What is a Drill Press and Do You Need One?

A man wearing a dust mask, using a drill press to drill holes into a wood board.
Everyonephoto Studio/Shutterstock

At first glance, a drill press might look like a less versatile mobile drill. Your handheld power driver can go anywhere in the shop, especially if it’s battery-powered, after all. But, the drill press is an often underappreciated tool that can produce cleaner results cut into thicker and harder material than your handheld power drill.

If you’re unfamiliar with drill presses, the concept is relatively easy to understand. Imagine you took the chuck (that’s the bit that holds the drill bit) out of your drill and attached it vertically, pointing down, to a big motor and stand. Slap on a wheel to lower the chuck and a plate to hold material, and you have a drill press.

That may not sound great at first, but a drill press is capable of several things that a handheld power drill either can’t accomplish at all or only with sloppy, inaccurate results at best. That includes drilling at a perfect 90-degree angle, drilling at extreme angles, drilling with wide bits, and drilling through thick or hard material.

That’s thanks to several factors: a locked chuck, a flexible table, a rack-and-pinion wheel system, and a large, band-driven motor.

A Locked Chuck and Flexible Table

A steel table attached to a round neck with angle measurments.
This worktable can move up and down, and angle left and right. WEN

Every drill press includes two main components: a locked chuck and a flexible table. The chuck, which is where you insert drill bits, looks like your handheld drill’s, only larger. But it’s permanently attached at a straight down position. You can only move it up and down; you can’t change the angle.

That’s an advantage over your hand drill, which is dependent on you holding the tool perfectly vertical to get a 90-degree hole. You can get close, but it’s never perfect. And if you need to drill more than one hole, you’ll have to lift the drill out, move your body, reset your position, and drill again. With a drill press, you move the wood piece and drill. It’s faster and more accurate.

When you do need to drill at an angle, the drill press is still a better option. That’s because a drill press’s table can be adjusted using a built-in angle gauge and then locked into place. Thus your material is held at the angle you want. If you try to drill by hand at an angle, there’s more than a decent chance you’ll slip at least some and get imperfect results.

A Rack and Pinion Wheel System

A closeup of a depth system with a measuring flag and bots for blocking travel.
This depth stop system prevents you from drilling too far and makes repeated cuts easier. WEN

Look at the side of a drill press, and you’ll find a wheel (or three attached levers). But behind that wheel, you’ll find a rack and pinion that resembles gears in a watch. That’s what lowers you chuck into a material. And it provides a great deal of downward force.

That’s where the “press” in the drill press name comes in to play. This system provides more leverage than you can with your muscles on a handheld drill. That’s incredibly helpful for thick materials (like a large board) or extremely materials (like metal). With lubrication and care, you can even drill into plate steel.

While it’s possible to drill into plate steel with your battery-powered drill/driver, it’s exceedingly difficult and dangerous. You’ll find yourself leaning over the material and pushing your body weight onto the drill. It’s an excellent way to get hurt. Ultimately you can safely generate more downward force with a drill press than you can a handheld tool.

Additionally, a depth-stop system allows you to drill holes the same every time. If you know ahead of time you need to drill 3/4th of an inch into a piece of wood an inch thick, you can set the depth stop to prevent you from going beyond your desired point and prevent drilling straight through. On a handheld drill, you might place a piece of painters tape around a bit to visually mark the depth, but that won’t work with wide bits like Forstner and spades.

A Large Band Driving Motor

A pulley and band system in the top of a drill press.
Adjusting the band up and down these pulleys will change the RPMs of the chuck. WEN

Downward force isn’t the only reason a drill press wins out in power. It also has a larger motor than a drill/driver tool ever will. And when you think about it, that makes sense. The drill press is larger and has more space to house a bigger motor. And since it’s immobile, you don’t have to worry about lugging the weight around.

But the size of the motor isn’t all that makes it special. On a handheld drill, the motor drives the chuck directly. The more you pull the trigger, the faster it spins. But a drill press motor drives a band system instead. The band runs through pulleys to turn the chuck. Moving the band up and down each pulley will change the speed (the rotations per minute) that the chuck spins.

Slower speeds are crucial for wider spinning bits, like Forstner bits, while faster speeds can help with thin sharp bit meant to cut through metal. Unlike the trigger of a handheld drill, you’ll get an exact speed locked in for predictable results, and therefore a cleaner hole with less burnout.

Combined, these three features of a drill press give it more accuracy, reliability, and power than any handheld drill can hope to achieve. The main drawbacks are the lack of mobility and the neck that holds the chuck and motor in place. That neck prevents the drill from working with large pieces. You could never get the center of a piece of plywood under the chuck of a drill press, for instance.

But for everything else, a drill press will give you faster, better, cleaner results. And you can find one that works for your space.

The 3 Best Drill Presses

Drill presses come in two varieties: benchtop and floor-standing. Benchtop drill presses are small enough to fit on a workbench or table, and light enough to move around with some effort. The floor-standing drill press is a large, heavy piece of equipment, but also more powerful than the benchtop variety. You might find luck looking for a drill press at garage sales, but if you need one now, here are three good options.

Best Overall: WEN 4214 12-Inch Variable Speed Drill Press

An orange and black WEN 4214 benchtop drill press.
WEN

To adjust the speed of most drill presses, you’ll need to flip open the top, loosen the pulleys, slide the band up or down as necessary, retighten the pulley and close the lid. It’s not necessarily difficult, but it’s tedious.

The WEN 4214 benchtop drill press doesn’t make you go through all that effort. To adjust the speed, you turn a lever. A digital readout confirms the speed you’re using. That’s far easier and more convenient. Additionally, it includes a laser guide to help you center your workpiece, a raising, tilting, and turning tabletop, and a built-in work light so you can see. Its 2/3 HorsePower (HP) motor should be powerful enough for most hobbyists.

Best overall

WEN 4214 12-Inch Variable Speed Drill Press,Orange

This WEN benchtop drill press is strong enough for most hobbyist DIYers and compact enough to be stored when you don't need it. The laser guide, easy band adjustment, and beveling table set it apart from other drill presses.

A Budget Drill Press: WEN 4208

A black and orange WEN 4208 benchtop drill press.
WEN

If you don’t need fancy lasers and a mechanical speed adjuster, you can save a substantial amount of money by picking up the WEN 4208 benchtop drill press. You’ll have to open the top and just the band across pulleys to change speeds, but you can adjust between 740 and 3140 RPMs for great control, whether it’s a wide spade bit or a thing metal cutting bit.

The worktable still adjusts up and down and at an angle, and the 1/3 HP motor should tackle most jobs you throw at it. You may need to take some cuts very slowly: pull down the drill bit with less pressure and pull up as needed. It’ll still do the job better than a handheld drill.

Budget Pick

WEN 4208 8 in. 5-Speed Drill Press

If you don't mind losing the fancy features, this drill press has all the basics covered. You'll get a 1/3 HP motor, an adjustable tabletop, and a standard depth stop system. It's less powerful than other drill presses but still better than a handheld tool.

A Premium Drill Press: JET 354170/JDP-20MF Floor Drill Press

A dark grey JET drill press with cranking table.
JET

Unless your job calls for one, you probably don’t need a floor-standing drill press. But who cares? In the immortal words of Tim Taylor, “MORE POWER!” And more power is exactly what you get with this Jet drill press. Forget a 1/3rd or 2/3rd HP motor; the Jet drill press has a massive 1.5 HP motor. You’ll drill through steel with this thing.

Of course, with great power comes great weight, expenditures, and uh, responsibilities. You’ll be responsible for finding a space to fit this in— specifically, a spot that can withstand 240 pounds. But for your troubles, you’ll get a larger throat area for drilling into thick material, a larger tabletop workspace, a more powerful motor, and the variable speed band system.

Premium Pick

JET 354170/JDP-20MF 20-Inch Floor Drill Press

If you can afford, this drill press will make easy work of any job you throw at it. Jet put in a beefy 1.5 HP motor that should make easy work of even the hardest materials, and the sizable tabletop should help with holing larger workpieces.

Josh Hendrickson Josh Hendrickson
Josh Hendrickson has worked in IT for nearly a decade, including four years spent repairing and servicing computers for Microsoft. He’s also a smarthome enthusiast who built his own smart mirror with just a frame, some electronics, a Raspberry Pi, and open-source code. Read Full Bio »

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