Vintage hand drills are some of the most useful and inexpensive tools to have around the shop. Few are manufactured new today and the drills that are don’t come close to the quality of the vintage models. I have two sizes I use all the time, both made by Millers Falls, a #2 and #5A.
The biggest issue most people have with these “egg beater” drills is the misconception that they don’t work well. That’s true if you’ve only tried rusty junkers. It’s no different than using hand planes. Garbage planes cause more problems than they fix, but a well tuned plane can make you sell off all your power tools. A smooth running hand drill is accurate, quiet, fast, and never runs low on batteries. So if you’re interested in restoring an old drill, here’s how I go about it. DISCLAIMER: the operations shown on the drill press could be considered dangerous… so is using a tablesaw, jointer, etc. if you’re not familiar with the tool or operation being performed on that tool. In short, if you’re not comfortable with how I cleaned up these drills, don’t try it.
First, you need to acquire a drill in the usual manner (eBay, flea markets, tool shows, theft, etc). Look for three things: solid handles without cracks or a loose fit, gears with no broken or chipped teeth, and a chuck that operates with all 3 jaws and associated springs. Obviously major flaws like missing screws, cracked bodies, or rusted out drills are no good, but those are usually thrown out these days (a little surface rust isn’t a problem though). Most drills being sold are in at least satisfactory condition and can be had for $5-$25.
With the drill acquired, it’s time for the restoration process to begin. Disassemble the entire tool. Take out the screws, remove the drive gear, unscrew the chuck, etc. If any rust or surface tarnishing is present, give the parts a 24 hour bath in Evapo-Rust (more info on that here). Once the hardware is cleaned I paint the body with enamel, typically black gloss on the body, red on the gear, but it’s your drill, do as you like. There’s nothing magic about this process. Just brush the enamel on, then clamp it by the chuck in a vice to dry. Over-paint areas that butt up against metal that is supposed to be paint-free (like the edge of the gear). This will ensure full coverage and the over-painting will get removed later. It can take several days to fully dry, sometimes over a week depending on the temperature. Make sure the body is completely dry (no tackiness to the touch) before proceeding, otherwise you may be starting over (believe me, I know)…
On to the fun stuff (in my opinion at least). Most drills only have two screws in the assembly and it’s worth getting them pristine. Chuck them into the drill press (or lathe if you own one) with the head down. leave as much clearance as possible, but make sure you have enough threaded into the chuck so things stay in alignment. A couple warnings here: first, don’t over-tighten any of the threaded areas in the chuck or they can get damaged. You only need a firm enough grip to resist light material removal, so just gently hand-tighten the chuck. If you need to, put some blue tape around the threads. This will protect them a bit and give a better grip in the chuck. Now, with the screws secure and spinning, file the heads clean of dents, then finish with some fine sandpaper for a nice polish. I usually go to around 800 grit for a clean, somewhat matte finish.
The main gear is handled in a similar way, but you have to put a bolt through the center so there is something to chuck into the drill. File/sand the edges to the desired finish. Make sure any over-painting is removed.
With the hardware painted and cleaned up, it’s on to the wooden handles. The side knob that many drills have is easy to clean up by chucking into the drill press just like the screws, again, be careful not to damage the threads.
The gear handle is tricky. It can not be removed from the arm because it is typically riveted on. I got around this by spinning a steel rod in the press (in this case, a 1/2″ diameter center punch), clamping the handle on the bed of the press, and belting the two together with a generic pulley drive belt. Some light side-pressure and the friction of the belt is enough to spin the knob while sanding down to bare wood. A few tips here: use a large diameter rod to avoid bending under the side load as well as to provide enough surface area for the belt to stick to the rod. Also, keep the table close to the press to minimize the side load/torque on the press. Drills aren’t meant to withstand too much side load, so just use enough to spin the knob (which isn’t much). Center the knob over a cut-out in the table so it can spin freely (shown in the 3rd picture below).
For the large handle, the body (minus all removable parts) can be chucked into the press. There is one problem, however, as the center will spin while the body remains stationary. I placed a clamp over the small gear to lock it to the body. Tape could also work, but whatever you try, keep it tight to the body. Again, sand down to the bare wood.
Finally, some finishing touches. I have drills with film-finishes for the wood and others with oil. The film looks more traditional, but I like the feel of the oiled wood, so it’s up to you. There’s a good chance the main handle has a threaded cap (traditionally for bit storage). I don’t use these for anything at the moment, but I want it to work well for future use just in case, so I wax the wooden threads after the finish is dry. There are also several holes around the drill’s chuck and drive gear for oil. Put a few drops in and add more as required. My only other tip is in the fit of the main drive gear. I don’t like too much clearance between the gear and screw holding it to the body. Excessive slop is felt with every revolution of the drill and if the gears mesh too tightly it adds drag to the tool and increases the wear on the gears, shortening the life of the tool. I use plastic shim stock (because it wears well and is available in precise thicknesses) to take out the slop, leaving only a few thousandths of clearance.
That does it. You should be left with a top-notch drill that will last for generations. Happy drilling.