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Tool Test – Floor Model Drill Presses

Tool Test – Floor Model Drill Presses
By Tim Johnson; Art Direction: Vern Johnson; Photography: staff; Lead photo: Ramon Moreno; Illustration: Frank Rohrbach

It isn’t necessary to spend top dollar to get a very good machine.

Consistent, accurate holes. That’s why drill presses have been fixtures in woodworking shops for over a century. Although it isn’t the first stationary tool you should buy for your workshop, a drill press is right up there among the basic tools for woodworking. We tested 28 moderately priced (under $450) 13-in. to 17-in. machines.

The Basics
The “size” of a drill press is actually two times its throat depth (the distance between the column and the center of the chuck). A 13-in. drill press, for example, has a throat capacity of 6-1/2 in. Although we found a 6-1/2-in. throat adequate for most operations, we prefer the extra capacity of the larger machines.

However, it’s not necessary to buy anything bigger than a 17-in. model. Twenty-inch machines, the next step up, weigh almost twice as much and take up a lot more space.

Quill stroke measures how deep a hole you can drill. The quill holds the spindle and travels up and down when you work the operator’s lever (Fig. A). Most of these machines have adequate strokes, about 3-1/4-in. long. However, just as with throat depth, additional stroke capacity makes a drill press more versatile.

Other Considerations
Bigger numbers aren’t always better. For woodworking, having 12 or 16 speeds is overkill, especially when a single slow speed works for almost everything. To have numerous speeds, these drill presses require three pulleys and two belts. We prefer a simpler design with fewer speeds. Unfortunately, only one machine in this test, the Jet JDP 14JF, is made this way. Its five speeds cover a wide range, yet require only two pulleys and one belt. Coincidentally, this machine is the smoothest running and most quiet of them all.

Changing speeds should be easy; just reposition the belts on the pulleys and go. But on too many machines, getting the belts off is difficult, or nearly impossible, because the belt tensioning mechanisms don’t have enough travel. Pick a machine that gives you some slack (see Chart, pages 72 and 73).

These machines come with motors rated from 1/2 to 1-1/2 hp. A 1/2-hp motor is adequate for most drill press operations; 3/4 hp is more than enough. Some motors are totally enclosed and fan cooled (TEFC). TEFC motors keep dust out of the windings, which protects against overheating. This isn’t such a big concern in a drill press because the motor is mounted above and away from the action.

What to Expect
Drill presses are designed for metal work, but woodworkers have adopted them, even though woodworking doesn’t normally require a machinist’s precision. To make drill presses that are attractively priced for woodworkers, manufacturers trade a bit of accuracy for affordability. The drill presses we tested aren’t as precise as a machinist’s tool, but they’re fine for woodworking. And some of them are downright cheap!

Two compromises make these modest prices possible. First, all of the machines have a small amount of side play between the quill and the head, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Side play is a nuisance, but it has little effect on most boring operations if you use sharp bits and proper feed rates. However, it may cause chatter when you use a sanding drum, or a big bit without a center pilot, like a rosette cutter. Higher-quality machines have an adjustable split-head design that allows you to eliminate side play. However, they’re more expensive: $600 and up.
Another compromise is the chucks; they’re not great. The biggest annoyance is that they don’t always grip bits, especially big ones, securely; sometimes they slip. The easiest ways to compensate are to use the chuck key in all three holes when you install a bit and to use a less aggressive feed rate when you drill. The chucks also allow a small amount of wobble at the business end of the bit, but not enough to get hung up about. If you have a bug about precision, you’ll have to spend more money, either for a better chuck (about $80) or a better machine.

When you use sanding drums in these machines, the lateral pressure you exert can amplify any vibration allowed by the side play between the quill and the head. This combination of pressure and vibration may cause the tapered joint between the chuck and arbor to break loose. If it does, the tapered parts will probably be damaged. When you use your drill press for sanding, go easy. Keep the quill housed in the head and raise the table up to meet the drum. The same factors, lateral pressure and vibration, combine to make milling operations difficult, as well.

Features We Like

A Comfortable Operator’s Lever
More than anything else, how the quill advance lever feels in your hand shapes your perception of the machine. We prefer the traditional threaded-rod design to a single three-arm casting. For good leverage, the lever should be at least 3/8-in. thick and 8-in. long.

A few machines have ergonomically formed, soft-plastic grips. They’re a big improvement over the smallish, serrated, hard-plastic balls that are most common. But the most comfortable grips of all are the plastic balls found on the Delta 17-965. They’re larger than any of the others, and they’re smooth.

Wide Belts
Wide belts work better! Machines with narrow belts require more finesse to use, especially with bigger bits, because the belts slip on the pulleys more easily. When this happens you have to stop drilling and add more tension to the belts.

A Clamp-Friendly Table
Drill press tables, especially round ones, aren’t great for woodworking. For most operations you’ll want to add a fence or an auxiliary surface, so the best tables are ones that will be easy to clamp to. Rectangular tables with a wide, flat rim running around the perimeter are clearly superior. Bigger tables are better than small ones. We like “dry” tables because they’re slotted and easy to keep clean. “Wet” tables, designed for metalwork, have T-slots instead of slots and troughs around the edges. These crevices fill up with wood shavings.

A Rod-Style Depth Stop
To set drilling depth, we prefer a rod with stop nuts to a ring with a thumbscrew. Stop nuts are easier to set and once they’re locked together, they won’t slip.

Mortising Attachments
Drill presses aren’t really designed to exert the amount of force mortising requires, especially with large (1/2-in.) mortising sets. But for occasional use, and mortises no larger than 3/8 in., the attachments are adequate. Installation is time-consuming and often tedious. On some machines you have to remove several parts before you can mount the attachment (see Chart Comments, page 73). When you use your drill press for mortising, put a support between the base and the bottom of the table, to keep it from flexing. If you plan to cut lots of mortises, get a mortising machine.

The best on-off switches have safety built in. They make it difficult to turn the machine on accidentally and easy to turn off in an emergency. For durability, we like industrial-style push buttons. For convenience, we like paddle-style switches.

Work Light
Many machines come with built-in work lights, which you’d think would be a great feature. Unfortunately, they’re all mounted behind the bit and cast its shadow in exactly the wrong spot. Big bits create big shadows! On some machines, the bulb protrudes and may get broken. We think a better solution is to buy an after-market gooseneck work light with a magnetic base ($20).

It’s a buyer’s market, so be choosy. Competition has driven prices down -- we don’t see any reason to spend more than $350. Look for package deals, free trial periods and attractive warranties. And watch out for shipping costs. Be sure to consider the total cost of getting a drill press into your shop.

Features We Like:
• quill stroke
• throat depth
• slots
• clampable edge
• parallel slots
• hold-down
• toothed sleeve
• splines
• spindle bearing
• spindle
• pinion gear
• clockspring
• quill
• spindle bearing
• operator's lever
• chuck key
• locking nuts
• stop collar
• third nut
• spindle
• arbor
• arbor
• plastic head

A WIDE, FLAT RIM makes it easier to add fences and fixtures to the table. Slots through the top allow fastening from underneath. Every machine employs a crank-operated rack-and-pinion system for raising and lowering.

MORTISING ATTACHMENTS offered by Delta and Ridgid are the best because of their superior hold-downs. The Delta 14-070 is the only drill press we tested that allows easy, unrestricted front-to-back adjustment of the mortising fence, because its slots are parallel.

THE BEST OPERATOR’S LEVER has big, round grips and long, stout rods for good mechanical advantage. The grips are smooth so they’re comfortable to hold onto as you work the lever. The rods are threaded so they can be removed if they get in the way.

WIDE BELTS DON’T SLIP; narrow belts do. Wide belts have more surface area to stay in contact with the pulleys, so they transfer power from the motor more effectively. Replacement belts are not as widely available in metric sizes.

SWITCHES DESIGNED FOR SAFETY, like these from Jet, are large, obvious and front-mounted. “On” switches are protected so they can’t be pushed accidentally. “Off” switches stand proud so they’re easy to hit in an emergency.

The heart of a drill press is its spindle. Belts transfer the motor’s power and rotation to it through a toothed sleeve inside the spindle pulley. These teeth engage long splines on the shaft of the spindle. The spindle rotates inside the quill, a hollow steel cylinder that moves up and down inside the machined head. This movement is regulated by a pinion gear on the shaft of the operator’s lever and teeth cut into the back of the quill. A tensioned clock spring assists the return stroke and holds the quill in position against the head.

PADDLE STYLE ON-OFF SWITCHES are the easiest to operate -- you can even shut the machine down with your shoulder in an emergency. A well-placed chuck key holder (this one is on a Ridgid) is a “$1,000” improvement that costs the manufacturer next to nothing!

Rod-Style Depth-Stop Mechanisms are Best
WE ESPECIALLY LIKE rod-style mechanisms with three nuts. The third nut, located under the stop collar, keeps the quill extended. It’s a low-tech quill stop.

RING-STYLE DEPTH STOPS are common, but we find them more difficult to use, and more likely to slip.

KEEP THE CHUCK FITTING TIGHTLY by installing it properly the first time. Before their initial assembly, clean the inside of the spindle, the arbor and the inside of the chuck with a solvent that won’t leave an oily residue (such as lacquer thinner or naptha). Then slip the arbor into the spindle. Retract the chuck’s jaws and slide the chuck onto the arbor. Set the joint with a single tap on the bottom of the chuck with a rubber or plastic mallet. Don’t use a steel hammer.

How to Avoid Falling Chucks
A common complaint with drill presses is that the chuck falls out. Failure usually occurs because the parts weren’t properly cleaned before they were first installed. For a good joint, the mating surfaces must be spotless -- any grease, oil (including oil from your fingers) or dust particles that remain can cause this tapered joint to fail. Once it fails, and the tapered fit is compromised, the joint is likely to fail again.

Editors’ Choice
Delta 17-965 16-1/2 in. $350.

This machine was outstanding. It has plenty of power and a long, 4-7/8-in. quill stroke. It runs quietly, with minimal vibration, and is a joy to operate. The quill advance mechanism operates smoothly, and the smooth, round grips on the operator’s levers are the most comfortable of any we tested. The quick action depth-stop nut (right) is unique and works great. There’s a genuine quill lock (it presses the quill against the head) that locks quickly and positively. The table raises and lowers smoothly and we like the large base. We also like Delta’s mortising attachment (17-935; $40), which is available as an accessory and installs easily on this machine. A work light is also available (25-869; $20).

We have a couple of minor gripes. The 17-965 has an open motor and a plastic hood.

Best Buys
Central Machinery 38144 13 in., $206*

Although Central Machinery tools haven’t fared well in previous American Woodworker tests, this one performed admirably, appears to be well made and is available delivered for $206 (there’s a $6 handling charge). You can try it out for 30 days and return it for a full refund, if you’re not satisfied. If bottom dollar is your top consideration, give this machine a try.

The 38144 comes with a round table, an open motor, a ring-style depth stop and narrow belts. The unusual, cast operator’s lever takes some getting used to.

* Price includes shipping in the 48 contiguous states.

Grizzly G7944 14 in., $248*

This machine feels better to operate than other small-throat-capacity machines because it’s built big (taller and heavier) and it delivers good power. Its operator’s levers have long rods with comfortable grips. We like the paddle style on-off switch, although it isn’t recessed. Grizzly is known for its reliable customer service.

The G7944 has narrow belts and a ring-style depth stop. There’s noticeable side play between the quill and the head.

* Price includes shipping in the 48 contiguous states.

Ridgid DP 1500 15 in., $300

This machine is likable because it’s user-friendly. It has long operator’s levers with comfortable grips, a recessed paddle-style on-off switch, a built-in work light, a decent table and a chuck key holder. A good mortising attachment is available (AC 60005, $25), but only by special order. It runs quietly and smoothly. What’s more, Home Depot backs it by offering the original purchaser a lifetime warranty.

The DP 1500 has narrow belts, a ring-style depth stop and an open motor. Other similarly priced machines have deeper throat capacity.

Reprinted with permission from American Woodworker magazine, ©2001 Home Service Publications, Inc., an affiliate of The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Suite 700, 2915 Commers Drive, Eagan, MN 55121. All rights reserved.