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"A bad worker quarrels with his tools"

Posted: Mar 3, 2011
Updated: Feb 16, 2012 - new opinion on belt-change system

Delta 18-900L Drill Press

Well-designed, robust, and accurate with minor quality control issues.

$829 from Amazon.com

My dad's old Craftsman drill press had served our family capably for over 35 years. However, it was getting very long in the tooth. A new set of bearings was able to cure that rough-running noise it had acquired lately, but the quill mechanism was a bit sloppy. And moving the table up and down was a real pain, even as small as it was, because it had no lifting mechanism. Its list of upgrades and fixes included a new motor, pulleys, and chuck.

Finally I decided to stop sinking money into a machine that just wasn't getting any better, bite the proverbial bullet, and get a new drill press. I didn't have a huge lists of wants, but I definitely wanted a machine with a large table that could be moved easily. Variable speed was high on the list, as was a low-end speed of less than 200 rpm. The depth stop on the old Craftsman was a real pain to use, so I was looking for a major upgrade there. Finally, I wanted something well-built that my son could inherit one day and a machine that I felt good about when I used it. Oh, and $1000 was my max budget (yes, despite the snide comments I get sometimes, I actually do have a budget).

My initial list included the Powermatic PM2800 and Delta 20-950. After checking out the Powermatic in person, I crossed it off my list. It feels really cheap and flimsy, the Reeves drive used for the variable speed seems awkward, and the table strikes me as more gimmicky than useful. Also, I work with some pretty large Forstner bits sometimes, plus I need the drill press for metalworking, so the 400 rpm low speed was just way too high. I really wanted the Delta, but never found anyone actually selling it. As far as I know, it never actually made it to market.

With other VS drill presses far beyond my budget and the local used market non-existent, I scratched variable speed from my requirements. This opened up a whole new world of drill presses. I seriously considered Grizzly's top DP offerings, but I have a small Grizzly DP with quite possibly the worst depth stop in the history of tools. All Grizzly DPs have this same depth stop system and I wouldn't consider any drill press using it. I checked out the various offerings from Steel City, Rikon, Jet, and others. They all were lacking in some aspect, mainly that they looked/felt ... cheap.

Then I got a chance to play with the Delta 18-900L at my local WoodCraft. I was immediately impressed with the quality of the machine, the smoothness of the controls, and the overall robust feeling. After mulling it over for a few weeks, I decided that the Delta was coming home with me. Given my horrendous experience with a Delta 28-276 bandsaw, I decided to buy from my local store so I could easily return it. Which worked out quite well for me, a few days after I bought it WoodCraft began a sale with 15% off all Delta machines. I have a good relationship with the manager, so I was able to do an over-the-phone return/repurchase so I only paid a bit over $700.

Unpacking and assembly

In the box, the 18-900L weighs in at just under 300 pounds. The generous cast-iron in the head, table, and base make up the majority of the weight. The old Craftsman weighs considerably less and it's still a challenge to move using a dolly, so for me step one was to remove the cast-iron base from the box and build one of my mobile platforms to fit. However, the DP is so top-heavy that the platform flexes and the DP isn't as stable as I'd like, so I'm still thinking about some kind of wall brace to stabilize it.

The 18-900L is very well-packaged, everything is protected from all but the most determined shipping dock worker. The top styrofoam layer has all the smaller parts like knobs and bolts, plus the table and light, while the three major parts are in the second layer. I appreciate the fact the Delta includes all the various allen wrenches needed for assembly so that I don't have to laboriously dig through my ever-growing collection for the right size.

The base is very wide and heavy, probably the largest I've seen. Once the base is in place (it can also be anchored to the floor) the column is attached to the base with four bolts. It comes with the table trunnion support and rack-and-pinion height adjustment attached, so I removed those first. I found it easier to clean off all the anti-rust shipping gunk, apply some Dri-cote, and install the column with those parts off. Removing and putting them back on takes just a few minutes.

The hardest part of assembly by far is installing the head. You're talking about a very expensive, very cumbersome item that weighs at least 150 lbs. I would hesitate to do this part without at least three people. One method that might work is to assemble the drill press on the floor and stand it up, but you'd still need help. In my case, I used a shop crane (engine hoist) to lift the head and set it onto the column.

After that, you just need to attach a few miscellaneous bits and bobs such as the chuck, quill feed levers and the table tilt pointer and almost everything is done. One thing I would recommend is to go over every bolt and screw on the machine and tighten them up. I found several things that were loose, for example the bolts holding the quill stop arm. I thought the stop was a poor design until I realized that the arm was not securely attached.

The final step is to get the lasers aligned. Each laser adjusts independently in two directions. First, get a straight-edged board and draw a line perpendicular to the edge, then set that edge on the table. Align each laser with that line, this sets the laser perfectly vertical to the table (hint: use one edge of the beam instead of the middle). Next, put a sharp bit in the chuck (a brad-point bit will work nicely). Clamp a board to the table and run the quill down so the bit makes a mark on the board. Now use the other adjustment on each laser so they cross right on the mark. Alternatively, I prefer to use a laser boresighter, a simple technique using a $25 device that's a bit more accurate.

Problems out of the box

For the most part, assembly was easy and straightforward. There were two issues, however, that required some extra work.

The easiest to fix was an unfinished electrical connection for the light. The connector was just slipped on, not actually attached in any way. The other end was properly attached with a glob of what looks like silicone sealant. I just used a hot glue gun and slathered a bead onto the loose connector, sealing it up. Poor quality control, but easy to remedy.

Actually connecting the light was easy, but feeding the wire back in was just impossible, the assembled connector was just too long and was hitting something inside the head. By removing the rubber grommet, I could then tilt the connector and get it all inside and then re-install the grommet. Then just a few bolts to hold the light on.

The other problem was either some kind of defect or a design flaw. After assembling the drill press, I found that the quill feed would not return to the top. The quill feed spring lives inside a bell housing with notches that fit onto bosses on the body. To increase the spring tension, you have to remove two retention nuts on quill feed shaft, then pull the housing out and turn it until the notches line up again. This rotation tightens the spring and then the nuts hold the housing in place.

That's the theory, at least. In reality, when the spring was tightened enough to pull the quill all the way back up, the spring tension caused the bell housing to shift crooked, binding against the quill feed shaft. If you tightened the retention nuts enough to hold the housing in place, they would bind against the housing. Since they have to turn with the shaft, this friction was enough to counteract the spring tension and again the quill would not return (and became hard to feed down).

I was able to solve this by using a needle thrust bearing and two washers between the housing and the nuts. This allows the nuts to exert pressure against the bell housing while still being able to turn freely. However, too much pressure will now pull the other end too tightly against the head, again stopping the spring from returning the quill to the top. It's a fine balancing act between the quill not returning and having the feed be too hard to move down. Very irritating, but now that I have it fixed I'm satisfied. However, how many buyers will even know what a thrust bearing is, much less how to use one to solve this problem?

A fine-looking beast

The overall first impression I got from the 18-900L is impressive. It has a certain air of competence and quality. It simply looks good. Overall fit and finish are excellent. On paper, the less-expensive 17" drill presses from Delta, Jet, Rikon, etc seem to be almost the same machine, but in person the 18-900L is in a whole other class. Like the PM2800, it doesn't have that clunky generic shape and cheap fittings that most DPs have.

Click the image to the right for a video tour of the 18-900L's features.

Innovative tension

Let's start at the top. The 18-900L uses a two-belt, three-pulley system to select one of the 16 speeds from 170 up to 3000 rpm. Instead of a typical system where the motor mount is released to provide slack for belt changes, the 18-900L has a unique, patented system with a spring-loaded lever and roller to automatically apply the correct tension on the belts. The roller presses on the rear belt and the center pulley is mounted on a swivel, so the roller pressure tensions both belts at once. To release the tension, you just push the lever over and down to lock it in place. Move your belts, then push up and let go. That's it! Elegant and easy. And, to help you remember to release the lever before operating the drill press, the cover won't close completely if the lever is in the locked position.

UPDATE: After living with the 18-900L for a year, I've come to somewhat dislike the belt system. Not because of the tension system, which is great, but the fact that the system uses two belts. Far too often, a speed change involves moving the belts' relative position, i.e. belt A was above belt B, but now belt B needs to be moved to an upper position and belt A to a lower one. This necessitates removing both belts and reinstalling them. Not hard, but tedious. A 16-step pulley is probably not practical, but my old Craftsman has 12-step pulleys. I think a 12-speed, two-pulley system with the same tension lever system would be preferable to this 16-speed 3-pulley one.

Clean, easy, and precise controls

On the front panel, the power switch is a large and easy-to-use paddle switch, no problem hitting it in an emergency to shut down. The switches for the light and laser crosshairs are rubber bubble switches, not much to say there.

The light is located on a heavy-duty flexible stalk and the head is hefty and solid. The light element is an LED, which gives you an nice bright light without the heat of an incandescent lamp. It's easy to position for just the right illumination, the only change I'd like to see is a longer stalk or for it to be located further forward on the head so the light can be used to front-light the work area. Although, ultimately, I would prefer a light(s) mounted just under the front edge of the head, shining down on the work along my line-of-sight, like the Powermatic PM2800.

On other tools (especially drill presses) I've always found lasers to be inaccurate at best, only good for rough placement. I was surprised at the accuracy of the twin-laser system, especially the way it remains accurate as you move up and down the column.

The depth stop/quill-lock is the best, most well-designed system I've ever used. Both the stop and lock are a micro-adjustable split-nut design on a heavy-gauge threaded rod. Push in the button to release the split-nut and you can quickly move the nut up and down, release and it will lock back onto the threads of the shaft. You can then turn the nut to fine-tune your position.

The stop and quill arms are beefy cast-iron. The stop arm is securely bolted to the head, and will not flex or shift when a nut contacts it. You can also use both nuts together to truly lock the quill in position if you need to.

Delta ships a good-quality chuck with the 18-900L. I measured runout at around 1.5 thousandths, which is well into the acceptable range for a woodworking drill press. The chuck key has a spring-loaded pin to keep you from forgetting the key in the chuck and having it become a missile. The pin has just the right force, enough to push the key out without being annoying hard to push in. It stores in a clip on the side of the head, which is slightly inconvenient, you have to reach through the quill feed handles to get to it. I would have preferred it on the front of the side, near the front panel.

The quill feed is well-designed, smoothly lowering the quill through its entire 6" travel in just one turn. The handles are large and sturdy, they fit my hands very comfortably. There's a depth scale on the hub that can be rotated so that "0" is any position you like. This allows you to lower the bit and position it just touching your material, you can use the quill lock to fine-tune the position. Then set the scale to 0, back off the quill lock, and you can precisely drill holes to varying depths without having to subtract in your head or raise the material to the end of the bit. Overall I like the quill feed a lot, it's sturdy and easy to control.

A table with more than a few tricks up its sleeve

Most drill presses are designed with metalworking in mind, hence the small tables with coolant troughs, horizontally-rotating tables, etc. In contrast, the Delta 18-900L has a huge 20x14 table designed for woodworkers.

The table is cast-iron, ground flat and milled with two T-slots for attaching hold-downs, jigs, etc, and the underside has a clip to hold the wrench for the pivot bolt. The trunnion mounts are beefy cast-iron, although the trunnions themselves appear to be cast aluminum. In this application, I don't see that as a problem since the real stress is on the mounts.

The built-in tilting mechanisms are mostly well thought-out. Such a large table system, especially since it's made almost entirely of cast iron, could have presented a real problem in setting angles. Delta has done a terrific job of designing the table so that it's fairly well balanced. To tilt the table forward (up to 45°+) you loosen the two trunnion bolts (featuring nice, large knobs) and pick your angle, then re-tighten. If you have a bandsaw with a tilt-able table, this setup should look familiar. The table has an adjustable stop bolt for fine-tuning 0° so it's square to the chuck.

Left/right tilt is considerably more difficult, but not overly hard. Using the included wrench, you have to loosen the center pivot bolt, tilt, then re-tighten. A knob like the trunnion bolts or a swivel handle like the column lock would have been much nicer. You can choose any tilt you like, left or right, you can even turn the table upside-down (I didn't say it made sense, I'm just sayin' you could). 0° is locked with a (non-adjustable) pin that goes through the pivot collar and into the column mounting body.

Beyond tilting, the table will also swing a full 360° around the column, so you can move it completely out of the way for end- or edge-drilling of large parts.

Most drill presses have a very small hole in the table for through-drilling if they have one at all. While this is no problem for metalworking, in woodworking, a) we tend to use much larger bits and b) we need back-support to minimize blowout. You can put a piece of scrap on your table, but it can be tough to find the right-sized piece and it can be clumsy when working with larger parts. You can also forget to keep the bit aligned with the small hole,so it's easy to end up with craters in your table.

Delta has addressed this by putting a large opening in their table and making it easy to fill the opening with a sacrificial filler. The center of the table has a 3¾"-square recess to hold a piece of 3/4" material. It comes with a lovely piece of MDF painted black and it's simple to take a few minutes and make a pile of these one lazy afternoon. There are four leveling screws in the bottom of the recess, so you can get your inserts perfectly flush with the table (that's why I say make a pile all at once from the same sheet, so they're all the exact same thickness). This is far superior to a backing piece because it stays in place, there are even two holes so you can hold it in place with screws (I don't know why, maybe in case you actually do find a reason to flip your table upside-down).

Going up!

After living with the old Craftsman's table for so long, the ability to raise and lower the table using a crank is a real joy. The arm is hefty cast iron and the handle is large and comfortable chrome. The gear ratio seems just about perfect, making the table easy to raise without taking overly long.

Locking the table is simple, just turn the swivel handle. Although I think I'd prefer a large knob and may replace it soon.

The sound of power

One notable thing about the 18-900L: It sounds good. I know it's not technically important, but when you turn it on it sounds solid, smooth, and powerful. There are no irritating rattles, buzzes, or whines, just the sound of a well-designed, capable machine. When you drill, there's no straining or sound of a motor that needs a bit of help. Call me silly, but I like it.

Well worth the price

Overall, I'm very pleased with the Delta 18-900L drill press. All the parts are beefy and rugged, cast iron where lesser machines use pot metal or stamped sheet metal. Where plastic is used, it's thick and well-made. No part other than the tilt angle pointer strikes me as cheap or a victim of cost-shaving. It looks and sounds good and, most importantly, performs splendidly.

When it comes to drill presses, there certainly is a temptation to go with a less expensive model. I know, I've done it. On the surface, they all pretty much look alike and looking at a specification sheet will show only small differences. But those small differences and the ones that don't show up, like quality of build and thoughtful design, are ones that you'll live with for a long time. Remember, my old Craftsman drill press only had a few (at the time) small shortcomings, but we lived with those things for almost 40 years! A drill press is not a specialized woodworking tool, but a frequently used general purpose tool that will most likely stay with you even if you give up woodworking one day. The extra money spent on the quality of the Delta 18-900L over a cheaper model is trivial when spread over a 40-year lifetime.

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