A ‘bit’ About Drill Presses

Timbecon

By Geoff Doube

A woodworking workshop is incomplete without some way of putting holes in wood. And while hand-held drills will make holes successfully, they are inaccurate and underpowered. The fundamental hole-making machine that you will find in every good workshop is the drill press.

The drill press

The drill press is a very simple machine. The workpiece is held on the table at a given angle to the cutting bit. And the bit is then lowered down into the workpiece in a straight line, drilling accurate, clean holes. The simplicity of these machines is their great strength.

What model suits me?

OK - so we all need a drill press in our workshop. Yet in the face of such a bewildering variety of machines - how to decide what model one to get? The best way to answer this question (for any machinery purchase, not just drill presses) is simply to be brutally honest about the kind of work you will be doing with it.

Meet the makers

Let’s imagine Ray, a hypothetical model boat-builder. He makes exquisitely detailed scale models of sailing ships from a range of softer timber species. The biggest piece of timber he ever needs to drill will fit quite happily into a briefcase, and the largest bit he uses is 4mm in diameter.

Let’s also imagine Rachael, an equally hypothetical furniture maker who uses lots of live-edge hardwood slabs. She regularly uses big Forstner bits in hardwood table legs, skirts and stretchers. Her timber stash takes up half of her warehouse workshop.

And lastly, Roberto, our imaginary retired ‘man of leisure’ who makes a wide variety of projects in his converted garage, including jewellery boxes, toys, and the odd ukulele.

These three woodworkers all need to make holes in wood, but they all have very different machine requirements. To decide on the drill press they each need, they should take the following factors into account:

Power

The more power the drill press’s motor has, the bigger the bit it can drive, and the tougher the timber it can handle. Rachael needs as much grunt as she can get! It takes a lot of torque to push a big bit through Aussie hardwoods, and if her machine is underpowered, she is sure to become quickly frustrated.

Roberto might not regularly need as much power as Rachael, but he does occasionally break out the 2” Forstner and so he needs a motor capable of pushing it. However, Ray is not too concerned with sheer power. He has other priorities.

Capacity

The capacity of a drill press takes two basic measurements into account: swing and travel.

The swing is defined as the distance from the centre of the chuck to the post, multiplied by 2. Another way to look at it is as the diameter of the largest disc you can drill into the centre of. The travel is defined simply as the maximum distance the quill can move - it is the deepest hole that can be drilled.

Usually, the more powerful a machine is, the larger its capacity. Ray doesn’t need much of either, whereas both Roberto and Rachael need good swing to reach into the middle of larger projects. Roberto also needs a long travel as he occasionally drills deep holes.

Workshop size

Rachael has a big workshop and space for more machinery, so she’s unconcerned with the overall size of her drill press. However, Roberto is working in a much smaller space that has become chocka with cabinets, machines, benches and so on. So, while he needs a machine with enough capacity, he needs to pay careful attention to the overall size of the machine to make sure it fits.

One option that Roberto might consider is making his drill press portable. A bench top machine could be put under the bench between uses. Or a floor standing machine could be mounted on castors and rolled out of the way. However, a bench top machine that is light enough to be moved may not have the capacity he needs, while a tall skinny machine on castors may lack stability. 

Ray wants a small machine. His work is so small and the tolerances so fine that he likes to be close to it - particularly these days as his eyesight slowly fails! He also wants the machine to fit on his bench next to his main workspace, because he goes back and forth between the drill press and the workspace a lot.

Features

One of the most important considerations for Ray is lighting. Without adequate lighting he finds himself squinting at the work and missing the mark. With his old benchtop machine, he used to put an Anglepoise light on the bench behind it and try to aim that at the work - it was a real hassle. A drill press with a built-in light on a flexible light arm is on the top of his list.

Roberto finds himself changing bits and speeds often. He doesn’t tend to drill the same hole over and over again because his projects are all one-offs rather than batch or mass-produced. As a result, he also finds himself needing to change bit speed often. For Roberto, opening the pulley cover, loosening the pulleys, shifting the belts, and then tensioning and putting it all back together again, every single time he changes the bit - well, it’s a real pain when he just wants to get on and drill a couple of holes. And every time he does it, he needs to find the chuck key! He’s after a machine that has a keyless chuck and easy, quick speed changes.

As for Rachael, bells and whistles are nice, but one of the things that would make her life easier is a big solid table so that her workpiece is well supported, and a nice wide base so the machine sits solidly on the ground when there are large, heavy bits of timber on it.

Use and Abuse

Even though our three hypothetical characters have quite different requirements and therefore end up with different machines, they should all observe similar rules of operation and maintenance.

The drill press is often perceived as a relatively ‘safe’ machine, and it can be - as long as some basic rules are followed. The first, most obvious but least-followed rule, is to always read and understand the manual!

As with any machinery, using a drill press while under the influence of drugs or alcohol is extremely dangerous. Loose, flowing clothing should be avoided and long hair should be tied back. So, when your hippy cousin blows in from Nimbin and wants to drill a few holes, maybe it's best if you do it for him.

When the bit touches the workpiece, it is going to want to spin the workpiece, so it should be securely held to the table. Many woodworkers design a custom table arrangement with a fence or hold-downs to enable easy work-holding.

Chips and debris should be cleaned up after each job, any table rust removed, and the drive belts periodically checked for wear. The chuck should be cleaned and lubricated, and tapers cleaned and re-seated every so often.

Even the most well-maintained and calibrated drill press is going to deliver poor results if a blunt, corroded, bent drill bit is carelessly stuck into the chuck. Looked-after drill bits are a pleasure to use while poorly looked-after bits will make the woodworker question whether there is anything good in the universe.

Whatever scale you work at, whether you want to drill teeny tiny holes in light strips, or bore into ironbark with a big bit, the drill press will become an indispensable part of your workshop setup - you will wonder what you ever did without it!