Abstract The thread whirling is an efficient and precise machining process for manufacturing of screws. The shaping motion of whirling is complex and difficult to model. In this paper, a novel model basing on equivalent cutting volume is proposed. The cutting force and the chip morphology are investigated to validate the model. The simulation of cutting force is in good agreement with the experimental results with error less than 16.5%. A chip with saw-toothed edges is obtained from simulation and for experimental verification. A case study on the effect of the tool edge geometry on cutting forces is also presented. The simulation results show that the tool edge geometry greatly influences the cutting forces. The tool with round edge is a good choice for reducing the cutting forces. The ratio of ac/Re holds the balance in selecting the parameter of cutting conditions. The model is applicable for the simulation of whirling process and can be used for parameter optimisation of the cutting tool edge.