There are generally three types of liquids: mineral, semi-synthetic, and synthetic. Semi-synthetic and synthetic cutting fluids represent attempts to combine the best properties of oil with the best properties of water by suspending emulsified oil in a water base. These properties include: rust inhibition, tolerance of a wide range of water hardness (maintaining pH stability around 9 to 10), ability to work with many metals, resist thermal breakdown, and environmental safety.
Water is a good conductor of heat but has drawbacks as a cutting fluid. It boils easily, promotes rusting of machine parts, and does not lubricate well. Therefore, other ingredients are necessary to create an optimal cutting fluid.
Mineral oils, which are petroleum-based, first saw use in cutting applications in the late 19th century. These vary from the thick, dark, sulfur-rich cutting oils used in heavy industry to light, clear oils.
Semi-synthetic coolants, also called soluble oil, are an emulsion or microemulsion of water with mineral oil. These began to see use in the 1930s. A typical CNC machine tool usually uses emulsified coolant, which consists of a small amount of oil emulsified into a larger amount of water through the use of a detergent.
Synthetic coolants originated in the late 1950s and are usually water-based.
The official technique to measure oil concentration in cutting fluid samples is manual titration: 100ml of the fluid under test is titrated with a 0.5M HCl solution to an endpoint of pH 4 and the volume of titrant used to reach the endpoint is used to calculate the oil concentration. This technique is accurate and not affected by fluid contamination, but needs to be performed by trained personnel in a laboratory environment. A hand-held refractometer is the industrial standard used to determine the mix ratio of water-soluble coolants that estimates oil concentration from the sample refractive index measured in the Brix scale. The refractometer allows for in situ measurements of oil concentration within industrial plants. However, contamination of the sample reduces the accuracy of the measure. Other techniques are used to measure the oil concentration in cutting fluids, such as measure of the fluid viscosity, density, and ultrasound speed. Other test equipment is used to determine such properties as acidity and conductivity.
- Kerosene and rubbing alcohol often give good results when working on aluminium.
- WD-40 and 3-In-One Oil work well on various metals. The latter has a citronella odor; if the odor offends, mineral oil and general-purpose lubricating oils work about the same.
- Way oil (the oil made for machine tool ways) works as a cutting oil. In fact, some screw machines are designed to use one oil as both the way oil and cutting oil. (Most machine tools treat way lube and coolant as separate things that inevitably mix during use, which leads to tramp oil skimmers being used to separate them back out.)
- Motor oils have a slightly complicated relationship to machine tools. Straight-weight non-detergent motor oils are usable, and in fact SAE 10 and 20 oils used to be the recommended spindle and way oils (respectively) on manual machine tools decades ago, although nowadays dedicated way oil formulas prevail in commercial machining. While nearly all motor oils can act as adequate cutting fluids in terms of their cutting performance alone, modern multi-weight motor oils with detergents and other additives are best avoided. These additives can present a copper-corrosion concern to brass and bronze, which machine tools often have in their bearings and leadscrew nuts (especially older or manual machine tools).
- Dielectric fluid is used as a cutting fluid in electrical discharge machines (EDMs). It is usually deionized water or a high-flash-point kerosene. Intense heat is generated by the cutting action of the electrode (or wire) and the fluid is used to stabilise the temperature of the workpiece, along with flushing any eroded particles from the immediate work area. The dielectric fluid is non-conductive.
- Liquid- (water- or petroleum oil-) cooled water tables are used with the plasma arc cutting (PAC) process.
Pastes or gels
Cutting fluid may also take the form of a paste or gel when used for some applications, in particular hand operations such as drilling and tapping. In sawing metal with a bandsaw, it is common to periodically run a stick of paste against the blade. This product is similar in form factor to lipstick or beeswax. It comes in a cardboard tube, which gets slowly consumed with each application.
Some cutting fluids are used in aerosol (mist) form (air with tiny droplets of liquid scattered throughout). The main problems with mists have been that they are rather bad for the workers, who have to breathe the surrounding mist-tainted air, and that they sometimes don’t even work very well. Both of those problems come from the imprecise delivery that often puts the mist everywhere and all the time except at the cutting interface, during the cut—the one place and time where it’s wanted. However, a newer form of aerosol delivery, MQL (minimum quantity of lubricant), avoids both of those problems. The delivery of the aerosol is directly through the flutes of the tool (it arrives directly through or around the insert itself—an ideal type of cutting fluid delivery that traditionally has been unavailable outside of a few contexts such as gun drilling or expensive, state-of-the-art liquid delivery in production milling). MQL’s aerosol is delivered in such a precisely targeted way (with respect to both location and timing) that the net effect seems almost like dry machining from the operators’ perspective. The chips generally seem like dry-machined chips, requiring no draining, and the air is so clean that machining cells can be stationed closer to inspection and assembly than before. MQL doesn’t provide much cooling in the sense of heat transfer, but its well-targeted lubricating action prevents some of the heat from being generated in the first place, which helps to explain its success.
Carbon dioxide (chemical formula CO2) is also used as a coolant. In this application pressurized liquid CO2 is allowed to expand and this is accompanied by a drop in temperature, enough to cause a change of phase into a solid. These solid crystals are redirected into the cut zone by either external nozzles or through-the-spindle delivery, to provide temperature controlled cooling of the cutting tool and work piece.
Air or other gases (e.g., nitrogen)
Ambient air, of course, was the original machining coolant. Compressed air, supplied through pipes and hoses from an air compressor and discharged from a nozzle aimed at the tool, is sometimes a useful coolant. The force of the decompressing air stream blows chips away, and the decompression itself has a slight degree of cooling action. The net result is that the heat of the machining cut is carried away a bit better than by ambient air alone. Sometimes liquids are added to the air stream to form a mist (mist coolant systems, described above).
Liquid nitrogen, supplied in pressurized steel bottles, is sometimes used in similar fashion. In this case, boiling is enough to provide a powerful refrigerating effect. For years this has been done (in limited applications) by flooding the work zone. Since 2005, this mode of coolant has been applied in a manner comparable to MQL (with through-the-spindle and through-the-tool-tip delivery). This refrigerates the body and tips of the tool to such a degree that it acts as a “thermal sponge”, sucking up the heat from the tool–chip interface. This new type of nitrogen cooling is still under patent. Tool life has been increased by a factor of 10 in the milling of tough metals such as titanium and inconel.
Alternatively, using airflow combined with a quick evaporating substance (ex. alcohol, water etc.) can be used as an effective coolant when handling hot pieces that cannot be cooled by alternate methods.
- In 19th-century machining practice, it was not uncommon to use plain water. This was simply a practical expedient to keep the cutter cool, regardless of whether it provided any lubrication at the cutting edge–chip interface. When one considers that high-speed steel (HSS) had not been developed yet, the need to cool the tool becomes all the more apparent. (HSS retains its hardness at high temperatures; other carbon tool steels do not.) An improvement was soda water (sodium bicarbonate in water), which better inhibited the rusting of machine slides. These options are generally not used today because more effective alternatives are available.
- Lard was very popular in the past. It is used infrequently today, because of the wide variety of other choices, but it remains an option.
- Old machine shop training texts speak of using red lead and white lead, often mixed into lard or lard oil. This practice is obsolete due to the toxicity of lead.
- From the mid-20th century to the 1990s, 1,1,1-trichloroethane was used as an additive to make some cutting fluids more effective. In shop-floor slang it was referred to as “one-one-one”. It has been phased out because of its ozone-depleting and central nervous system-depressing properties.