What is CNC Turning: A Comprehensive Guide

What is CNC Turning?

CNC Turning, short for Computer Numerical Control Turning, is a highly precise and automated machining process used in manufacturing to shape cylindrical parts from raw materials such as metal, plastic, or composite materials. In CNC turning, a computer-controlled lathe is employed to execute a wide range of turning operations. The key characteristic of CNC turning is the rotation of the workpiece, secured in a chuck or collet, while a cutting tool, controlled by a computer program, moves along both the longitudinal (Z-axis) and radial (X-axis) directions to remove material and create the desired part geometry. 

The Differences Between CNC Turning And Milling

CNC turning and CNC milling are distinguished by their fundamental motion characteristics. 

In CNC turning, the workpiece rotates, while the cutting tool remains stationary or moves linearly along the workpiece's axis. This rotational aspect defines turning, making it ideal for parts with rotational symmetry, such as shafts and pins. It excels at creating cylindrical or tapered features.

principle of CNC milling

CNC milling is characterized by the rotation of the cutting tool, which moves in multiple axes while the workpiece stays stationary. This versatility allows milling to handle a wide variety of part shapes, including complex 3D geometries and non-rotational features. It performs operations like contouring, slotting, and drilling, making it the choice for parts that require diverse and intricate shapes.

Related resource: What is CNC milling and how does it work?
                             What is CNC drilling and how does it work
principle of CNC milling

The CNC Turning Process

Generally, the process of CNC turning can divided into 3 steps as following:

1. Converting CAD design to CNC program

2. Preparing CNC turning machine

3. Producing the CNC-turned parts

Converting CAD Design to CNC Program

The process of CNC turning begins with the conversion of a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) model of the desired part. Using specialized Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) software, which can be translated into toolpaths that guide the cutting tools. The CAM software generates G-code, a language understood by the CNC machine, which defines tool movements, speeds, feeds, and other machining parameters. Simulations are run to ensure error-free toolpaths and optimize the program for efficiency, all while selecting appropriate cutting tools based on the part's geometry and material.

Preparing CNC Turning Machine

Once the CNC program is ready, the machine setup phase begins. This includes selecting the right material for the part, securing it in the lathe's chuck or collet for rotation, and installing the chosen cutting tools. Calibrating tool offsets to achieve precise alignment is crucial for accuracy. The workpiece is then aligned correctly to match the desired toolpaths. Depending on the material and machining conditions, a coolant or lubrication system is set up to reduce heat, extend tool life, and ensure efficient chip removal.

Producing CNC-Turned Parts

With the machine setup completed, the CNC machine is activated, and the spindle begins to rotate the workpiece. The cutting tools move along the workpiece's length and across its diameter, meticulously following the G-code instructions. Material is incrementally removed to shape the part, and skilled operators closely monitor the process, making real-time adjustments if deviations from the CAD design are observed. Once the machining is complete, the finished part undergoes rigorous inspection and measurement to ensure it complies with specified tolerances and quality standards. This phase may also include deburring and surface finishing to enhance the part's final appearance and functionality. CNC turning is a critical technology in manufacturing, delivering precision and efficiency for a wide range of industries.

Types of CNC Turning Machines

Vertical Lathe

A vertical lathe is a type of machine tool used for precision turning operations. It is characterized by the vertical orientation of its spindle, which is mounted on a ram that moves vertically along the machine's column. In a vertical lathe, the workpiece is secured in a chuck or collet and rotates on a horizontal axis, while the cutting tool moves vertically to shape the workpiece. Vertical lathes are commonly chosen for applications that involve machining large, heavy, and often asymmetrical workpieces. They are well-suited for operations where stability, durability, and the ability to handle substantial workpieces are crucial. 

Horizontal Lathe

A horizontal lathe is a type of machine tool used for precision turning operations. It is designed with a horizontal orientation of the spindle, meaning that the workpiece is clamped in a chuck or collet and rotates on a vertical axis. The horizontal spindle orientation provides stability during machining and ensures efficient chip removal due to gravity, contributing to higher machining speeds. The cutting tool, mounted on a tool turret, moves horizontally to shape the workpiece.it is well-suited for a wide range of turning operations, such as turning, facing, grooving, threading, and drilling. 

Horizontal turning centers

Horizontal turning centers are enclosed CNC lathes that integrate milling and drilling capabilities. A turning center can also include a traveling tool turret, more tooling axes, coolant flooding, a tailstock that is separated from the carriage, and sometimes a conveyor belt.

Vertical turning center

Vertical turning centers are a combination of a horizontal turning center and a CNC mill.

CNC Turning Operations

CNC turning encompasses a variety of operations, each with its specific purpose:


The primary operation in CNC turning involves the removal of material from the external surface of the workpiece to achieve the desired diameter and surface finish. It often creates cylindrical, conical, or curved profiles on the part.


Facing is used to create a flat surface on the end of the workpiece. This operation is essential for ensuring the end is smooth, perpendicular to the axis, and properly prepared for subsequent operations.

Facing in CNC turning process


Grooving entails the creation of narrow channels or slots on the workpiece's surface. It's employed to form features like O-ring grooves, keyways, and other recesses.

threading in CNC turning process


CNC turning is capable of producing external threads on the workpiece. It's vital for components requiring screw or bolt connections, and it can also create internal threads.


Boring operations enlarge or refine existing holes within the workpiece. 

boring in CNC turning process


Drilling involves creating holes in the workpiece, which can range from simple hole drilling to more complex processes like deep-hole drilling.

drilling in CNC turning process


Parting, or cut-off, is used to separate the finished part from the remaining material. This operation delivers a clean, straight cut at a specified location along the workpiece.


Reaming is a machining operation used to refine and accurately size a previously drilled hole or bore in a workpiece. It involves the use of a reamer, a cutting tool with multiple cutting edges, that is designed to produce a smooth and precisely dimensioned hole. 


Knurling is a decorative or functional process where a pattern is pressed onto the workpiece's surface. This enhances grip or provides an aesthetically pleasing texture.

Advantages of CNC Turning

CNC turning has several benefits, They include but are not limited to the following:

Precision and Accuracy

CNC turning machines can consistently produce parts with exceptional precision and accuracy. The computer-controlled nature of the process ensures that each part is manufactured to the exact specifications programmed into the machine. This is crucial for applications where tight tolerances and high-quality surface finishes are required, such as in aerospace or medical industries.

Efficiency and Productivity

CNC turning is highly efficient and can operate continuously once set up. This leads to increased productivity and reduced cycle times compared to manual turning. The automation of tool changes and toolpath optimizations minimizes downtime, making it ideal for high-volume production of parts with rotational symmetry.


While CNC turning is known for producing parts with rotational symmetry, it's also versatile in handling various materials, from metals to plastics and composites. It can be adapted for different applications, such as creating simple components like fasteners or complex parts with intricate features. This adaptability makes CNC turning a valuable process in a wide range of industries.

Are My Parts Suitable for CNC Turning?

Determining whether your parts are suitable for CNC turning involves considering several factors:


Parts with rotational symmetry, like shafts and pins, are ideal for turning. If your part has cylindrical features, it's a good fit. Complex or non-rotational geometries may be better suited for CNC milling.

non-rotational geometries  machining

Tolerances and Surface Finish

Turning excels at achieving tight tolerances and smooth surface finishes. If precision is critical, turning is a strong choice.

Volume of parts

Turning is efficient for high-volume production due to its rapid setup. For small production runs, consider whether the initial setup effort aligns with the benefits of CNC turning, or if another method may be more cost-effective.

Materials for CNC Turning

CNC turning is a versatile machining process suitable for a variety of materials. Some common materials used for CNC turning include:

1. Metals: Aluminum, steel, titanium, brass, copper, etc.

2. Plastics: POM, PMMA, PC, ABS, Nylon, etc.

3. Other materials: Foam, wood, fiberglass, etc.

Related resource: How to select suitable for your CNC machining project


This article has introduced CNC turning, explained what it is and how it works, and discussed the difference between CNC turning and milling, CNC turning operations, its Pros, and factors to consider when choosing it. For in-depth knowledge and further insights into CNC turning, feel free to get in touch with SogaWorks

SogaWorks offers an extensive range of manufacturing capabilities, including CNC turning services and other exceptional manufacturing services to address your prototyping and production needs. Check out our official website and get an instant, hassle-free quote.

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