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The Ultimate Guide to CNC Machining Tolerances: Everything You Need to Know

Table of Contents

The technology behind CNC machines facilitates the production of components with remarkable precision, boasting tolerances as fine as plus or minus 0.0025 millimeters. Despite the high costs and time investments required for such high-precision milling operations, it is critical to apply CNC machining tolerances appropriately. Designers must consider cost efficiency, setting necessary dimensions and acceptable tolerance ranges for each part since requirements vary across designs.

Setting CNC machining tolerances effectively defines the maximum permissible variation in part dimensions, ensuring that this variation does not compromise the part’s functionality or purpose. This meticulous approach to tolerance management ensures uniform quality of parts and fosters a trust-based relationship between manufacturers and suppliers anchored in quality.

CNC machining tolerances

What are Machining Tolerances?

Machining tolerances in CNC refer to the permissible limits of variation in the dimensions of a manufactured part.

For example, a part with a tolerance of ±0.001 inches indicates that its size variation will not exceed this range, typically representing higher precision and ensuring the perfect fit of each component in the assembly. These standard tolerances are critical in determining how closely a part meets its intended design specifications.

For a concrete example, if a part is measuring 3.557 inches in length, you might specify a tolerance of ±0.001 inches. This means that the manufactured part’s length will vary between 3.556 inches and 3.558 inches.

Different levels of tolerance are set to accommodate various application requirements. For instance, high-precision applications may need tight tolerances as low as ±0.005 mm, while less stringent applications might allow tolerances up to ±0.1 mm. By adhering to specific tolerances, CNC machining can produce highly accurate and consistent parts, crucial for advanced engineering applications.

Why machining tolerances are important?

Machining tolerances refer to the permissible limits of variation in the physical dimensions of a machined part. These tolerances are critical in engineering and manufacturing, as they dictate how much a part’s actual measurements can deviate from its specified dimensions while still being considered acceptable for use.


Precision and Functionality

Tight tolerances ensure that parts fit together correctly in assemblies, maintaining the functionality and integrity of the final product.



Standardized tolerances allow parts to be interchangeable, which is crucial in mass production and modular designs.


Quality Control

Tolerances are a measure of quality. Adhering to specified tolerances indicates a high level of craftsmanship and reliability in the manufacturing process.



Proper tolerance settings can reduce material wastage and machining time, thereby lowering manufacturing costs. Too tight tolerances may increase the difficulty of machining and the rate of rejects, while too loose tolerances might lead to parts not meeting design requirements.


Safety and Reliability

In certain applications, such as aerospace and medical equipment, high-precision tolerances are crucial for ensuring the safety and reliability of products. Inaccurate parts may lead to mechanical failures or even safety incidents.


Customer Satisfaction

The accuracy and quality of a product directly affect customer satisfaction. Products that meet strict tolerance requirements generally have a higher competitive edge in the market.

Types of CNC machining tolerances

  • Bilateral Tolerance
  • Unilateral Tolerance
  • Limit Tolerances
  • Profile Tolerance
  • Orientation Tolerance

1. Bilateral Tolerance

This is a type of tolerance where variation is allowed on both sides of a nominal size. For instance, a dimension could be 10 mm with a tolerance of ±0.5 mm, meaning it can vary between 9.5 mm and 10.5 mm. This is commonly used in many parts where slight variations on either side of the nominal dimension are acceptable.

2. Unilateral Tolerance

Unilateral tolerance allows variation only in one direction from the nominal size. For example, a dimension might be set at 10 mm with a tolerance of +0.5 mm and 0 mm, implying that the size can be between 10 mm and 10.5 mm, but not less than 10 mm. This is particularly useful in fitting parts where clearance on only one side is necessary.

3. Limit Tolerances

 Limit tolerances define the maximum and minimum permissible sizes of a part. For instance, a part might be specified with dimensions of 10 mm with a limit of 9.8 mm to 10.2 mm. It’s an explicit way of stating the upper and lower limits, providing clear boundaries for acceptable dimensions.

4. Profile Tolerance

This type of tolerance is related to the contour or profile of a surface. It controls the variability in the shape and is often used in complex geometries, ensuring that the entire surface profile remains within specified limits.

5. Orientation Tolerance

Orientation tolerances control the orientation of features relative to each other. This is crucial in ensuring that different features of a part are properly aligned or angled as designed.

machining tolerances

Commonly Used Standard Tolerances in CNC

Standard tolerances in CNC machining are generally predefined ranges that dictate the permissible variation in the dimensions of a machined part. These tolerances are critical in ensuring that parts fit and function as intended. Standard tolerances vary based on the type of material, the complexity of the part, and the machining process used. For example, metals might have tighter tolerances compared to plastics due to their different material properties.

In industries where precision is paramount, such as aerospace and medical device manufacturing, standard tolerances are often more stringent. These industries frequently adhere to specific standards like ISO 2768 or ANSI Y14.5 to maintain uniformity and ensure compatibility with other components.

  • ISO 2768 is divided into two main parts: ISO 2768-m and ISO 2768-f.
  • ISO 2768-m: This is a “medium” tolerance class suitable for most general machining and manufacturing. It provides a set of standard tolerances to control variations in dimensions for which no specific tolerance is required. These tolerances apply to linear dimensions (such as length, width, height) and angular dimensions.
  • ISO 2768-f: This “fine” tolerance class is suitable for machined parts that require higher precision. It provides a tighter tolerance range than ISO 2768-m and is suitable for applications that require higher accuracy, such as precision machinery or high-end electronic equipment.

Related reading document: General Tolerances to DIN ISO 2768

Tolerance Range for different machining processes

Machining Process

Tolerance Range (in inches)


±0.002 to ±0.004


±0.002 to ±0.004


±0.0004 or tighter

Electrical Discharge Machining (EDM)


Wire EDM



±0.002 to ±0.004

Laser Cutting


Factors influencing machining tolerances

Material Properties

The physical and chemical properties of different materials (such as hardness, elasticity, thermal expansion coefficient, etc.) directly affect machining accuracy. For example, some materials may be more susceptible to deformation during machining, affecting tolerances.


Machine Tool Precision

The precision of machine tools is a key factor in determining machining accuracy. High-precision machines can more accurately control the position and movement of the cutting tools, achieving tighter tolerances.


Environmental Factors

Temperature, humidity, and other environmental conditions can affect the dimensions and shape of materials, thereby impacting machining tolerances. For example, high temperatures may cause materials to expand, while humidity changes could lead to some materials absorbing moisture and expanding.


Operator Skill

The skill and experience of the operator are very important for achieving precise tolerances. Experienced operators can better control the variables in the machining process, thereby improving machining accuracy


Machining Methods and Processes

Different machining methods (such as turning, milling, grinding, etc.) and process flows have different impacts on final tolerances. The appropriate selection of machining methods and optimization of process flows are key to achieving the desired tolerances.


Selecting the right tolerances for CNC machining

Choosing appropriate tolerances for different CNC projects involves a balance between precision, efficiency, and cost. The decision should be based on several factors:

1. Design Requirements

Understand the function and fit of the part in its final assembly. Critical features may require tighter tolerances.

2. Material Selection

Different materials react differently during machining. Consider material properties like strength, hardness, and thermal stability.

  • Abrasion: The abrasiveness of a material directly affects tool life. Higher abrasion leads to faster tool wear, necessitating more frequent tool changes or the use of more wear-resistant tool materials, impacting both processing time and costs.


  • Hardness: The hardness of a material determines the required cutting force and tool type. Materials with higher hardness are more challenging to cut, requiring more durable tools and slower cutting speeds, potentially increasing processing difficulty and cost. Additionally, harder materials may cause faster tool wear, reducing efficiency.


  • Stiffness: The stiffness of a material affects vibrations and stability during machining. Materials with high stiffness better resist deformation during processing, maintaining precision. However, if a material is too rigid, it may require greater machining force and specialized tools.


3. Machining Capabilities

 Assess the capabilities and limitations of the available CNC machines and tools. Advanced machines can achieve tighter tolerances but may be more expensive to operate.

4. Cost Implications

 Tighter tolerances often mean higher costs due to increased machining time and more frequent tool changes. Weigh the necessity of precision against cost efficiency.

5. Quality Control: Ensure the quality control processes in place can measure and verify the tolerances required. This may involve specialized measuring equipment.

6. Batch Size: For large production runs, consider the implications of maintaining tight tolerances across many parts. Small batch sizes might allow for more flexibility.


In summary, understanding and applying the correct CNC machining tolerances is crucial for maximizing efficiency and precision in your projects. By selecting the appropriate tolerance ranges for different processes like turning, milling, and grinding, you can ensure high-quality results while maintaining cost-effectiveness. Always consider the specific needs of your project and consult with experts to determine the best approach for achieving optimal precision and efficiency.


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EASIAHOME has been a factory specializing in high precision CNC machined parts for more than 17 years. Our capabilities include CNC turning, CNC milling (3&4& 5-axis machining), lathe machining, bending, drilling, grinding, tapping, etc. We serve global industries, we deliver reliable and durable metal parts that meet your specifications. we custom produce parts according to the drawing you gave.

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