Knowing Your Drill Press: A Little Bit of Information Behind the Tool

Knowing Your Drill Press: Information Behind The Tool

Simply stated: a drill press is "a machine tool for drilling holes, set on a fixed stand."  A drill press is preferable to a hand drill when accuracy of the drilled hole is a must. A drill press is fixed on a base for stability so that the location and orientation of the hole can be controlled accurately. Drill presses are more effective than a hand drill at certain applications - like manufacturing.

Let's take a look at all the possible applications for drill presses, and some of the history and details of these hobbies, professions, and activities.

benchtop drill press

From the humble manual hand drill, all the way up to the heavy duty radial arm drill press, there is a fascinating amount of information to learn about these drill presses and hand drills.

We’ll thoroughly explain in detail each mechanic you’ll need to know.

By the end of this article, you’ll have a greater understanding about drill presses.

Drill Press In Action

A drill press is simply a high power drill connected to a press, allowing you to more precisely choose where you wish to bore a hole on a given material.

The precision of the drill's mounting, combined with a more powerful motor than you will find available on a handheld power drill allows drill presses to be used in situations where you are crafting items with higher tolerances.

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Your drill press will allow you to drill through harder materials, due to the improved motor and the increased mechanical advantage provided by the rack and pinion setup that the drill is on. In layman's terms, this means that you can press the drill down with more force using less effort than if the drill were not mounted on the press.

This allows for heavy-duty drills to be used in more advantageous positions, as it would be somewhat inconvenient to attempt to use a very large drill by hand, due to the weight and simple unwieldiness of the design.

Most common drill presses use a system of belts and pulleys attached to the motor in order to adjust the speed through more or less application of mechanical advantage. This is the most cost-effective way to control the speed as it simple and lacks any complex parts, allowing you to maintain the reliability of your drill press and have one less part which is likely to go wrong.

If one of your belts fails, it is simply a matter of purchasing a new one, but this is a rare occurrence and will most likely not happen to a machine which is well-maintained and cared for.

There are many forms of the drill press, just like there are many types of power tools. You can have a benchtop drill press, which is usually smaller and fits on top of a workbench, hence the name (these types of presses are usually interchangeable with those known as portable drill presses).

GearHead Drill Press

A gearhead drill press, which can also be termed a metal drill press is a drill press which uses gears instead of the traditional belt and pulley functioning of typical drill presses. Gearhead drill presses have much more rugged construction and tolerances than other more traditional drill presses because they are designed to work with metal. (See the JET Gearhead Drill Press - a beast!)

gearhead drill press

Metal, being a harder material, requires more drilling force than other materials such as wood and fiberglass, so you need a bit and quill which can be resilient to the forces and stresses that your machine will undergo.

As the construction of a gearhead drill press is more reliable and hardy than that of other presses, it will require less periodic maintenance, as the gearing mechanisms aren't as finicky as the belt arrangements present on the more common bench top drill presses or floor models.

To drill through metal, it is common to use larger bits on the drill, so these presses must also have motors which are designed to work better in the low RPM ranges than the drills that are attached to your typical woodworking drill press. The gearing arrangement also improves the ease with which you may adjust the speed of your drill.

Metal drill presses usually make use of levers to adjust the gearing in regards to the motor speed, so you can adjust your speed without having to adjust pulleys and belts like you have to on other models.

The downside to a gearhead drill press is that the heavy duty construction and the gearing arrangement usually result in a machine that is far more expensive, bulky and heavy than other models of drill press, so unless you are a seasoned metalworker who works from a home workshop, you may find it hard to justify this purchase.

It is for this combination of reasons that you will rarely see a gearhead drill press in private workshops. It is far more common to see these in commercial environments such as machine shops and metalworking workshops.

Although, if you are serious about metalworking and you have a suitable place to do so, making the investment and purchasing a gearhead drill press can save you the expense of outsourcing your jobs.

Radial Arm Drill Press

A radial arm drill press is essentially the gearhead drill press's big brother. It is usually larger than most models of gearhead drill press, and it is placed on a swinging arm which allows much greater access to the item which you are working on.

radial arm drill press

The head of the press can traverse laterally along the arm, and the head can also swing in different degrees, so it allows you to work on a particularly large or heavy object without having to move the object itself.

This is ideal for metalworking as you may often find yourself working on items which are either far too heavy or far too bulky to be efficiently moved by hand. In these cases, you would have to use a pulley or a machine shop crane to more effectively move the item, and this would be quite difficult if you did not have a radial arm drill press to move the press' head out of the way.

There are some smaller models of radial arm drill press available for smaller jobs at an affordable price point for machine shops or some home workshops where you work on metal projects a lot. The Grizzly G9969 Radial Arm Drill Press is an excellent option if you'd like to have a radial arm drill press at home (check price to see if it's an affordable option for you).

How To Use A Drill Press

Using a drill press is not as complex as it may seem to beginner users. The first step is to secure the item you are working on to either the press or your work table - you can use a drill press vise like the YOST 6" 6D Vise (Made in the USA) to secure the object. Once this is set up, you can select your speed with the belt and pulley arrangement and also insert your preferred drill bit.

drill press vise

At this point, you may power up your machine and use the attached levers to work the quill, raising it and lowering it. The number of levers available varies from machine to machine, but these levers allow you to more precisely control the speed of the elevation mechanism, allowing you to work far more precisely than with a simple power drill or a small hand drill.

Drill Press Applications

These include such activities as woodworking, carpentry and DIY work, which helps cut down on the cost of general contractors or other renovations workers. The best part of learning these different specialties and professions is that you feel more self-sufficient, you save more money, and you learn how to better maintain your home or craft wooden objects.

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Usage of a drill press is not only confined to making holes in objects. You can drill anything that your drill is powerful enough to penetrate, such as wood, softer metals (for weaker drills), hard metals (for more powerful drill presses), plastics, composites, fiberglass and many other common building materials that will not shatter or crack under the stress of a drill.

Two other possible uses are woodworking and cabinetry, but these usually fall under the same umbrella of the woodworking discipline. As a woodworker, one of your most essential tools is a drill press as it allows you to bore precise holes to a certain depth and specification.


Woodworking is one of the oldest crafting practices in history. It is exactly what the name describes; it is a profession or hobby in which you craft items out of wood. These items can range from decorative mantelpieces that have been hand-carved, to full-size cabinets that you use to store anything from clothing to mementos to fine china.

Woodworking And The Advancement Of Technology

Woodworking was one of the original forms of craftsmanship that mankind first discovered alongside stoneworking and leatherworking. How else would the primitive man have crafted his hunting spears, used for feeding his family? We certainly owe a large part of our technological basis to simple, humble materials such as wood, as we may never have gotten this far without it.

Woodworking was integral because it alone led to the development of more complex tools. While stone did have its uses as an ancestor to the tools we use today, there is only so far you can go when shaping stone as it is fickle and brittle.

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Wood, on the other hand, allows you to reliably craft tools and implements without having to deal with stone's natural imperfects and difficulty to work with. The advent of wood in the creation of tools allowed a sort of homogenization between all prospective toolmakers.

As wood is easier to work with than stone, it allowed a lot of people to craft tools and weapons, such as spears, shovels, adzes, axes and much more. These all had the benefit of improving quality of life and allowing a basis for technology to build on.

The weapons allowed the primitive man to hunt and keep his family alive, whereas farming tools like shovels and axes allowed us to set up an agricultural base. As you can see, our technology may not have gotten to the point that it is today if it were not for the original craftsmen and woodworkers amongst our ancestors.

This goes to show that after thousands of years, woodworking is still an important profession and skilled artisan woodworkers are in high demand in the western world at the moment. Many ancient civilizations were also proficient in woodworking.

Woodworking In Ancient Egypt

Chief among these proficient civilizations were the ancient Egyptians. This was the first civilization to make large-scale use of woodworking, fashioning everything from modest wooden dowels, to beds and tables.

Many ancient Egyptian artifacts preserved in the pyramids and tombs of pharaohs were the results of this proficiency in woodworking. It is certainly intriguing to note how surprisingly advanced this civilization of thousands of years ago was in this field.

For example, ancient Egyptians were amongst the first people in the world to varnish their work. This made their woodwork far more durable and long-lasting than any other woodwork the world had seen up until that point.

history of drill presses

The secrets of their varnishing process have been lost to time, but we do have proof that they were capable of doing so, which is impressive when you consider that they were doing this over four thousand years ago.

Woodworking In Ancient Rome

Woodworking was no less important to ancient Romans, who used it in many of the same capacities that the Egyptians used it in, but they attempted to expand upon it even further, and they succeeded in this expansion of the applications used by woodworking.

The ancient Romans, beyond simple furniture and votive offerings, used wood to build their chariots, oxcarts, irrigation systems, pipes, and building materials for domiciles.

The unfortunate part of the Roman history with woodworking is the manner in which almost all artifacts from this era have been lost due to the barbarian invasions or other catastrophes.

There exist just as few extant examples of Roman woodworking as there do of Egyptian woodworking, yet we have many texts and treatises left over to demonstrate the key role that woodworking played in Roman society and infrastructure.

Woodworking In The Present Day

Woodworking today is an entirely different breed of work than it was in the past. Today, we have mass production techniques, thanks to the process of industrialization which allows us to produce large amounts of woodwork in increasing complexity, the likes of which have never been seen throughout the course of human history.

While these pieces may be lacking in the essential charm that makes a hand-worked piece of wood what it is, it also drastically decreases the cost and man-hours that go into these wooden implements. So, like in many other aspects of manufacture, there is a trade-off.

However, with further advancing technology and better computers controlling these woodworking machines, the quality is slowly rising. Regardless, there is still nothing machine-made that can compare to the sheer artistry of the work of a master woodworker.

While you may pay far more for the services of someone so well trained, if you prefer quality to price-point, then you will most certainly not be disappointed. If you find yourself passionate about woodworking, you can begin the journey to becoming a master woodworker yourself.

There are many vocational schools and colleges which offer woodworking courses, and if you wish to further pursue your education beyond that, you can always find apprenticeship under a woodworker who you wish to learn from.

Some might say that woodworking is a dying art due to the advent of machines which can do the work in half the time for a quarter of the price. They are both wrong and right at the same time in that assumption. While the number of woodworkers may be dropping due to the industrialization of the manufacturing process, this has been the case since the 18th and 19th centuries.

However, this is a double-edged sword, as the dropping number of woodsmiths also increases the demand amongst those remaining for quality, handmade goods. Due to dropping competition in the market amongst other artisan woodworkers, you will find more demand for your own goods.

DIY Applications

Beyond woodworking as a trade and a profession, you can also use your drill press to complete DIY work, repairs, and renovations on your home. General contractors and the materials they use are expensive, and renovations to your home can run your wallet ragged, so why not learn how to make use of that drill press and improve your home yourself?

While proper DIY does indeed take a lot of time, effort and experience to pay off, there is no reason you can't start off small. Work on small fittings that need to be fixed around the house, nothing major. Once you build up your confidence doing this kind of work, you can work your way up to tackling a more major project.

The satisfaction you get from completing your first true DIY project and having it turn out just as you expected is a hard feeling to describe. It feels like a veritable art form, seeing your vision come out of the raw materials and the sheer amount of work that you put into it.

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The money you save not having to hire contractors or other workers is secondary to the satisfaction you feel having accomplished the task yourself. It also puts you more in tune with your home, allowing you to build and renovate as you see fit in your personal vision for the ideal house.

Many people find it easy to criticize DIY work as sloppy and unprofessional, but these are the very same people that refuse to put in enough effort and learning time to properly work on their homes. If you do a job halfway and expect it to turn out the same as a professional contractor's work, then you are evidently doing something wrong.

Is DIY Difficult?

DIY is not as difficult as a few vocal detractors would like to make it seem. Like any other skilled work, DIY takes time to learn and perfect. It is rather baffling that others can condemn the practice based on a few examples of over-ambitious amateur projects which did not go as planned.

As with any other activity, if you know your limits and you work within them, you will not have any undue difficulty, and you will save yourself a tidy sum of money that would have been spent on contractors.

Of course, depending on the scale of the project and the work, it could also take noticeably longer than a team of contractors, but for one-man jobs and less complex installations, even one contractor will cost you far more in terms of money than the job will cost you in terms of time.

Every DIY job is a learning experience, regardless of whether you end up learning more about your home, more about working with wood, metal or any other material which you use while you work.

Like a sculptor, looking upon their masterpiece with teary eyes, you can feel a similar pride in your work, knowing that you installed it, worked on it, and accomplished it with little more than some basic materials and your manual skills.


The best part of a drill press, when compared to other kinds of drills, like cordless drills, electric drills and mini hand drills, is that it can be used for far more applications. The only application where a hand drill is preferable is when you need your drill to be useable against a wall or any other application where it would be inconvenient for your drill to only go straight down.

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In conclusion, drill presses are handy pieces of machinery that can really aid you in your hobby or job, whether it is woodworking or metalworking, it is very difficult to compare a simple hand drill to a drill press, as the hand drill offers much in the way of portability, but little in the way of the sheer power and precision included in a drill press.

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