Tolerances and Material Removal Processes

If you haven’t already, I recommend reading and understanding my previous post about tolerances before digging in here.

Material removal processes are often used to build tooling for other manufacturing processes such as plastic molds, dies and punches for metal stamping and forming, extrusion dies, EDM electrodes, and many others.  Understanding material-removal process capabilities will be invaluable in understanding capabilities of downstream processes.

Common material-removal processes include lapping and honing, grinding, boring, turning, broaching, reaming, milling, planing and shaping, and drilling.

Engineering Toolbox has a good summary of tolerance limits for different material-removal processes:

Tolerance Grades
4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Lapping and Honing
Cylindrical Grinding
Surface Grinding
Diamond Turning
Diamond Boring
Planing and Shaping


As you can see, lapping and honing give the tightest tolerances while milling, planing and shaping, and drilling have wider tolerances.  Also notice that  the tolerances get bigger as the part size gets bigger, regardless of process.

This is great information, but it doesn’t tell you anything about cost.  In general, as tolerances get smaller the parts gets more expensive regardless of process.  That is, a milled part with a dimension of 1.00 +/-0.05mm will be more expensive than a part spec’d at 1.00 +/-0.20mm.  How much more?  It’s impossible to know for certain because there are so many other factors that affect cost.  The take-home message is simply that better parts are more expensive.

Another key piece of information you do not get from this table and chart is any indication of the applications for these processes.  If lapping gives me the tightest tolerances, why don’t I just make all of my parts by lapping them?  Well, lapping only works on flat surfaces.  I suggest clicking through the links above and checking out what wikipedia has to say about each process.  All of the overviews are pretty good.

We will discuss applications of these process as they relate to mechanical components in later posts.


I’m writing this post to help those in the audience that aren’t familiar with detailed mechanical design. A basic understanding of tolerances is essential to follow subsequent discussions here.

First, a quick definition:

Engineering tolerance is the permissible limit of variation in

  1. a physical dimension,
  2. a measured value or physical property of a material, manufactured object, system, or service,
  3. other measured values (such as temperature, humidity, etc).
  4. in engineering and safety, a physical distance or space (tolerance), as in a truck (lorry), train or boat under a bridge as well as a train in a tunnel (see structure gauge and loading gauge).

Thanks Wikipedia.

Every manufacturing process has some variation on dimensional output and a sound mechanical design needs to account for these variations. If you ask a machinist to make you a block that’s 1″ by 1″ by 1″ you might get a block that’s 1.012″ by 0.923″ by 1.103″. Is that close enough?

Could the machinist have done a better job getting closer to the 1″ target? Probably, but since we didn’t specify a tolerance, technically it’s close enough. If we wanted something closer to 1″ per side we’d need to specify how close. That’s the tolerance. We’d say 1″ plus or minus 0.010″, for example. The 1″ dimension is called the nominal value and the 0.010″ is called the tolerance.

Later I’ll talk about tolerances associated with different manufacturing processes and environmental conditions and how mechanical engineers and product designers account for them in their designs.