The efficiency of six cutting oils was evaluated in drilling AISI 316L austenitic stainless steel using conventional HSS-Co tools by measurements of tool life, tool wear, cutting forces and chip formation. Seven tools were tested with each fluid to catastrophic failure. Cutting forces and chip breaking were recorded for each bore, and tool wear was measured at constant intervals. A commercial mineral-based oil was taken as reference product, and five vegetable-based cutting fluids at different levels of additivation were tested. All measured parameters were in agreement, confirming that a performing fluid produces longer tool life, better chip breaking, lower wear and cutting forces. In particular, good correlation was found between tool life and cutting forces. Differences in cutting forces due to the fluid could be measured with a higher repeatability than tool life, thus resulting in a measurement capability comparable to that obtained using tool life as a performance criterion. As a consequence, it is suggested that drilling thrust can be used to assess the performance of cutting fluids in drilling stainless steel, resulting in considerable time savings and cost reduction with respect to tool life testing. All vegetable-based fluids performed better than the reference product. The best performance was obtained with a cutting fluid yielding 177% increases in tool life and 7% reduction in thrust force. (C) 2003 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.