Can a small milling machine do everything a small drill press can?
January 9, 2015 10:38 AM   Subscribe

I've been looking into getting a small, bench-top drill press. I'm also kind of intrigued about those small milling machines that places like Harbor Freight sell. Can the mill take care of all my drilling needs and also allow me to, you know, mill stuff?

I currently own an ancient, free-standing drill press that my wife bought used a few years ago. It's a tank but It's only good for drilling big holes in wood. It's a pain to set up and not very accurate. Any time I've tried to drill accurate holes in metal or plastic it wobbles and my holes are never quite where I want them to be, even if I've used a center punch. Although I would keep this drill I don't have any interest in trying to improve it.

I've been looking into getting a smaller, bench-top drill press for drilling accurate holes in metal, plastic, or wood but haven't yet gotten around to it.

I've also thought about getting a mill for occasionally shaping metal or plastic. Then it hit me that I could just use the mill as a drill press and the table on the mill would allow me to accurately move my material under the drill. It seems like the mill is just a drill press that will also allow you to cut things horizontally.

Am I missing something? Is there a downside to this?

I would be limited to a small mill such as one from Harbor Freight, MicroMark, or Grizzly. Research has shown me that they're all basically the same device. I've done my homework and understand the limitations of getting a mill of this size and also that they take a bit of work to set up properly. I don't have room, the money, or the need for anything bigger. I'm not working on engine blocks; my interest is generally limited to working with small metal pieces for model making, various projects, or for building killer robots with which to take over the world.

I also understand once you get a mill you need a bunch of other things, such as end mills and clamping devices, in order to properly use it. In the beginning it would mostly be used for drilling.

posted by bondcliff to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, you can. I used to have a decent sized Bridgeport Mill (manual with a number reader on the travel) in one of the shops I worked in, as well as two drill presses (one big, one small). Once we got a taper-end drill chuck I never used the drill presses again. It was easier, faster, more accurate and better to use the Mill. The 'mill is a drill press that also does horizontal' is a perfect analogy.

So as long as you have the fittings to mount the piece accurately and solidly and make sure you have clearance under the piece for drilling through, I say full steam ahead. Get the biggest Mill you can fit/afford/run with your power supply and go for it. It's what I'd have in my shop if I was setting one up for myself.
posted by Brockles at 10:54 AM on January 9, 2015

Great question, bondcliff! I have the same interest -- I have a small bench top drill press that I've used for years to do all sorts of ridiculous things, but it's getting a bit wobbly, so I've recently thought about replacing it with a bench top mill/drill. One of the chief issues seems to be that bench top mill/drills that will function as legitimate mills are often limited when used as drill presses -- not enough reach/travel/plunge, or whatever the right term is. That may not be an issue for you since you have a full size drill press you can drag out for bigger jobs that require more reach, but it is something to consider. If you have room in your shop, you will get more functionality with a cheapo drill press and a separate, cheap mill. The bench top mill/drill makes the most sense if you don't need either to be particularly exceptional - "jack of all trades, master of none."
posted by mosk at 10:56 AM on January 9, 2015

The main trade off from a from the floor standing drill press to the bench top drill or mill will be travel. It is a bit of a let down to go from 4" of plunging to 2". Maybe you don't need much travel because to the type of projects you are doing.

Maybe you can improve your current drill press:

For starting your holes, consider using center drills which are short for rigidity and specially shaped. These things are great.
posted by bdc34 at 11:21 AM on January 9, 2015

legitimate mills are often limited when used as drill presses -- not enough reach/travel/plunge, or whatever the right term is.

The mill that we used had a Z-axis on the bed (crank it up and down) so this wasn't an issue at all. But the drill presses had only slightly more travel than just the plunge head on the Mill, but I haven't looked at the mills in question.

This one has plenty of travel - I'd suggest getting the heaviest duty one you can afford as the quality and mass of the bed would be better. but even this one is a good compromise on a very tight budget.

If you are going to be spending $1K or so, though, do check out the bankrupt auctions/liquidator kind of places. It may take a bit of hunting but you can pick up a really epic piece of 'outdated' (ie manual) piece of machinery for relatively pennies on the dollar if you hunt enough. New isn't necessarily the best bet because a small mill may need more expensive kit where you may be able to pick up a 1970's/1980's small floor standing mill that takes plentiful and cheap tools and fixtures.
posted by Brockles at 11:25 AM on January 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

To be clear, whatever I get would be the least-expensive, smallest mill. The one in Brockles' second link is the type I'm looking at.

I would need to get it into the basement (down stairs) without a forklift and would need to move it myself (or with my wife's help) if/when I rearrange my shop, which I seem to do every six months or so because I can't leave well enough alone.

I can't think of too many times when 2" of travel isn't enough. Worst case I could finish it off on the big drill once I've started the holes. Honestly most of the time I'm drilling through 1/4" of aluminum.
posted by bondcliff at 11:34 AM on January 9, 2015

If you have the inclination to hunt a little bit, I would check out an old Unimat. They're out of production, but you can find them on craigslist in most regions pretty easily, and some on ebay... and usually for under the price of the second little buddy linked.

I saw a couple on NH craigslist a month ago, but there aren't any at the moment. They seem to have a good reputation for being bulletproof, and might work for your needs. Worth checking out.
posted by furnace.heart at 12:27 PM on January 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

It will do what you want, assuming you acquire a suitable-taper drill chuck (R8, for the second one linked above).

Incidentally, and I apologize if you are aware of this, but do not use a drill chuck to hold endmills. Many "I moved up from a drill" people do this, and it's bad for you & the equipment. Use proper toolholding.

Also, be aware that with HF equipment you may have to entirely disassemble, clean, align, and reassemble the machine. They have a tendency to be poorly assembled, with casting sand and the like in inappropriate places. Not to say they're bad, just that they can need a fair bit of TLC before operation.

You may want to look at the items offered by companies like LMS -- they basically sell "uprated" versions of the HF stuff (same basic thing, better fit & finish) aimed at hobbyists. Even if you don't buy their machines, they sell a variety of equipment for these little mills you might find interesting.

If you're just getting started, you might want to see if you can find a copy of Joe Martin's book (he's a bit idiosyncratic, but there's useful info in there) or Doug Briney's. They both refer to Sherline equipment, but the principles are the same for anything of that general size and they discuss things like workholding, toolholding, machining strategies, and so on.
posted by aramaic at 12:30 PM on January 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

If it helps your current tool, there was an article in Woodsmith (Issue 217, IIRC) on how to tune up your drill press. This alone might take care of your issues. When I get a chance, I'll look up the salient items.
posted by plinth at 1:34 PM on January 9, 2015

Inaccurate hole drilling is not due to a loose machine, but to technique. You need to centerpunch and then use a stubby drill or center drill to start the hole. A regular jobber length drill will wander even if in a milling machine. I have two milling machines and I use my floor standing drill press all the time.
posted by 445supermag at 1:45 PM on January 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have the cheapest lightest smallest "Central Machinery" mini-mill, that I bought used and then promptly spent way too much money on collets and such to make basically usable, and a big floor standing drill press. I use the big floor standing drill press most of the time, but that's largely because of where they are in the shop. I'm sure that if I didn't have the big drill press right by the door I'd arrange to do those things with the mill.

I actually think I've got more vertical travel with the head on the mill. I haven't ever tried to spin a 3" Forstner bit with the mill, so I don't know how well that'd work vs the big belt drive on the drill press (one of the upgrades on the mill was going to a belt drive, because one side of the gears was stripped out and I didn't discover this 'til I got it home and tried to switch drive range).

So I suspect that the drill press will generate more torque on the bit, but this is always a "well, don't drill so fast then" issue.

The one place the drill press really wins is that if I'm drilling something really thick. The table on the drill press is adjustable pretty much to the floor, but the head on the mill only goes up to let me get a foot or so of stock in between the bed and the head, so drilling recesses in drawer sides or carcase sides would go to the drill press. I think I've done something like this once or twice.

Other place it kind of wins: I recently cut holes in a bunch of marble. I was much more comfortable letting water run all over the drill press table than I would be the platform of the mill.

Most of what the mill actually gets used for in the shop is routering operations, especially when the operator is a young'un'. Kids can clamp a piece of wood in there and crank out a recess pretty fast, something I'd be loathe to let 'em do with a handheld router.

So... now that you mention it, I'm pondering reclaiming the space taken up by the drill press...
posted by straw at 4:31 PM on January 9, 2015

Most milling machine are MUCH heavier than a drill press. I'm talking fork lift heavy, unless it's a very small one.
posted by H21 at 6:05 PM on January 9, 2015

I've used the machine in Brockles' second link, and it works well a drill press if you don't need extended travel. For milling, it's small and flimsy and doesn't compare at all to a "real" machine. I have access to a Bridgeport in a connected building and find it worth the walk for all but the very simplest tasks. You should be able to use it for small jobs in plastic and aluminum though, if you're not too bothered about throughput or precision. It's light enough to be carried by one person and needs to be bolted into a stable desk.

If you get one, please be very careful, because I think you're in greater danger of getting hurt with the small machine than a big one. The lack of stability comes with a risk of tools snagging and pieces coming loose, and your hands and face are relatively close to the moving parts.
posted by Herr Zebrurka at 9:55 PM on January 9, 2015

Ok. The woodsmith article is in Volume 37 issue 217, p. 54.

It is extensive.
The main topics are:
Squaring the table
Solving runout
posted by plinth at 5:43 AM on January 10, 2015

I'm in much the same boat as you, so this is a question close to my heart. You seem to have done your research so I don't want to do too much second-guessing, but have you looked closely at Harbor Freight machine tools? They're really rough, especially the small ones. Aramaic's comments to this effect are spot on, and I'll go one further - sometimes things just don't line up and the user has to return their tools or re-engineer them to work properly. It's up to you if the cost-savings make it worthwhile.

Also, there's some good comments here regarding hole-drilling technique, but run-out IS a thing. It would be a shame if you bought a new tool looking for stability and precision and wound up with the same problems on much cheaper, poorly made tool with less capacity.
posted by werkzeuger at 6:32 AM on January 10, 2015

Lots of good information here, thanks folks.

There are a number of reasons I want a smaller machine. The big drill is old, the table is really difficult to adjust and set up for anything takes forever. I'm sure I could spend some time adjusting it and working on my technique but it's a lot more than that. I really don't like it very much. I just want a small device I can use to make accurate holes when I need them.

I understand the limitations of the small machines but I think it would be fine for the sort of things I do. I probably wouldn't buy a HF model because I really can't stand that store; everything they have seems to be total junk. I know anything I buy I'd probably first have to break down and re-assemble in order to get any sort of precision.

This is something I'll be researching and thinking about for the next few months but it seems like the mill is the way to go if I can swing it financially.
posted by bondcliff at 6:50 AM on January 10, 2015

To the quality point: Yes. I have lots of play in the table slides that, despite the little set screws, I have not yet figured out how to get out.

So far as I can tell, Central Machinery and Grizzly use the same castings, the Grizzly is just finished better (the sliding surfaces are milled flatter, better bearings, etc). Given all the money you need to budget for collets and additional stuff for a mini mill vs a table top drillpress, you probably just want to spring for the Sherline.

In other words: The price for a usable mini mill won't be anywhere comparable to the price for a tabletop drill press, you're doing this for functionality in a given space.
posted by straw at 8:54 AM on January 10, 2015

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