For most of the holes that the average woodworker will need to drill, a handheld drill is fast and versatile. The drill is portable and comes to the work; they don’t take up a lot of shop space and can easily be taken on the road for jobs away from the shop. They will drill a hole in any direction that the drill is pointed. However, the weak link in this chain of events is that the human hand is not very precise in this regard. In certain situations, such as when a hole must be drilled perfectly perpendicular to the surface for mounting hardware for example, even a slight error will result in a sloppy fit. In these cases, what is needed is a drill press.
Woodworkers are a resourceful group and if they see a different trade using a tool that might be of value in the wood shop it won’t be long before that tool has been added to their collection. Such is the case with the drill press. Initially, the drill press was a staple of the metal working shop, but it has quickly found a home in the wood shop. They come in two basic configurations; floor models up to 7′ tall and bench models which are generally under three feet in height. We’ll take a look at the bench top drill press and check out some of the features of models currently on the market.
The drill press has primarily been a metal working machine since its first incarnation, and subsequent improvements have always been made with the metal worker foremost in the minds of the designers. It is not surprising that these tools, right out of the box, are still not ideally outfitted for the wood shop.
The models in our survey range in price from a low of $129 to a high of $375. With an entry level price of $129, the Ryobi represents great value for the cost conscious woodworker. Its 10-inch swing makes it a good choice for smaller shops with limited space and its low cost makes it a practical choice when choosing a second machine to dedicate to sanding accessories. You’ll also find the Skil 3320-01 a strong contender in the budget priced category. With a slightly smaller table and the lightest weight of this group, this would be an ideal choice if you found yourself having to move it frequently. At the other end of the price spectrum is the General International 75-030. Compared to the Ryobi and Skil, this one would almost seem to be in a different class. At 46 ½” inches tall, it dwarfs the others and its larger stature naturally gives it a greater swing with a capacity of 15 ¼”.
A drill press consists of four basic parts: the base, the column, the table and the head. The base is usually heavy cast iron for stability with holes in the four corners to allow it to be bolted to a work bench. The base must be heavy to provide a solid foundation for the table and the head and to lower its center of gravity which prevents it from tipping over during use.
The work piece to be drilled is supported on a table mounted to the column, and this table moves up and down the column on a rack and pinion system. To adjust the height of the table, loosen a locking lever and then crank the table up and down with a handle. For most woodworkers, the most disappointing part of a drill press is the small table, and to be fair, these are designed to serve the primary users of these tools, the metal working industry. The problem with these tables is that they do not provide many of the features that woodworkers are accustomed to having on their tools, namely fences and guide slots. Over the past several years, some manufacturers have replaced the traditionally tiny round slotted metal tables with larger versions. The King KC-116C comes in with the largest table in our group at 1213⁄16″, closely followed by the General 75030M1 with a table measuring 11 ⅜” and the Craftex measuring 11 ¼”.
The table on the drill press can be adjusted up and down on the column to allow for various thicknesses of material. The table can also be tilted side to side to facilitate drilling holes at an angle. Adjusting the front to back tilt on the table is more problematic. In most cases there is no adjustment so the easiest method to adjust a table that is not square to the column is to build a custom table suitable to woodworking tasks and shim it level. Use an engineer’s square and a drill rod to check to see if your table is square to the bit.
The head of the drill press contains all of the mechanical and electrical elements in addition to the pulleys and belts. All of these tools offer multiple speeds but the Delta DP-350 is the only one that comes with a variable speed motor. The rest of the pack uses the standard method of swapping the belt on a system of pulleys to achieve the various speeds. The King KC-116C has the lowest slow speed, clocking in at a plodding 210 RPM; it also has the highest rpm of the group, topping out at 3,670 RPM. Speed control is essential. As the outer diameter of the bit increases, the RPM should decrease. This is especially important when using Forstner bits, as the continuous outer rim is prone to overheating. The rest of the machines in this group generally fall in the 500–3,000 RPM range. Within the group the motors range in horsepower; from a low of ⅓ HP for the Pioneer PNR11-100 to the Craftex CT019N with a ¾ HP motor.
In most situations, these motors have more than enough strength to power a bit through a piece of wood. However, what usually slows the bit down or stops large bits from spinning altogether is slippage of the belt on the pulleys. Keeping the belts properly tensioned and free of sawdust helps maintain power transmission from the motor to the bit under tough drilling.
The real business of the drill press occurs at the front of the head where the operator’s controls are. The device that allows the bit to rotate while moving up and down is called the quill and it is made up of a rack and pinion gear in a sleeve. This makes it possible for the motor to continue rotating the chuck as it is raised and lowered. The amount of vertical travel that the quill is capable of is called the stroke and is usually in the 3″ range; among the models we surveyed, the stroke ranges from 2 ⅜” to 3 ⅛”. The quality of the quill mechanism can be measured by checking the run-out. Run-out is defined as the amount of radial variation from a true circle, and is the result of a less than exact fit in the quill. This less than exact fit allows the bit to move horizontally ever so slightly as it rotates and if you have a machine with substantial run-out the hole will end up being larger than intended and it will not have very crisp edges and sidewalls.
An integral part of the handle is the depth stop settings. Depth stop settings come in two different forms. On the drill press in my shop, a pair of collars is rotated on the handle shaft and this is what sets the maximum depth of the hole. These collars are locked in place on the shaft with set screws and in practice I have found that under some situations these collars will shift, allowing the bit to overshoot the target depth. A more substantial depth stop system involves the use of a threaded rod and a couple of nuts mounted to the side of the head. Using the nuts on this threaded rod you set the maximum travel of the bit.
When the nut on the rod hits a limit stop, the downward travel of the bit is arrested. If the mechanism is not sufficiently robust or if the lower stop is even slightly flexible then it can be possible to overshoot the intended depth as well.
Drilling a hole to an exact depth is not necessary in every case, but when you are working on a delicate piece with thinner material then accurate depth settings become critical. By overshooting even just a small amount you run the risk of breaking through to the other side. I use a fair amount of thin material in my work and have developed a more reliable method of setting the maximum depth of the bit. Rather than rely on the depth stops, I have made up a series of spacer blocks in various thicknesses. When I need to drill a hole to an exact depth I select and install the bit I will be using and then lower the chuck to the lowest point in its travel. Before doing this I double-check the built-in depth setting to be sure it is all the way back to the top. With this taken care of, I place the correct spacer block on the table and raise it until the top of the block just barely touches the bottom of the bit. In this way, the quill is already at its maximum depth and there is no possibility of the bit overshooting the depth and drilling the hole deeper than intended.
Swing: the maximum diameter disk you can drill the center of – basically the distance from the center of the chuck to the closest edge of the column (throat distance) times two.
While not viewed by many as one of the more dangerous machines in the shop, a drill press can still bite the hand that feeds it. The primary hazard is caused from grabbing and climbing. When drilling material, always ensure that it is held down to prevent it from moving. Not only will you end up with a cleaner hole, you’ll prevent these dangerous situations. A drill bit can grab the material if it hits a section that is harder than the rest. When it does the bit locks into the material, and the power of the motor must go somewhere. What usually happens is that in an instant, the piece is ripped from the hand of the operator and begins spinning at the same speed as the bit. If the piece is small it will spin freely until the machine is turned off; a larger piece will spin until a part of it hits the column. When drilling thin stock, climbing is a definite hazard, especially with metal. When using a twist drill to drill thin stock or a piece of metal, as the bit starts breaking out the other side, the ragged edges of the hole will catch on the edges of the bit and the material will wind its way off the table and up the length of the bit. If this happens with a piece of metal, it can quickly move up the bit and essentially become an unguarded spinning saw blade. When working with thin metal on the drill press, always wear gloves and use a hold-down.
When you add a bench top drill press to your shop, consider making a custom table for it. A simple square plywood table fastened to the metal table will extend its usefulness greatly. By making the table wider you will be able to support longer work.
Many woodworking operations require the drilling of many holes in a row. This is made much easier with the addition of a fence and adding some ¼” T-track to the top of the fence which will allow you to mount stop blocks for repeatable accuracy. Adding a couple of pieces of track to the base of the table will allow the use of hold-downs to secure the work piece. If you have an older drill press without some of the modern bells and whistles, consider adding an aftermarket light. No matter how bright your shop may be, a task light affixed to the drill press will direct additional light where it is needed making it much easier to place a drill bit accurately. To reduce the vibration from a stiff belt, change the solid belt to a segmented link belt, stockroomsupply.com.
The drill press can function as a joinery tool as well. It is one of my favourite tools for cutting the mortises for mortise and tenon joints. The approach I use is to drill out the mortise with a Forstner bit and then to clean up the mortise with a sharp chisel. Another method available for cutting the mortises is to use a mortising attachment which is a combination of a drill bit and a chisel. The drill bit is located inside the center of the hollow square chisel which removes the bulk of the waste and the chisel which follows up the cut to create square corners. While some people report success with these attachments, many report they are very tricky to set up properly. Another downside to using a mortising attachment is the force needed to press the chisel/bit combination into the wood. A dedicated mortiser will feature a long handle to make it easy to apply the force needed. The shorter handles on a bench top drill press are adequate to the task of drilling round holes but they come up short when called upon to deliver the extra force the mortising attachment requires. Having used both methods, the former is certainly faster, cheaper and less frustrating.
In my shop I have two drill presses. One is a floor model that I use for drilling holes and the other is a low-end model. This second drill press is used exclusively for finish sanding pieces using a sanding mop. Another great sanding accessory for the drill press is the sanding drum. They allow you to sand curved work in much the same way a spindle sander would. The downside to using sanding drums on the drill press is that unlike an oscillating spindle sander, the drum remains in one place and this can lead to ridges and marks on the work piece as the surface of the drum will tend to quickly load with material, reducing its efficiency. Touching up the drum frequently with a crepe block will quickly restore the grit.
By far, one of the most used accessories in my shop is the sanding mop which has pretty well taken up permanent residence on this drill press. If you use a router to create decorative edge profiles then this is a must have tool. Sanding a complex profile can be a time consuming and frustrating chore. If you don’t do a thorough job, you will have finishing issues and if you sand too much you run the risk of destroying the delicate detail within the profile. A sanding mop mounted on a bench top drill press will reduce sanding time exponentially while improving the quality of the result. Simply run the piece through the edge of the mop, once in each direction and you have a silky smooth surface with crisp details ready for finishing.
A bench top drill press is an excellent choice for the woodworker who has limited space in their shop. The convenience of stowing the tool away to make room for others is an ability that is a must in the small shop.