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Colt Five-Star FCE HSS-M2 drill bits

Back in the days when ProjectGuitar.com was young, the Colt TwinLand® drill bits more or less reigned supreme over other competing tools. Their innovative geometry produced radically-better results over those of standard wood drill bits. Previously to the innovation of TwinLand®, woodworking drill bits had evolved little from metalworking bits; even lip-and-spur/bradpoints demonstrated their lowly origins. Geometry simply wasn't designed optimally for use in wood. TwinLand ripped up the design, producing bits that left cleaner holes and cut them quickly, generated very little heat (more on that later) with no chip burning and crisp entry/exit holes. They were durable, an absolute joy to use and allowed the home gamer to hit professional marks with little effort....without drilling holes in your bank account!

So years go by, markets shift, product lines and companies change. This is just how things go. The modern range going under the name of "TwinLand" is a shadow of the stellar originals. Fundamentally, the TwinLand geometry of the drill bits remains however everything else is not as it once was. For a better insight, check out our review of the modern TwinLands and check back in.

It's important to remember that "TwinLand" represents patented geometry tweaks; more than just the name of one product line. Elsewhere in the current Colt lineup is their modern equivalent of that original flagship tool; the "Five-Star FCE HSS-M2" range. The name might not seem as snappy as "TwinLand" however that's really the least of our concerns. Behind the name is the same redoubtable TwinLand® design coupled with additional tricks on top. So what's the same and what isn't? Is it an equivalent or a successor? There's definitely more on the table than the originals, so let's see whether this all stacks up into a product that can rightly re-take the crown that original TwinLands earned....

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Product Description

Firstly, let's look at the public marketing materials Colt have out in the wild. Whilst this is a little "emphatic" (check out the over-dramatic grimacing of the guy with the "normal" drill bit during the comparison test), underneath the obligatory marketing wash there are solid facts about the product. We'll get to sorting those out a bit later. Grab a cup of coffee and dive in.

 

Overall, there are some pretty dramatic claims being made here. Anybody familiar with the old TwinLands will recognise the advantages of that design represented here in the Five-Star FCE bits; superior waste ejection, reduction of chip burn in the cut, cleaner exit holes, ground guiding point, etc. Whilst the old TwinLands were machined from simple hardened chrome-vanadium (CV) alloy steel, the Five-Star FCE bits are superior M2 HSS ("high speed steel") alloy.

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Time for some metal

HSS tool steels are superior to simpler cheap high-carbon steels for edge tools, especially in fast cutting applications (for example....saws, drills, etc). The primary enemy of an edge tool is heat; if the edge gets too hot it loses its temper, altering the properties of the metal and its ability to hold a sharp edge. A blunt edge generates more heat, leading to a swift demise and many burnt things.

Common drill bits on the big box store shelf are made from alloys such as CV (chrome vanadium) which is fine until heat becomes a factor. Abuse them slightly and they end up junked in no time. Use of HSS tool steels such as M2 (molybdenum HSS steels) or HSCo (Cobalt HSS steels) allow the bits to be harder (HRC60+ compared to non-HSS which are usually in the HRC40s) and resist hotter working temperatures. This isn't to say you can abuse them, however it means they keep playing at the top of their game under duress, rather than dramatically crying on the ice after a lovetap on the shin....like an overpaid princess.

M2 is a relatively common and affordable tool steel with well-known properties that work well within drill bits. Stack that on top of the redoubtable TwinLand geometry that reduces heat generation anyway and you've got a recipe for greatness. Given Colt's poor showing in the modern TwinLand range (an insult to the reputation of the name) the Five-Star FCE need to hit the mark that the originals did so well. HSS is a clear step towards that.

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What Do You Get?

So here at ProjectGuitar.com towers, we sprung for the basic 7-piece Metric set (4-12mm). Bits are available in various sets plus individually in both Metric and Imperial sizings; Metric covers everything from 3mm through to a mighty 16mm with half mm sizes up to 10,5mm whilst Imperial sizes from 1/8" through to 1/2" in 1/64" increments. Whilst sets are somewhat more economical, most busy guitar-makers will find themselves referring to several very specific sizes for certain tuner hole sizes, etc. and building a collection of the most common ones. Buying every single size is an enormous investment, and one which is just not necessary for most. I would however like to just see that monster 16mm bit....

The packaging hints at something which might not seem immediate obvious, however those of you who obsess over router bit care can relate; high hardness cutting materials such as carbide and tool steels should be handled and stored carefully. The edges are fragile in comparison to soft high carbon steels. Harder metals hold sharper edges, but with this comes a degree of fragility. Allowing them to clink and bang together in a drawer or whatever produces microscopic chips off the cutting edges. Protecting your investment pays off for top-drawer tools like these. Often it's how these are cared for that guarantees longer working life, not how many holes they drill.

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What strikes you straight out of the box is how flawlessly sharp these drill bits are. Razor sharp....drill bits that can genuinely cut you if mishandled! The plain finish highlights the accuracy and cleanliness of the work that went into producing them; a perfect bright and mirror-like machined finish on every surface other than the ground cutting tips. Very very impressive.

The large parabolic two-flute geometry increases waste removal capacity considerably; an important factor in reducing heat from buildup. The lands (outer surface between the flutes) are relieved with a double margin to eliminate "chip squeezing", or chips being caught between the drilled hole and the outer surface of the bit. These also help in keeping the bit more stable within the cut to produce precisely sized holes.

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Super-sized image! - click to enlarge

 

The business end. The tip of the bit is precision ground with its own cutting edges, allowing it to bore into the work ahead of the main cutters. The original TwinLand bits had a precise and perfectly-centred point, however a point that actively cuts is an upgrade which will undoubtedly eliminate tool pressure when advancing these bits.

Same as every other part of the drill bit, these are all CNC-perfect and made to-purpose, not down-to-price. Lip-and-spur bits rely heavily on the central point for true guidance through a cut, so this is a vital aspect of the design. Poorly-made points follow the path of least resistance in the material and can cause deviation over longer distances if they cause side pressure. A point that cuts factors this out. Overall, the choice of geometry and how precisely it is implemented is the linchpin of performance. What is claimed plays out on inspection.

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marking on the shank was my fault! - click to enlarge

Bummer. The TwinLand set reviewed previously were also "Made In France" whilst labelled "Made In Germany" on the packaging. Whilst not an indicator of intrinsic quality, this was a surprise in Colt's top shelf product. It certainly seems that they make a big show of implying German-manufacturing quality when this is no longer the case. At the very least, not as blatant as the TwinLand set. In reality, as long as the steel and working processes are in line with the quality this is meant to imply, that bit of geography is meaningless. Still, it seems a little disingenuous.

What is of fundamental importance is that these drills bits are ground rather than simply being forged like the modern TwinLand range. Cheaper forged drill bits are made using swift and economical methods; the raw blank stock (long rods or rolls of steel) is fed through an induction heater and then pressed into shape whilst hot. The bit is then dropped onto a pile and left to cool. Whilst still a fascinating manufacturing process, the end product is a bit rough. On the other hand, ground bits like the Five-Star FCEs are machined individually on multi-axis CNC machines, surgically machining/grinding in each flute path, land and point to exacting and repeatable standards.

To quote JW Alexander and Sam Cooke, "That's Where It's At"

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In Use

The arbitrary tests that Colt demonstrated in the video are far from realistic....almost comically so. That is simply to be expected of a marketing video of course. It appeals to basic expectations. On the bench however, that might not always be the case. A simple test was devised to illustrate a working operation and hopefully comparative differences.

A methodology...of sorts...

A 20mm thick piece of Birch hardwood was marked up with two pairs of six points. Two for an old 12mm TwinLand bit I have on hand, two for a modern 10mm TwinLand and two for a 10mm Five-Star FCE bit. Of these pairs, one has masking tape applied over the rear as a "bare minimum" to help prevent excessive exit splintering. Normally one would use a piece of scrap wood, however this would prevent splintering in all but the poorest of drill bits. I wanted to provide a demonstration of how even marginal prevention can maybe make a difference when not doing things properly. Each drilling operation was done by hand using a cordless drill, and each hole timed. Downpressure with the tool was kept at a weight estimated not to labour the drill bit but as much as the tool "wants", then eased off at the end of the cut so as not to exacerbate exit blowout.

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supersize photo - click to enlarge!

Immediately, we can see that both of the new sharp bits created equally-crisp entry holes. My 12yr-old original TwinLand fared less well, feathering up the hole since the cutting spurs are now quite worn. By far the fastest, the Five-Star FCE zipped through the Birch in a little less than two seconds. The modern TwinLand came in around the 6-7 second mark and the blunt old TwinLand just over 9.

 

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supersize photo - click to enlarge!

The exit holes are quite telling. It was expected that the old TwinLand would produce a lot of splintering. It's seen over a decade of use, and only a solid piece of service material behind the cut produces zero splintering for crapped out CV bits like these. The modern TwinLand created feathered and slightly splintered exit holes. The rate of progress at 6-7 seconds each meant that downpressure could be eased off to help make exiting easier, and this shows. The masking tape might have made a slight difference, however it certainly didn't eliminate splintering like service material would have done.

Surprisingly, the Five-Star FCE bits produced more splintering on the exit than the new "crap" TwinLands! A certain degree of exit splintering was expected from the outset for all of the bits, simply because that is the nature of materials with unsupported grain. Solid hardwood is not the same as laminates or isotropic engineered materials. The prodigious waste removal and high rate of progress through cuts means that it is somewhat difficult to "feather off" downpressure towards the end. The amazing feed rate makes exiting more difficult to control. I might even suggest that there is a degree of self-feeding thanks to the fluted centre point eliminating tool pressure.

I decided to re-test the Five-Star FCEs with a new approach; don't allow the tool to cut as quickly as it wants to....

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supersize photo - click to enlarge!

 

The exit hole on the left took around 6 seconds to cut and the one on the right about 9 seconds excluding a false start. The left-hand hole tried to self-feed at the end, forced itself out of the cut and caused blowout. The right-hand hole was eased off and run at full speed, exiting fairly gracefully. Whilst the left-hand hole produced coarser chip risings, the right-hand hole was finer overall but not dusty. Given that there was no backing material or even masking tape, the results speak for themselves. These are drill bits which clearly benefit from control rather than gung-ho boring.

It's surprising how "not bad" the worst exit holes were in spite of motoring through the finish line, pedal floored. Two seconds is unprecedented for hand drilling, and is more common in CNC circles. Whilst the sheer speed of an uncontrolled cut doesn't seem to play in the Five-Star FCE bit's favour, this was simply a flaw in the test methodology. In a real setting, one would back the exit of the cut with a piece of scrap and ease off on the downpressure.

This does raise a real point however; blind holes that require a specific depth of cut will be more problematic with the Five-Star FCE bits. Certainly, this is not reliable through hand drilling and freehanding the depth. Self-feeding easily occurs, which can shoot you beyond the mark. In these instances, a pillar drill or a depth-stop mounted onto the drill becomes mandatory rather than optional.

So, let's have a look at the internal cut quality.....

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supersize photo - click to enlarge!

 

Sawing open the first test piece exposes three very acceptable drilled holes. All things considered, the blunt original TwinLand still produces reasonable results, albeit with evidence of fibre tearing and displacement rather than clean slicing. The new TwinLand seems to have produced the cleanest hole of the three, whilst the Five-Star FCE showed minor end-grain fibre displacement. None of the cuts showed any burning from trapped waste.

It might seem that the new TwinLands are the winner in this test. Counter-intuitively, their poorer quality works in their favour. Again, the sheer potential speed of the Five-Star FCE bits works against them. Allowing the bits to cut like merry hell doesn't give the cutters adequate opportunity to cleanly slice all of the fibres, causing displacement. Used more appropriately in a drill press at lower speeds (1000-3200RPM recommendation), the Five-Star FCEs will produce surgically-clean holes with little to no effort.

Examination of the second round of cuts bears this out extremely well. The hole on the left (6-seconds, exit hole on top) fed a little faster than optimal and produced results very similar to the new TwinLand in the previous experiment. The point where the bit self-fed at the end is very apparent. The slow controlled cut on the right self-fed initially (in fact, it screwed itself in and jammed up and had to be reversed out) but fed beautifully beyond that. The upper 2/3rds of the hole is testament to what the Five-Star FCEs can produce when used with control. Cordless drills don't really offer that.

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supersize photo - click to enlarge!

 

Five-Star FCE bits require a very high degree of operator attention beyond bit feed rates and service material. Bear with me on this one. You'll be surprised. Go back up to that YouTube video and carefully watch what happens when the operator uses a cordless drill.

The bit wobbles around within the cut easily.

This is what happened when I drilled a hole through a piece of Birch and deliberately pulled the drill back at an angle. Whilst all drill bits will waller a hole in this manner when abused, the reduced sidewall pressure and enormous cutting efficiency of the Five-Star FCE meant that this turned from a through hole to a weird slot in less than two seconds. It cuts like butter. Or a knife through butter, anyway.

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Even though this isn't a situation that would normally occur, it underlines the fact that these bits are capable of eating through anything at an unholy rate. More than anything, they need to be used in a thoughtful controlled manner. When used "in the zone", they are simply incomparable to anything other than fittingly, the original TwinLands (when sharp!).

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Conclusion

All of the results are a testament to the improvements that the TwinLand design brought to Colt's wood drills, making them stand head and shoulders above any other lip-and-spur bit. The Five-Star FCE bits demand more operator care in order to achieve their best work quality in the end product, since they can easily get away from you. This is in no way a fault of the tool; simply, that inefficient common drill bits lead us into a sense of false security about how a drill bit is "supposed to work" and hence less consideration during use. Freehanding a hole is just not a completely acceptable approach for Five-Star FCE bits. They certainly cut quickly, however they benefit fundamentally from stability and control.

Colt's marketing video does not quite do these bits justice; they're a precision tool which hand-drilled work does not leverage fully. It's not where these bits truly shine even if the prodigious feed rate does look rather impressive on camera. Given due care and attention, plus an awareness of their ability to waller a hole, their super-hungry feed rate or tendency to self-feed, work in a cordless drill is still perfectly possible. Used in a CNC, pillar drill or other fixture, the Five-Star FCE bits take the original TwinLand geometry to an entire new level.

Five-Star FCEs are a tool investment that has the potential to radically improve your work quality. They're a costly investment if you're looking at larger quantities, but given due care and attention they'll be producing the same high quality results well after they're paid for many times over.  Certainly, they laugh in the face of "premium" wood bits or fanboy toys Festool Centrotec, etc. These are the real deal. Their specific properties force you to work better and up your game. This is a good thing.

Do they stack up to the same level that the old TwinLands did? Yes and no. For the price of entry, you get a whole lot of tool. Nothing produces results like these, especially in pillar drills and CNC; hole edges you can shave with. That's the big Twinland "yes". Also in some ways, no. Unlike the old TwinLands, you have a learning curve which has be to conquered. You can't quite step straight from a puttering Honda Civic into a McLaren P1. That has to be understood. Otherwise it is a "yes" if you're careful not to floor it.

These drill bits should be the ones carrying the venerable "TwinLand" name forward. Could they be improved? Possibly. The underlying TwinLand architecture continues to be a winner. These ARE the drill bits you're looking for.

 

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Creative Commons Licence

Colt Five-Star FCE HSS-M2 drill bits by Carl Maltby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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  • Adapt — remix, transform, and build upon the material

Under the following terms:

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