Drilling and Boring in Woodworking
As your woodworking projects start to come together, you’ll soon find that drilling and boring is an important skill to learn. It’s also useful for a host of DIY jobs, from fitting shelves to providing access for utilities.
Drilling wood might sound boring — pun intended — and maybe a little self-explanatory, but think again. The process isn’t as simple as lining up your electric drill and pulling the trigger.
There are several important things to consider, such as choosing the right tool and bit. With that in mind, we’ll go over all the basics before delving a little deeper, making sure you never have to break a bit or splinter your wood unnecessarily.
Drilling and Boring Basics
Drilling, or boring, is simply the process of making a hole in your workpiece. But not all holes are made equal and you can use a host of different tools and drill bits to complete a wealth of different tasks.
To see just how versatile the art of drilling wood actually is, let’s take a look at some of the most common jobs that you’d use a drill or boring tool for.
Drilling Holes for Joints
A number of joints can be strengthened by drilling through the two pieces of wood and fixing a dowel or pin through them. Lap joints are a good example, but even butt joints can be strengthened by drilling into both sides and gluing a dowel to hold them together.
Meanwhile, mortise and tenon joints can be made more quickly and accurately by drilling the bulk of the mortise rather than chopping it out with a chisel.
Pipe and Cable Access
Pipes and cables often need to run from one room to another. The fastest way to create access is often by drilling. Or perhaps you’re building a desk and want to allow your computer wires to drop through a hole in the top for improved cable management.
Installing Door and Window Hardware
Want to install a lock and handle into a wooden door? Instead of chipping away with a chisel, you can remove the bulk of the wood with your drill, saving valuable time and improving accuracy. Your drill can make short work of chopping out hinge mortises too.
When you’re building furniture, it often looks better if the fixings aren’t visible. A countersink piece prevents screw heads from standing proud on a surface. Alternatively, you can drill a plug hole for your fixing, then use a drill to create wooden plugs. These then fill the hole, hiding the fixing entirely.
Drilling a Pilot Hole
Working with wood can be a delicate task, especially with types that are prone to splitting or chipping. Drilling a pilot hole before screwing in a screw is the best way to prevent damage, particularly if you’re working near the edge of your workpiece or screwing into end grain.
Pilot holes are also great for starting larger cut-outs that you’ll finish with a jigsaw or coping saw.
Hand Tools for Drilling and Boring
Nowadays, electric drills are extremely affordable, so there isn’t much call for manual drilling and boring tools. That’s not to say they’ve been replaced entirely, but for most beginners, an electric drill is easier and quicker to use.
However, there are still some occasions in which hand tools are better for the task at hand.
- No noise: Need to keep the noise down? Hand tools are the best for drilling wood without making a peep.
- Confined spaces: In some tight corners, you might not be able to fit a power drill. Meanwhile, a ratchet brace or small hand drill can often do the job.
- No power: Some large holes are beyond the capabilities of a cordless drill and if you’re working in an area without power, a handheld auger might be the best alternative. As an example, imagine you’re building a log cabin in the woods and plan to fix dowels through the joints. You might find that hand tools do the job better than a cordless drill.
Before we move on to electric drilling tools, let’s take a quick glimpse at some boring tools you can use by hand.
- Awl: This is the most common hand tool that you’re likely to use for boring. A simple sharp end allows you to punch a center point into your workpiece. This keeps the drill bit on track and stops it from wandering and damaging the surface.
- Hand drill: A simple tool that utilizes a number of drive gears to spin the bit at relatively high speeds. Simply turn the handle to start it spinning. Speed control is determined by how fast you work the handle. Meanwhile, the chuck can hold various-sized drill bits.
- Ratchet Brace: Also known as a brace and bit tool, the U-shaped frame has a larger sweep than a hand drill, allowing for higher torque and more power. A ratchet mechanism makes it good in tight spaces. They have a special chuck that can hold a variety of bits, all with a tapered square-shaped shank.
Different Types of Power Drills for Woodworking
For beginners, electric drills are fantastic. Easy to operate and relatively safe, they’re a top time-saver and make short work of a whole host of tasks. Compared to hand drilling, power drills boast an array of advantages;
- Quicker: You’d have to be superman to crank a brace at the speeds that a standard electric drill operates at.
- More powerful: Electric drills have a lot more punch. Models with hammer drill functionality will even bore into concrete with no issues.
- Versatile: Most standard cordless and corded drills have a number of settings, allowing you to adjust the torque, direction, speed, and much more. Plus, with various different drill bits available, you can use one tool to carry out a multitude of jobs.
Electric drills come in various shapes and sizes. Sometimes the jargon can be a little confusing, so let’s clear things up a little bit.
Common Drill Features
When choosing a drill, be sure to check out the following features.
- Speed settings: Look for a drill with adjustable speed settings. These are the most versatile, as different materials require different drilling speeds for the best results. Speed is normally measured in RPM and often adjusted by how much pressure is applied to the trigger.
- Type of chuck: The chuck is the part that holds the drill bit. Traditionally, you needed a key to open and close the chuck, but nowadays many drills have keyless chucks. Either way, as you tighten it, three jaws close in on the drill bit to hold it securely in place.
- Chuck size: This refers to the maximum shank diameter the drill can take. The two standard sizes are 3/8 inch (10 mm) for standard DIY jobs or 1/2 inch (13 mm) for heavier duty tasks. Electric drills normally take straight shank bits, not the tapered square bits used in a brace.
- Torque control: Torque refers to the twisting force required to turn an object such as a screw or drill bit. Measured in Newton-meters (Nm), you can adjust it up and down to increase or decrease the twisting power. This is essential, as different types of material benefit from lower power for more control and accuracy. Using too much power can sometimes damage your workpiece.
For woodwork, a decent cordless drilling tool is pretty much all the beginner will need. Without a cord, they’re extremely portable and are a top choice for use both in the workshop and on-site.
The downside is that they can run out of juice, especially if you have a lot of drilling to take care of. However, many models come with a spare battery and fast-charge charging stations these days.
Modern cordless drills use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. They hold their charge longer, recharge faster, and are lighter than older battery types.
Power is measured in volts, and models generally range from 12 to 20 volts. The higher the voltage, the more powerful the drill. Charge capacity is measured in Amp-hours (Ah) and generally ranges from 1 to 4 Ah. The higher the Ah, the longer the battery will hold its charge.
If you’re planning to regularly drill into hardwood, metal, or masonry, you’ll need a powerful drill to handle it. For softwoods, a lower voltage will suffice. Bear in mind that more powerful batteries tend to be heavier and can make the tool more cumbersome.
Different Types of Cordless Drills
When shopping for a decent drill, you’ll come across a number of variations on the theme. Here’s what separates them:
- Power screwdriver: A lightweight tool ideal for screwing and unscrewing fixings. It can take a range of screwdriver bits but is incapable of drilling.
- Drill driver: Versatile and affordable, these handy tools function as an electric screwdriver and drilling tool. They’re capable of drilling into wood, and more powerful models can also cope with metal.
- Combi drill: With all the functions of the drill driver, plus hammer-action capability for masonry drilling, this three-in-one tool is ideal for a huge array of tasks. A little more expensive than a drill driver, it is worth it if you anticipate drilling into brickwork as it saves you buying a separate hammer drill.
- Impact driver: Boasting a higher torque capacity than the previous models, impact drivers are predominantly designed for repetitive, heavy-duty screwdriving projects. While they’re ideal for tightening nuts and bolts, they’re not all that useful for drilling tasks.
Corded Power Drills
We recommend a cordless drilling tool for the majority of your projects. However, corded drills do offer some advantages over cordless models. They’re generally cheaper for the same amount of power and typically aren’t as heavy, which when paired with the secondary handle, makes them slightly easier to use.
Another boon is that as long as you have somewhere to plug in, they’ll never run out of power. This is a major advantage if you’re doing a job that requires a lot of heavy-duty drilling, such as fixing shelves or cabinets to a brick wall.
Measured in watts, they generally range from 450 to 1,500 watts. The higher the wattage, the more power, with the most powerful hammer drill models capable of masonry drilling as well as wood. This may be overkill for some, and in general, anything around 700 watts is good for the needs of most beginners and DIYers.
Different Types of Corded Drills
For the most part, the only corded drills you’ll need are hammer drills. These are designed for heavy-duty drilling in materials such as concrete and brickwork. Professionals will carry one for this very reason, drilling into the hard stuff with a corded hammer drill and using their cordless drill driver for fixing.
Having said that, pretty much all hammer drills offer the option to turn off the hammer feature. In this way, they can function as a simple rotary drill that is great for drilling into wood.
An SDS (slotted/special drive system) rotary hammer drill is a step up. They take a special drill bit in a unique type of keyless chuck and are great for the heaviest duty masonry work. With the ability to switch off the rotary action, you can use them to chisel through stone, concrete, brick, and much more, like a handheld jackhammer.
Different Types of Drill Bits and Their Uses
The tool you choose is only as good as the drill bit you use. Drill bits cut holes into the material, boring through to create a hole either all the way through or to a set depth. They come in various shapes and sizes to carry out a host of tasks. Let’s take a look at some of the ones you’re most likely to come across.
Twist Drill Bits
Perhaps the most common and easily recognizable drill bit has to be the twist drill. Great for general-purpose woodworking and even metalwork, they come in a range of sizes, generally in 1/64″ increments from 1/16″ to 1/2″ in diameter. Larger twist drill bits do exist, but you’ll normally need to look for ones with reduced shanks to be sure they’ll fit your tools.
Twist drills can be made from various different materials. Cheaper carbon steel twist drills are okay for softer material, but if you’re working with hardwoods or metal, it’s worth buying HHS (high-speed-steel) drill bits. Titanium-coated bits aren’t really necessary for woodwork but are great for drilling metal.
One common issue with twist drills is that they’re notoriously difficult to locate on the center point of a hole. As such, it’s worth using an awl or punch to mark the center before you begin drilling. This is particularly important on hardwood and sheet metal to prevent slipping and scratching the surface.
Masonry Twist Drill Bit
These look similar to a standard twist drill bit but have a tungsten-carbide tip, designed to bore through brickwork, concrete, and even stone. They’re not much good for woodwork though.
Brad Point Bits
Also known as a dowel drill bit, this is similar to twist drills except for the tip. It features a sharp center point to allow for precise drilling and two spurs that ensure a cleaner cut. Using a brad-point bit also helps to prevent splintering as you finish drilling your hole. They create an almost flat bottomed hole, ideal for housing a dowel.
Spade bits are designed to drill larger holes than a standard drill bit. They look like a miniature spade, with a sharp tip that acts as a lead point. The cutting edge shaves large chunks of wood as it bores holes up to one and a half inches (38 mm) wide. Spade bits are great for cutting holes for pipes or cables to pass through.
Popular among the pros, these give a cleaner cut than most bits and a flat bottomed hole. The small center point makes it difficult to hit the mark, but it’s the outer rim that guides the bit. So, unlike most drill bits, you don’t need to center it on the wood, making Forstner bits a great tool for cutting holes on the edge of your workpiece, overlapping holes, and angled holes.
They’re available in sizes up to 2″ (50 mm) and are one of the best choices for perfect mortises and chopping in hinges.
For cutting a large hole that is perfectly circular, you’ll need a hole saw. Hole saws use a cup-shaped blade and are available in a range of sizes up to six inches. The blade fits onto a mandrel that has a twist bit in the center. This drills the pilot hole before the saw cuts into the surface of the wood.
Rather than chipping all of the wood in the hole, you’re left with a solid circle of waste when you’re finished. They’re ideal for cutting cable and pipe access holes in desks, kitchen cabinets, and countertops.
SDS Drill Bits
These have a special slotted shank that allows them to fit into SDS hammer drills with a simple push and a twist. They don’t need to be tightened, and can only be released when you pull the collar up.
Screwdriver and Miscellaneous Drill Bits
When it comes to fixing screws and bolts, there are a number of bits you can consider. Cordless drills can take a range of screwdriver bits, both cross-head and slotted, as well as hex bits and much more.
It’s often best to drill pilot holes before you screw into wood, especially hardwoods, woods with irregular grain, and end grain. You can also gain a more attractive look if you hide your fixings, or allow them to finish flush or below the surface. Here are a few bits to help you with this.
- Countersink bit: These small bits have tapered tips, with four cutting edges. They dig a small recess into the wood, in which your screw heads will sit, hidden below the surface. To use it, drill a pilot hole first, then center the countersink bit on the hole and drill at a high speed, applying pressure to give a clean finish.
- Drill and countersink bit: A smart little invention that’s useful if you’re drilling a lot of pilot holes. They’re available in a range of sizes to match standard screw measurements. It features a short twist drill bit with a countersink bit at the top, allowing you to do two jobs in one drilling process. This is a huge time saver, as you don’t need to swap bits out repeatedly.
- Drill and counter-bore bit: Similar to the previous bit, instead of creating a recess for the screw head, it leaves a tidy hole, ensuring the screw is driven well below the work surface. This can later be filled with a plug to hide the fitting.
- Plug cutter: Perfect for creating a plug to fit into the hole left by a counter-bore bit, simply drill into a piece of scrap wood of the same material that your workpiece is made from. This is great for hiding fixings in workpieces that you plan to stain rather than paint.
Is It Worth Buying a Drill Press for Woodworking?
A drill press, or pillar drill, is a handy machine if you anticipate drilling a lot of wood, and they’re even good for drilling metal. However, they’re expensive and take up a fair bit of space. They’re normally used by the pros, who need the consistency assured by a pillar drill.
Ideal for perfect mortise joints, it’s easy to set the depth, and they cope with hardwoods much better than a handheld drill. A drill press will also ensure perfectly straight holes every time, something that can be difficult to master at first. But as a beginner, it’s really not worth prioritizing this bulky machine.
Instead, it’s possible to convert a handheld electric drill into a small bench-top pillar drill. Many manufacturers produce affordable accessories that allow you to use your cordless or corded tools like a drill press.
Drilling and Boring Tips and Tricks
Drilling wood perfectly straight takes practice, but there are a few tips that can make the drilling process go without a hitch. Here are a few pointers.
- Choose the right bit for the job: Buy a simple starter set of drill bits that includes a range of twist bits for wood and metal, as well as a few spade bits. Be sure to use the correct bit for each material you’re working with.
- Use sharp bits: The difference between a sharp and a dull drill bit is enormous. Sharp bits are much easier and safer to use, and also prolong the life of your drill. If you’re struggling to drill a hole, or it smells like burning, it’s almost certainly because the bit is blunt. You can sharpen bits yourself using a jig and bench grinder, but it’s fine to buy a replacement instead.
- Back off: One common mistake made by novices is not clearing out the drill bit. As you drill, chips of wood can get clogged in the flutes of the drill bit. This causes it to struggle and overheat. When drilling wood, pull the bit out every inch or so, then blow away the debris to clear it out.
- Choose your speed wisely: Setting the correct drilling speed ensures the best results and increases the lifespan of both your drill and drill bits. A general rule of thumb to follow is to use lower speeds for harder woods and larger diameter bits, and higher speeds for softwoods and small bits. A large bit takes more effort to spin quickly, which can result in overheating of the wood and the bit. Meanwhile, drilling too slowly can result in chewed-up wood, rather than it being properly cut. Our second rule of thumb, if your wood is burnt, slow it down, if it’s chewed up, speed it up!
- Drill pilot holes for screws and nails: If you don’t, there’s a good chance the wood will split or crack, damaging your project. Also, use an awl or punch to start the hole and avoid twist bits slipping and scratching the surface.
- Make several passes: With a lower-powered drill, you might struggle to drill a large hole in harder material. However, it’s still possible, just start with a thinner drill bit, then work your way up to the desired diameter.
- DIY depth stop: If your drill doesn’t have a depth stop, you can use electrical tape as a cheap and easy alternative. Simply measure along the length of your drill bit, wrap the tape at the required depth, and stop drilling when you reach the tape.
- Slow down: As you finish drilling through your workpiece, slow the speed down to avoid splintering and damaging the back face. Alternatively, stop when just the very tip is through, then finish the hole by drilling through from the other side. Another method is to clamp a piece of scrap onto the back.
- Secure your work: Before you begin drilling, use a bench vice or clamps to hold your work tight, allowing you to use both hands on your drill for better control.
- Never force your drill: Don’t apply too much pressure when you’re drilling metal or wood as this can dull the drill bit, strain the motor, and break the bit. Instead, let the tool do the work, and remember to back off and clear the debris every now and then. Drill bits tend to break if they’re being forced to work with the wrong type of material, get clogged up, are blunt, or aren’t adequately lubed. Which leads us onto our next point.
- Use lube for tough wood and metal: For extremely hardwoods, it helps to use a bit of lubricant on your drill bit. Drier, non-oily lubricants are best, with soap or candle wax working well. For drilling metal, you can find a wealth of lubricants on the market. Lubing the bit prevents overheating and reduces the risk of breakages. Just don’t overdo it, as this can cause debris to stick to the drill bit.
- Keep cool: Another trick for drilling tough hardwood is to keep a pot of cold water on hand. As the bit gets hot, dip it into the water to cool it down to prevent it from dulling too quickly.
Ready to Start Routing?
Phew that was a long one! But by now you should know all you need to prevent you making rookie drilling mistakes on your next project. In the next chapter, we’re going to step things up a notch and look at another fantastic woodworking tool. Read on to learn how to use a router (COMING SOON!).