How to troubleshoot holemaking in stainless steel

May 04, 2021 - 02:45am
How to troubleshoot holemaking in stainless steel

Unlike machining other materials, machining stainless steel requires a review of myriad material and manufacturing considerations prior to beginning work in the machine shop. Not only should cutting tool specialists and coolant specialists be consulted, but machine capabilities should be addressed as well.

Furthermore, metalworkers must verify that the correct tooling components are being used such as cutting tool geometries, substrates, coatings, type of coolant and coolant pressure.

Machining stainless material comes with many unique challenges because of its low machinability—a machinability rating that needs to be overcome to utilize the benefits of stainless steel.

Stainless steel grades

Stainless steel is offered in varying grades based on specific properties. These grades are also split into groupings based upon metallurgical qualities. Outlined below are the different families of stainless steel.

Austenitic – A rather common material, austenitic steel is identified as the Type 300 series with grades 304 and 316 being the most accessible. While austenitic stainless steel cannot be effectively heat treated, it can be hardened through cold working—the process of changing the shape without the use of heat. Corrosion resistance, low magnetism and good formability are also characteristics associated with this family of stainless.

Ferritic – As part of the Type 400 series, ferritic stainless steels are characterized by its corrosion resistance, strong ductility and magnetism and are typically iron-chromium alloys. This family can be altered through cold working rather than thermal hardening methods.

Martensitic – Similar to ferritic stainless, martensitic grades are also iron-chromium alloys within the Type 400 series; however, this grade can be hardened by heat treatment unlike the ferritic grade. Other characteristics include magnetism, good ductility and corrosion resistance.

Precipitation-hardened (PH) – Through the precipitation hardening process, precipitation-hardened stainless steel attains more strength in addition to greater corrosion resistance. Additionally, it is similar to martensitic stainless in terms of chemical makeup.

Duplex – With a composition made up of nickel, molybdenum and higher chromium levels, duplex stainless steels combine features of ferritic and austenitic stainless, yet this family demonstrates greater strength and high localized corrosion resistance.

Whether machining valve choke bodies for the offshore oil industry (410 stainless), pump covers for the food processing industry (316 stainless steel), bushings for the aerospace industry (17-4 stainless steel) or pumps for the water and wastewater industry (304 stainless steel), knowing and understanding the varying grades and properties of stainless steel will enable machinists to effectively utilize stainless steel and overcome its challenges when they arise.

Overcoming challenges

One of the greatest challenges of machining stainless steel is chip control. Alloying elements such as nickel cause stainless steel to be partially heat resistant, which results in difficulty forming a chip and, thus, poor chip evacuation. In typical steel cutting applications, heat transfers into the formed metal chip. When machining stainless, the heat resistant nickel alloys prevent this heat transfer. This leads to higher cutting temperatures and increased rates of tool deterioration when compared to common steel machining. The nature of the material and its high amount of elasticity make it difficult to achieve chip formation and induces wear on the cutting tool.

Combatting these challenges can be done a few ways—one of those being understanding machine conditions. While machine type does play a factor, machine condition is more detrimental. Machinists must ask if the spindle is rigid, and if the alignment is reasonable or at near zero runout on a lathe. Knowing these factors can greatly benefit or cause significant issues when trying to machine stainless steel.

Additionally, running through-the-tool coolant provides significant tool life advantages over flood coolant. Ultimately, due to its alloying elements, more torque and horsepower are required to drill stainless than typical steel or aluminum materials.

These challenges in stainless applications can also be resolved by working with a more aggressive geometry to attempt to get the chip to form. In austenitic stainless like 316, it is best to use a geometry with a higher rake angle to produce a more manageable chip. However, when working with a harder material such as PH stainless, this method is not effective. In this instance, increasing the rake angle causes the cutting edge to weaken—in turn reducing tool life. With harder materials, this makes the negatives often outweigh the positives.

Overcoming challenges

Nevertheless, the benefits of stainless are so numerous that it is beneficial to overcome these challenges when possible. Corrosion resistance is one of the key benefits of stainless steel. Because a number of grades of stainless are highly corrosion resistant, it is the material of choice in applications where weather or corrosive materials will be in direct contact.

For example, electrical wiring that is run through the ocean for offshore wind farms is made out of stainless steel or a high-temp alloy material that protects the material and, ultimately, the wiring, from the ocean’s salt water. Similarly, offshore drilling utilizes stainless steel because of the corrosive and abrasive materials that are being pumped through these lines.

The food industry is another industry where stainless steel is often used. Stainless steel’s chromium composition, which must be a minimum of 10%, is highly reactive to oxygen environments. This forms a strong, unreactive barrier on the surface of stainless steel, making it the material of choice for the food industry. Finally, the naturally high strength of stainless steel as well as its resistance to corrosion and weather make it a vital material for the aerospace industry in terms of precision parts, fittings, and other components.

Because of the production challenges, a stainless steel is not a material that can be brought into a machine shop to machine straightaway; every aspect must be reviewed prior to machining. Not only do machinists need to firmly understand the different grades of stainless and its properties, but they also need to examine machine capabilities. Tool wear and excellent chip formation are challenges that manufacturers will face when drilling stainless.

Fortunately, these can be managed through proper coolant usage and correct choice of insert geometries, coatings and substrates. Making the best selections can be simplified by consulting cutting tool experts like those at Allied Machine and Engineering as well as coolant specialists.

For more information on the company or for technical support in holemaking and finishing in stainless steel, phone 330-423-8243 or visit

Related Glossary Terms

  • abrasive


    Substance used for grinding, honing, lapping, superfinishing and polishing. Examples include garnet, emery, corundum, silicon carbide, cubic boron nitride and diamond in various grit sizes.

  • alloys


    Substances having metallic properties and being composed of two or more chemical elements of which at least one is a metal.

  • cold working

    cold working

    Deforming metal plastically under conditions of temperature and strain rate that induce strain hardening. Working below the recrystallization temperature, which is usually, but not necessarily, above room temperature.

  • coolant


    Fluid that reduces temperature buildup at the tool/workpiece interface during machining. Normally takes the form of a liquid such as soluble or chemical mixtures (semisynthetic, synthetic) but can be pressurized air or other gas. Because of water’s ability to absorb great quantities of heat, it is widely used as a coolant and vehicle for various cutting compounds, with the water-to-compound ratio varying with the machining task. See cutting fluid; semisynthetic cutting fluid; soluble-oil cutting fluid; synthetic cutting fluid.

  • corrosion resistance

    corrosion resistance

    Ability of an alloy or material to withstand rust and corrosion. These are properties fostered by nickel and chromium in alloys such as stainless steel.

  • ductility


    Ability of a material to be bent, formed or stretched without rupturing. Measured by elongation or reduction of area in a tensile test or by other means.

  • hardening


    Process of increasing the surface hardness of a part. It is accomplished by heating a piece of steel to a temperature within or above its critical range and then cooling (or quenching) it rapidly. In any heat-treatment operation, the rate of heating is important. Heat flows from the exterior to the interior of steel at a definite rate. If the steel is heated too quickly, the outside becomes hotter than the inside and the desired uniform structure cannot be obtained. If a piece is irregular in shape, a slow heating rate is essential to prevent warping and cracking. The heavier the section, the longer the heating time must be to achieve uniform results. Even after the correct temperature has been reached, the piece should be held at the temperature for a sufficient period of time to permit its thickest section to attain a uniform temperature. See workhardening.

  • lathe


    Turning machine capable of sawing, milling, grinding, gear-cutting, drilling, reaming, boring, threading, facing, chamfering, grooving, knurling, spinning, parting, necking, taper-cutting, and cam- and eccentric-cutting, as well as step- and straight-turning. Comes in a variety of forms, ranging from manual to semiautomatic to fully automatic, with major types being engine lathes, turning and contouring lathes, turret lathes and numerical-control lathes. The engine lathe consists of a headstock and spindle, tailstock, bed, carriage (complete with apron) and cross slides. Features include gear- (speed) and feed-selector levers, toolpost, compound rest, lead screw and reversing lead screw, threading dial and rapid-traverse lever. Special lathe types include through-the-spindle, camshaft and crankshaft, brake drum and rotor, spinning and gun-barrel machines. Toolroom and bench lathes are used for precision work; the former for tool-and-die work and similar tasks, the latter for small workpieces (instruments, watches), normally without a power feed. Models are typically designated according to their “swing,” or the largest-diameter workpiece that can be rotated; bed length, or the distance between centers; and horsepower generated. See turning machine.

  • machinability


    The relative ease of machining metals and alloys.

  • machinability rating

    machinability rating

    A relative measure of the machinability of a metallic work material under specified standard conditions. Machinability rating is expressed in percents, with the assumption that the machinability rating of AISI 1212 free-machining steel is 100 percent. If machinability ratings of work materials are less than 100 percent, it means that such work materials are more difficult to machine than AISI 1212 steel; and vice versa if machinability ratings are greater than that for AISI 1212 steel.

  • rake


    Angle of inclination between the face of the cutting tool and the workpiece. If the face of the tool lies in a plane through the axis of the workpiece, the tool is said to have a neutral, or zero, rake. If the inclination of the tool face makes the cutting edge more acute than when the rake angle is zero, the rake is positive. If the inclination of the tool face makes the cutting edge less acute or more blunt than when the rake angle is zero, the rake is negative.

  • stainless steels

    stainless steels

    Stainless steels possess high strength, heat resistance, excellent workability and erosion resistance. Four general classes have been developed to cover a range of mechanical and physical properties for particular applications. The four classes are: the austenitic types of the chromium-nickel-manganese 200 series and the chromium-nickel 300 series; the martensitic types of the chromium, hardenable 400 series; the chromium, nonhardenable 400-series ferritic types; and the precipitation-hardening type of chromium-nickel alloys with additional elements that are hardenable by solution treating and aging.


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