Cutter deflections induce significant amount of surface error on machined components and it is one of the major obstacles towards achieving higher productivity in peripheral milling operation. These surface errors do not take one particular form and their shape and profile measured along axial direction, varies significantly with cutting conditions. The understanding and characterization of all possible surface error types is of immense value to process planners as it forms a basis for controlling and compensating them. This paper presents a methodology to classify surface error profiles and to relate the same with cutting conditions in terms of axial and radial engagement between cutter and workpiece. The proposed characterization scheme has been validated using computational studies and machining experiments. The importance of proposed characterization is further demonstrated in understanding peripheral milling of curved geometries where workpiece curvature influences radial engagement of the cutter that often changes surface error shape both qualitatively and quantitatively. Computational and experimental studies undertaken to study machining of curved geometries underline the importance of proposed characterization scheme in identifying correct cutting conditions for a given machining situation. © 2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.