What is Plastic Machining

Have you ever wondered how your car’s or medical device’s intricate plastic components are made? I often ponder this as I walk through my CNC machining service facility. Precision, innovation, and a hint of magic – that’s what goes into creating these parts.


Plastic machining, in its essence, is the art and science of shaping and forming plastic materials into functional parts. It’s a world apart from metal machining, involving unique techniques and materials. 


In this piece, I’m excited to peel back the layers of this fascinating process. Join me in exploring the intricacies of plastic machining – a journey through precision, innovation, and the transformation of humble polymers into engineering marvels.

What is Plastic Machining, and How Does it Differ from Metal Machining?

My company, Worthy Hardware, specializes in plastic and metal machining, and I can tell you they’re worlds apart. Plastic machining removes material from a plastic workpiece to create a desired shape or design. It’s a subtractive manufacturing process, much like carving a sculpture from a block of marble.

The primary difference between plastic and metal machining lies in the materials’ properties. Plastics are generally softer and more flexible compared to metals. This means they require different cutting speeds, tooling, and handling methods. For instance, when machining 

plastics, we often use sharper tools at higher rates to avoid melting the material.

Another key difference is in the finishing processes. Metals often undergo procedures like anodizing or painting for aesthetics and durability. Plastics, conversely, can often be used as-is after machining, thanks to their natural finish and color versatility. This distinction significantly influences the machining approach and the capabilities required in a machining service.

What are the Most Common Techniques Used in Plastic Machining?

CNC Milling

CNC Milling is a highly versatile process used extensively in plastic machining. It involves the use of computer-controlled, multi-axis cutting machines to remove material from a plastic workpiece. Here are some critical points we consider during the production:

  • Material Clamping: Plastics are more prone to deformation under pressure than metals. Proper clamping techniques are vital to prevent warping or damage to the workpiece.
  • Tool Selection: Using the correct cutting tools is paramount. We opt for tools with higher cutting speeds and sharper edges to prevent melting or chipping of the plastic.
  • Coolant Use: While milling metals often require coolants, we sometimes avoid them for plastics to prevent material swelling or distortion.

CNC Turning

CNC Turning, another cornerstone technique in our facility, involves rotating the plastic workpiece against a cutting tool. Precision and attention to detail are essential in this process. Here’s what we focus on:

  • Temperature Management: Due to the lower melting points of plastics, managing the heat generated during the turning process is crucial. We closely monitor temperatures to maintain the integrity of the plastic.
  • Tool Path Optimization: The path and speed of the cutting tool must be carefully controlled to avoid excessive friction, which can lead to heat buildup and material damage.
  • Finish and Tolerances: Achieving the desired surface finish and tolerances in plastic turning demands meticulous adjustments and frequent quality checks.


Drilling, a fundamental technique in plastic machining, involves creating cylindrical holes in a plastic workpiece using a rotating cutting tool called a drill bit. Here’s how we ensure excellence in this process:

  • Choice of Drill Bits: Selecting the right drill bit is crucial. For plastics, we use bits with sharper angles and polished flutes. This prevents heat buildup and reduces the chances of cracking or melting the material.
  • Speed and Feed Rates: We meticulously adjust the drill’s speed and the rate at which it feeds into the plastic. Too fast, and we risk melting or deforming the material; too slow, and we might not achieve the efficiency we aim for.
  • Peck Drilling Technique: We employ the peck drilling technique, especially for deeper holes. This involves retracting the drill bit periodically to remove chips and allow cooling, preventing heat accumulation that could damage the plastic.




Grinding in plastic machining is an intricate process using an abrasive wheel to achieve high surface quality and accurate dimensions. In the world of plastic machining, grinding takes a special place due to the unique challenges plastics present. Here’s a deeper look into our approach at Worthy Hardware:

  • Wheel Selection: The choice of the grinding wheel is paramount. We generally opt for softer-grade wheels with finer grits for plastics to avoid excessive heat and material removal.
  • Coolant Application: Unlike metals, plastics can be sensitive to heat generated during grinding. We use appropriate coolants to maintain a stable temperature, preventing the melting or warping of the plastic.
  • Surface Finish Concerns: Achieving the desired surface finish on plastics requires a delicate balance. We constantly adjust the grinding parameters to ensure a smooth finish without compromising the dimensional accuracy or integrity of the part.




Threading in plastic machining is a delicate operation where precision threads are cut or formed into a plastic workpiece. This process is crucial for parts that require screwing or interlocking mechanisms. Here’s an insight into our threading process:

  • Tool Material and Geometry: The tools used for threading plastics are typically made from high-speed steel or carbide, with specific geometries to accommodate the softer nature of plastics. This ensures clean, sharp threads without damaging the material.
  • Speed and Feed Adjustments: The speed and feed of the threading tool are adjusted to prevent overheating and to accommodate the softer plastic material. We carefully calibrate these parameters to ensure the threads’ integrity and avoid stripping or cross-threading.
  • Thread Design Considerations: When designing threads for plastics, factors such as thread pitch, depth, and profile are crucial. We often create threads with slightly larger tolerances than metal threading to account for plastic’s thermal expansion and flexibility.



Sawing is a straightforward yet vital technique in plastic machining, primarily used for cutting larger plastic sheets or blocks into smaller sizes before undergoing further machining processes.

  • Blade Selection: The type of saw blade is crucial for clean and efficient cutting. We use blades with finer teeth for plastics to reduce chipping and melting at the cutting edge.
  • Controlled Feed Rate: The rate at which the plastic is fed into the saw is carefully controlled. We need to be faster, and we risk melting or cracking the plastic; we are too slow and may not achieve the desired efficiency.
  • Clamping and Support: Proper clamping and support of the plastic workpiece are essential to prevent vibrations or movements during cutting. This ensures a straight and precise cut, which is crucial for the quality of the final product.

Which Plastics are Best Suited for CNC Machining Processes?

Selecting the suitable plastic for CNC machining is a critical decision that impacts the final product’s quality, functionality, and durability. Here’s an expanded table detailing various plastics, their properties, typical applications, and machining considerations:

Plastic Type Key Characteristics Typical Applications Machining Considerations
Acrylic (PMMA) High clarity, excellent weather resistance Transparent covers, lenses, medical devices Requires careful handling to prevent cracking
Nylon (PA) High strength, wear resistance Gears, bearings, insulators Prone to moisture absorption; pre-drying may be necessary
Polycarbonate (PC) High impact strength, transparent Protective guards, eyewear, automotive parts Generates heat during machining; requires coolants
Polyethylene (PE) Chemical resistance, low friction Containers, slides, food processing parts Soft material; requires sharp tools for clean cuts
Polypropylene (PP) Fatigue resistance, electrical insulator Automotive components, hinges, medical devices Difficult to paint; surface treatment may be needed
ABS Good mechanical properties, easy to machine Consumer electronics, housings, toys Can be glued and painted; versatile for finishing
PEEK High temperature resistance, biocompatibility Aerospace components, medical implants Requires high cutting speeds and careful temperature control
PTFE (Teflon) High heat resistance, non-stick Seals, gaskets, non-stick applications Difficult to bond; special adhesives required
PVC Good chemical and corrosion resistance Pipes, fittings, medical tubing Emits corrosive gases when machined; requires proper ventilation
Delrin (Acetal) High stiffness, low friction Precision gears, bearings, rollers Susceptible to thermal expansion; dimensional accuracy is crucial
Ultem (PEI) High strength, flame retardant Electrical/electronic insulators, medical devices Brittle; requires high-speed machining to prevent chipping
HDPE High impact strength, resistant to wear Cutting boards, tanks, outdoor furniture Soft and flexible; requires support during machining

What Considerations Should Be Kept in Mind When Machining Plastic?


Material Properties


Understanding the material properties of the plastic being machined is crucial. Each type of plastic has unique characteristics that influence how it should be machined. For instance:

  • Thermal Sensitivity: Plastics are generally more sensitive to heat than metals. Excessive heat can lead to melting, warping, or other forms of deformation. Therefore, managing cutting speeds and feeds is essential to minimize heat generation.
  • Chemical Resistance: Some plastics can react adversely to certain coolants or lubricants. We always ensure compatibility to prevent material degradation.
  • Physical Properties: Hardness, brittleness, and tensile strength dictate the machining parameters. For example, softer plastics require sharper tools and lower cutting forces to avoid material displacement or tearing.


Tool Selection


The choice of tools is another critical consideration in plastic machining. The right tool ensures efficiency and impacts the quality of the finished product.

  • Tool Material and Geometry: High-speed steel or carbide tools with specific geometries are preferred for their sharpness and precision. The tool’s geometry should be chosen based on the plastic’s hardness and abrasiveness.
  • Coolant Usage: While some plastics benefit from coolants to reduce heat, others might swell or degrade. We carefully select and apply coolants based on the plastic type.
  • Tool Wear Monitoring: Plastic materials can cause different wear patterns on tools compared to metals. Regular inspection and maintenance of tools are essential to maintain the quality of the machining process.


Surface Finish Requirements

The desired surface finish of the final product is a significant consideration in plastic machining. Different plastics respond uniquely to finishing techniques:

  • Polishing and Buffing: Some plastics, like Acrylic, can be polished to achieve a clear, glass-like finish. The machining process needs to be designed to allow for subsequent polishing without introducing imperfections.
  • Texturing: For plastics requiring a textured surface, the machining process may need to incorporate specific cutting techniques or post-machining treatments.


Tolerance and Precision


Plastic parts often require high precision, especially in industries like aerospace or medical devices. Factors influencing tolerance in plastic machining include:

  • Material Stability: Plastics can be prone to warping or deformation due to temperature changes or internal stresses. Accounting for potential material movement during and after machining is crucial.
  • Machine Calibration: Regular calibration of CNC machines is vital to ensure consistent precision, mainly when working with high-tolerance plastic parts.


Dimensional Stability


Maintaining dimensional stability during the machining of plastics is a challenge we at Worthy Hardware take seriously. Here’s how we address it:

  • Material Selection: Choosing plastics with inherently low thermal expansion rates can significantly improve dimensional stability. Materials like PEEK or Delrin are preferred for applications requiring high precision.
  • Stress Relief Processes: Pre-machining treatments, such as annealing, can relieve internal stresses in plastic materials, reducing the likelihood of deformation during machining.
  • Machining Strategy: Adopting a machining strategy that minimizes material removal in each pass can help maintain stability. This involves balancing the depth of cut, feed rate, and speed.


Temperature Management


Effective temperature management is vital in plastic machining to prevent material degradation:

  • Coolant Use: While some plastics can benefit from coolants, others might not. We select coolants compatible with the specific type of machined plastic.
  • Tool Speeds and Feeds: Adjusting cutting speeds and feed rates helps manage the heat generated during machining. Slower speeds and feeds may be used for plastics that are more sensitive to heat.
  • Machine Downtime: Allowing periodic downtime for both the machine and the material can help in dissipating heat, especially during extended machining operations.

Machining Process


The machining process is tailored to suit the type of plastic material and the desired end product:

  • CNC Milling and Turning: These processes are adapted based on the plastic’s hardness and abrasiveness. Softer plastics require different tool geometries compared to harder ones.
  • Drilling and Threading: Special considerations are taken to prevent material splitting or threading issues, especially in softer or more brittle plastics.

How Does Material Selection Impact the Quality of CNC Machined Plastic Parts?

Material Properties and Machinability

  • Physical Characteristics: The inherent properties of the plastic material, such as hardness, brittleness, and thermal stability, dictate its machinability. For instance, a material like Nylon is known for its toughness and is relatively easy to machine, while materials like PTFE require more delicate handling due to their softness.
  • Quality of Finish: Certain plastics, like Acrylic, lend themselves to a high-quality finish with a clear, glass-like appearance, whereas others might not achieve the same level of aesthetic appeal but offer superior functional properties.

Suitability for the Intended Application

  • Functional Requirements: The selection of material is crucial in meeting the applicable requirements of the part. Materials like Polycarbonate or PEEK are preferred for high-strength applications, whereas materials like Polyethylene or PVC might be chosen for applications requiring chemical resistance.
  • Longevity and Durability: The durability of the CNC machined part is heavily reliant on the material selected. A well-selected material can ensure that the part withstands environmental stresses, such as temperature fluctuations or chemical exposure, without degrading over time.

Impact on Production Efficiency

  • Machining Time and Costs: Different materials can significantly vary in machining time and costs. Easier-to-machine materials can lead to faster production times and lower costs, while more challenging materials might require slower speeds, more complex tooling, and consequently higher prices.
  • Tool Wear: Harder materials can cause increased wear on machining tools, impacting the overall efficiency of the production process.

What Industries Rely on Plastic Machining?

Aerospace Industry

  • Application: Components include interior cabin panels, ventilation system parts, and electrical insulation.
  • Material Needs: High-strength, lightweight, and commonly used flame-retardant plastics like PEEK and Ultem.

Medical Industry

  • Application: Surgical instruments, implants, and diagnostic equipment.
  • Material Needs: Biocompatible and sterilizable plastics like PEEK and Polycarbonate are preferred.

Automotive Industry

  • Application: Parts like dashboards, light housings, and under-hood components.
  • Material Needs: Durable and heat-resistant plastics such as ABS and Nylon are used.

Electronics Industry

  • Application: Insulators, connectors, and housing for electronic components.
  • Material Needs: Materials with good electrical insulation properties like ABS and Polycarbonate.

Consumer Goods Industry

  • Application: Everything from toys to household appliances.
  • Material Needs: Aesthetically pleasing and easy-to-mold plastics like ABS and Polypropylene are selected.

Industrial Machinery

  • Application: Gears, valves, and bearings.
  • Material Needs: Wear-resistant and strong plastics like Nylon and PTFE are favored.


We invite you to bring your plastic machining needs to us. With our state-of-the-art CNC machining technology, experienced team, and deep industry knowledge, we are equipped to handle the complexities and challenges of your projects. Let’s collaborate to turn your ideas into reality, ensuring precision, quality, and efficiency every step of the way.


Contact us today to discuss your project requirements or to learn more about our capabilities in plastic machining. Let’s shape the future, one precisely machined part at a time.