MOTHER’s Survey: Comparing Drill Press Equipment

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Though drill presses are available in both standing and bench-top models, the floor units are nearly always the better buys unless you're specifically looking for a more compact tool.
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Chart: MOTHER's drill press survey.

In MOTHER’s last issues, we cut through the mysteries of two major shop tools, the table and band saws. Now we’ll explore the ins and outs of another work saver by comparing drill press equipment from different manufacturers. (See MOTHER’s drill survey chart in the image gallery.)

If you thought a drill press was strictly a production metalworking machine, it’s time to reconsider: These one-time behemoths have been slimmed down, lightened up, and priced in a range comparable with other home-shop tools. What’s more, with the addition of a number of accessories, a drill press can do far more than bore right-on-the-money holes in wood or metal . . . it can be used as a router, drum sander, circle cutter, rotary planer, buffer, shaper, and mortising chisel, as well.

Though drill presses are available in both standing and bench-top models, the floor units are nearly always the better buys unless you’re specifically looking for a more compact tool. (If that’s the case, you’ll still find valuable information in this article and in the accompanying chart; some of the bench units are available as shortened versions of the heavy-duty stationary models, while others are clearly meant for lighter, less severe service.)

Let’s start comparing drill press equipment with the machine itself. With the exception of the industrial-type radial drill presses (which incorporate a horizontal arm to allow a range of lateral adjustment), most of the tools on the market share a similar design. Starting at the bottom, the base serves as a pedestal, a column support, and–in some circumstances–a secondary work surface. The column is simply a stanchion that carries an adjustable worktable and supports the machine’s main element, the head.

This all-important component consists of the motor, a step-pulley drive system, and a spindle that rotates within a housing known as the quill. The quill’s vertical movement is controlled by the feed lever, and its stroke can be limited with the depth stop. A splined-shaft arrangement allows the spindle–and the chuck fastened to the end of it–to move up and down with the quill.

Know Your Drill Press Options

One of the most attractive features of a drill press is its versatility, so keep that in mind when window-shopping. If your sole purpose in buying the tool is to precision-bore holes in small pieces of stock, a bench-top model may suit you fine. On the other hand, if you wish to take full advantage of the machine’s total capabilities, the standing version is probably a better choice, since, with its longer column, it can accommodate small, large, and oddly shaped workpieces.

Consider, too, the availability of multiple spindle speeds. If you’ll be working with metal as well as wood, the drill bit must be capable of turning at a relatively low rate, normally in the hundreds of revolutions per minute (RPM). Wood boring requires a medium range, while dressing operations, such as shaping, demand the highest speeds.

Practically speaking, a selection of four or five speeds that span a wide range of RPM may be more valuable than a lot of settings within a narrow scope. Look for a machine that can operate at between 500 and at least 4,000 RPM if you want maximum versatility; if you plan to use it only for drilling, a 2,000-RPM ceiling should be fine.

The tool’s worktable warrants some attention, also. All tables slide up and down on the column, and pivot around it as well . . . but many manufacturers mount the work surface on an adjustable horizontal axis or offer a tilting and turning table as an accessory. This feature is well worth some additional expense, since it simplifies bevel drilling considerably.

Finally, satisfy yourself that the machine’s capacities are sufficient to handle your intended work. Typically, a drill press is sized by its swing, or twice the distance from the column to the center of the chuck. Almost as often, manufacturers will simply state that their product will drill to the center of a given size workpiece.

The quill travel, or stroke, determines the single-pass depth of the bore; a range between 3 and 5 inches is satisfactory for full-size machines. Likewise, the capacity of the chuck dictates the size of the bit, though some manufacturers indicate that reduced-shank drills can be used to bore oversize holes in certain metals.

Know Your Drill Press Machine

Like most any stationary shop tool, a drill press’s weight is an advantage, especially in dampening internal vibration. A large, solid base-complete with floor-mounting holes and clamping slots–is always a bonus, as is a machine-ground cast-iron worktable. Check for heavy support ribbing in both platforms, and be sure the table has built–in cross slots and perhaps even a substantial clamping ledge at its perimeter.

Look, too, at the column. A floor-standing model, particularly, has to support a lot of weight on that post, so it should be at least 3 inches in diameter and firmly attached to the base. When clamped, the table mount should not wiggle or shift, either.

Moving to the head, check the alignment of the motor and drive pulleys, and determine if there’s excessive play in the shafts. Does the belt tension mechanism function smoothly and effectively? Try to ascertain, as well, the motor’s amperage draw. A 110-volt motor will use between 10 and 13 amps to develop 1 continuous horsepower; some manufacturers quote “peak” horsepower because it’s slightly higher, but that measurement will have little relevance in the workshop.

Probably most important, both for accuracy and safety, is the amount of lateral play in the spindle and quill. Simply put, there should be none when the spindle is lowered to its maximum extent, because any such movement would be exaggerated at high RPM.

Before you buy a drill press, try to get your hands on a display model and make the various adjustments as you would in your own shop. Operate the feed lever and the depth stop, and vary the height and pitch of the table. See how difficult it is to change speeds, and check to see if basic instructions are clearly marked on the tool’s housing.

Finally, remember that no major tool is a good buy unless it can be serviced and upgraded. Can the manufacturer or distributor guarantee availability of repair parts? What about work-saving accessories and attachments that make full use of the machine’s capabilities? Once you’ve gotten satisfactory answers to these questions and the important ones involving the tool’s construction, you’ll know that you’ll be getting real value for your money.

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