Buying a Drill Press for Woodworking

By Joshua Farnsworth

Old man using a drill press in a ship yard in Vineyard Haven Martha's Vineyard

What is a drill press? A drill press is powered by a motor that turns internal belts, which in turn turns a spindle and chuck that grip a drill bit. The spinning bit drills or bores a hole in wood, metal, and other  materials. A drill press is another power tool that a lot of woodworkers don’t like to go without, even woodworkers who love using hand tools. I’m included in this group.

JET drill press belts

In addition to drilling precise holes in wood and metal, I mostly use my drill press to bore waste out of large mortises. Not even a hollow chisel mortiser does a better job than my drill press at removing waste from large mortises. I then use chisels to square up the mortise walls. In my woodworking school a drill press is often used for making hand tools, especially for drilling precise holes in a hand saw handle for hand saw nuts.

Boring out a mortise with a drill press and forstner bits

I happen to prefer a floor-standing drill press in the range of 16-20-inches, rather than a bench top model, because I want more power, stability, and flexibility for boring larger mortises in larger pieces of wood. The floor-standing drill presses also have larger tables and larger distance between the chuck and the post, allowing me to work on large pieces of wood. This was a huge benefit when I built 8 additional workbenches for my woodworking school, with approximately 105 mortises bored out on the drill press (a bunch others had to be chopped by hand).

JET 16-1/2-inch JDP-17MF Floor Drill Press in a traditional woodworking workshop

A number of years ago I purchased a used JET® 16-1/2″ Floor Drill Press Model JDP-17MF from a local furniture maker who was going out of business. It was manufactured in 2004, and I love this drill press. It’s a drill press made specifically for woodworkers, rather than for machinists. This model is still being made (as of 2019). Much of my drill press is built of heavy cast iron, which adds to its stability. It has a strong 3/4HP motor and 16 speeds for flexibility when using different types of wood. I’ve bored large 2-inch holes with a Forstner bit in 2-inch thick white oak and maple, with no problem or belt slippage.

Most top drill press makers have good machines, so don’t hesitate to look at other brands. But when comparing models, just make sure that the features cater to woodworking, rather than machining. Here are a few important features to consider when buying a drill press for woodworking:

Swing“:

Folding rule measuring swing of a JET drill press

When shopping for a woodworking drill press, the title will include a size, for example: “JET® 16-1/2″ Floor Drill Press Model JDP-17MF“. The 16-1/2” measurement is referred to as the “swing”. The swing is found by measuring from the center of the chuck (where the drill bit is held) to the front of the big metal post (that holds the drill press up), multiplied by 2. This tells you the largest diameter piece of wood that you can use and still drill a hole in the center. The distance between my chuck and post is 8-1/4″, so multiplying it by 2 = 16-1/2″. This gives me a lot of space. Benchtop drill press models usually run from 10-inches to 12-inches (occasionally up to 15-inches), which I find to be a little small for a lot of my projects.

Quill Stroke” / “Spindle Travel“:

Showing the spindle travel of a JET drill press

The quill stroke is the distance that the chuck and drill bit can travel downward when turning the handle all the way. In other words, it’s how far your spindle can move downward before it bottoms out. As a woodworker, you should eliminate any drill press from consideration that doesn’t have a quill stroke longer than 4-inches. A longer quill stroke allows you to bore your Forstner bit or auger bit down into a deep mortise.

Table Tilt“:

Look for a table that has a bed that tilts to at least a 45 degree angle, left and right. Some tables tilt in all four directions for complex angles. A tilting table is helpful for boring angled mortises, and especially helpful if you ever decide to make Windsor chairs.

Other Features:

Boring out a mortise with a drill press and forstner bits

Other features, like lasers, quick-adjust depth stops, and variable speed adjustment are nice, but not necessary, especially if you’re on a tight budget. Some models made larger tables for woodworkers (as opposed to small tables for machinists), but I wouldn’t spend extra on a large table, as most woodworkers add an auxiliary table anyway. And most of the woodworking drill presses will have enough different speeds for the different materials you plan to drill. Print this chart so you can know what speed to set your drill press to for different bits and woods.

Joshua Farnsworth drilling a hole in a woodworking hand saw with a drill press

Here are some top woodworking drill presses that meet the above three criteria:

Here’s a “big name” drill presses that you should probably steer clear of due to manufacturing problems:

  • Powermatic PM2800B 1792800B Drill Press: Powermatic tools have been long known for their high quality. However, buyers have complained that this drill press is showing signs of poor quality control, including excessive vibration, runout (where the drill bit wobbles), defective chucks, and loose arbors. Hopefully Powermatic is taking this drill press back to the drawing board. Click here to read the reviews >>>

Buying Drill Bits for a Drill Press

Forstner drill bit spinning on a drill press

Buying quality drill bits for your drill press is an important consideration. Poor quality drill bits, or the wrong type of drill bits for a drill press can make messy and/or inaccurate holes, which kind of defeats the purpose of buying a nice drill press.

Selection of forstner bits sitting on a drill press

For most of my drill press work I use a set of Forstner bits. Good quality Forstner bits give a very clean, flat-bottom hole that is ideal for boring out mortises. If you set the depth stop on your drill press, then a Forstner bit will give you a uniformly flat-bottom mortise. The edges of the holes are much more crisp and clean when using a Forstner bit. The sharp rim of a Forstner bit allows you to make overlapping holes with your drill press (for when you’re making a mortise) and also allows you to drill at angles.

Forstner bit in a drill press ready to bore out a mortise on an oak board

In my opinion, the best Forstner bit sets for the money (which are widely available) are made by Fisch, Famag, Porter-Cable, Freud, Irwin, and Bosch. Getting a set with a suitable number of Forstner bits is important, because I always have different sized holes or mortises to drill. All the below Forstner bits will work great, but the Fisch and Freud Fortner bits have the wavy-style rims (like a sarated knife) which give a compromise between stability and speed. The knife-edge rims have a continuous piece of metal around the edge. This type of bit cuts slightly cleaner holes, but is slower and generates more heat. The saw-tooth rims are faster, but don’t cut as cleanly, and can wander when entering the wood. You can see prices & read reviews for some nice steel Forstner bit sets here:

*I didn’t include carbide tipped sets, because I haven’t noticed much performance difference for the extra money.

Aside from Forstner bits on the drill press, I do most of my boring and drilling with hand braces and egg beater hand drills, unless I have repetitive or high-precision holes to drill or bore. You can see my “Hand Drills, Braces & Drill Bits buyer’s guide” here >>>

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