Bench top drill presses are nice machines and can certainly drill accurate holes. But their heavier counterpart, the stationary drill press, will allow you to do so much more.
Stationary drill presses have a number of features that make them suitable for a larger variety of tasks, including greater throat depth, quill stroke, chuck capacity, table size, and speed selection. As well, drill presses are surprisingly affordable compared to other stationary machines such as table saws and planers. Which makes them well worth having in your workshop.
People often wonder why they need a drill press for woodworking? First of all, you might wish to consider dowel joinery, which is both popular and well respected in Europe. I regularly incorporate dowels into my work. But this aside, a hand drill simply can’t drill precise, vertical holes without a jig. I drill by hand only when a drill press is not possible, or when accuracy is unimportant.
You’ll also need a drill press to drill accurate holes for hardware and sometimes for assembly (when using screws). You’ll need clearance holes, counterbores and countersinks on a regular basis. Forstner bits provide accurate flat-bottomed holes with crisp entry points, and help speed up the cutting of mortises. A commonly available mortising attachment turns your drill press into a mortiser to cut traditional square-cornered mortises. Add a sanding drum and turn your drill press into a spindle sander.
Drill presses aren’t just for wood, either. You can drill holes through metal, plastics, and other materials. Special diamond bits allow you to drill through glass and stone.
The price difference between a good bench top model and a stationary one can be as little as $200 – $300. The latter can last for the rest of your woodworking life and can handle so much more than just woodworking. If you go with a bench top model, you’ll realize its limitations within a short time. Soon you’ll try to sell it and buy something larger, losing more money than if you had just bought the larger one in the first place.
On bench top models, the distance from the centre of the chuck to the rear post is so small that you can’t drill holes in the middle of wider boards. The quill stroke will be smaller, so you can’t drill deeper holes. And, the capacity below the drill bit is quite small, making it impossible to place larger items on the table.
The ‘size’ of a drill press indicates the maximum width of a panel into the middle of which you can drill. For example, a 161⁄2″ drill press has a distance of 8 1⁄4″ from the rear post to the centre of the chuck. So you can drill a hole in the center of a panel 161⁄2″ deep. A 14″ drill press can drill a hole in the middle of a 14″ panel. Personally, I prefer a 161⁄2″ model. It isn’t as large as the more industrial models, but only costs a little more than a 14″ or 15″ model, while offering more capacity.
If you do buy a smaller one, find out if it will accommodate the accessories you might wish to add in the future. For example, a mortising attachment might not fit on a smaller model, or just might not work as well.
I like a table size of about 12″ x 12″ or greater. Some models have larger tables – around 14″ x 14″. The larger the better, as long as it is flat. You can easily make a larger auxiliary table when needed. All drill presses have tables that tilt. While you won’t use this option very often, it can be very useful when drilling angled holes. I prefer a square table rather than one that is round. Square tables generally provide more usable area, and the corners are often the only place to clamp a backer board or some other jig when you don’t want to use the clamping slots designed into the table.
A clamping lip around the edge of the table is very important to me. Many of my students have purchased a drill press with a round table, which typically lack a clamping lip. So clamping things quickly to the edge of the table was not possible.
Virtually all modern stationary drill presses have a rack-and-pinion table raising mechanism. If you’re thinking of buying an older drill press, check for this. Without the rack-and-pinion option, you have to manually raise and lift the heavy table. It makes table height changes very cumbersome, especially when a project is already clamped to the table.
Different drill presses have different quill strokes, which is the distance the chuck will travel downwards. The farther it travels, the deeper a hole it can drill. Most larger drill presses have a quill stroke over 3″ and some will go up to 6″. It isn’t often you need to drill through something that thick, but if you decide to make your own workbench you might have to drill through 41⁄4″ of solid European beech. There are ways to get around a quill stroke limitation, but if you have more, all the better.
My drill press has a depth stop system more popular on older Delta drill presses where you simply rotate a dial and tighten a thumb screw. It is my favourite type. More often though, you’ll find a threaded rod with two nuts that lock in your depth. There’s nothing wrong with this, but be sure to lock the nuts securely so the depth stop doesn’t move. Some machines have quick-release nuts that slide along the rod for quicker adjustment, but I’ve seen them slip slightly with every stroke. If your quick-release nut slips, replace it with a regular nut.
Aside from quill stroke, check the distance under the chuck when the table is set at its lowest position. If that distance is, say, 27″ and your drill bit is 4″ long, then you can drill into an item almost 23″ tall. For anything larger, you can swivel the table out of the way and still place the item on the machine’s stand. More likely, though, you would use a hand drill with a jig to drill accurately when items get that large. Another thing to consider is the chuck capacity. Most larger drill presses can handle up to 5⁄8″ diameter in the chuck, allowing you to use larger drill bits. Some drill presses are limited to 1⁄2″.
In recent years, variable speed drill presses have become more common, but the higher price still makes them less popular than manual-change models. Variable speed allows you to control RPMs at the push of a button. Slower speeds are required as drill bit diameters increase, or to drill into harder materials like steel. My drill press is a 161⁄2″ Delta model with manual speed change (known as a “step pulley” system). I change the drilling speed by changing two belts to a variety of different combinations on three pulleys. It sounds time-consuming, but takes about a minute to change speed to any of 12 choices. More important to me is a machine that has a low enough speed. My slowest option is 250 RPM, but I’ve seen similar machines where the slowest speed was 400 RPM, which is really too fast for large bits, and makes the procedure less safe. Look for 250 RPM or slower on the low end. The highest speed is typically 2,800 to 3,000 RPM.
Most stationary drill presses have a 3⁄4 HP motor. Some smaller ones might be only 1⁄2 HP. You don’t need a lot of horsepower to drill a hole. Even when mortising with a mortising attachment, the drill bit doesn’t require a lot of power; you supply the muscle to force the chisel into the wood. So don’t shy away from a machine with as little as 1⁄2 HP. Even with Forstner bits well over 3″ in diameter. I have never stalled the motor on my machine.
The thirst for more power is a never-ending one, that frequently leads to spending more on machinery than you need.
A larger drill press is indispensable in the workshop and you’ll soon wonder how you got by without one. They are simple machines that rarely break down and will often last your entire woodworking lifetime. With a good quality cordless drill priced at $200 to $300, how could you not justify spending $400 to $500 for one of these large, cast iron workhorses? I promise you will never regret it. Buy a solid, brand name model and never look back.
There are lots of accessories you can make or purchase to enhance your productivity with the drill press. You don’t have to buy (or make) these accessories right away, but as you gain experience with the drill press, you’ll likely appreciate the added versatility they provide. An adjustable fence helps position stock for repetitive drilling operations; a machinist’s vice makes precision milling of wood and metal, easy, fast, and safe; a mortising attachment that connects to the quill (in place of the jaw chuck) converts the drill into a mortiser; a sanding drum, held in the jaw chuck, makes quick work of sanding irregular edges or patterns; and a hold down clamp holds stock securely to the drill press table, particularly smaller items.
Most people use their drill press for vertical drilling. However, if you drill a lot of angled holes, then you might want to look at a radial drill press. On a conventional drill press you angle the table to drill angled holes. On a radial drill press you angle the drill head – the table remains fixed. This means that your work piece stays level when drilling angled holes. The head on these machines generally swivels a full 360º and tilt 45º left and right. They offer huge swings, often up to 23″ (which means you can just about drill in the center of a 4′ table top).
As the saw blade is to the table saw, so the bit is to the drill press. Drilling with cheap, poorly machined bits will put a dint in your drilling style. Don’t just grab any bit when you go to drill – match the bit to the material you’re drilling, and adjust the speed of the drill accordingly. Like any cutting tool, your drill bits will eventually get dull. While they can be re-sharpened, it’s a lot easier to simply replace them.
For general drilling in soft and hardwoods, high-speed steel twist bits (HSS) are a good choice. For really smooth and clean holes use brad pint bits. The point at the tip of the bit ensures they won’t ‘skate’ across the surface of your work as you drill.
Where you want very clean holes with smooth sides and clean bottoms, consider using Forstner bits. For very large hole drilling use saw tooth bits. With a drill press you’re not confined to using birch hardwood dowels for plugs – make your own tapered plugs with plug cutters.