What direction is the z axis on the CNC machine?

CNC machines rely on the X, Y, and Z axes to precisely guide the cutting tool, where the Z axis determines the vertical position of the spindle and cutting tool. Determining the positive direction of the Z-axis is important for programming, setup, and operation. Depending on the machine configuration, the Z-axis can move up or down.

Z-axis motion

On a vertical milling machine, the Z axis is aligned with the spindle axis. The Z-axis movement moves the cutting tool up and down. On a horizontal lathe, the Z axis is parallel to the direction of travel of the tailstock and carriage. The Z motion pushes the cutting tool horizontally into the chuck or workpiece.

In machining centers, the Z-axis is usually arranged vertically. However, it is also common for inverted machining centers to have the spindle located below the table. On an inverted machine, a positive Z orientation moves the tool downward away from the spindle.

Orientation Convention

Following standard practice, the positive Z direction is aligned with the vector normal pointing toward the spindle end face. Look straight at the spindle face with the positive Z direction facing you. This applies to vertical mills and horizontal lathes.

For vertical milling machines, positive Z moves the milling head up and away from the table. On an inverted milling machine, Z moves downward.

On a lathe, positive Z moves the tool off the chuck or workpiece and away from the spindle face. The machinist must program, set up, and operate the machine according to the right-hand Z rule.


While Z-direction may seem straightforward on standard vertical mills and horizontal lathes, special equipment configurations can lead to uncertainty. Following convention and clearly recognizing the Z-direction are essential for safe CNC operation.

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