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Tungsten Carbide vs. Cobalt Drill Bits: What To Choose

September 20, 2022

by Kennametal Metal Cutting Pros

Machine shops, maintenance personnel, and the manufacturing community overall face off against a veritable universe of different materials each day:

  • Nickel-based superalloys like Inconel and Hastelloy are called “super” for a reason. 

  • There’s soft, stringy aluminum and polymers like ABS, Nylon, and Teflon. 

  • Cast iron is relatively abrasive but nowhere near that of glass and fiber-filled composites.

  • Steel and all its many alloys—stainless among them—range from “cuts like butter” to “why do I keep breaking tools?”

This list is by no means complete, but we’d be remiss in not tagging a few members of the tool steel family. These include D2, A2, H13, S7, and other tough, heat-treatable, and wear-resistant metals used to make everything from plastic injection molds to stamping dies to high-speed steel (HSS) cutting tools. 

It’s this last group, HSS, that we’re here to discuss today, along with that most widely used of all cutting tools, the drill bit. Despite their broad popularity, relatively low cost, and excellent mechanical properties, you’ll soon see why HSS and its cobalt counterparts aren’t always the best cutting tool materials for your drilling application. Read on.   

A Quick Tool Steel Overview

There’s neither the time nor space for a complete lesson on tool steels. Those interested can read more about it in this sample from ASM International’s Handbook, Volume 16: Machining Handbook. Otherwise, just know that so-called Mushet steel, which most consider the first true tool steel, left the furnace more than 150 years ago. 

Because it could cut metal much more quickly than the hardened carbon steel tools of the day, they dubbed it high-speed steel. As you will see, that moniker has since become a bit misleading, as tungsten carbide cutting tools—though a bit less forgiving than HSS—are far faster and therefore much more productive. 

Regardless, metallurgists have continued adding various amounts and kinds of alloying elements to the tool steel crucible, among them tungsten, vanadium, chromium, and, most relevant to this discussion, cobalt. The result is six distinct groups of tool steel and many dozens of grades, a few of which we mentioned previously. 

"Composition of high-speed tool steels" table from ASM International’s Handbook, Volume 16: Machining Handbook

What is a Cobalt Drill Bit?

The M-series, for instance, gets its name from the primary alloying ingredient, molybdenum, a hard, heat-resistant element sitting at number 42 on the periodic table. M2 tool steel—the stuff of most drill bits—contains 5% molybdenum, but there are also M50, M7, and a few others, all of which provide differing degrees of flexibility, hardness, and toughness needed for holemaking operations. 

Replace some of the iron found in M2 tool steel (and all steels, for that matter) with cobalt and you get “super high-speed steel.” The addition of 5% cobalt, for instance, gives us M35 tool steel, while 8% cobalt and some additional molybdenum make M42 tool steel—whenever anyone talks about cobalt drill bits, they are referring to one of these two. 

When Should a Cobalt Drill Bit be Used?

Compared to regular M2 tool steel, M35 and M42 are indeed super. Where "regular" M2 HSS comes in at a hardness of around 62 HRC, M35 starts at 65 HRC and M42 measures 67 or so. That doesn't seem like much difference, but together with cobalt's greater heat resistance, it supports higher cutting speeds—depending on the brand and whether the drill is coated, this might mean 50% faster spindle RPM and commensurately higher feedrates. Either way, be sure to follow the cutting tool manufacturer's recommendations. 

This last point is important, since all cutting tools, whether they are HSS, cobalt, or tungsten carbide (more on this shortly), benefit from coating, be it TiN (titanium nitride), TiAlN (titanium aluminum nitride), or one of the other many tool coatings available on the market today. It’s also important to note that, despite what some websites suggest, there’s no such thing as a titanium drill bit (only drill bits coated with one or more of the thin film materials just mentioned).

As to the question “when should a cobalt drill bit be used," the answer is straightforward: anywhere you would use an HSS drill. Cobalt, however, will in most cases last longer than its less wear and heat-resistant cousin, and as we've seen, run much faster besides. The only caveat is that cobalt drills, due to their greater hardness, are more brittle than HSS. The user must therefore take extra care to align them properly and avoid the radial tool pressures that might occur when drilling into intersecting holes (hydraulic manifolds, for example) and angled surfaces. 

GOdrill™ features grade KC7325 – a multilayered PVD TiN-TiAIN coated fine-grain carbide with a TiN top layer for better wear identfication. This multipurpose grade has been combined with a unique general-purpose cutting geometry to offer high versatility and reliability across all material groups at intermediate cutting conditions.

What are Carbide Drills?

That brings us to tungsten carbide, more commonly referred to as carbide or sometimes cemented carbide. Think of it as cobalt on steroids. It's been around for nearly one hundred years but didn't come into widespread use as a cutting tool material until after World War II, when Kennametal founder Philip M. McKenna developed the first indexable carbide cutting tools. Since then, this extremely hard and wear-resistant material has consumed an enormous swath of the cutting tool market, drill bits included. 

Since we’re comparing cobalt drills to those made of carbide, we won’t delve too deeply into the different types of carbide drills except to say that solid carbide is the closest equivalent from a size, length, and application perspective. After this come replaceable tip modular drills and indexable insert drills for larger holes (say anything above 1-1/2" in diameter). 

At 82 HRC, give or take, tungsten carbide is much harder than cobalt or HSS. This is carbide’s only Achilles’ heel—where cobalt will flex a fair amount in the face of radial cutting forces, carbide will in many cases shatter. This means that proper alignment is critical for tool life and hole accuracy (which is true of any drilling operation). And when breaking through into intersecting holes as in the manifold example just given, the feedrate should be reduced slightly until the drill stabilizes.  

Take a closer look at the HPX Drill – a solid carbide drill for steels

Which is Better – Tungsten Carbide or Cobalt?

This last question is a good one. The answer comes down to the job quantity, machine setup and rigidity, and available budget. Let’s start with expense. As with anything that offers greater performance, carbide cutting tools cost significantly more. How much more depends on the manufacturer and tool geometry, but you can figure at least twice the price for substantially greater tool life and perhaps 10-20 times the metal removal per drill.

A similar argument can be made for everything from high-end kitchen appliances to CNC machine tools, and if your shop has one of the latter, don’t short-change its potential by using low-cost drills and other cutting tools. Not only does carbide provide cutting speeds at least four to eight times that of cobalt, but far higher feedrates as well. And because carbide drills also support a feature unavailable with their cobalt cousins—coolant through-the-tool—there’s no need to peck. When coupled with high-pressure coolant (HPC), solid carbide blows the doors off traditional drills. 

That’s not to say cobalt is obsolete, however. For prototype work and low-volume jobs, carbide’s higher cost probably doesn’t make sense. Nor is it appropriate for repair work or unstable machining conditions, where deflection can lead to disaster. Cobalt is also more suitable for softer materials like mild steel or aluminum, although here again, carbide's greater hole quality and straightness easily justify its use in higher-volume applications. At the end of the day, choosing the right tool means doing the math, asking questions, and being open to new technologies. Get drilling. 

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