High-Speed Steel vs. Carbide Router Bits


Having quality router bits is essential for any job that requires a router, and if your router bits are bad, then your project will also turn out that way. Many readers here will understand this, but one debate pops up in the CNC router community that has raged on for a long time: high-speed steel or carbide? What are their pros and cons, and is one better than the other?

High-speed steel router bits have a high resistance to heat, which allows them to retain their original strength for a longer period of time. Carbide router bits, on the other hand, are harder and stay sharper for longer. 

We will be going over the differences between high-speed steel and carbide router bits. We will also be recommending one based on what you value overall. Read on if you’d like to learn more!

What Makes a Good Router Bit?

Using quality router bits for your projects is highly important if you plan on making anything of quality. A router bit to a CNC router is what a good set of tires are for a sports car; they are essential to the router’s functionality despite not making up a lot of its cost (depending on what you are buying). 

Having a good shank is a start. You can either use ¼” (0.6cm) or ½” (1.3cm) depending on your router, with ½” (1.3cm) being recommended more often due to the increased stability and longevity. 

It’s also good to buy from a trusted manufacturer such as Whiteside Router Bits, but perhaps the most often discussed part of router bits is the material. 

The vast majority of router bits are made up of high-speed steel (HSS) or carbide. Both of which have their pros and cons and two sides arguing which is better, but what are the major differences, and is one better than the other? 

The material of your router bits is perhaps one of the most important factors. Different materials can vary in how much they can take a beating, how much heat they can withstand, and how sharp they can get. All of these things are what router bits deal with, and both high-speed steel and carbide handle. 

What Are High-Speed Steel Router Bits?

HSS router bits are made up of carbon steel, which is highly resistant to heat. Carbon steel can withstand operating temperatures of up to 750°F (399°C), which is great for router bits because it can get quite toasty with all that cutting and grinding. 

Additionally, HSS can be sharpened to a fine degree, making it suitable for cutting through tough materials and getting a finer cut overall. 

What Are Carbide Router Bits?

Carbide is a compound mix of carbon and metal, and it is quite a strong material and even harder than high-speed steel. This is perhaps the key advantage of carbide router bits over HSS. The extra strength of carbide allows it to stay sharper for a longer period, which means there’s less worrying about them. They just work when you want them to, for the most part. 

Explaining each material is quite simple, but what isn’t so simple is deciding which one is better because that isn’t an easy answer. Many hobbyists will tell you that carbide is better. In fact, it is safe to say that there are more people on the side of carbide than HSS, but this isn’t as black and white as it seems. 

Both materials have no problems selling in the same market, and it’s not like HSS users feel miserable, so there has to be something on each side. 

Carbide Router Bits: Pros and Cons

Pros

As we stated previously, carbide is a hard material; it’s harder than high-speed steel. The advantage this brings is that carbide holds its edge for a longer period, meaning you don’t have to sharpen or replace your router bits as often. 

Carbide bits last almost twice as long as HSS (80% to 90% longer, to be more specific), which is quite the major difference. This is why it garners so many recommendations when someone asks which one is better. Less router bit maintenance means less of a chore and more time doing what you love. 

Cons

Despite how many people swear by carbide, it has its drawbacks too. For one, it is more expensive than HSS, which can make it a tougher purchase if you are seeking a high-quality bit. 

Additionally, it doesn’t cut as cleanly as HSS. It cuts well, but not as good, which may not be good enough for some operations depending on just how high your quality standards are. 

High-Speed Steel Router Bits: Pros and Cons

Pros

While HSS router bits don’t last anywhere near as long as carbide, a key advantage they have over it is that HSS can be sharpened to a finer degree, which means a better cut overall. 

In theory, when comparing a freshly sharpened HSS router bit compared to a freshly sharpened carbide router bit, the HSS will perform better and make cleaner cuts overall. 

Not only that, HSS bits are more affordable as well, which makes them appealing when you have to spend money on lots of other expenses.

Lastly, they aren’t as brittle as carbide. You have to be more careful with carbide bits when storing them not to risk damage. HSS bits, on the other hand, can withstand some amount of abuse. This might not matter as long as you are responsible, but it is still worth mentioning.

Cons

The number one drawback of HSS router bits is their longevity. They simply don’t retain their edge very long compared to carbide. You pretty much have to baby them, which can quickly become an annoyance if you run long operations. For this reason, HSS is best suited for shorter jobs. 

Which One Should You Choose?

If we were to say which one you should choose as your only router bit material and operate for long periods, we’d have to choose carbide in this instance. 

The fact that they last as long as they do before needing to be sharpened or replaced is a huge advantage, and you’ll find their performance consistent. They may cost more, but not having to fiddle around with them as often makes them a better “primary” bit, in our opinion, for most people.

However, the story doesn’t end here. If you are only running short operations or looking for secondary bits for the times you do short operations, HSS will be king. It cuts cleaner and is cheaper overall. As long as you are buying high-quality HSS, then you will see amazing performance out of your router bits, even if you have to keep an eye on them more often. 

If you need some router bit buying tips, we recommend checking out this video. It’s pro carbide but explains what to look for when shopping:

Conclusion

The question isn’t, “which is better” but rather, “which is better for you?”. Both carbide and HSS router bits are good in their way, and each has its pros and cons. It’s a bit like comparing a comfy sedan to an elegant two-door coupe, both can get the job done, but each is better suited for different tasks. 

Carbide is generally recommended more often, but that doesn’t mean HSS bits don’t have their use-cases. In many instances, they are better for short operations due to their burst of cutting performance before (quickly) becoming dull. 

Sources

John McCormick

I have been woodworking since being introduced to the hobby in High School. I enjoy woodworking as a hobby and would like to share some of what I have learned with the world. I have recently built a CNC router system and I have enjoyed learning this new dimension of the hobby.

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