DuringNational Driller’s visit to the 87thannual Michigan Ground Water Convention in Battle Creek, Mich., we sat down with Kevin Christensen, owner of Palmer Bit Company, conveniently based in Williston, N.D. The drill bit business, intact since 1957, specializes in drill bit manufacturing, restoration and distribution with a large portion of clientele rooted in geothermal and water well drilling. After his lecture on “Drill Bit Selection” and before the opening of the tradeshow, we sat down at his freshly assembled booth where he discussed the secrets to cost-effective bit selection and the state of the drill bit business.

Q. You’ve been in the industry most of your life. How has it changed since you started?

A. Palmer Bit Company is up in Williston, North Dakota. We were a very local company. We serviced the seismograph companies. We were very seismograph orientated. Then that died off and we were strictly water well. We expanded into the oil field and now geothermal is really consuming us. That is 90 percent of our business — geothermal drilling.

Q. How have bit capabilities evolved during your career?

A. Since I started, the only change is the PDC. The drag bits, they’re all the same. The tricones are all the same. The only thing that’s changed is the PDC oil field market. It really expanded in the early ’80s and technology has got the diamond cost down to where it can be affordable for our industry.

Q. You talked about the advantages to bits with replaceable blades during your lecture. If you could, touch on what those are.

A. You can use the same wings as a one-piece, but since you don’t have the machine working making the threads and everything, it’s going to be considerably cheaper. If one wing gets damaged on a one-piece bit with threads, you’ve got to throw the whole bit away. With replaceable blades, you can just replace the one wing and you’ve basically got a brand new bit. The cost of replaceable blades are about 35 percent cheaper — same size, same bit — just because you don’t have the machine work. It’s more variables too. You can go from a 3 7/8 to 6 1/4 using the same head and ring. You can go from step bit to chevron bit. You’ve got so many choices with replaceable blades.

Q. What should drillers consider when they’re entering into the bit-buying process?

A. The honesty of the bit man they’re dealing with. They’ve got to build a relationship and they’ve got to trust him. A lot of bit guys are just on trucks and they’re driving around selling, and you might not see that bit man for another six months. You’ve got to build a relationship and a trusting relationship with your bit man because there are so many things you can do to bits to make them look good and feel good, and it’s a junk bit.

Q. The centerpiece of your lecture was bit cost per foot. Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

A. If you purchase a tricone bit and it costs you $500 and you get 500 feet out of it, that’s a buck a foot. But if you buy a $2,000 bit and you get 30,000 feet out of it, obviously it’s way more economical to buy the more expensive bit.

Q. How does a driller determine when it’s time to replace a bit?

A. [Picks up a drill bit from the display table at his booth] For this bit right here, it doesn’t look that damaged, but the diamonds are dull. So basically why he pulled that bit was the penetration rate was slowing up. Penetration rate is one of your main keys. If you’re starting to lose penetration rate, you’re slowing down, something’s wrong. If your bearings are going out, your teeth have dulls, something’s wrong.

Q. What’s the secret to long bit life?

A. Proper bit for the proper formation used properly.

Q. What’s the longest you’ve seen a bit last?

A. [Points to a drill bit on the table] This particular one right here’s 72,000 feet on it. I’ve seen one have 132,000 feet on it without a single penny of repair.

Q. Are there any developments on the horizon or anything you’d like to see happen with bits moving forward?

A. The only thing that I can see happening is the PDC getting better and better. Just because of the way we manufacture bits, we started with a five wing, we went to a six wing, now we’ve got a four wing, we’ve got a bottom flusher. Just tweaking the PDC, making it better for each individual formation.

Q. You left the floor open for questions throughout your lecture and you do a lot of tradeshows too. Of all the questions you get from drillers, what’s the most common?

A. PDCs are what they ask me the most about because they’re expensive and they’re easily damaged. If they’re not used right, you can spend $2,000 in two feet, literally. So you have to know how to use it and where to use it.

Q. Are there any common misconceptions drillers have regarding bits?

A. What I’m dealing with mostly is some of the water well drillers, some of the young guys, they think that their dad did it this way, their grandpa did it this way, so I’m just going to put on a tricone and grind my way to the bottom. It’s not the best way, it’s not the fastest way, it’s not the most economical way. So getting them out of the mindset of screwing one bit for all of the formations — that’s what we’re trying to deal with.

Q. In thinking about bit speed and durability, is there a general set of attributes drillers should look for?

A. That’s a big question because you’ve got so many different types of bits. Talking durability, when you put a PDC in gravel, it’s going to last 2 feet. If you put a tricone in gravel it’s going to last a long, long time, and if you put a different bearing in it, like a sealed journal bearing, it’s going to last forever. The oil field can use a sealed journal bit for 10,000 feet and it’s still a good bit. If you use an open bearing bit, it’s a tricone, but it’s good for 2,000 to 3,000 feet.

Q. Is there anything else about drill bits you think is important to touch on?

A. I just really can’t pound it in hard enough to call. Make the phone call. If you’re drilling in a situation where you think you can drill faster, or you’re going through bits or whatever your problem is, take that 60 seconds and make a phone call. That’s the number one thing I want to try to get through to all of my drillers.

Click here to view our video interview with Kevin Christensen.

Valerie King is associate editor of National Driller.