How to Cut a Groove in Wood With a Drill

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The technical term for cutting a groove in wood is ‘routing’. Routers are tools designed specifically for this purpose, but not everyone owns one, and they don’t fit in every space. Handheld drills offer greater flexibility than routers and, when paired with this guide, can be used to cut a groove in wood. 

Cutting a Groove in Wood With a Drill

Maybe you have just one small channel to make, and don’t want to invest in a new tool. Or perhaps you need a groove inside a tight space, such as a cabinet. Whatever your reason for using a drill to cut grooves in wood, follow these steps for the best results. 

Person holding a drill

Method One: Tilt the Drill

  1. Mark the line of the groove. Choose a metal straightedge instead of a spare piece of lumber for the most accurate result.
  2. If working with loose wood, securely attach the board to your work surface using clamps or a vise. Put on protective equipment.
  3. Attach a twist drill bit to the chuck of your drill. The groove you make will be the same size as the diameter of the bit. For instance, if you want a ½ inch groove, choose a ½ inch drill bit.  
  4. Grasp the drill in your dominant hand. Using a medium-high speed, start the groove by plunging the drill bit through the surface of the wood at a 90 degree angle. 
  5. While drilling, slowly tilt the drill. Gradually increase the tilt until the bit is horizontal. Move the drill forward through the wood until the groove is the length you desire. 
  6. Inspect the groove. Sandpaper can be used to remove splinters and smooth the edges of the groove. 

Method Two: Freehand Grooves

  1. Choose a twist drill bit. For this method, longer bits are better than short ones. The diameter of the bit should match the diameter of the groove you are trying to make. 
  2. Measure the bit from the tip to the drill chuck. Subtract the depth of the groove. The resulting measurement is how much of the bit you need to prevent from entering the wood. 
  3. An improvised depth guard will prevent the bit from penetrating too deeply into the wood. Find or cut a block of wood to the appropriate size. Drill into and through the block of wood. Only the tip of the bit should be exposed. 
  4. Double check your depth guard by measuring the exposed drill bit tip. It should be exactly the size of your intended channel. 
  5. Secure the board to your work surface and mark the path of your channel or groove. Use a pencil and a metal straightedge. Put on glasses and a dust mask. 
  6. Using a medium-high speed, plunge the drill into the wood until the wooden depth guard touches the work surface. 
  7. Applying gentle pressure and keeping the bit fully inserted, slowly guide the drill sideways. Although drill bits are designed for vertical cutting, the threads can cut horizontally as well. 
  8. Work your improvised router along the mark to create a freehand groove. Don’t expect a perfectly straight, even, and smooth cut. When the groove is your desired length, clean it and finish it with sandpaper. 

Common Types of Grooves in Wood

Learning the differences between types of wood grooves will help you plan your cut and choose which method to use. 

Rabbet

A rabbet is a notch cut in the end of wood. It can be cut with or against the grain. The sides of the notch form a 90 degree angle. Rabbets are always placed at the end of boards, and are used in cabinetmaking to join two pieces of wood. 

Dado

A dado is a slot or trench that runs across the grain of the wood. It is square or rectangular in shape. Dados are often used to support shelving. They are most commonly cut with a dado blade on a table saw.

Joinery Groove

While ‘groove’ can be used to describe any trench, slot, or notch cut into wood, it has an additional specific meaning in the context of joinery.  Grooves run along the grain of the wood, rather than across it like dadoes. You can use a good router for a variety of joinery grooves.

Learn how to use a router as a jointer for your woodworking projects.

Is a Drill the Best Tool for Cutting Grooves in Wood?

While a drill can be used in a pinch to create a groove, it is not designed for this purpose. Other tools have features that make them better suited to cutting certain kinds of grooves. 

Router

If you need to make a lot of grooves, it’s worth it to invest in a router. Routers can have a fixed base, a plunge base, or both. Choose a model with both options for maximum usability. 

Read our review of the best plunge router here.

Router ready to cut wood grooves

Rotary Tool

A handheld rotary tool with a dremel router attachment is perfect for making short channels. When long, straight grooves are necessary, choose another option. 

Table Saw

If you need to make a long, perfectly straight, flat-bottomed groove, a table saw is the best tool for the job. Drawer slide grooves are often made using table saws. 

There are a variety of table saw options – here is our guide to help you pick.

Circular Saw

From a safety perspective, smaller circular saws are not the right tool to make grooves in wood. They are designed for cuts that start at the edge of the board. While it’s possible to cut a groove in wood using a circular saw, it is very difficult to control the depth and length.

This is only the right tool if it is the only one you have on hand.

Plunge Saw

This kind of saw is designed to start a cut anywhere on the wood, and is a better choice for making grooves than a circular saw. Guides or rails can be used to make straight, even grooves. 

Can I Use a Router Bit to Drill a Groove in Wood?

You can not use a router bit to drill a groove in wood. You never want to use a router bit with a drill.

There are several important differences between routers and drills. A drill applies vertical stress to wood at lower RPM, while a router applies horizontal stress at a higher RPM. If you use a router bit with a drill, it may break and become a dangerous projectile. 

Conclusion

There are two easy methods you can use to cut a groove in wood using a drill. Other tools may be better suited to this task, especially when long, straight, and even grooves are important. Never use a router bit with a handheld drill.

An expert at home repair, remodel, and DIY projects for nearly 40 years. His first experience came in completely restoring an antique home. Completely redone from the inside out, and restored to its original form, the home is a featured design by renowned Southern California Architect Cliff May, considered to be the father of the California Ranch Home. Now Dennis spends his time on fine woodworking projects and tool comparisons.