Y is for Yankee drill

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Y is for Yankee drill

I'm going to go out on a very short limb and guess that of all the tools I've covered this month, the Yankee drill is the least familiar. Useful, compact, wonderfully functional and durable, the Yankee drill is a ratcheted drill designed for one-hand operation. It comes with a variety of specially sharpened bits which, unlike most drill bits, are made to cut in both rotational directions.

You place the bit where you want the hole and just push. As it compresses, the internal ratchets change the forward motion of your hand into a rotary motion of the bit. When the heavy spring returns the handle, the bit reverses, giving you a double-cut. Just a couple of pushes and your work is done. The knife-edge design of the bit means that it not only cleans out the sawdust from the hole as it cuts, the bit itself won't get fouled, either.

With a sharp bit, the Yankee drill will make pilot holes in a twinkling, slicing cleanly through heavy oak or light pine. The tool itself is light and no bigger than a screwdriver, fitting easily in a back pocket or in a pouch of a tool belt. There is no tool on the planet that is so wonderfully expert at making a series of small holes. After installing 1.75 quintillion board-feet of trim, floor moldings, window moldings, crown moldings, chair rails, etc., I know exactly which tool to bring along to a job for making my pilot holes.

Larger Yankee drills were as much as two feet long and took screwdriver bits. They were collapsible for portability and storage. Reversible, these made short work of any screw, going in or out. In this clip from "The Blues Brothers", Elwood uses a Yankee drill to zip out the screw holding in the elevator access panel. Fast forward to 2:55 to see it in action.

In these sad, diminished days, however, the Yankee drill has been relegated to flea markets and the Smithsonian.

It's been three generations since handheld power drills have replaced the venerable brace-and-bit for heavy drilling work, and at least one full generation since cordless drills have taken over for lighter drilling duties, like setting pilot holes. The Yankee drill still had a place up to the 1980s, when "cordless screwdrivers" were worthless little toys. Today, modern lithium ion batteries coupled with modern high-density motors (based on modern high-strength neodymium magnets) have led to cordless drills which have enough power to do plenty of real work.

I myself own a Milwaukee 18V cordless drill and it is wonderful for big jobs. This is my third cordless drill; they are getting lighter and more powerful with each passiing decade. Still, the Milwaukee is way overpowered for small jobs. For those, I prefer the Yankee. It's just more convenient to match the tool with the workpiece.

Ah, the Yankee drill. Such a pinnacle of technological excellence, now supplanted by technology that moved in a completely different direction.

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1 comment:

  1. Actually, that sounds like it could still be useful. Batteries die, and even a cordless drill can't fit everywhere (not to mention the weight and bulk if you're on a stepladder). I might have to see if I can find one on Amazon or something.


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