Milling cutters are cutting tools typically used in milling machines or machining centres to perform milling operations (and occasionally in other machine tools). They remove material by their movement within the machine (e.g., a ball nose mill) or directly from the cutter’s shape (e.g., a form tool such as a hobbing cutter).
Milling cutters come in several shapes and many sizes. There is also a choice of coatings, as well as rake angle and number of cutting surfaces.
End mills (middle row in image) are those tools which have cutting teeth at one end, as well as on the sides. The words end mill are generally used to refer to flat bottomed cutters, but also include rounded cutters (referred to as ball nosed) and radiused cutters (referred to as bull nose, or torus). They are usually made from high speed steel or cemented carbide, and have one or more flutes. They are the most common tool used in a vertical mill.
Roughing end mills quickly remove large amounts of material. This kind of end mill utilizes a wavy tooth form cut on the periphery. These wavy teeth form many successive cutting edges producing many small chips, resulting in a relatively rough surface finish. During cutting, multiple teeth are in contact with the workpiece reducing chatter and vibration. Rapid stock removal with heavy milling cuts is sometimes called hogging. Roughing end mills are also sometimes known as ripping cutters.
Ball nose cutters or ball end mills (lower row in image) are similar to slot drills, but the end of the cutters are hemispherical. They are ideal for machining 3-dimensional contoured shapes in machining centres, for example in moulds and dies. They are sometimes called ball mills in shop-floor slang, despite the fact that that term also has another meaning. They are also used to add a radius between perpendicular faces to reduce stress concentrations.
There is also a term bull nose cutter, which refers to a cutter having a corner radius that is fairly large, although less than the spherical radius (half the cutter diameter) of a ball mill; for example, a 20-mm diameter cutter with a 2-mm radius corner. This usage is analogous to the term bull nose center referring to lathe centers with truncated cones; in both cases, the silhouette is essentially a rectangle with its corners truncated (by either a chamfer or radius Don).
Slab mills are used either by themselves or in gang milling operations on manual horizontal or universal milling machines to machine large broad surfaces quickly. They have been superseded by the use of cemented carbide-tipped face mills which are then used in vertical mills or machining centres.
The side-and-face cutter is designed with cutting teeth on its side as well as its circumference. They are made in varying diameters and widths depending on the application. The teeth on the side allow the cutter to make unbalanced cuts (cutting on one side only) without deflecting the cutter as would happen with a slitting saw or slot cutter (no side teeth).
Cutters of this form factor were the earliest milling cutters developed. From the 1810s to at least the 1880s they were the most common form of milling cutter, whereas today that distinction probably goes to end mills.
There are 8 cutters (excluding the rare half sizes) that will cut gears from 12 teeth through to a rack (infinite diameter).
These cutters are a type of form tool and are used in hobbing machines to generate gears. A cross section of the cutter’s tooth will generate the required shape on the workpiece, once set to the appropriate conditions (blank size). A hobbing machine is a specialised milling machine.
Whereas a hob engages the work much as a mating gear would (and cuts the blank progressively until it reaches final shape), a thread milling cutter operates much like an endmill, traveling around the work in a helical interpolation.
A face mill is a cutter designed for facing as opposed to e.g., creating a pocket (end mills). The cutting edges of face mills are always located along its sides. As such it must always cut in a horizontal direction at a given depth coming from outside the stock. Multiple teeth distribute the chip load, and since the teeth are normally disposable carbide inserts, this combination allows for very large and efficient face milling.
A fly cutter is composed of a body into which one or two tool bits are inserted. As the entire unit rotates, the tool bits take broad, shallow facing cuts. Fly cutters are analogous to face mills in that their purpose is face milling and their individual cutters are replaceable. Face mills are more ideal in various respects (e.g., rigidity, indexability of inserts without disturbing effective cutter diameter or tool length offset, depth-of-cut capability), but tend to be expensive, whereas fly cutters are very inexpensive.
Most fly cutters simply have a cylindrical center body that holds one tool bit. It is usually a standard left-hand turning tool that is held at an angle of 30 to 60 degrees. Fly cutters with two tool bits have no „official“ name but are often called double fly cutters, double-end fly cutters, or fly bars. The latter name reflects that they often take the form of a bar of steel with a tool bit fastened on each end. Often these bits will be mounted at right angles to the bar’s main axis, and the cutting geometry is supplied by using a standard right-hand turning tool.
Regular fly cutters (one tool bit, swept diameter usually less than 100 mm) are widely sold in machinists‘ tooling catalogs. Fly bars are rarely sold commercially; they are usually made by the user. Fly bars are perhaps a bit more dangerous to use than endmills and regular fly cutters because of their larger swing. As one machinist put it, running a fly bar is like „running a lawn mower without the deck“, that is, the exposed swinging cutter is a rather large opportunity to take in nearby hand tools, rags, fingers, and so on. However, given that a machinist can never be careless with impunity around rotating cutters or workpieces, this just means using the same care as always except with slightly higher stakes. Well-made fly bars in conscientious hands give years of trouble-free, cost-effective service for the facing off of large polygonal workpieces such as die/mold blocks.
Woodruff cutters are used to cut the keyway for a woodruff key.
Hollow milling cutters, more often called simply hollow mills, are essentially „inside-out endmills“. They are shaped like a piece of pipe (but with thicker walls), with their cutting edges on the inside surface. They are used on turret lathes and screw machines as an alternative to turning with a box tool, or on milling machines or drill presses to finish a cylindrical boss (such as a trunnion).
A dovetail cutter is an endmill whose form leaves behind a dovetail slot, such as often forms the ways of a machine tool.
A shell mill is any of various milling cutters (typically a face mill or endmill) whose construction takes a modular form, with the shank (arbor) made separately from the body of the cutter, which is called a „shell“ and attaches to the shank/arbor via any of several standardized joining methods.
This modular style of construction is appropriate for large milling cutters for about the same reason that large diesel engines use separate pieces for each cylinder and head whereas a smaller engine would use one integrated casting. Two reasons are that (1) for the maker it is more practical (and thus less expensive) to make the individual pieces as separate endeavors than to machine all their features in relation to each other while the whole unit is integrated (which would require a larger machine tool work envelope); and (2) the user can change some pieces while keeping other pieces the same (rather than changing the whole unit). One arbor (at a hypothetical price of USD100) can serve for various shells at different times. Thus 5 different milling cutters may require only USD100 worth of arbor cost, rather than USD500, as long as the workflow of the shop does not require them all to be set up simultaneously. It is also possible that a crashed tool scraps only the shell rather than both the shell and arbor. This would be like crashing a „regular“ endmill and being able to reuse the shank rather than losing it along with the flutes.
Most shell mills made today use indexable inserts for the cutting edges—thus shank, body, and cutting edges are all modular components.
There are several common standardized methods of mounting shell mills to their arbors. They overlap somewhat (not entirely) with the analogous joining of lathe chucks to the spindle nose.
The most common type of joint between shell and arbor involves a fairly large cylindrical feature at center (to locate the shell concentric to the arbor) and two driving lugs or tangs that drive the shell with a positive engagement (like a dog clutch). Within the central cylindrical area, one or several socket head cap screws fasten the shell to the arbor.
Another type of shell fastening is simply a large-diameter fine thread. The shell then screws onto the arbor just as old-style lathe chuck backplates screw onto the lathe’s spindle nose. This method is commonly used on the 2″ or 3″ boring heads used on knee mills. As with the threaded-spindle-nose lathe chucks, this style of mounting requires that the cutter only take cuts in one rotary direction. Usually (i.e., with right-hand helix orientation) this means only M03, never M04, or in pre-CNC terminology, „only forward, never reverse“. One could use a left-hand thread if one needed a mode of use involving the opposite directions (i.e., only M04, never M03).
Although there are many different types of milling cutter, understanding chip formation is fundamental to the use of any of them. As the milling cutter rotates, the material to be cut is fed into it, and each tooth of the cutter cuts away a small chip of material. Achieving the correct size of chip is of critical importance. The size of this chip depends on several variables.
The machinist needs three values: S, F and Depth when deciding how to cut a new material with a new tool. However, he will probably be given values of Vc and Fz from the tool manufacturer. S and F can be calculated from them:
A milling cutter can cut in two directions, sometimes known as conventional or up and climb or down.
Cutter location is the topic of where to locate the cutter in order to achieve the desired contour (geometry) of the workpiece, given that the cutter’s size is non-zero. The most common example is cutter radius compensation (CRC) for endmills, where the centerline of the tool will be offset from the target position by a vector whose distance is equal to the cutter’s radius and whose direction is governed by the left/right, climb/conventional, up/down distinction. In most implementations of G-code, it is G40 through G42 that control CRC (G40 cancel, G41 left/climb, G42 right/conventional). The radius values for each tool are entered into the offset register(s) by the CNC operator or machinist, who then tweaks them during production in order to keep the finished sizes within tolerance. Cutter location for 3D contouring in 3-, 4-, or 5-axis milling with a ball-endmill is handled readily by CAM software rather than manual programming. Typically the CAM vector output is postprocessed into G-code by a postprocessor program that is tailored to the particular CNC control model. Some late-model CNC controls accept the vector output directly, and do the translation to servo inputs themselves, internally.
Another important quality of the milling cutter to consider is its ability to deal with the swarf generated by the cutting process. If the swarf is not removed as fast as it is produced, the flutes will clog and prevent the tool cutting efficiently, causing vibration, tool wear and overheating. Several factors affect swarf removal, including the depth and angle of the flutes, the size and shape of the chips, the flow of coolant, and the surrounding material. It may be difficult to predict, but a good machinist will watch out for swarf build up, and adjust the milling conditions if it is observed.
Selecting a milling cutter is not a simple task. There are many variables, opinions and lore to consider, but essentially the machinist is trying to choose a tool which will cut the material to the required specification for the least cost. The cost of the job is a combination of the price of the tool, the time taken by the milling machine, and the time taken by the machinist. Often, for jobs of a large number of parts, and days of machining time, the cost of the tool is lowest of the three costs.
The history of milling cutters is intimately bound up with that of milling machines. Milling evolved from rotary filing, so there is a continuum of development between the earliest milling cutters known, such as that of Jacques de Vaucanson from about the 1760s or 1770s, through the cutters of the milling pioneers of the 1810s through 1850s (Whitney, North, Johnson, Nasmyth, and others), to the cutters developed by Joseph R. Brown of Brown & Sharpe in the 1860s, which were regarded as a break from the past for their large step forward in tooth coarseness and for the geometry that could take successive sharpenings without losing the clearance (rake, side rake, and so on). De Vries (1910) reported, „This revolution in the science of milling cutters took place in the States about the year 1870, and became generally known in Europe during the Exhibition in Vienna in 1873. However strange it may seem now that this type of cutter has been universally adopted and its undeniable superiority to the old European type is no longer doubted, it was regarded very distrustfully and European experts were very reserved in expressing their judgment. Even we ourselves can remember that after the coarse pitched cutter had been introduced, certain very clever and otherwise shrewd experts and engineers regarded the new cutting tool with many a shake of the head. When[,] however, the Worlds Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876, exhibited to European experts a universal and many-sided application of the coarse pitched milling cutter which exceeded even the most sanguine expectations, the most far-seeing engineers were then convinced of the immense advantages which the application of the new type opened up for the metalworking industry, and from that time onwards the American type advanced, slowly at first, but later on with rapid strides“.
Woodbury provides citations of patents for various advances in milling cutter design, including irregular spacing of teeth (1867), forms of inserted teeth (1872), spiral groove for breaking up the cut (1881), and others. He also provides a citation on how the introduction of vertical mills brought about wider use of the endmill and fly cutter types.
Scientific study by Holz and De Leeuw of the Cincinnati Milling Machine Company made the teeth even coarser and did for milling cutters what F.W. Taylor had done for single-point cutters with his famous scientific cutting studies.