How to Drill a Hole in Wood

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Sooner or later every DIYer or home improvement enthusiast needs to drill a hole in wood. Beginners may be intimidated by this task, but the necessary skills are easy to master. Whether you’re drilling pilot holes or plumbing pass-throughs, proper technique will help you achieve even, straight holes. 

Drilling a Hole in Wood

The actual process of drilling into wood is not hard. But, if you want to be precise, then you need to pay attention to several details. Here is a step by step guide.

Person holding a drill
  1. Set up your workspace in a well-lit area. You will need a drill connected to power, a bit and eye protection. Measure and mark your cut with a pencil, and then use a nailhead or an awl to make an indentation in the surface of the wood to guide the bit. Two pieces of painter’s tape applied over the indentation in an X-formation will support the wood edge while it’s drilled. This support helps achieve a clean entry hole with no chipping or splitting.
  2. If possible, clamp a piece of scrap wood to the backside of your project. When the drill bit punches out of the wood, the backing wood will support the fibers and make cracking less likely. If you are working with loose wood, secure it to your workspace to avoid cracks, splits, and checks. Unsecured workpieces may not be heavy enough to withstand the torque of the drill, and can end up spinning around the bit. 
  3. Choose an appropriate drill bit. If you are drilling a pilot hole for a nail, use a bit that is slightly smaller than the diameter of the nail. If the pilot hole is for a screw, ignore the threads and choose a bit that matches the body of the screw. For a large diameter hole, choose a spade bit. A Forstner bit will create flat bottomed holes in wood. See our best drill bit reviews for more information.
  4. To drill hardware into a door or install a passthrough for wiring, a drill press can create a hole a few inches deep. If you need to bore through something thicker, an auger bit is the best choice. If the bit appears dull, you can sharpen it using a grinder
  5. Insert the bit in the drill chuck and secure it by rotating the plastic collar of your drill barrel, or by using a drill key.
  6. If your drill has a depth guard, adjust it to ensure you don’t overdrill. A depth guard is a thin, adjustable rod attached to the side of the drill. Using a depth guard correctly gives you precise control over the depth of the hole you drill. If your drill doesn’t have a depth guard, wrap a piece of painter’s tape around the bit to use as a visual guide. 
  7. Connect the corded drill to power (unless using a cordless drill) and put on your protective gear. Eye glasses or goggles will keep sawdust out of your eyes. Decide whether or not to use ear protection. 

The noise from cordless drills measures around 78 decibels, with corded drills hovering between 90 and 95 decibels. Occupational noise exposure guidelines require hearing protection to be used if volumes of 85 decibels or more are sustained over an eight-hour workday. You’ll definitely want earmuffs or earplugs if you have a long day of drilling planned. 

Man demonstrating how to drill into wood
  1. Make sure the forward/reverse toggle is set to forward. Place the tip of the drill bit against the surface of the wood, with the center of the bit touching the indentation you made in step one. Hold the drill at a 90 degree angle to the material. Many models include a bubble level on the barrel of the drill. Use this to assist you in achieving the proper angle. 
  2. When you are ready to begin, plant your feet firmly and slowly squeeze the trigger. If the bit spins or pushes back, place your non-dominant hand on the back of the drill to provide gentle resistance and keep the drill in place. When the tip of the drill bit has entered the wood, increase the speed of rotation by squeezing harder on the trigger Drill to a depth of one inch or less. 
  3. When you reach 1″, switch to reverse and gently back out of the hole. Inspect the bit. If sawdust has clogged the bit threads, brush or blow it out. Continue to drill through the wood in one inch sections. If the tip of the drill bit gets hot to the touch, dip it in a cup of water. Heat dulls metal, so keeping your drill bit cool will maintain it’s sharp edge. 
  4. If you’re using a depth guard, stop drilling when the guard comes into contact with the surface of the wood. When drilling all the way through a piece of wood, pause before you complete the hole. If a clean exit hole is important, drill only until the tip of the bit starts to poke through. 
  5. Flip the workpiece over, reclamping if necessary, and finish the hole from the other direction. Disconnect the drill from power. If using a battery-operated drill, put the battery on the charger. Remove the bit from the chuck.  If desired, use sandpaper to finish the edges of the hole. 

Do I Need to Drill a Pilot Hole in Wood?

When a screw forces its way through wood, the pressure can cause wood to split, making a distinctive cracking sound. Cracked or split wood becomes less stable and secure, and may need to be replaced or reinforced. 

Predrilling (making pilot holes) avoids cracks and splits by creating a hollow shaft, slightly smaller than the diameter of your screw. The threads of the screw cut through the sides of the shaft without exerting downward pressure. As a rule, a pilot hole should be as deep as the screw it is intended to receive. 

Softwoods are less susceptible to cracking and splitting than hardwoods. If you are screwing two pieces of hardwood together, pilot holes are essential. 

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Handheld drills can be used to drill holes through wood. Select the right bit for your intended hole. Predrilling pilot holes will reduce the likelihood of screw-related cracking and splitting.

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.