A History of Woodworking ~ Raymond McInnis

Glossary -- Drill Press

Earlier, especially nineteenth century, the Drill Press was called "Drilling Machine"

A power tool for drilling or boring. It evolves from the hand tools for drilling/ boring, such as the Brace and Bit applied to contrivances of many kinds for boring holes in metal, stone, and other hard substances, from a pointed steel tool to an elaborate drilling machine.

A versatile power tool, the drill press is widely used in home workshops. Along with drilling and boring operations, drill presses can be equipped with attachments for Mortising, Routing, Shaping and Sanding.

Drill presses come in both floor or bench models. (Some Drill Presses -- called "radial" -- have heads that adjust in or out from the support column, and tilt at various angles, simplifying the drilling of precise angle holes.

brace and bit of early 1900s

Earlier forms of the drill press include the brace and bit. Here is an example of a brace and bit from the 1900s, before electrification, with a good cut of the anatomy of the chuck (i.e, "grip").

Source: Ira S. Griffith, 1911, page 57. See


Today's drill press was first known as a "drilling machine", later "floor drill", "pedestal drill", "pillar drill", or "bench drill". As the terms suggest, the names designate the physical location of the tool in a shop: also a "fixed-style" of drill may be mounted/bolted on a wall, stand, or bolted to the floor or workbench.

Structurally, a drill press consists of a base, column (or pillar), table, Spindle (or QuillChuck, and usually is driven by an Induction Motor and belt. The head has a "feed lever" radiating from the quill's sleeve that, when rotated, moves the Spindle and Chuck up and down, parallel to the column's axis.

The drill press's "table" adjusts vertically and -- to accommodate angle work, on some models -- can be "tilted". On floor models, the table's up-and-down movement is generally a rack and pinion mechanismdefinition and images of rack and pinion. Older drill press models may rely on the drill press operator to lift and reclamp the table in position. The table may also be offset from the spindle's axis and in some cases rotated to a position perpendicular to the column. The size of a drill press is typically measured in terms of swing. Swing is defined as "twice the throat distance", the distance from the center of the spindle to the column's edge (For example, a 16-inch drill press will have an 8-inch throat distance.)

"Drills" Date Back Centuries


See pages 3 and 4 of John Jacob Holtzapffel, 1881, Turning and Mechanical Manipulation volume 4

The bow drill is well-known among Ancient peoples.

... [P]robably the oldest of the developed machine tools,[the drill press and the bow drill are the] only complex tool[s] known to antiquity. ...[U]ntil the end of the 18th century, technically, these two tools were the most important available to the mechanic.

Source: Robert S. Woodbury, History of the Lathe: A Study in the Growth of a Technical Element in an Industrial Economy. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1961, page 13;

Note below -- in quotations from the Oxford English Dictionary that, historically, "drills" date back centuries.

(Later, I will -- in Appendix 23 Woodworking Industry: From Handicraft System to Factory System -- show more on the impact "electrifying" the drill.)

1683 etc [Joseph] Moxon ... ...Mechanick Exercises: or, the Doctrine of Handy- works, applied to the arts of smithing, joinery, carpentry, turning, and bricklayery ; to which is added mechanick dyalling, etc. , 3rd edition. Lond. 1703,6 Drills are used for the making such Holes as Punches will not conveniently serve for.

1688 R. HOLME Armoury III.The Drill is a shaft or long Pin of Iron with a Steel point.

1874 ; Edward Henry Knight, Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary: A Description of Tools, Instruments ... 1876, Volume 1, page 751.

1879 Cassell's Technical Education I. 185 The drill is a revolving cutter..to form circular holes in iron or other material.

Source: Oxford English Dictionary

Advances in Drill Presses in 19th Century

Two authorities of the nineteenth century offer distillations, if you will, of advances in the technology of drill presses, after electrification. Keep in mind though, AC power and individual motors for each machine did not occur until early in the twentieth century. So, realistically the tools they describe -- the examples for the nineteenth century below -- are driven with Line-Shafts and Pulleys,, Line-Shaft being a term defined here.

In the meantime, for a resounding conviction about the centrality of the drill press in today's woodshop, check out Collins and others, below.

The chief qualifications essential to a drilling machine which is to be used for miscellaneous work are as follows : First, it must be capable of being readily connected with the shafting by which the driving power is transmitted to the various parts of a workshop, and in such a manner that the speed of the drill can be varied; secondly, it must be provided with an efficient and variable 'feed motion ;' and, thirdly, it must have a perfectly firm `table' for the reception of small articles, which must offer as little obstruction as possible to large ones. Stability and strength of framing are of course most important qualities for all machine tools, though they are not invariably to be found in the frames of drilling machines.

Source: C P B Shelley Workshop Appliances 1873

DRILLING-MACHINE A machine carrying a rotating tool and a means for chucking the object to be bored. These machines differ greatly in size and appearance, in the mode of presenting the tool, presenting and chucking the work. The larger machines are frequently known as boring-machines ...

Drill-press. 1. A drilling-machine in which a screw is made to feed the drill to its work. In the illustation, the press is shown in elevation and vertical section. It has feet for bench work, and a sling and adjustable sockets when used for tapping papes. 2. A drilling-machine of large size.

Source: Edward Henry Knight, Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary: A Description of Tools, Instruments ... 1876, Volume 1, page 751.


Historically, as noted above, drill presses date back to the mid-1800s, and at that time are called "drilling machines": -- I am using text and images adapted from C P B Shelley's Workshop Appliances 1873 -- see both Shelley and Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary: A Description of Tools, Instruments ... 1876, Volume , page 751.


Knight shows two more models, each of which -- a radial drill "machine" and a horizontal drill "machine" -- has its equivalent today.

In the 1930s, the Drill Press Flexes Its Muscles in the Home Workshop

collins' account of the drill press in the 1930s

And the Competition Was Fierce

On the left is a fragment from a chapter on drill presses in the 1930s by Archie Frederick Collins. In Amateur Power Woodworking Tools Collins' reviews the "state-of-the-art" of drill presses common in the home workshop in the 1930s. decade.

Read more of what Collins writes here

Along with Delta, other machine tool manufacturers were targeting the growing homeworkshop market for power tools: Walker-Turner, Boice-Crane, J D Wallace, Sears, Montgomery-Ward, Champion, all hurried to market bench-top, floor and wall-mounted models.

In 1937, however, in the Delta publication, James Tate, Getting the Most Out of Your Drill Press, we view images of both floor and bench models of the well-recognized Delta line.

Thus -- until I find more information -- we can conclude that in the interval between 1931 and 1937, Delta made substantial changes in its drill press line.

In addition, on the left, above, another 1937 publication, Archie Frederick Collins' Amateur Power Working Tools -- describes in detail most of the 1930s drill presses mentioned above, and above on the left, is an image of the first paragraphs of Collins' chapter on the drill press.

Emergence of Delta's Famous Drill Press in Early 1930s

When the Delta Drill press pictured below was introduced is not clear, although we know the following: Herbert Tautz, founder of the Delta line, authored with Clyde Fruits The three-volume set, The Modern Motor-Driven Woodworking Shop. While no drill press is shown in the pages of the set, what is shown is of equal interest. On the left is Delta's "Boring Machine and Circular Saw, Mounted on a Bench" (Several different congigurations are also shown, but there is not Drill Press shown the three-volume set.

Just a year later, in 1931, page 30 of Delta's catalog includes the drill press shown below. This same drill was advertised by a hardward store in Appleton, Wisconsin. On page 32 of the same catalog, is a notice of the availability of Getting the Most Out of Your Drill Press (curiously, the newspaperarchive.com, the database where I located the Appleton, Wisconsin advertisement, does not list any other papers showing the Delta drill press.) Notice, too, that the drill press comes WITHOUT the fractional horse-power motor needed to drive the unit.)


Below, Are Delta Drill Presses, On the Left, the 14-in 1931 Bench-Top Model,
on the right, the 17-in 1937 Floor Model


And Tools to Work Withal... "the best there is"...


Shop of Frank C. Green, Marshall, Missouri, fitted out with several power tools. Popular Homecraft touts this shop as "state-of-the-Art" for 1932, including a shadowy image -- on the right, towards the rear of the image -- of a Champion bench drill press. These images of the shop and the Champion drill press come from Popular Homecraft 3, no 3 September-October 1932, pages 210 & 265.)

REMEMBER the "newspaper" stories you've read and the movies you&'ve seen where the demon reporter, editor, or whoever the hero might be, sighs happily as he hears the throbbing roar of the mighty presses?

Well, Frank C. Green, who lives in Marshall, Mo., is one of the men who make the presses roar, being by trade a newspaper pressman but, after the day's run is over and the press is washed up—

"You can find from two to a half-dozen young men in my home shop enjoying seeing different articles in the course of construction."

I have not spared time or expense in equipping my shop with the best there is. As fast as new machinery or tools worthy of consideration are put on the market, I add them to my now very complete outfit.

My shop equipment now consists of the following, in addition to about a thousand hand tools:

Champion Bench Drill


Plus the following Power and Hand Tools:

    New South Bend 9-in. lathe with about $100 worth of extra equipment;

    Oxyacetylene welding outfit;

    Wallace 14-in, handsaw, with unit motor;

    Bonnett-Brown circular saw and extra attachments with unit motor;

    Black & Decker electric hand drill;

    Stanley miter box with 6 by 30 in. saw;

    Foley saw filer, Model F5;

    Lacquer spray painting gun with compressor and tank;

    Driver flexible shaft outfit, with all present available accessories;

    Atkins Silver Steel handsaws;

    16-in, drum sander with disk sander attachment.

My list of small tools is by far too large to enumerate, but all the tools I have are of standard brands and not the cheap kinds that so many beginners make the mistake of wasting their money on.

Three Authorities Capture the Impact of Drill Press

Archie Collins in 1937

In 1937, in a well-received book, Amateur Power Working Tools, Archie Frederick Collins argued the drill press -- beyond just drill holes in wood -- has a much larger array of functions beyond just drill holes in wood (see image on left above from Collins' chapter on the drill press).

Read more of what Collins writes here

In 1950, Milton Gunerman Asserts the Importance of the Drill Press for the Woodworking Community

Anatomy of Drill Press Headstock, 1940s Vintage


Originally a metal-working machine, the drill press underwent an amazing transformation when it moved into the home workshop. Now, among other operations, it does Mortising, Routing, Planing, Sanding, Shaping, and Dovetailing.

(After reading Gunerman's words on the Drill Press-- written in 1950, at the peak of the Post-WWII boom -- and 25 years before DeCristoforo, I decided to adapt these words for this entry.)

  1. Not only does it drill in metal, as before, but it also bores in wood and – to demonstrate its versatility in home workshops -- performs such other woodworking operations as mortising, routing, grinding, sanding and shaping.
  2. To make all this possible the drill press's speed range was increased, to between 600 and 5200 R.P.M. Where as drill presses made exclusively for the machine shop have a speed range from 400 to 2000 R.P.M.
  3. The drill press consists of the following main parts: (1) a hollow steel column fastened to a cast-iron base, (2) an adjustable table and (3) a head, which contains all the drill press's operating mechanism.
  4. The column -- machined to a smooth polished finish – on floor machines range in height from 66" to 72", on bench machines from 36" to 44./li>
  5. The cast-iron table, clamped to the column, is adjustable up and down, and can be set at any angle.
  6. To aid in clamping workpieces, the drill press table has several slots and (usually) a central hole.
  7. Auxiliary tables, made of plywood or another material, such as particle board, make working with larger workpieces convenient. Similar to the table, the cast-iron base has slots and holes for clamping work to it, and/or anchoring the machine to floor or stand.
  8. The head is fastened to the upper end of the column. It has a central shaft or spindle, which rotates in a sleeve called the quill. The quill, together with the spindle, is moved up or down either by a single bar or by a wheel having three or four spokes or bars with a ball on the end of each.
  9. To increase the versatility of the drill press, different manufacturers have provided various means: One type of drill press, for example, optional spindles, each spindle with a different purpose -- One takes a Jacobs chuck, another, a drill with a No. I Morse taper, a third, router and mortising bits, a fourth, shaper cutters having a 1/2 bore, and a fifth, for grinding wheels.

Of all special operations, Mortising is perhaps the most unusal

  1. Mortising differs from boring in that square or rectangular holes are made instead of round ones.
  2. When mortising with the hollow mortise chisel, both the chisel and the bit need to be sharp.

Source: Milton Guneraman, ed., "The Drill Press", How To Operate Your Power Tools 52 1930, pages 5-9 ( Milton Gunerman was a editor/contributor to Home Craftsman magazine in the 1940s and 1950s. For more, click here)

In 1972 -- later in 1991 -- R J DeCristoforo Observes Why, Even for the Sparsely Equipped Homeworkshop, the Benchtop Drill Press Became a Much-Desired Machine

To buy a drill press based only on the need to drill holes is no longer realistic. If you use good techniques and choose wise accessories and jigs, the drill press can become one of the most versatile tools in your woodworking shop. Furthermore, it can easily become the second most important piece of equipment in your home workshop.

Its essential mechanism is a spindle that has a gripping device at the free end. In most cases, a key-operated, three-jaw chuck is used; but there are times when a substitution is necessary or wise. Such a substitution can be needed when you are using mortising bits and chisels, which require special holding items, or when you are using router bits, which develop sufficient side thrust to warrant a special kind of chuck.

Two decades later, DeCristoforo reinforces this declaration:

Excluding a sawing tool, the drill press, whether a bench or floor model, is the most important power tool in the woodworking shop.

Source: R J DeCristoforo, DeCristoforo's Complete Book of Power Tools, Both Stationary and Portable New York: Harper, 1972, page 178; R J DeCristoforo, The Drill Press Book, Including 80 Jigs and Accessories to Make Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Tab Books, 1991.

Advantages a Drill Press Over a Hand-Held Portable Electric Drill:

1 Less effort is required to apply the drill to the workpiece. The movement of the chuck and spindle is by a lever working on a rack and pinion, which gives the operator considerable mechanical advantage

2 The table allows a vise or clamp to position and lock the work in place making the operation much more secure

3 The angle of the spindle is fixed in relation to the table, allowing holes to be drilled accurately and repetitively

Pulleys Make Speed Changes Easy

Speed change is achieved by manually configuring the belt across a Stepped Pulley arrangement. (Some drill presses add a third stepped pulley -- a speed changer -- to increase the speed range.) Other model of drill presses use a variable-speed motor in conjunction with the stepped-pulley system, while still other, older, drill presses use a "traction-based continuously variable transmission for wide ranges of chuck speeds", which can be changed while the machine is running.

vintage drill press from wagner

On the left, anatomy of vintage bench-top drill press from Willis H. Wagner. Modern Woodworking, pages 13-16. Note that the main parts consist of a base, column, table and head (i.e., the top part containing the Chuck, the Quill and the Motor). The chuck attaches a spindle that in turn rotates inside a sleeve called a quill. The quill assembly -- which moves up and down by a feed lever, with the length called a "stroke" -- is spring loaded so that, when the lever is released -- the chuck returns to its uppermost position. The length of the stroke is adjustable. The drill press's "table" is adjustable up and down on the column and can be rotated and/or tilted.

Drill press sizes -- which range from 14" to 2O" -- as noted above, are given as twice the distance from the column to the center of the spindle. Spindle speeds are set by shifting a belt on step Pulleys. Variable speed drives are also available. For wood drilling and boring operations, speeds should range from 400 to about 1800 rpm.

Leaflet for Mortising Attachment for Delta's Bench Top 14" Drill Press

pdf for Mortising Attachment leaflet, "Delta PM-1704 1949 "14-B 14" Drill Press Instruction Manual"

Sources: Joseph Moxon ...Mechanick Exercises: or, the Doctrine of Handy-works, applied to the arts of smithing, joinery, carpentry, turning, and bricklayery; to which is added mechanick dyalling, etc. , 3rd edition. London, 1703
C P B Shelley Workshop Appliances 1873; Edward Henry Knight, Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary: A Description of Tools, Instruments ... 1 1876
Wood-working for Amateur Craftsmen. by Ira Samuel Griffith (Popular mechanics press, 1911)
James Tate, Getting the Most Out of Your Drill Press Milwaukee: Delta Specialty Company (Divison of Delta Mfg. Co), 1931; James Tate, Getting the Most Out of Your Drill Press Milwaukee: Delta Power Tool Division, Rockwell Manufacturing Company, 1937 (22nd ed.); W. Clyde Lammey, Power Tools and How to Use Them Chicago: Popular Mechanics Press, 1950, pages 48-49
Popular Mechanics Do-It-Yourself Encyclopedia Chicago: Popular Mechanics Press, 1955, volume 3, pages -- with no pagination, readers need to find the entries alphabetically, but the trip is worth it: (1) drill chuck servicing; (2) homemade ball-bearing drill press; (3) drill press from auto parts; (4) drill press speed attachment; and (5) drill press technique
R J DeCristoforo, Power Tool Woodworking for Everyone Cincinnati, OH: Magna Publications, 1955
Jeannette T Adams, Arco's New Complete Woodworking Handbook, New York: Arco, New edition, 1972
Willis H. Wagner Modern Woodworking: Tools, Materials and Procedures South Holand, IL: Goodheart-Willcox, 1976; Consumer Guide. The Tool Catalog New York: Harper & Row, 1978
R J DeCristoforo, The Drill Press Book, Including 80 Jigs and Accessories to Make Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Tab Books, 1991
Sandor Nagyszalanczy Power Tools: An Electrifying Celebration and Grounded Guide Newtown, CT: Taunton Press, 2001
Garrett Wade Company, Tools: A Complete Illustrated Encyclopedia Simon and Schuster, 2001.

(Note on Sources: While designed specifically for the 1950s Shopsmsith, DeCristoforo's manual has a universality, making it appropriate as simply a "how-to guide" to most power woodworking tools used in the home workshop. If you have an opportunity to buy either and/or both DeCristoforo's 1972 and 1991 manuals -- listed above -- you definitely will not regret the cost, because the information is truly solid and worthwhile; as the title for DeCristoforo's 1991 manual says, the book includes "80 jigs and fixtures" that you can build to make your drill press an outstanding tool in the shop. Willis' Chapter 14 dedicates fourteen pages of text, photos and diagrams, and is largely still relevant, even though his textbook is three decades old.)