Grinding Lathe Tools on a Belt Sander – Part 2

Using tip geometry

Here is a table that presents the table angles we need to set when we grind standard lathe tools.  Note that the headings at the top of each column eliminate the word “angle” after each heading but otherwise matches the diagram above.  The front relief (angle) in the table is the same as the end relief angle in the diagram above.  The angles here are very important starting points for modifying tools.  If you simply wish to grind standard tools then grind with the angles listed here.

The values in the table are the number of degrees to which you must angle the grinder table for the particular feature you are grinding.  For example, when grinding a tool for aluminum you will angle the table of your grinder to 12 degrees and then grind the side; doing so will create a side relief angle of 12 degrees (your table setting) and the side cutting edge angle (dictated by the angle you hold the tool at as you grind the side) at the same time.  You then reset the table to 8 degrees and as you grind the end the table angle creates the 8 degree end relief angle as you shape the end cutting edge angle at the same time.  You then reset the table to 16 degrees and as you hold the tool at a 35 degree angle (to the belt) you feed the tool straight into the grinder to cut the top face; doing so cuts the side rake at 16 degrees while creating the desired 35 degree back rake at the same time.

In order to alter the tip geometry of our tools to lower cutting forces: Use the largest angle listed in the table as a baseline, and then add about 25-40%.  This works out to about 2-5 degrees higher than the largest recommended values and your tool will work better on your little lathe without endangering the tip excessively.  While these changes may seem very small and insignificant the reduction in cutting forces they produce are anything but.  The tool used for our cutting force demonstration earlier was ground with these conservative changes and it works well.

Keep in mind that none of the tip angles works in isolation.

  1. Increasing the relief angles without changing the side rake gives you a sharper interface at the edge so cutting forces decrease and finishes improve but you also limit chip clearance and lose some edge strength because the edge is not supported as well.
  2. Increasing side rake without altering the relief angles reduces cutting forces even more while improving chip clearance but finishing potential drops off a bit.  Because the edge is better supported if relief angles are not altered increasing side rake does not sacrifice edge strength as much.
  3. The effect of increasing back rake is not nearly as noticeable as when altering side rake.  However, increasing back rake will tend to focus the cutting forces at the tip of the tool while helping side rake to flow the chip out of the cut.
  4. If you increase both the relief and side rake angles then cutting forces plummet but the tip and edge strength is reduced a lot more so be aware of it when the tool will experience high cutting loads.  This is less of a concern for finishing tools.
  5. The shape of the tool has a significant impact on strength.  The more mass you have in the tip the more latitude you have with angle changes.

Table Notes:

  • Side rake for brass and bronze is not zero in the table but a flat, un-ground top works well for these materials.  Profiling tools also have zero top rake.  A flat rake keeps the tool from digging into soft, grabby materials or when there is a lot of edge contact between the tool and the work.  You don’t have to grind the top but you should hone it.
  • Side rake is the angle that varies the most with different materials.  In fact, side rake is the key variable at that tip. If you look at the relief angles in the table you will see that they don’t vary much between materials because clearance on a round part is still clearance and once you have it then, well, you have it.  When you vary the side rake the included angle of the side and end suddenly becomes more, or less, acute.  It is this alteration in included angle, also known as the angle of keenness, which changes to accommodate various materials.  Seemingly small changes to side rake can have a major effect on cutting forces and how the tool cuts.  Pay attention to side rake and use it to your advantage – it’s a major player.
  • Side rake for Stainless and Back Rake for Aluminum are very aggressive.  That’s a lot of steel to grind off.  You may want to look into grinding chipbreakers when grinding tools for these specific materials.  Chipbreakers break the long, stringy and dangerous chips into smaller pieces and are much easier to grind than the whole top of the tool.  I won’t go into chipbreakers here but you should know about them.

For optimum performance you can grind a set of tools (rougher, facing and finishing) for each material you commonly work with.  They will work far better than general purpose tools and are worth the time it takes to make them.  If you grind them as you need them you will have a complete collection in no time.  If you do make sets I suggest grinding the same face of each tool before changing your table angle to save setup time.

On the other hand, you can actually get away with less than optimal geometry.  For example, you can grind a general purpose tool that will work on mild steel, aluminum, stainless steel, plastics, tool steels, semi-hardened steels and brass.  The tool we will grind as an example below is one of these general purpose tools and the tool angles used are typical for a tool that has to cut multiple materials under varying conditions.  These tool angles are a compromise, just as the shape of a general purpose tool is a compromise but they work fairly well.

General purpose tools allow you to minimize the number of tools you need to grind.  For example, if you had to minimize the number of tools in the drawer you could have a general purpose right hand and left hand tool, a RH and LH general purpose knife tool for facing (see the end of this discussion), a zero-rake 60 degree threading tool and a zero-rake round nose tool with a 1/64”-1/32” nose radius (for between-shoulders work and general cutting of brass).  Add a HSS blade-type cut off tool with a 7 degree face used in a rear-mounted tool holder and you can handle most general jobs in a hobby shop.

An important angle you may see that isn’t in any table is called the Lead Angle (LA).

The LA is not ground into the tool; it is set by positioning the side cutting edge relative to the work piece.  In general, a tool is used with the shank positioned perpendicular to the work; in this case, the LA is equal to the side cutting edge angle.  However, increasing or decreasing the LA of the tool to suit your purpose works better.

Increasing LA can significantly improve finishes; for this reason MHB recommends using the maximum LA possible as long as there is no chatter.  Remember that increasing LA also increases cutting forces because more of the side cutting edge comes into contact with the work.  The effect of this is most readily seen on thin, flexible work pieces in the form of chatter.  On larger pieces that don’t flex much a large LA can really improve finishes.

If you develop chatter at any time, especially on thin pieces or on hard materials try reducing the LA (move the side cutting edge more perpendicular to the work) and things will improve.  In some cases going to a negative LA really helps, especially on thin work or an ambitious roughing cut.  The effect of reducing LA is equivalent to reducing depth of cut and increasing feed, which has a positive effect on reducing chatter.  Try playing with LA to further modulate cutting forces on the lathe – it can be useful.

Another term you may see is the Angle of Keenness.  This is the included angle formed by the side and top of the tool as you look at it from the tip end of the tool.  For harder materials this angle is less acute and for softer materials it is more acute.  Back in the day, before angle tables became widespread, machinists ground their tools with this angle: less acute for hard stuff, more acute for soft stuff.  Since the hardness of the material being cut is accounted for by the angles found in the angle table I ignore this angle but mention it here for completeness.  If you were paying attention, this is the angle that changes as you alter your relief and side rake angles.  Those old guys knew what they were doing.

Lathe tools come in many shapes, each suited to a particular task.

The top row shows the three basic turning tool shapes in both right hand (cuts toward the chuck) and left hand (cuts toward the tailstock) versions.  All are used at normal turning speeds.  These tools are typically used with their shanks perpendicular to the work but you should change their lead angles to suit the situation.  These shapes have proven themselves over time to work very well but you are not limited to them in any way.  For example, a “general purpose” tool could look like the facing tool but since we may have altered our relief and rake angles for our tool we may want more strength in the tip.  In that case we could grind something that is halfway between a roughing and facing tool and it would work for most operations.  That is the shape we will grind later.

When we shape a tool we are grinding the Side Cutting Edge Angle (SCEA) and End Cutting Edge Angle (ECEA) to give us the shape we want.  Again, these angles are determined by the angle at which you hold the tool blank at as you move it across the grinding belt.  Unless you need a specific shape, jigs are not necessary to grind them – save your money and do it by hand.

 General things to note:

  • Rougher: It has greater mass at the tip to handle the cutting forces encountered with deeper cuts.  It is shaped, and used, with a shallower lead angle that allows a deeper cut with less chance of chattering.  The nose radius is smaller than that of a finisher; 1/64” works. It cannot cut into a square corner.  The strongest of turning tools, it allows the greatest latitude for modifying your relief and side rake angles.  For interrupted cuts when the cutting edge is pounded hard keep your relief angles at baseline to add strength.
  • Finisher: This has a delicate tip and a more generous nose radius of up to 1/32”.  The rounded tip creates greater cutting forces so it is meant for lighter cuts.  It cannot cut into a square corner.  It is the weakest of shapes but meant for light cuts so higher relief and back rake angles work well with this tool.
  • Facing: Note that the angle between the side and end cutting edges is less than 90 degrees.  This allows the tool to cut into a corner, which is a facing operation.  The nose radius can be ground smaller than 1/64” to cut a cleaner corner.  Most of the cutting action is done at the side cutting edge (higher cutting forces) so lighter cuts are needed.  Here, you can boost side rake and keep relief angles more conservative (25-30% range) to preserve edge strength.
  • The tools in the lower row are profiling or forming tools.  All of these tools have a potentially large contact area so cutting forces are very high; they are therefore meant to be used with shallower depths of cut and much lower speeds.  All except the corner forming tool can be ground on a belt sander; this tool is the only one I would use a bench grinder for if I needed one.  All of these profiling or form tools typically have zero top rake but their relief angles are the same as a turning tool.

Regarding the 60 degree threading tool:

  • Use a 60 degree template or “fishtail” to grind this accurately or your thread form will suck.  Starrett sells a good one for low cost.  Basically, you grind the sides to match the notch in the tool until you get an exact match.  Don’t settle for close – get it dead on.
  • Grind the side relief angles on both sides of the nose at about 15 degrees for efficient cutting on a small lathe.  15 degrees is enough to cut freely but not aggressive enough to sacrifice edge strength.  Cutting loads are very high when threading so try not to exceed this 15 degree recommendation if you can help it.
  • Grind a very small flat (just visible) at the tip to keep it from cracking off.
  • The top has zero rake.  If you use the set-over method for threading you can get away with a small amount (5 degrees or so) of positive side rake.  Be sure to hone this tool before using it.
  •  For a parting tool I highly recommend you use a blade-type or T-type tool made of HSS and grind a 7 degree (standard angle is 5 degrees) relief angle under its tip.  Best results come from using a rear mounted tool holder to increase rigidity in your setup and using the right blade thickness for the diameter and material you are cutting.  You can also grind a parting tool from a square blank if you like but its tricky and a lot of work.

In Part 3, we’ll design a general purpose tool and see how it is ground on a belt sander.  This should illustrate how all the preceding information is used to create tools that will meet your specific needs.

6 comments to Grinding Lathe Tools on a Belt Sander – Part 2

  • chris prosser
    September 10, 2011 at 3:30 PM | Reply

    These set of posts is finally convincing me to give up the carbide inserts. I’ve never really been happy with them and I keep doing projects with interrupted cuts, getting impatient, and breaking them :).

    It looks like Sears discontinued the 1/2 HP 2″ belt sander. They only have what they label 1/3 continuous, 2/3 peak these days. Poking around on various knife making lists it looks like the next step up is a grizzly at $450. I’ll try my luck with the 1/3 HP Sears on sale for $125.

    What grits are you using? This place has everything from 36 to 1000 (

    thanks for taking the time to write this all up!


  • Mikey
    September 10, 2011 at 5:02 PM | Reply

    Hey Chris,
    I mention the belts in the last part of the article but I usually use a 24 grit to grind bits, then an 80 grit just before honing on a diamond stone. If I need a good finishing tool I progress from 80 to 120, 220, 320, 400, then 600 grits. By the time you get to 600 you have a mirror finish. Honing is then done on a translucent Arkansas to a razors edge. For most shop cutters this is overkill and the 80 grit and fine, then super-fine diamond stone works well.

    As for the grinder, I often see the 1/2HP Sears grinders come up for sale cheap. I also have the 1/3HP model and would not purchase it – it doesn’t have the power you need to grind tool bits effectively. I would wait until you can find a 1/2HP model if you can, and avoid the 1″ belt models – the belts are too narrow and the platens flex excessively.

    Good luck with grinding. I, too, gave up on carbide on the lathe. The HSS and cobalt tools are worlds better, for me anyway. In part 3, it should give you a better idea about how to grind those tools and I hope I made it clear enough to follow; its pretty easy to do. Let me know how it works out.


  • Mikey
    September 10, 2011 at 5:04 PM | Reply

    Sorry, Chris. I meant to say I see the 1/2HP sears grinders come up on our local Craigslist from time to time for low cost.


  • Anonymous
    March 4, 2016 at 9:00 AM | Reply

    I use carbide inserts. the secret is to grind them on a diamond wheel with positive rake angles (just like HSS). Also keep your nose radius small, otherwise you will chatter. Then crank the speed until the chips are blue in color. high speed keeps them from getting built up edge. This can produce a finish even on mild steel that shines like a mirror. Negative rake tooling = bad on a small lathe

    A lot of people say that HSS provides a better finish than carbide. that is true if you use negative rake and raidused insterts. But if you grind them like HSS, then you have the keen edge of HSS, AND the better lubricity of carbide to keep the built up edge from screwing up the finish.

  • Mikey
    March 4, 2016 at 1:50 PM | Reply

    Glad carbide is working out for you. I agree that carbide can finish well with enough speed and that a positive rake insert can work well. A CCGT AK insert on aluminum will do a nice job. BUT, run a HSS ground for aluminum against that AK insert and you’ll see the difference in finish. Its only when you get up near the speed that these inserts were designed for that you really see what they can do.

    The finish is only a small part of this. Many small lathes cannot handle the cutting forces generated by carbide inserts and will chatter if a cut of a decent size is taken. Inserts are okay and will get the job done but if I had to choose between HSS ground to perform well in a certain material or inserted carbide for use on a small lathe then I would choose HSS.

    A case in point. I had to cut some 1144 Stressproof for a lead screw and happened to have a CCMT insert in the tool holder so I used it to rough the work. When I had to take finishing cuts the metal had work-hardened enough to make holding tight tolerances difficult. Luckily, I had enough material left to get under that hardened layer with a sharp HSS cutter and got the job done but only just.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t or can’t use carbide on a small lathe. It works and thousands of our fellow hobbyists use it. I AM saying that HSS on a small lathe can be a better option.

  • Larry Schweitzer
    January 24, 2018 at 8:08 PM | Reply

    I use mostly HSS hand ground w/o using a rest. Honed on a diamond plate. Most of the time I now get good results but the tools don’t hold up as well as the inserts when I have to take off a lot of material and don’t want to spend all day doing it. At first I was intimidated by the recommended feeds and speeds for carbide but practice has reduced the stress levels. I’m not sure where “small lathe” and the next level separate. I have a Chinese lathe that is OK. I’ve never thought it was short on power (3hp/3 phase.) I learned the hard way not to take too thin of cuts on SS. I’ve never used an Atlas but they look like they would struggle with the required cuts for SS. Thank you for the grinding info.

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