How to Choose a Drill Press
If you’ve ever used a handheld drill to complete a particularly fiddly task, one that requires drilling many holes to exact depths, widths, and at multiple specific angles, you’ll appreciate just how difficult this can be.
Sure, you may have got by with your trusty hand drill in the past, but we’re sure that if you took a moment to be completely honest with yourself, there are probably a few projects which spring to mind where you haven’t been entirely happy with the finished result.
Trust us; we’ve been there.
There’s no getting away from the fact that by compromising and using a handheld drill in situations where accuracy is needed, you can usually kiss goodbye to drilling holes that are perfectly straight (or to the exact angle required), and to the correct depth, every time.
So, what’s the alternative?
Enter the drill press – the easiest way to get the drilling accuracy and consistency you miss out on when you choose to rely on handheld tools alone.
Sounds great, but there’s just one problem…
With a multitude of different model types available, including benchtop models and floor-mounted variants, and variations on the two such as those with magnetic bases and radial heads, you’re literally spoilt for choice.
Fear not though, as you’ve come to the right place.
Welcome to the ToolCrowd Drill Press Buyer’s Guide, the ultimate resource for anyone looking to get up to speed with one of the most versatile and useful workshop tools available.
Our aim over the next few minutes is to help you become an expert on all-things drill press; from understanding the different types available and what they’re used for, to hopefully helping you narrow down and decide on a model type that’s right for you.
So without further ado, let’s get started…
A drill press (often referred to as a pillar drill, bench drill, or pedestal drill) is a power tool used for drilling holes in a similar way to a regular handheld drill.
Where drill presses differ from conventional power drills, however, is that they aren’t a handheld tool, with the drill’s head (which contains the motor, chuck assembly, and the speed and feed handles) sitting atop a support column affixed to a sturdy base, rather than being supported by the user’s hand during use.
There are two main types of drill press available, including a benchtop variation that features a short support column for placement on a workshop bench, for example, and a floor drill press with a larger support column for installation directly on the floor.
The fact that they aren’t designed to be handheld means that weight is usually much less of a concern with a drill press versus a conventional drill, and because of this, they often feature larger, more powerful motors that make them an excellent choice for drilling bigger diameter holes or tougher materials.
Not only that but because of the level of support offered to the head assembly and chuck during use, drill presses eliminate a lot of the side-to-side movement that commonly occurs when using a handheld drill that can so often lead to quality issues.
Because of this, drill presses are a popular choice among woodworkers, metalworkers, and other tradespeople who require both the power and high degree of accuracy that could otherwise be lacking and be difficult to achieve with a handheld drill.
The main components of a typical drill press are as follows:
Now that you’re up to speed with what exactly a drill press is, let’s look at what they’re typically used for.
As with regular drills, drill presses can be used to tackle a wide variety of tasks.
There are a few reasons for this…
Firstly, they feature expandable chucks (either keyless or more regular keyed, with exact dimensions varying from model to model) capable of holding a wide variety of different bit types with either round or hex-shaped shanks, while their powerful motors make it possible to use larger diameter bits just as readily as smaller ones.
Secondly, it’s possible to vary the output speed on most modern models (the WEN 4214 drill press, for example, has a variable speed of between 580-3,200 RPM), which lets the user adjust the speed to best-suit many different types of task.
Let’s look at some specific examples:
- Drilling larger diameter holes – As mentioned, drill presses typically come with larger, more powerful motors than those found in handheld drills, giving them more power and torque to drive larger diameter bits and accessories through a variety of different materials.
- Drilling holes to a specific depth – A common feature on most models is a depth stop, making it easier to drill holes to a specific depth consistently.
- Drilling holes at specific angles – Some drill presses feature a head that can be pivoted to adjust its drilling angle (for example, a radial drill press), while others feature a table that can be changed to allow whatever bit you’re using to enter a clamped piece of material at a specific angle.
- Drilling more precise holes – You could opt for a mini drill press that easily accommodates smaller sized drill bits, for example, and which allows for micro-adjustments to be made in terms of output speed and feed rate.
- Enlarging existing holes – Thanks to the power on offer, drill presses are ideal for boring existing holes to a wider diameter with a larger drill bit.
- Smoothening the edges of a hole – For example, by using a reamer bit to both finish a hole to a specific diameter and smoothen its edges.
- Countersinking holes – For example, using a countersinking bit to form a recess at the entrance of a hole to allow for a flush fit when inserting a flat-headed fastener.
- Counterboring – Using a counterboring bit to drill a hole while simultaneously removing enough material at the hole’s entrance to allow a fastener’s head, for example, that of a bolt, to remain flush with the material’s surface when inserted fully.
- Tapping holes – Using a tap drill, for example, to create a thread in a particular material that allows the inserting of a fastener such as a bolt.
- Cutting square or rectangular holes in timber – Using a mortising bit to cut square holes or side-by-side holes for whenever a rectangular-shaped cutout is needed.
- Sanding materials – There are countless sanding drum accessories available with a round shank that can fit directly into the tool’s chuck.
- Polishing materials – Similar to sanding, except in this case using a dedicated polishing accessory such as a polishing wheel.
OK…as you can see above, drill presses are well-suited to tackling a wide variety of different tasks. That’s all well and good, but based on the example tasks listed above, a logical question would be:
Can’t you do all of those things with a powerful enough handheld drill, too?
The answer of course is yes, but chances are you mightn’t want to in a couple of minutes…
Here are some of the reasons why you’d potentially opt for a drill press over a standard handheld drill:
- They’re usually more accurate
- They can be quicker and more efficient
- They’re usually more powerful
- They can be much safer
You’ll notice this advantage most when using larger bits to drill wider diameter holes, or when working with tougher materials.
Any strain felt while drilling tougher materials will be taken up by the tool’s sturdy structure as opposed to the user’s wrist with a handheld drill, helping to reduce the risk of injury.
Sounds great so far, but nothing’s perfect, and the drill press is no different.
So before you go off on a spending spree, here are some of the disadvantages that may have you thinking twice before ditching your trusty handheld drill altogether:
- They’re less portable
- Drilling angled holes can be (considerably) more time-consuming
- Drilling capacity restrictions
Yes, you could opt for a smaller model in a bid to overcome this, but this comes at the price of significantly reducing the size of materials that you can realistically work with.
Unless you can envisage drilling angled holes regularly, in circumstances where precision is an absolute necessity, a drill press may be more hassle than it’s worth.
Unfortunately, you can’t do this with a drill press due to limitations such as the distance between the chuck and the table, and factors such as the swing distance and the stroke distance of whatever model you’re using which limit the capacity.
Yes, you could opt for a larger variant such as a floor-mounted model, but the fact remains, it will still be a lot more restrictive in terms of capacity than a regular drill.
Thanks to their expandable chucks (either keyed or keyless), and the fact that you can vary the output speed on most models, drill presses are well-suited to a whole host of different attachment and accessory types.
- Standard drill bits
- Forstner bits
- Glass-and-tile bits
- Hole saws
- Spade bits
- Drum sanders
- Plug cutters
- Circle cutters
- Flap sanders
- Polishing wheels
- Flex disc sanders
- Grinding wheels
There are two main types of drill press as shown below, however, there are variations on each of these types which we also cover:
Benchtop drill presses are one of the most popular types available.
Unsurprisingly, as per their name, they’re primarily designed to be installed and used on top of a workbench or work table, and they usually feature a sturdy base to keep them planted during use.
Some models also come with base holes to give you the option of bolting them down for extra stability during use.
Because of their popularity, there’s a vast range of benchtop models available, ranging from less-robust, less-expensive options aimed at infrequent DIY users or hobbyists, to heavy-duty, more expensive models with more powerful motors that are aimed squarely at professionals looking to work with metal, timber, or a range of other materials.
Benchtop drill presses are significantly smaller than the floor-mounted ones we discuss below, and because they’re designed to be installed and used somewhere elevated, they have a much shorter support column that makes them a lot more compact and more portable.
One disadvantage of the shorter support column, however, is that there is a lot less distance between the chuck and the base (or the chuck and the table when positioned at its lowest), making them better suited to people looking to tackle smaller-scale drilling tasks.
Aside from the variations in price and power which we’ve alluded to above, there are a few different types of benchtop drill press available to suit a variety of different needs.
Designed for installation and use directly on the floor, these models are often much larger, and less portable, than their benchtop counterparts.
The main benefit of this increased size is the additional drilling capacity on offer, as the longer support column and the larger swing distance makes them ideal for working with larger pieces of material.
Not only that, but floor drill presses usually feature more powerful motors than benchtop models, giving them the extra power and torque needed to drill wider-diameter holes into even the toughest of materials.
This extra size and power comes at a price, however, as floor drill presses are some of the most expensive types available.
Would we recommend them to the casual user? Probably not, as the power and drilling capacity on offer will likely be overkill for most people, and the additional size may prove restrictive unless you have access to a workshop or a large garage.
As you can see below, there are far fewer floor drill press options available compared to the benchtop variants discussed above:
No buyer’s guide would be complete without a detailed list of all the features and characteristics of the particular product in question.
So, based on our experience, here is the ultimate guide of everything you need to look at and consider when making your choice about which drill press model to purchase:
With a variety of different model types available, the first and most important step when choosing a drill press is to figure out which kind is right for you.
Your choice will impact most if not all of the other factors on this list, so it’s a good idea to spend some time thinking about what you ultimately want to do with, or get out of, your drill press.
Need some inspiration?
Here are a few of the most common wants or needs that people look for from a drill press, along with our opinion as to which model type best meets these:
- Drilling capacity
- Drilling precision
- Complex drilling requirements
Any of the other options, for example, a benchtop variant or a mini drill press (if this provides enough capacity for you) will be a better choice.
On the other end of the scale, however, a mini drill press will provide much less capacity in these three areas, but is ideal for smaller, more tricky tasks such as hobby or craft projects.
As mentioned above though, for smallscale hobby and craft projects, nothing beats a mini drill press for maximum drilling precision.
If you regularly drill at angles, however, it may be a good idea to steer towards a radial drill press where you can angle the head, with this being available in both a benchtop or floor-mounted configuration.
A benchtop model (or a mini drill press if it provides enough capacity) will probably be best in this case, and it may be worthwhile looking into a magnetic drill press as this will make it quicker and easier after you’ve transported it to wherever the work is (although these are considerably more expensive).
Arguably of just as much importance as the type of drill press model you ultimately choose is the price.
99.9% of buyers will have a specific budget in mind, and the overall price will typically have a massive influence on the features that you reasonably expect to get access to.
Floor drill presses are often the most expensive type available given their larger size and (usually) more powerful motors, while models with radial drilling heads or magnetic bases are priced higher than standard models given their increased complexity.
Commercial-grade drill presses can cost many hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
For general-purpose, DIY-spec models though, expect to pay $75+ for a lower-specced benchtop model, and $140+ for a lower end floor-mounted model, with both these prices running considerably higher for better-specced models.
Generally, here’s what you will get (or what you should look for) the more you spend:
- A more powerful motor
- Gear-driven internals as opposed to belt-driven
- A larger speed range (i.e., a lower bottom speed and a higher top speed)
- A larger stroke distance
- A larger swing distance
- Fewer plastic parts / more metal parts
- A larger chuck capacity
- A larger table size
- The addition of a digital speed readout
- The addition of laser guidance for added accuracy
- (More accurate) depth stops
This isn’t always the case, however, so check out each model you’re considering carefully to ensure that you’re getting value for money.
The motor’s power output will have a direct impact on the size of holes and the toughness of the materials that you can tackle with your drill press.
Larger diameter bits, for example, hole saws, will require a lot more power in materials such as metal than smaller diameter, standard drill bits in timber.
There’s no point going overboard though, so while there are 1+ horsepower models on the market, this kind of power is likely overkill unless you are going to be regularly drilling larger holes in metal.
We’d recommend sticking to at least 1/2-horsepower, with the WEN 4214 model’s 2/3-horsepower output, for example, or even a model with 3/4-horsepower providing an excellent compromise in terms of price while providing more than enough punch to handle the bulk of whatever you can throw at it.
The next important consideration is stroke distance (often referred to as stroke length, spindle travel or quill travel).
The spindle on a drill is the rotating shaft which the chuck is attached to, and so stroke distance refers to the maximum distance that the spindle, and hence the chuck and drill bit, can travel up and down as the user turns the feed handle (also known as the quill handle).
In general, the more stroke distance available, the more expensive the drill press will be.
Is it worth the extra money? We think so – because as stroke distance grows, the restrictions you’ll face when it comes to drilling thicker materials and the inconvenience you’ll face needing to adjust the table regularly both fall simultaneously.
There’s no getting away from the fact that a longer stroke distance makes it easier to work with longer drill bits and thicker materials.
From our experience, 2-1/2″ stroke distance is the absolute least you’d want for general-purpose drilling activities.
If your budget can stretch to it though, 3″ or even 4″ and above would be our recommendation.
Certain tasks require different output speeds – for example, you’d use a significantly higher speed when using a standard twist drill in wood versus a hole saw in the same material.
Click the chart below from Wood Magazine to see a detailed list of the recommended speeds for various drill bit types in different materials:
Most new drill presses come with a variable speed function, although the more extensive the speed range is (i.e., the lower the minimum and the higher the maximum speeds you simultaneously have access to), the more expensive the model tends to be.
We see this as a price worth paying, however, as the larger the available speed range, the more flexible that particular model will be thanks to it being better suited to a broader range of tasks.
You’ll also want to make sure that you can adjust the speed as quickly and easily as possible.
While this shouldn’t be an issue on most models which come with either a handy speed control dial or handle for quick changes on the fly, some models are much less convenient.
There are two important measurements to be aware of when it comes to sizing up a drill press.
The first is swing distance (often referred to as throat distance) which is a measurement between the center of the chuck to the closest point on the support column, multiplied by two.
So, for example, in the case of the 12″ Rikon 30-212VS model shown below, the swing distance (A) would equal six-inches.
What this means is that the press can drill a hole directly in the middle of a 12-inch wide piece of material.
The second measurement to consider, as shown above, is influenced by the height of the support column, and that’s the maximum distance between the chuck and the base (or the maximum distance between the chuck and the table if installed and configured in its lowest position).
The bigger either of these measurements is, the larger the materials that the tool can accommodate.
The chuck is the part which holds the drill bits in place during use, so whatever size you choose will have an impact on the maximum shank size of the drill bits and accessories that you’re able to use with your drill press.
The chuck size tends to increase relative to the motor’s power on the tool it is fitted to, with higher-powered presses warranting a larger chuck given the extra power and torque available to turn larger bits.
The most common chuck sizes are 1/2″ and 5/8″, with some bigger drill presses even having chucks as large as 3/4″.
On mini drill presses, however, 1/4″ is more common owing to the smaller size of these tools and the lower power output of their motors.
Chuck size is probably more of a concern if you have specific drill bits in mind that you want to use with your press or specific drilling tasks that you want to perform.
It isn’t something we tend to get hung up on though, as both 1/2″ and 5/8″ chucks provide more than enough capacity to suit all of our general purpose needs, and for anything else, we can easily turn to reduced shank drill bits anyway.
Size matters when it comes to a drill press table, and in our opinion, the bigger it is, the better, as it will make it easier to hold and secure larger materials while drilling.
Size isn’t the only thing we look for though.
There are four key features or characteristics that we look for in the table’s design that we think are must-haves:
- The table needs to be capable of a lot of height adjustment, with that adjustment being as quick and easy as possible.
- It needs to be tiltable to make it easier to drill into various materials at specific angles.
- The table needs to be capable of rotating 360-degrees while in place.
- Finally, it must have the ability to rotate 360-degrees around the support column itself. This allows the table to be pushed out of the way entirely when not needed, which has the benefit of maximizing the distance available underneath the chuck to accommodate larger materials.
For a drill press to be genuinely usable and useful, it not only needs to be highly adjustable; it also needs to be simple enough to make it as quick as possible to make these adjustments.
No one likes overly complicated things, and unless you’re going to be drilling the same material to the same depth with the same drill bit day-in-day-out, you’re going to need to adjust the settings from time-to-time, or perhaps regularly, to best-suit each type of task that you’ll be completing.
While getting hands-on with each of the drill presses on your preferred list would be ideal, it isn’t realistic to think that you’ll get the chance to do this with every model.
The next best thing in our opinion?
Reading as many reviews as you can or checking out hands-on videos on YouTube to see how each model is to use and adjust.
Find out the various features that users say they couldn’t live without, and the little niggles that they wish they’d known before purchasing a particular model.
Here are a few of the areas to look at when it comes to adjustability:
- …tighten and loosen the chuck? – does this require a key?
- …adjust the output speed? – can this be done using a simple handle, or does it require adjusting belts?
- …configure and adjust the depth stop?
- …raise and lower the spindle to a specific depth accurately?
- …raise, lower, tilt and rotate the table?
- …square the table to whatever drill bit you’re using?
- …adjust the laser? (if it comes with one)
- …readjust the spindle return spring?
Despite the old saying that you get what you pay for, unfortunately, price isn’t always the best indicator of quality.
When it comes to purchasing a drill that’s capable of precision drilling, nothing beats reading reviews or watching a few hands-on demonstrations on YouTube.
This naturally follows on from the last section, as being able to set up your drill press quickly and easily isn’t good enough – you’ll need to be able to do it to the nearest millimeter, with very little room for error if you want the best possible output from those complex drilling tasks.
For smallscale projects, the ideal solution would likely be a high-quality mini drill press.
For larger projects, however, the ideal solution would be a drill press that comes with a robust and sturdy frame consisting of a thick support column that withstands movement during use, but that still comes with accurate gauges and perhaps even a laser to improve drilling precision and accuracy.
Generally, the cheaper a drill press is, the less accurate the gauges tend to be, and the less easily you can adjust the speed, or any other outputs for that matter, in tiny increments.
This isn’t always the case though, so it pays to do your homework if precision drilling is a priority.
There are two main types of chuck available as shown in the image below – keyed or keyless.
Keyless chucks are generally quicker to operate, and they save the hassle of always looking around for the chuck key whenever it comes to inserting or removing a drill bit. They feature textured areas which you simply grip and twist to open or close them.
It can be very easy to lose the chuck key if you aren’t careful, although some keyed models do provide handy built-in storage so this doesn’t need to be an issue as long as you remember to return it after use.
One thing to bear in mind on cheaper models with a keyless chuck is that it can sometimes be a challenge to get the same level of tightness that you can with a keyed variant, making the drill bit or whatever bit type you’re using prone to slippage.
With more expensive models, however, the keyless chuck is usually of sufficient quality to provide more than enough grip to suit most user’s needs and prevent slippage, and in our experience, they’re generally quite easy to open or close.
So, to summarize, we’re more than happy to opt for a drill press with a keyless metal chuck, provided they’re of good quality.
Still confused? Looking for a quick and easy answer to a particular question?
You’re in luck.
Here’s a summary of some of the most popular drill press-related questions, along with their respective answers:
- What is a drill press?
You can find out more information by clicking here.
- What is a pillar drill / bench drill / pedestal drill?
- What is a drill press used for?
- What does a drill press do?
Also, like regular drills, they’re capable of performing a wide variety of tasks such as drilling, boring, countersinking, counterboring, tapping holes, and even polishing and sanding materials all thanks to their expandable chucks which can hold many different types of bits with either round or hex-shaped shanks, for example.
- What to look for in a drill press?
- How to make a drill press out of a hand drill?
These can be a very inexpensive way to get the drilling accuracy and precision that is often lacking from handheld drilling tools.
Click here to see one such example of a hand drill press frame on Amazon.
- How is a drill press measured?
So, for example, in the case of a 15″ drill press, the swing distance would equal 7.5-inches.
What this means is that the press can drill a hole directly in the middle of a 15-inch wide piece of material.
- What is drill press swing?
We discuss this in detail here.
- What is a radial drill press?
Some radial presses also come with a sliding head which drastically increases the swing distance and overall drilling capacity.
- What is stroke distance?
As you can see, there are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to choosing the best drill press for you.
We hope, however, that we’ve shown you that the selection process doesn’t need to be complicated and that we’ve managed to shed some light on the various types available and the specific features to look out for.
Whichever model you do end up picking, always remember to follow the manufacturer’s operating and safety guidelines, and always use the correct safety equipment to avoid any unnecessary risks.
If you have any particular questions or queries that you can’t find an answer to above, drop us a comment below and we’ll do our best to get back to you as quickly as possible.
Thanks, and good luck in your search!