Since 1960


This Cam Glossary was created by Dema Elgin of Elgin Cams to help provide our clients with a tool which they can in turn use to decipher all the cryptic acronyms used in the cam grinding industry.

Hope you find it useful!


Crankshaft degrees After Bottom Dead Center.




Crankshaft degrees After Top Dead Center.


The area under the bell-shaped lift curve is depicted with lift drawn on the vertical axis and degrees of crankshaft rotation on the horizontal axis.  The greater the area under the lift curve, the greater is the lift and/or duration at some point on the cam lobe profile.


The round portion of the cam lobe, concentric with the cam axis, where lobe lift is zero and valve lash adjustments must be made.  This portion of a lobe is also called the heel.


Crankshaft degrees Before Bottom Dead Center.


Crankshaft degrees Before Top Dead Center.




This is the maximum distance that the cam pushes the follower when the valve is fully open.  Cam lift differs from valve lift.  See “GROSS VALVE LIFT.”


After the design of a new cam is computed, its dimensions are transferred to a precision template called a master.  The master is then installed in the cam- grinding machine to generate the shape of the lobes onto the finished cam.


The finished shape of a cam lobe.  Its segments are the base circle (or heel), a short opening clearance ramp, the opening flank, the nose, the closing flank, and a short closing clearance ramp onto the heel again.  See further entries for each segment, and also “LOBE TAPER.”


The rate of change in lobe lift per degree of cam rotation, either positive (while opening) or negative (closing).  The highest velocities occur on cam flanks, the slowest velocities on the ramps.  Velocity is rendered visual on a lift graph, as the slope of the curve at any point.


A shaft containing many cams (or lobes) that convert rotary motion to reciprocating (lifting) motion in an internal combustion engine.  For every two revolutions of the crankshaft, the camshaft(s) rotates one revolution.  The lobes on the camshaft actuate the valve train in a phased relation to piston movement.  The camshaft determines when the valves open and close, how long they stay open, and how far they open.  A complete camshaft also contains journals (mains) that the shaft rotates on and a fixture at one end for the drive gear, plus (depending on the engine) perhaps a distributor/oil pump drive gear, fuel pump eccentric, tachometer drive, and/or oiling holes.


Gas carburizing is a heat-treatment process for steel camshaft billets.  In this procedure, the camshaft is placed in a furnace with a carbon-gas atmosphere and heated to a specific temperature.  After the camshaft surface has absorbed a desired amount of additional carbon, it is removed from the furnace and quenched to attain the proper temper.


A term to describe a camshaft that is made from a casting.  The material for the casting is a special grade of iron alloy called “Proferal”, which is used primarily for non-roller camshafts because of its excellent anti-wear characteristics.




A cam tappet/lifter made from high-quality iron alloy that is heat-treated during its casting.  Molten iron is poured into a honeycomb mold with a chilled steel plate at the bottom, to quench and so heat-treat the face of the lifter.  This type of tappet is compatible only with steel and hardface overlay cams.


Two short segments of the cam lobe, between the base circle and either flank.  Ramps change the lift at a constant, slow speed, in theory to compensate for small deflections and slack in the valve train.  The opening ramp takes up all clearance in the valve train and brings the valve to the verge of opening.  The closing ramp sets the valve on the seat, and ends when the tappet returns to the base circle.  Ramp designs have extraordinary effects on power output and valve train reliability.


A valve spring that has been compressed to the point where there is no space between the coils, where the coils are stacked solid, is in coil bind.  The valve cannot open any further from this point.


In machining, having the same center, or running true.  I camshaft terminology, the cam bearing journals and lobes are concentric with each other when the camshaft is straight, and there is .001” or less runout between all the cam lobes and journals.


The degrees of crankshaft rotation from when the valve is lifted open .050” until it is .050” from closing.


A heat-treating process in which a camshaft is exposed to an open flame and then quenched (cooled) in oil.


The two sides of each cam lobe face, the segments that lie between the nose and the clearance ramps before the base circle.


Specifically, the process of shaping cam lobes on a specialized cam-grinding machine.  In gearhead slang, the general profile of a cam independent of application, as in “drag race grind” or “Street Hemi grind.”


A nominal total valve lift measurement estimated by multiplying the highest cam lift by the rocker arm ratio.  This cannot actually be attained in a running engine, due to valve lash or hydraulic lifter bleed-down, plus clearances and flex in the valvetrain.  Production tolerances in rocker arms further vary this figure by as much as .015” plus or minus.  See: “NET VALVE LIFT.”


A cam follower made from a special high-quality iron alloy that is compatible with cast iron billet camshafts.  The entire cylindrical body of a hardenable iron lifter is hard, in contrast to a chilled iron lifter with only its base hardened.


By engineering definition, resistance against penetration.  For cams and lifters, hardness is directly related to resistance against wear.  A typical iron cam registers in mid- to high-40s on the Rockwell C scale (Rc).  Compatible lifters register five to ten points higher.  The smaller part, running hotter, must be harder to equalize wear between parts.


A number of heat-cycle processes to alter the surface hardness of a metal.  The temperature of the part is raised to less than its melting point, held there for a specified time, then allowed to cool at a specified rate to nearly room temperature.  This heat cycle alters the crystal and grain structures of the metal, which affect its hardness.  Some processes also diffuse carbon or nitrogen atoms into iron surfaces.  All flat and roller tappets are heat treated. Some iron cams (mostly British) are heat-treated after re-grinding, to regain surface hardness.  See: “CARBURIZING, CHILLED IRON LIFTER, FLAME HARDENING, HARDNESS, INDUCTION HARDENING, NITRIDING, and QUENCHING.”




Lifters with an inner mechanism fed by engine oil, designed to maintain constant zero lash in the entire valve train.  Their advantages include quieter engine operation and elimination of periodic adjustmentS to maintain proper lash, as required with solid valve lifters.  Hydraulic lifters do, however, maintain a constant pressure against the camshaft, which solid lifters do not.  Therefore the anti-scuff additives in lubricating oils are more essential with hydraulic lifters.  See: “ZDDP.”    


An improved stock cam has stock lift and duration, but the flanks are modified so that they are faster acting.  Such a process increases the area under the lift curve by about a 5%.  That means that there will be a power increase across the entire rpm range of the engine.  This type of custom grind works very well in engines with fuel injection systems that calibrate off manifold vacuum, which are therefore very sensitive to changes in camshaft duration.


An electrical heat-treating process in which a ferrous part is placed inside a coil of heavy wire through which a high-frequency current is passed.  Through the electro-magnetic phenomenon of induction, energy transfers from the coil to the part.  The part inside the coil becomes cherry red almost instantly, and is then quenched.  The quench medium is either water (for large parts, like cam billets) or oil (for small parts, like needle bearing rollers, to forestall cracking).


There is a slight press fit between dual valve springs, if the outside diameter of the inner spring and inside diameter of the outer spring approximate each other.  The slight friction between them produces a damping effect on spring vibration and surge.  See: “SPRING SURGE.”


Valve train clearance, usually measured at the valve tip, opens up necessary clearance between the base circle of the camshaft lobe and a solid camshaft follower or tappet, so that the valve is certain of closing and staying closed when the tappet is on the lobe heel.


After installing a camshaft in a block or head, a mechanic can plot the lift of the cam in relation to each degree of camshaft rotation.  Install a dial indicator on the cam follower or tappet and a degree wheel on the crankshaft.  Rotate the crankshaft in five-degree steps, and take a lift reading from the dial indicator at each interval.  Then plot the readings on graph paper, with cam lift on the vertical axis and degrees of crankshaft rotation on the horizontal axis.




The amount of travel that a rotating cam lobe makes across the lifter face.  Since the cam lobe must not run off the edge of the lifter, lifter diameter determines the maximum usable flank velocity for a cam.  See: “CAM VELOCITY.”


Each lobe face is eccentric to the cam journals and transmits a lifting motion through the valve train to operate the valves.  The design of the lobe determines the usage of the camshaft, e.g. street use or all-out competition.


The difference measured in cam degrees between the centerline of the intake lobe (its point of highest lift) and the centerline of the exhaust lobe in the same cylinder.


The point on each lobe, measured in crank degrees from TDC, at which the valve is most fully open.  For one example, take a cam that measures full intake lobe lift at 110 degrees ATDC and full exhaust lobe lift at 110 degrees BTDC.  This camshaft was ground with 110-degree lobe centers and is ground timed “straight up”, neither advanced nor retarded.  As another example, a different cam measures full intake lobe lift at 105 degrees ATDC and full exhaust lobe lift at 115 degrees BTDC.  This camshaft was also ground on 110-degree lobe centers, but it is advanced by five crankshaft degrees.


The small amount by which one side of a flat-tappet lobe is larger than the other, even though both follow the same profile.  Cams carry taper left or taper right and zero to .003” taper, depending on the engine. The direction and amount of taper is measured best across the diameter of the base circle.  Hold the front of the cam to your left (as a cam-grinding machine does).  If the forward (left) side of the lobe is larger, that is taper-left (TL).  If the rearward (right) side of the lobe is larger, that is taper-right (TR).  All lobes should measure with the same amount of taper, but not necessarily the same direction.  TR pushes cams into the block, off the angled pressure from tappets.  Engines with TL, mixed tapers, or roller tappets (with no taper) require a cam thrust plate.  Lobe taper works with tappet crown and tappet bores offset from lobes bores to drive flat tappets into rotation.   See: “Tappet Crown, Tappet Rotation.”


Cylindrical surfaces on a camshaft, concentric with the camshaft axis, which ride in bearing surfaces to support the camshaft in an engine block or head(s).


The probable lift of the valve, determined by subtracting the valve lash dimension from the gross valve lift figure.  But production tolerances in rocker arms can vary this figure by as much as .015” plus or minus.  So can poor geometric designs of rocker arms, e.g. in Chrysler Slant 6, Ford FE, and many aftermarket rockers.  So does flex in the valve train, especially pushrods.  See: “GROSS VALVE LIFT.”


Gas nitriding is a surface heat treatment that leaves a hard case on the surface of an iron cam.  The hard case is up to .010” deep and is typically twice the hardness of the core material.  The process is accomplished by placing the cam into a sealed chamber filled with ammonia gas, and heating it to approximately 950 degrees F (510 degrees C).  At this temperature, a chemical reaction occurs between the ammonia and iron of the cam to form ferrous nitride on the surface of the cam.  As the reaction progresses, ferrous nitride diffuses into the cam core to a case depth of approximately .010”.  The nitriding process is done at relatively low heat (as heat treatments go), so the core material loses no hardness.  Also, the chamber temperature is raised and lowered slowly, so that the cam is not thermally shocked, which would create internal strains.  Gas nitriding was originally intended for where sliding motion between two parts occurs repeatedly, so it is therefore directly applicable to solving camshaft wear problems.  Ferrous nitride is a ceramic compound, which accounts for its hardness.  It also has some lubricity when sliding against other parts.


The portion of a cam lobe highest from its base circle, activating full lift position.


Overhead Cam engines.  In this type of engine the cam is positioned in the head, above the valves.  (e.g. Porsche 944 engine)


Overhead Valve engines.  In this type of engine, the camshaft is positioned in the block, beneath the valves in the head.  (e.g. Chevrolet 350 c.i.d. V8 engine)


The angle in crankshaft degrees when both the intake and exhaust valves are open at the same time.  This occurs when the piston is near Top Dead Center on the exhaust stroke.  The greater the seat-to-seat duration on the intake and exhaust lobes and the less their lobe centers-cam, the greater the overlap will be in crankshaft degrees.  See “LOBE CENTERS-CAM and SEAT DURATION.”


A thermo-chemical surfacing process, whereby a nonmetallic, oil-absorptive coating is applied to the outside surface of the camshaft except on the mains (journals).  The lubricity of this coating permits rapid break-in of cam lobes without scuffing.  (The Parker family developed this process in NJ in the 1920s.)




The final stage in ferrous heat-treating processes is cooling the workpiece nearly to room temperature.  The rate of cooling affects the resulting microstructure in metals, and from that either hardness or toughness. Quenching cools the fastest and generates the hardest surface.  The quenching liquid is often water for large parts, but must be oil for very small parts (like needle bearing rollers) to prevent them cracking from thermal shock.


Any OHV rocker arm must comply with geometric law to transfer the lift curve of the cam properly into the valves and valve springs.  The rocker’s three centroids (centers of motion) must lie in a straight line: its contact cone with the pushrod tip, its axis of rotation, and either the axle of a roller tip or the center of a circle extended from a curved plain tip.  Centroids not in line transfer cam action non-linearly, with unpredictable effects on ranges and motions of valves and springs.


A roller tappet performs the same end function as a mechanical or hydraulic flat tappet.  But instead of sliding on the cam face, this lifter contains a roller bearing at its cam face that rolls over the cam surface.


Moderate mechanical wear between two metallic surfaces sliding on each other, if and when they touch because of insufficient oil to keep them fully separated.


The total time in degrees of crankshaft rotation that a valve is off its valve seat, from when it opens to when it closes.  This is usually termed by production cam vendors “advertised duration”, to distinguish it from duration at .050” lift.


The point near TDC on the exhaust stroke when both the intake valve and exhaust valve are off their seats at the same time by the same amount.


Valve springs have a tendency to lose part of their compressive strength after being run in an engine for certain periods of time, because of the huge cyclic stresses they are under.  At 6000 rpm, for example, each spring must cycle 50 times per second.  The immense heat generated by such stresses eventually counteracts some of the heat-treating of the spring wire, causing the springs to take a slight drop in pressure (a "set”).


A dynamic reaction that causes unpredictable valve spring behavior at high rpms.

At rapid reciprocating frequencies, forces put a spring coil in motion, but then its own inertia KEEPS the coil in motion.  So waves of compression and rarefaction pass rapidly up and down the stack of spring coils.  Moreover, at certain rpms the cam activates the spring at the spring’s natural vibration frequency, and the waves intensify.  At such critical speeds, this surge effect substantially reduces the static (rated) spring strength available to operate the valve train.  Clearances between parts widen.  Valve motion becomes uncontrolled.  Parts break.


A cylindrical component, either (nearly) flat-faced or roller-equipped, that rides on each cam lobe to transfer the lift action of the lobe to the rest of the valve train.  One alternate name is lifter, and another term is follower.  Follower is an all-inclusive term for tappets, rocker-type or finger followers on some OHC engines, and cup-type followers on most OHC engines.  Rocker-type (or finger) followers slide across cam lobes, flat tappets slide across cam lobes and must also rotate in their bores, and roller tappets roll over lobes but do not rotate in their bores.  Because of geometric differences in how each type of follower rides a cam lobe, each uses a different cam profile to generate the same valve-lift profile.


A small amount of spherical crown ground on the faces of most nominally “flat” tappets, to prevent the edge of the tappet from riding off the edge of a tapered cam lobe.  The amount of crown is determined by the amount of lobe taper, both being set by the engine manufacturer.  Normal tappet wear occurs as a “donut” partway off-centered on the face.  Wear near the edge indicates a tappet with too little crown for that cam.  Loss of specified tappet crown indicates a worn cam.


Flat tappets must rotate in their bores, to continually present a fresh part of their face against a rotating cam, and thus equalize and minimize wear.  (In contrast, roller tappets must NOT rotate at all.)  Rotation is driven by offsetting the lifter bore from the center of the lobe face, lobe taper in the same direction as lifter offset, and lifter crown to match lobe taper.  Before installing tappets, check that each lifter is free to rotate in its bore, and apply only engine oil (not sticky “cam lube’) on the sides of lifters.  If a flat tappet does not rotate sufficiently, or at all, that lifter and cam lobe will wear out prematurely, perhaps as soon as break-in.


A man-made motor oil additive essential for dry lubrication between camshafts and flat tappets, where extreme pressure squeezes away all the oil molecules.  ZDDP* circulates with oil in 800-1200 parts-per-million, until it is crushed within a cam-lifter interface and plates itself into the iron surfaces. Progressive reduction in percentages of ZDDP in motor oil since 2001 is causing premature wear in many high-performance street cams.  (*Zinc dialkyl dithiophosphate.)    See: “HYDRAULIC VALVE LIFTERS.”

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