The first drill press I ever used was 40 years ago in my grandfather's workshop, and the ones I've used since, during my 22 years as a woodworker, haven't changed much. Woodworkers have always struggled with basic machines designed for metalworking.
But with new Delta and Powermatic models specifically designed for woodworking, there is finally an alternative. I was pleased to test these two new tools and have worked with the 17-inch, 3/4-hp Delta 17-959L and 18-inch, 1-hp Powermatic 2800 in my shop since late last year. Here's how they compare.
These machines are large and heavy, and require two people to assemble safely. It took us about 45 minutes to assemble the 238-pound Delta. The instructions are not written clearly, and in several instances, the pictures are incorrect or omitted completely. Therefore, this product required more problem-solving and drill press familiarity to assemble.
The larger, 209-pound Powermatic took about one hour to assemble, with some troubleshooting built in. The manual is accurate and well written, and the pictures do a good job of illustrating the instructions.
The assembly went well until we found a problem with the rack-and-pinion gear for raising and lowering the table. Customer service sent a new gear right away, but needed reminders to send the rack (the vertical toothed rail).
Heavy cast iron bases are standard on drill presses, but manufacturers of both tools recommend you attach a piece of plywood to the base for stability if the tool is not bolted to the floor. The Delta base is sufficiently large and felt quite stable for the size of its head unit, but the Powermatic base is smaller and relatively lightweight for the machine's size, making for a less stable feel.
Table and Fence. Both tools come with cast iron tables that are larger and more useful than the typical round design. Delta's rectangular table has a relatively thin, flat profile that makes it easier to clamp on fences, jigs, stops, even the work piece itself.
The large, replaceable backer block allows for supported drilling through the center of the table, or the use of a drum sander below the level of the table. You can replace the block with any 3/4-inch thick material, and it has four set screw bolts with jam nuts underneath for precision leveling.
A major difference in the design for woodworking is the table trunnions that let it tilt forward as well as side to side. This comes in handy for drilling compound-angle holes for chair seat spindles without building any jigs.
The Powermatic comes with table extensions and an expandable fence with a built-in vacuum attachment. We found the fence attachment interesting but useless. The lightweight extrusions were warped, so the entire unit was neither straight nor square. A real pity, because if this fence was adequately constructed, it could be very useful.
The table extensions are nice in some cases for added support, but they dip below the level of the center table. The plastic tubes that hold their support arms have some flex and are not for heavy loads.
The underside of both the table and the extensions makes clamping fences, jigs, and stops somewhat difficult. The center of the table has a plastic insert ring that can pop out for larger bits or a drum sander, but it provides no backing for drilling.
Powermatic's table tilts well from side to side, but it does not rotate easily. After installing the long-awaited replacement rack, it became evident that the part wasn't defective but rather under-designed for the load. The rack catches and bends as you rotate the table and threatens to twist out of its supporting groove. Even the owner's manual notes this limitation.
Laser Guides. Both drill presses have cross-plane line lasers that provide a cross hair on target with the center of the bit, regardless of the height of the table. This is easier and faster than the typical method of repeatedly stabbing at the work to find the mark. Delta's lasers are in a bolt-on unit that sticks out into the work zone, and its placement seems more likely to invite misalignment or damage with unwanted bumps.
Powermatic built its lasers unobtrusively into the drill press head. They are stable and protected, and likely will last longer.
Both laser units required calibration before use, but only Delta provides a handy calibrating pin with a printed line that you train the lasers on while it is chucked in. Powermatic requires you to make your own calibrating device by drawing a line on a board.
Worklights. We like Delta's externally attached, flexible lamp, which has better adjustability and brighter light, even though it takes an odd-size bulb that is not provided. Powermatic has built-in LED lamps. These have much longer life but limited brightness and adjustability.
Chucks. Delta includes a traditional 5/8-inch keyed chuck, and Powermatic has a 5/8-inch keyless chuck–a new twist for us. In our test, each chuck demonstrated +/- 0.003-inch of deflection, measured throughout the stroke.
Operation. Speaking of the stroke, a short stroke length has been a constant shortcoming of drill presses. These new designs address the need for the deeper holes of woodworking. Delta provides a 47/8 inch stroke, and Powermatic's is 43/8 inches. For repeatable hole depths, Delta uses a fast, single-nut system; you push a button to disable the threads, and slide the nut over the threaded stop rod. Releasing the button engages the threads for fine tuning the adjustment.
Powermatic uses a threaded collar and locking collar, which you must spin the entire way down the stop rod to their final position and tighten together. To hold the spindle down for a stationary use, such as with a drum sander, the Delta has a quick spindle-locking knob that holds a fixed position. Powermatic has another threaded collar that is spun up from below, but when locked in, it still lets the spindle move down instead of immobilizing it.
Both units have multiple speed settings. Delta uses a manually adjustable belt and pulley system with 16 speeds from 215 to 2,720 rpm, which proved to be pleasantly quiet. Powermatic features an infinitely variable speed control via a lever on the side of its head. This mechanism changes the size of the pulleys with a simple push or pull, and while it is very quick, it also is very noisy. The rpm, between 400 and 3,000, is shown on a bright LED digital display that lets you dial in within about 3 rpm of your target speed.
Both drills worked well, so this was really a test of features and ease of use. Being able to adjust the speed quickly on the fly with the Powermatic was very helpful in many cases, and we found ourselves using it when we needed quick changes. It's a strong, solid machine, but some of its design deficiencies were too obvious.
The Delta was full of improvements that really make this a woodworker's drill press. The compound tilting, clamp friendly table, and quiet operation really make it a standout machine, especially for its price.
–Karsten Balsley is a custom woodworker and fine furniture maker in Boulder, Colo.
WMH Tool Group Inc.