How to Use a Drill Press

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There are countless projects and tasks where you will need to drill a hole into a piece of wood or metal. In many cases, this will be in a location or on an item where you will need to use a portable drill, however, in some cases, this will not be possible or necessary. Sometimes using a portable drill will not give the straight and perpendicular hole that is needed for precision jobs.

In this case, you would generally use a drill press. But for many people, the thought of using a large pedestal-mounted drill can be a bit intimidating. They might look intimidating, but they are rather easy to use, and we’re going to give you the basics of how to use a drill press.

Not only will you know the basics of how to operate one, but you will also have your first few advanced techniques to look into. Before you know it, you’ll be using the drill press as if you’ve been doing it for years.

Know the Parts of the Press

You can’t properly set up or operate any tool without first knowing the parts of that tool. There is the base, the main support column, the motor, the speed adjustment, the chuck, the table, and the arm.

Drill press
  • Base: The base is the big, heavy foot that keeps your drill press upright and steady.
  • Support Column: The main support column is the large column that everything else is attached to.
  • Motor: The motor is incredibly powerful, and is be mounted relatively close to the spindle.
  • Gearing/Pulleys: These are used to change the speed of the drill.
  • Spindle: The spindle is the portion of the drill press that spins. The chuck is located at the end of the spindle.
  • Chuck: The chuck is the set of adjustable jaws at the bottom of the spindle that holds the drill bit. The chuck is operated with a small chuck “key”.
  • Table: This is your work surface, and will often be adjustable in several ways.
  • Arm: The arm is located on the side of the drill press, and is used to raise and lower the spindle.

How to Use a Drill Press for the First Time

1.     Determine & Set the Speed

Before you use your drill press for the first time, you will need to set your speed. Many older presses use a pulley system on the top, while many modern drill presses have a variable speed control on the panel. Generally speaking, you will want to use slower speeds for metals, faster speeds for wood.

Many times there will be a speed reference table in the manual for the drill, but those are often fairly general. They will do in a pinch, but in some cases, you will want to be sure. With some materials that may be more expensive, difficult to work with, or simply unfamiliar to you will want to ensure you’re using just the right setup, often by researching online.

2.     Secure Your Bit

Choose your bit, and secure it in the chuck, inserting it fully then tightening the chuck completely. This ensures that the bit will not become stuck in the project, pulling out of the chuck. Usually, the chuck key will be mounted near the chuck.

Be sure you remove and properly store the chuck key before you start the drill. If the key is left in the chuck the speed and force of the spindle can send the key in a random direction, very fast. This can lead to serious injury, or worse.

While in some cases, you may only need a single specific size of drill bit for your project, other tasks will need several. Some materials will require a smaller hole initially, widening with larger bits progressively. Circumstances like these will require a succession of bit changes.

Using a drill press to cut wood

3.     Check the Table Height

The drilling table is the surface that you will set your material on, in order to safely drill it. It should be at a comfortable height, while still allowing the material to be drilled and positioned easily.

Each model will be different in regards to how the table height is adjusted, but most will have a crank of some type. This crank or handle is released or unlocked, and the crank is turned to raise or lower the table. Once the ideal position is found, the crank should be locked or clamped, to avoid unintentional changes.

4.     Set Your Depth

Drilling through won’t require much attention, but if you need to stop at a predetermined point, this is where depth control becomes much more important. This makes sure that the spindle and bit stop exactly where you need them to.

Not only will proper depth control let you drill holes of set and consistent depth, but it can protect the surface of your material as well. If you drill too deeply by accident, the spindle can damage the surface around the drilled hole, leaving a sloppy appearance.

There should be a pair of locking, knurled nuts on the spindle. One nut will be there to lock the position of the other. To adjust the depth, you will need to separate the two nuts.

Once you have “unlocked’ the adjustment, the second nut will spin up or down to the desired depth, and the first nut can be tightened to finish the process. Making a jig can be extremely handy if you need to drill at different depths frequently.

5.     Anchor Your Work

The drill will try to spin your project as it turns, so you will need to secure it by clamping it to the table. Some tables have built-in clamps, while others don’t. There are a number of different styles of workshop clamps to choose from. Some will be easier to work with than others, but in general, there are spring-powered, screw-operated, and ratcheting types.

Spring clamps are fairly common and affordable, they can also usually be operated with one hand. There are ratcheting clamps that can often be tightened with one, and sometimes two hands. C-clamps are going to be the strongest, but they will also need to be positioned with one hand and tightened with the other, so they are the least convenient.

Drill press

This is an incredibly important step since the movement of the workpiece can cause injury or contact with the bit. In severe cases, the movement of the material can break the drill bit, creating a hazard with the broken pieces. Larger items that cannot be secured directly to the table should be secured to the main support column of the press.

6.     Drill!

Now the fun part. The handle is pulled and the spindle lowers, pushing the drill bit into the work. Use short strokes with frequent pull-outs. This allows the flutes of the bit to clear themselves of wood or metal shavings.

If you are drilling metal, go slower and use a lubricant. You can If you are drilling into wood, use a higher speed, and be sure to pull out often to avoid building up heat. Also, no matter what type of material you are drilling into, do not put any sudden or severe pressure on the spindle.

This can break the bit, get it stuck, and even ruin the material with heat.

Drill Press Uses and Projects

Reducing Vibration

When you put your drill press through its paces, it can start to show some vibration. In most cases, this is a simple case of the belt tension between the speed adjustment pulleys being incorrect. If you have recently needed to adjust the drill speed of your press and now notice some vibration, you may need to tweak the tension.

Depending on the manufacturer of the drill, there may be multiple pulleys on each axle, as well as one or more tensioning bars, rollers, or pulleys. The belt being too loose can cause vibration and belt slippage, while the tension being too high can also cause vibration, as well as premature failure of some of the parts, like bearings.

Checking for Perfect Perpendicularity

This is a must for craftsmen that rely on precision, particularly when drilling small holes in small items when tolerances are the lowest and little mistakes can cost you big time. The process only takes a few minutes and a piece of scrap steel rod that you have laying around. Once your drill has the tilt adjusted perfectly, you can lock the adjustment knob and forget that it exists forever.

To check your drill press for proper table tilt, you will need a piece of steel or aluminum rod. It should be about 6 inches long, and able to be bent by hand. Bend the last inch or two of one end to approximately 25-30 degrees. Chuck the shorter leg in your drill, and raise your table so that it’s just barely touching the end of the rod.

Now rotate your spindle by hand, making sure to adjust the tilt so that the rod touches the table evenly on both sides of the table. Now lock your tilt adjustment lever and forget where it is.

Save Time With Toggle Clamps

Toggle clamps are much more reliable than the standard c-clamps or squeeze clamps, particularly for projects that require longer drilling into harder materials. Not only are they incredibly strong and stable, but they can be used with one hand. This is very important when getting materials positioned.

Using a drill press to cut wood

If you find yourself drilling slabs of hardwood or sheet steel, toggle clamps can take some clamp aggravation out of your next drilling project.

Save Your Fingers With a Clamp Bar

If you have the tendency to drill smaller parts, you should have a reliable way to hold them without using your fingers. A clamp bar is a quick way to solve that problem. You can use it to hold small parts against the fence, keeping your fingers clear.

Grab a piece of scrap 1×2, and predrill a hole in one end. Then just screw it to the table in front of your fence, and you will have a smoothly pivoting ad hoc clamp. Add a simple v in the bar to be able to quickly hold vertical rounds, like dowel sections.

Make Jigs for Common Projects

If you use your drill press for similar projects or repeated runs of similar things, you may benefit from making some jigs to save yourself some measurement and alignment time.

One popular jig is an adjustable fence, which can be very handy for repeated precision hole drilling. Another great jig for drilling is a depth gauge, where you can mark your frequently-used depths for quick and easy setups.

If you find yourself needing to drill holes in the ends of round or square bar stock, you might benefit from a vertical drilling jig. They are a little more complicated, but they can save hours of time over the course of a project.

Drill Round Stock in a Stabilizer

If you need to drill holes in round wood or metal bar stock, it can be a challenge. Make a v-block to cradle the bar stock, by setting your table or circular saw to 45-degrees, and making two opposing passes, cutting out a wedge from the center of the block. Just leave a little extra length on the bar to screw to the block, and cut it off afterward.

Summary

As we’ve outlined here, using a drill press can be a fairly simple task to accomplish a straightforward goal. All you need is the right setup and the proper process, and you will be able to take on any number of simple crafting projects. With some experience, experimentation, and the right motivation, you can use advanced techniques to boost your productivity, reduce errors in repetitive tasks, and even create some beautifully unique items.

An expert at home repair, remodel, and DIY projects for nearly 40 years. His first experience came in completely restoring an antique home. Completely redone from the inside out, and restored to its original form, the home is a featured design by renowned Southern California Architect Cliff May, considered to be the father of the California Ranch Home. Now Dennis spends his time on fine woodworking projects and tool comparisons.