Metric Drill Bits and Canada

Every once and while you stumble across something unexpected – take drill bits for example. Canada started to move over to the  ‘metric’ system of weights and measures in 1970 and by 1980 most things people dealt with on a daily basis (weather forecasts, highway signs, fuel for the family car etc.) had been switched over. There continue to be oddities, largely for historical reasons. For example, you still see lumber sold as 2×4’s , and 4×8 foot sheets of 1/2 inch plywood even though if you check closely you will find it is actually cut to a metric size. There are other examples, which brings us to drill bits.

Today while doing some work on one of the GT750’s I’m restoring, I broke my 4 mm drill bit which was very upsetting. This bit is part of a set I bought in Holland, sold under the Black and Decker label,  and they are the best drill bits I’ve ever owned. They cut through steel like a laser and after repeated use, are still sharp and a delight to own. Most folks would have familiarity with the usual drill bits you get stuck with which although marked as ‘cobalt’, or ‘HSS’ are seemingly made of a soft material akin to cheese ! Often all they do is remove the rust, and make a small, hot,  shiny spot on the surface of whatever you are desperately trying to bore through, while you apply yet more pressure till you can’t see for the smoke starting to wisp out of your over-heated drill ! In contrast , if you expose a metal surface to these Dutch drill bits, a hole seemingly appears as if by magic with those lovely little metal swarfs evenly turned out on both sides of the drill bit’s flutes – almost pure poetry and no effort at all !

Alas, today due to a brief moment of inattention, my drill fell over and landed on the floor ‘bit first’ and my 4 mm drill bit snapped into many small pieces. After a lengthy commentary using colourful language directed at the floor, the drill and the idiot who’d allowed it to happen, I regained my composure and I said to myself  ‘OK – I’ll just go out and buy another !’. That’s when I learned something quite interesting. In Canada, after more than three decades of being a metric country, you can’t easily buy a metric measure drill bit anywhere !

Canadian Tire is usually my first shop of choice – after searching around for a while I finally asked one of the pimply faced sales clerks for some help. I normally try to avoid doing this, as often all you get is a limp arm wave in an ambiguous direction, and some mumbling about checking aisle 489 or something – they usually don’t have a clue and you are better off just moving into the store for a couple of days still you can find it yourself. In this instance, while his eyes did glaze over somewhat, he surprised me and actually did know where the drill bits were kept and was able to confirm to me what I’d already figured out – there weren’t any metric ones visible on the shelf. He then checked the store inventory via the store’s computerized inventory system and found an interesting thing – Canadian Tire doesn’t list metric drill bits for sale ! I thought this was quite surprising and asked him to please double check (this is Canada – we say please a lot here). At this point the back up system they use was brought to bear and what looked to be a 200 year old guy was wheeled out from some dusty back room where he is kept for emergencies, and he carefully told me that it was true – they don’t stock metric drill bits, and that what I should do is buy a 1/8th inch size as it was almost the same.  This is true – it is ‘almost’ the same and actually is only about 0.03248 inches too small – that’s not the point. Putting aside the amount of maths one would have to do in one’s head while standing in front of a display of fractional inch drill bits ( and this is a daunting thought when one considers 4 mm is 0.157480315 inches, and a 1/8th inch drill bit is 0.125 inches which is a slightly better option than a 3/16th inch one at 0.1875 inches which would be too big, etc.) I was left wondering how is it possible that in Canada, after being metric for more than 30 years, when I’m trying to cut a hole for a metric tap to make a metric thread, I have to run around and figure out what arcane fractional sized Imperial drill bit is ‘close’ to what I actually need ? After over 30 years, why can’t I just buy the correct damn size ?

Canadian Tire had no answers to that question, and I have since checked at my other usual places of entertainment – RONA, Home Depot, Princess Auto, etc., and find that none of them have metric drill bits either. I’ve also checked on eBay, and interestingly most of the hits I get when I do find metric drill bits are from UK based stores which I find very odd given the UK is the home of all things measured Imperial ! As things sit at the moment, I suppose I will eventually find what I want in some specialty tool place somewhere in Calgary, or the other option will be that I have to take a quick trip back to Holland or the UK to get some decent  – correct – drill bits.


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