What is an automatic center punch?
An automatic center punch is a spring-loaded tool commonly used in machining and woodworking to create a starter hole or dimple that guides a drill bit.
Pressure is applied by pressing and holding down the handle. This compresses the spring inside. While holding down and applying increasing down pressure on the handle, the spring will release. This will release the sharp pointed tip which will pierce the contacting surface and create a small hole in the material.
We don't keep a high inventory of center punches because we aren't a center punch company (you wouldn't buy a burger from a place that makes pasta would you?). But we go through a lot of them (we eat a lot of burgers) and try a variety of manufacturers. So, we have a good idea of which center punches are actually good.
The design of a center punch has not changed very much and is quite optimized for its intended purpose. That is why all of them look very similar if not identical. A good center punch really comes down its construction and quality. But, that comes with a cost.
Quality control on most of the "cheaper" options are hit and miss (mostly miss). They are either not strong enough to create an adequate marking or they misfire and don't punch. So it's entirely plausible that you might have to go through returning at least one.
Thus, we would recommend spending a bit more and to help, we've curated the best center punches (in our opinion) that we have tried on a Blockplate and have had good results.
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Good Value: Neiko Automatic Center Hole Punch
This center punch is not as powerful but will make a decent hole. Remember you can also punch the same hole multiple times to get one you're satisfied with. This center punch is also adjustable so you can vary the striking force.
It pretty much looks like all the other cheap center punches. But why get this one when I can get one that looks exactly the same for 50% less? Quality Control.
Despite being made in China (and sometimes Taiwan), this brand surprisingly has decent quality control and has a low chance of being faulty or defective. So you can either buy a few cheaper ones and see which one works, or buy this one and feel pretty confident it will work on the first try.
Update: We've noticed the price of the center punch has been fluctuating wildly. We wouldn't pay more than ~$12 for this center punch. Any more than this, you're better off spending a bit more to get a higher quality center punch as described below.
Mid-Range: Fowler Automatic Center Punch
We can attest for the ones "Made in Japan". This center punch is a bit more expensive but rightfully so. It's described as "heavy duty" and it truly feels so. All steel construction making it larger and heavy than the cheaper variety. It can take a bit more effort to press down but it provides a strong striking force that makes a sufficient hole.
Mid-Range: Sunflag Auto Punch
Made in Japan and it's obvious. This center punch is quite heavy and thick. It is well made and the construction feels reliable. It is also adjustable offering a strong striking blow. Again, can take a bit more effort to press down but it achieves a satisfying punch. This center punch features a carbide tip which provides a sharper, longer lasting tool than can penetrate harder materials.
High-End: Starrett 18C Automatic Center Punch
Made in the USA. This is what the pro's use and has the price tag to show for it. This center punch was made for metal and provides a strong striking blow (also adjustable). For those in the US, you can expect responsive customer service.
This is a heavy duty tool that performs reliably. It has a high quality construction and you get the feeling you can probably pass this down to your kids. That being said, it may be more than you need but if you're into that, this is for you.
For those across the Atlantic, this one is for you.
Made in Germany. Again, a high price tag for a professional use tool. It has a solid, high quality construction and performs reliably well. It is claimed to have an even higher striking force than the rest of the these center punches (also adjustable).
To be continued as we try out more center punches...