case in Figure A.

External Adjusted Feed = (Major Diameter+Cutter Diameter) / (Major Diameter) × Linear Feed

Optimize Your Performance

By adjusting the feed in the manner provided, internal applications can avoid tool breakage and costly down time. Further, external applications can enjoy optimized performance and shorter cycle times. It should also be noted that this approach can be applied to parts with radiused corners, elliptical features and when helical interpolation is required.