2011
08.03

Retro drilling

My interest in hand tools is generally rather limited.  While I admire (and am frequently awed by) the skill of artisans the likes of Roy Underhill (who is arguably the patron saint of human powered woodworking), I rarely find metalworking hand tools to be anything more than quaint when powered alternatives exist. There are exceptions, of course – I still don’t have a bandsaw in the garage, as my hacksaw is far more space efficient and far less expensive (plus, I can bring my bar stock to work and use one of our large cutoff saws). Hand files are almost always more useful than a powered filer, etc. Drills, however, are another matter – you would have to be daft to want to use a hand drill rather than an electric drill. Or so I had thought.

Many years ago I purchased The Machinist’s Bedside Reader series from Guy Lautard. The third volume had a fascinating description of a very old (though at the time, still in production), very simple hand cranked drill. What made the device so interesting was that it was able to drill holes through almost anything thrown at it – steel armor plate, bearing raceways, high speed steel, even plate glass. By hand. The secret to the Cole Drill was a threaded collar below the crank arm that applied massive downward pressure.  “Low speed, high feed” in machining parlance.  Not only that, but the drill was designed in a very modular fashion – the column is nothing more than a piece of pipe or solid rod, as the drill is generally intended to be bolted to whatever it is that you’re trying to make holes in.  Rather than taking your work to a drill press, you take the drill press to your work.  Granted, you can do the same with a portable electric drill, but the Cole has the advantages of rigidity, extreme feed pressure, no electricity needed, and won’t tear your arm off if the bit catches.

As mentioned, the Cole Drill was still being manufactured up until maybe 2005 or so by Cole Tool Mfg.  Despite being ‘old’ tech, they still commanded a rather hefty retail price (presumably limited demand led to the product being discontinued).  While the drills have been routinely available used on Ebay since that time, it seems that prices have been going up – I seem to recall the going price to be around $60 or so a few years back, but now it seems that getting one for under $100 is a bargain.  Admittedly, I have zero use for a Cole Drill.  However, given the ‘field expediency’ of such a tool (drilling holes in a truck frame miles away from a power source being a good example), it’s a tool that I’d really like to be able to put my hands on in a hurry should the need ever arise.

I finally found one on Ebay that wasn’t horribly expensive, owing to a fairly rusty look to it.  However, the seller said that the drill had been purchased new, had been barely used, and had been sitting in an Arizona workshop for the past 30 years or so.  There was a pretty good chance of it cleaning up very nicely, so I bought it.  When it arrived, I eagerly opened up the box to have a look.  ‘Stout’ would be the adjective at the top of the list when attempting to describe the unit.  It was a little larger than expected, and most certainly heavier.

I hosed it down with Gibbs spray (another product touted by Guy Lautard) and set it aside to soak in and and help remove some of the rust. After wiping it off, things looked a bit cleaner, and I took it along to metalworking class so that Frankie could make patterns from it and hopefully bang out a few castings.

Once I had the drill back in my hands, I printed out a few pieces of information from the web and gave them and the drill to my dad as a long-planned present.  Dad is one of the few people I know who has the mechanical ingenuity to use such a tool to its full potential, and will probably have far more opportunities to put it to good use than I ever will.  But at least I now know where I can borrow one in a hurry if I ever need it!

6 comments so far

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  1. Roy Underhill is also the patron saint of:
    Lost Fingers
    Gashed Limbs
    Puncture Wounds
    *#@! Outbursts

    • Actually, that brings up an interesting point – damaged or missing digits is a not uncommon affliction of professional woodworkers, yet I don’t know that I’ve met any machinists with the same injuries.

      • I think potato farmers may have some of the worst occupational hazards, based on the guys I see at agricultural meetings. Missing arms, crushed legs, missing eyes…it’s quite sad.

        I won’t venture any guesses as to why woodworkers seem to get more injuries than machinists.

        • I hadn’t even thought of farmers for the ‘missing limbs’ demographic, but if Lassie has taught us anything (in Dave Barry’s view, anyway), it’s that Paw was getting pinned under the tractor every other week and the dog was the only one keeping the place running.

          I think machinists versus woodworkers and farmers for injuries probably boils down to the more directly hands-on nature of farming and woodworking. Machinists will clamp the hell out of whatever they intend to be working on and turn knobs to do the cutting, while woodworkers and farmers get to deal with the whirling blades of death on a much more intimate level.

  2. I picked up a Cole Drill in a yard sale (minus the chuck) twenty years ago and love using it to stump tool experts.

    • Well, that’s another handy use! Pity, as they’re such useful tools.