What is the Difference Between CNC Milling and CNC Turning?


Navigating the world of CNC machining can feel like deciphering an ancient language. As someone who has spent countless hours around these remarkable machines, I can tell you that understanding the nuances of CNC processes is not just fascinating—it’s essential. Whether you’re in manufacturing or just a curious tech enthusiast, grasping the difference between CNC milling and CNC turning can give you a clearer picture of how the things we use every day are made.

What is CNC Machining

CNC machining is like having a super-accurate robot craftsman. It stands for Computer Numerical Control, meaning a computer guides the machine tools to shape materials like metal or plastic. These machines follow precise instructions from a digital design to carve, cut, or drill parts with incredible accuracy. Imagine making complex parts, like car engine components or custom-designed gadgets, with the consistency and precision that human hands can’t achieve. That’s the magic of CNC machining—automating the creation of intricate and precise parts used in countless products we use every day.

Milling 7075 aluminum

CNC Milling

CNC milling is like sculpting, but instead of chisels and hammers, we use rotating cutters to remove material from a solid block, called the workpiece. Imagine Michelangelo with a robotic assistant—only instead of marble, he’s working with metal or plastic.

How CNC Milling Works: A Step-by-Step Guide

  1. Design: Start with a CAD (Computer-Aided Design) model of the part.
  2. Programming: Convert the CAD model into a CNC program using CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) software.
  3. Setup: Secure the workpiece on the milling machine’s table.
  4. Cutting: The CNC machine uses rotating cutting tools to remove material, following the programmed path.
  5. Finishing: The part may undergo additional processes, like deburring or polishing, to achieve the desired finish.

Common Materials Used in CNC Milling

CNC milling is incredibly versatile when it comes to materials. Metals like aluminum, steel, and titanium are common, but plastics like ABS and polycarbonate are also frequently used. Each material brings its own set of characteristics, from durability to machinability, making milling adaptable to a wide range of applications.

CNC Turning

If CNC milling is like sculpting, CNC turning is akin to pottery on a spinning wheel. CNC turning involves rotating the workpiece while a stationary cutting tool removes material. The result? Perfectly symmetrical cylindrical parts.

How CNC Turning Works: A Step-by-Step Guide

Let’s break down the turning process:

  1. Design: Create a CAD model of the part.
  2. Programming: Use CAM software to generate the CNC program.
  3. Setup: Mount the workpiece on the lathe’s spindle.
  4. Cutting: The lathe spins the workpiece while the cutting tool shapes it.
  5. Finishing: Final touches are added to ensure the part meets specifications.

Common Materials Used in CNC Turning

CNC turning is well-suited for metals like brass, stainless steel, and aluminum. However, it’s also used for wood and plastic materials. The choice of material depends on the part’s intended use, whether it needs to withstand stress or simply look aesthetically pleasing.

milling turning cnc steel 304 prototype

Key Differences Between CNC Milling and CNC Turning

Operational Differences

In milling, the cutting tool rotates while the workpiece remains stationary. Conversely, in turning, the workpiece rotates while the cutting tool remains stationary. This fundamental difference influences the shapes and types of parts each process can produce.

Design and Structure

CNC milling machines resemble a high-tech version of a traditional drill press, with a table that moves in multiple axes. CNC lathes, on the other hand, look more like ancient pottery wheels, with a spindle that rotates the workpiece. The design of each machine is tailored to its specific function, maximizing efficiency and precision.

Types of Movements: Linear vs. Rotational

Milling primarily involves linear movements along the X, Y, and Z axes. Turning, however, focuses on rotational movements around the central axis of the workpiece. These different movements define the types of parts each process can create—milling excels at complex, non-cylindrical shapes, while turning is ideal for symmetrical, round objects.

Modo Rapid CNC milling services(1)

Applications of CNC Milling

CNC milling is a cornerstone in industries such as aerospace, automotive, and electronics. In aerospace, it’s used to create intricate components for aircraft engines. In the automotive industry, milling produces parts like engine blocks and transmission housings. Electronics manufacturers rely on milling for precision parts used in devices and circuit boards.

Typical Products and Components Made with CNC Milling

From the sleek aluminum casing of a smartphone to the intricate gears in a luxury watch, CNC milling makes it all possible. Other examples include medical implants, custom machine parts, and complex molds used in manufacturing processes.


Milling offers unparalleled precision and flexibility. It’s perfect for creating complex geometries and achieving tight tolerances. Additionally, the ability to work with a variety of materials makes it a versatile choice for many applications. It’s like having a Swiss Army knife in the world of manufacturing—always ready to tackle any challenge.

Applications of CNC Turning

CNC turning shines in industries where cylindrical parts are essential. This includes automotive (think drive shafts and gears), oil and gas (drill bits and valves), and medical (surgical instruments and implants). The precision and efficiency of turning make it indispensable in these fields.

Typical Products and Components Made with CNC Turning

Common items produced through CNC turning include pulleys, bushings, and threaded fasteners. Even the seemingly mundane bolts and screws that hold everything together are often products of CNC turning. Imagine assembling your IKEA furniture without these tiny heroes!


Turning is exceptional for producing smooth, round surfaces and intricate details on cylindrical parts. It offers high efficiency, especially for large production runs, and maintains excellent consistency. If milling is the Swiss Army knife, turning is the finely honed scalpel—precise and effective.

CNC machining wood milling

Surface Finish and Tolerances

Comparing Surface Finish Quality in Milling and Turning

Milling generally produces a smoother surface finish compared to turning, thanks to the multi-toothed cutters. However, turning can achieve impressive finishes with the right parameters and tooling. The choice between the two often hinges on the required surface quality and part geometry.

Achieving Tight Tolerances: Which Process is Better?

Both milling and turning can achieve tight tolerances, but the specific requirements of the part dictate which process is better. Milling is superior for parts with complex shapes and multiple features. Turning excels at achieving tight tolerances on round, cylindrical parts. It’s like comparing a multi-tool to a specialized instrument—each has its strengths depending on the task at hand.

Tooling and Cutting Tools

Types of Tools Used in CNC Milling

Milling utilizes a variety of cutting tools, including end mills, face mills, and ball nose cutters. Each tool type is designed for specific operations, from rough cutting to fine finishing. These tools are often made from high-speed steel, carbide, or diamond-coated materials for durability and precision.

Types of Tools Used in CNC Turning

Turning relies on single-point cutting tools, which can be customized with various inserts to suit different materials and cutting conditions. Common insert materials include carbide, ceramic, and diamond, each offering unique benefits in terms of wear resistance and cutting performance.

Differences in Tool Wear and Maintenance

Tool wear is a critical factor in both milling and turning. In milling, the multiple cutting edges distribute wear more evenly, extending tool life. Turning tools, with their single-point contact, may wear faster but are easier to replace and maintain. Regular monitoring and maintenance are essential to ensure consistent quality and prolong tool life.

Programming and Software

CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software like SolidWorks or AutoCAD is used to design parts for milling. CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) software, such as Mastercam or Fusion 360, translates these designs into CNC programs. These programs control the milling machine’s movements to create the part.

Similar to milling, CAD software is used to design parts for turning. CAM software like Esprit or Edgecam generates the CNC code for the lathe. The software must account for the rotational movements and the specific requirements of turning operations.

Differences in Programming Complexity and Setup

Milling programming can be more complex due to the multi-axis movements and the variety of operations. Turning, while simpler in movement, requires precise control of rotational speeds and tool paths. Both processes demand a high level of expertise to optimize performance and ensure quality.

Cost Considerations

Cost Factors in CNC Milling

Costs in milling include machine setup, tooling, material, and programming. The complexity of the part and the type of material can significantly impact costs. Milling tends to be more expensive for small production runs due to the intricate setup and programming required.

Cost Factors in CNC Turning

Turning costs are influenced by similar factors: setup, tooling, material, and programming. However, turning is generally more cost-effective for cylindrical parts and large production runs. The simplicity of the process often results in lower setup and maintenance costs.

When to Choose Milling Over Turning Based on Cost

Choose milling for complex parts with intricate geometries and multiple features. Turning is the better option for high-volume production of cylindrical parts. Balancing these factors can help optimize costs and achieve the best results for your project.

Precision CNC Milling of 5083 Alloy

Choosing the Right Process for Your Project

Factors to Consider When Choosing Between Milling and Turning

Consider the part’s geometry, material, production volume, and required tolerances. Milling is ideal for complex, multi-faceted parts, while turning excels at creating precise, symmetrical cylindrical components. Evaluate your specific needs to make the best choice.

Case Studies: Examples of Projects Best Suited for Milling or Turning

  • Milling Case Study: A company needed a complex aluminum housing with multiple internal features and tight tolerances. CNC milling was chosen for its ability to produce intricate shapes and maintain precision across various surfaces.
  • Turning Case Study: A manufacturer required high-volume production of steel shafts with precise diameters and smooth finishes. CNC turning provided the efficiency and accuracy needed for this repetitive, cylindrical part.


CNC milling and CNC turning are essential processes in manufacturing, each with unique strengths. Milling is perfect for complex parts with rotating tools, while turning excels with cylindrical parts using rotating workpieces.

By understanding these distinctions, you can make the best choice for your project’s needs. If you have any questions or need further guidance, feel free to contact us.

We’re experts in the CNC field and ready to help. You can also upload your drawings to get a parts quote directly.