Saturday, October 12, 2013

Drill press of danger

This is a picture of a drill press owned by a family friend in Pennsylvania. I always enjoyed looking at it, if not just for the sheer engineering comedy of it. It puts the features of modern tools into perspective and shows just how far tool technology has come. This is what they had to hack with in the old days. It's one of those tools that you have to treat like a dangerous wild animal... avoid walking by it with loose clothing, taking a step back before you hit the power switch, and making sure you have a clear escape path. Tools like this don't have "users", they have "potential victims".

Both the drill mechanism and table are solidly mounted to the heavy steel I-Beam. You'll note that the I-Beam is not part of the building, it's all part of the drill press. You could run over it with a dump truck and it would maintain alignment. Unfortunately getting your work piece within reach of the drill bit requires stacking whatever scrap wood you have laying around. This means the working surface is dependant on each of the boards being perfectly dimensioned. There are no perfectly dimensioned pieces of wood within miles of this garage. So despite the drill press itself having the torsional stability of a battle ship hull, you will always get a rickety and misaligned work surface. Not that this machine ever gets used that much.

It's driven by an electric motor mounted to the ceiling that spins the giant fly wheel on it's left side. The bit is lowered into the work piece by reaching up and turning the crank all the way at the top of the machine. This is good, because if it had a lever it would probably pull out the bent nails that secure the I-Beam to the garage wall. The motor is separately anchored to the garage roof, but if the nails let loose I don't think the motor belt would support the weight of the machine even if it were not dry-rotted. In either case the flywheel would ensure enough gear spinning momentum to do some real damage to the victim (no longer a potential victim in this circumstance). The original motor was 1/4 horsepower. But not like modern electric motors, this one actually looks like 1/4th of a real horse and probably weighs as much. In a battle of torque I'd put it up against any modern day 2hp motor. Thanks to the contribution of the dry-rotted belt and misaligned wheels, it even kind of made a galloping sound while running. Just turning this thing on is like travelling back in time to a more dangerous era. At some point it was unable to be supported by the garage roof any more and it was replaced with a smaller and more benign motor. But I still get a kick out of somebody having the courage to actually stand under such a monster.

Using the machine requires stripping down to a snug fitting t-shirt and making sure you are out of the line of fire of any lashing belts or shattering gears when you turn it on. On the left side, getting a shirt sleeve caught in the flywheel belt would whip your whole arm into the gear mechanism. On the right side, the gears seem designed to turn fingers into hamburger. I've inspected the machine several times for design clues indicating there was once a cover on these gears, but there are none. It was built this way, with the logo even being proudly stamped on the naked frame right under the hand-destroying gears ...another indication this tool was designed before liability lawsuits were invented. Designing such a maiming device is one thing, having the courage (or lack of foresight?) to paste your contact information right on it is another level of audacity. I can just imagine some newly left-handed machinist swearing to do harm to the designer and setting off in their Model-T to go find them. Maybe that happened, who knows. We can imagine. 

Despite it's shortcomings, I'm going to make sure this tool doesn't get thrown on a scrap pile during my lifetime. Maybe some misguided person will create a museum where people can gawk at dangerous power tools some day and we'll send it off to a good home there. In any case, there will always be the space in some garage in the family to keep this shrine of engineering farce for us to look at and contemplate.