How to Use a Drill

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The power tool commonly referred to as a drill has two primary uses, drilling, and driving. They rotate at slow speeds compared to other power tools and do not feature a blade. While it might seem intimidating at first, a drill is a fairly simple machine that any DIY enthusiast should be able to master. 

Using a Drill

Drills are able to provide much more torque, or rotational force, than humans could accomplish with their muscles alone. When using a drill to make a hole, you are drilling. When the drill is used to insert a fastener into the material, this is called driving. 

Person holding a drill

Key Parts of a Drill

Regardless of brand or model, all drills share some common anatomy. Knowing these parts and their purpose will allow you to confidently and safely operate any drill. 

Power Source

Drills can be corded or cordless. A corded drill should be plugged into a GFCI grounded outlet. It can be attached to an extension cord for greater maneuverability. Battery operated drills are powered by a rechargeable battery pack. Most models come with one battery and a charger. 

One of the most important considerations when purchasing a new cordless drill is how long you can expect the drill battery to last. When the battery starts to run out, it must be removed and placed on the charger. 

This can significantly disrupt your project timeline, as charging times vary from 15 minutes to 5 hours. If your drill battery takes a long time to charge, you may want to invest in a second battery or a fast-charging model.

Chuck

The chuck has three jaws that work in tandem to hold the drill bit securely in place.The bit must be securely fastened to the drill in order to work. Keyless drills can be opened and closed by rotating the plastic collar at the tip of your drill. A keyed drill provides additional torque to keep the bit secure. Owning a keyed drill does require keeping track of a key in order to remove and replace the drill bit. 

Chucks come in different sizes. The most common sizes are ⅜ of an inch, ½ of an inch, and ¾ of an inch. The shank of the bit you choose must be compatible with your chuck. 

Clutch

The amount of torque produced while the drill runs is controlled by the clutch.  Higher torque settings turn the drill bit more forcefully, while lower torque settings use less power. A dial around the barrel of the drill is used to set the level of torque appropriate to the task at hand. 

Trigger 

The trigger is located on the handle of the drill, just underneath the barrel. When you grasp the drill by the handle, your index finger will naturally rest on the trigger. Pressing the trigger allows power to flow, rotating the drill chuck.

Most drills are pressure sensitive, meaning the speed of the drill corresponds to how much pressure is applied to the trigger. Lower speeds are appropriate for drilling through glass and tile or making large holes. Higher speeds are used to drive screws into wood. 

Forward/Reverse Toggle

Usually located on the handle of the drill, behind the trigger, this toggle switch controls the rotation direction of the screw. One side of the toggle has an arrow pointing forward, the other points back at the user. 

When the side with the forward-pointing arrow is pressed in, the drill will rotate in a clockwise direction and can be used to make holes and fasten screws. When the other side of the toggle is engaged, the drill will spin counterclockwise. This setting can be used to remove screws or cleanly exit holes. 

Step-by-step Instructions for Drill Use

  1. If you have a battery-powered drill, check the charge of the battery before you do anything else. If you forgot to remove the battery the last time you drilled, pop it on the charger. 
  2. Select an appropriate bit. The shank of the bit you choose should be compatible with the size and configuration of your drill chuck. Sharp bits drill more efficiently; you can sharpen a dull bit using a sharpener or a bench grinder. You may need a specific bit shape or material in order to complete your task. 
  3. Loosen the chuck, using a key if necessary. If there is a bit already in the chuck, remove it and store it immediately. Putting drill bits down on your work surface is the fastest way to lose them. Some drills feature a groove that can hold a bit, which comes in handy if you’re switching back and forth between tasks. 
  4. Insert the shank of the bit into the chuck and secure it using the plastic collar at the tip of the drill barrel, or the manufacturer-provided key. Use the clutch to set the appropriate level of torque. The best level of torque is dependent on the kind of job you’re trying to accomplish. When driving screws with your drill, start with the lowest torque. 
  5. Check the rotation direction of the drill and adjust the forward/reverse toggle if necessary. Reverse is used to remove screws or exit holes. Forward is used for creating holes and inserting screws. If your workpiece is mobile, attach it to a stable surface using clamps or a vise. 
  6. Plug the drill into a GFCI outlet or attach a charged battery to the base. Put on eye protection. Create an indentation on the material to guide the screw or drill bit into the material. You can do this with a punch, with the point of a nail, or with a smaller drill bit. 
  7. If you’re working with wood that is prone to cracking, drill a thin pilot hole to the same depth of your screw.  When drilling a pilot hole in wood, painters tape applied to the surface in an X formation can help prevent cracking and splitting. Countersink bits can be used to drill pilot holes with a depression in the surface of the wood. When the screw is fully inserted, the head nestles into this depression, creating a flat surface without screw protrusions. 
  8. Place the screw tip or the tip of the bit in the pilot hole or indentation you just made. The bit or screw will enter the material at the angle of the drill. For most applications, you will want the drill to be perpendicular to the drilling surface at approximately a 90 degree angle.
  9. Apply pressure to the trigger until the bit starts to slowly rotate. Watch the tip of the screw or bit, ensuring it stays centered in your indentation. Carefully increase the speed until the bit or screw begins to enter the material. Slow speeds will help you drill steadily through hard materials such as metal. For softer materials like wood and plastic, a faster speed is appropriate. Note that some drills do not feature adjustable speed. 
  10. Guide the bit or screw through the material without pushing or forcing, which may case hardware failure. If you’re driving, release the trigger and remove the bit from the screw head when the screw is fully inserted. If you’re drilling (making a hole) work the bit into the material one inch at a time. 
  11. After every inch, release the trigger. Flip the toggle switch to reverse and gently guide the bit out of the hole. Friction between the material and the drill bit causes heat, which can prematurely dull the bit and make your job harder. Dipping the tip of the drill bit in water will cool it off, retaining the sharp edge. If you’ve been drilling into wood with a twist bit, the grooves may be clogged with sawdust. You can remove the sawdust with a brush. Flip the toggle switch to the forward position before you resume the job. 
  12. If you are drilling all the way through the material, slow down as you approach the far side. Don’t push on the drill or apply extra pressure. A smooth, slow approach is your best chance of creating a smooth exit hole. Burrs or chips in your material are a sign that the bit was rotating too quickly. If you need a clean exit, stop drilling when the very tip of the drill bit starts to protrude. Flip your workpiece over and drill into it from the other side. 
  13. When the battery starts to run down, you will feel the change in power. It’s best to stop drilling and swap out the battery for one that is freshly charged. Continuing to drill with inadequate power will be time-consuming and inefficient. You may apply extra pressure to the drill, which is hard on the motor. 
  14. Disconnect the drill from power. If necessary, finish the entry or exit hole with an abrasive material. Sandpaper works well for woods, while a grinding wheel is more appropriate for metal.  
Drill bit set

What Drill Bit Should I Use?

You can’t use a drill without a bit of some kind. Bits have a metal shank that is inserted into the chuck of the drill. Most drills include a Phillips/flat head combination driver bit. Drill bit sets are sold separately, or you can purchase individual drill bits as needed. 

Screw Driver Bit

Drills can be used to significantly speed up the time it takes to insert screws into material. The best drill bits can replace fastening tools such as slotted, square, or star-shaped tools, Phillips screwdrivers, and hex or allen keys.  

Twist Drill Bit

The most common type of bit used for drilling by homeowners is called a twist drill bit. 

Twist drill bits make holes in light materials such as plastic, wood, ceramic, masonry, and some metals

Spade Drill Bit

A spade drill bit is used for boring large holes in non-metal surfaces such as brick. This is the second most common bit used for drilling and is often included in basic drill bit sets.

This type of bit should be used at high speeds. The distinctive shape can get caught in the drill hole. To avoid this, enter and exit the material without changing the angle of the drill. 

Brad/Pilot Point Drill Bit

Thanks to a sharp center pin, drill bits of this kind create straight, smooth holes with a clean exit. They are easily identified by their W-shaped tip. Brad and pilot point drill bits are best for cabinetry and general woodworking

Auger Drill Bit

A spiral-shaped bit that cuts smooth, deep holes into wood, the auger bit is also used by woodworkers. Auger drill bits are much longer than twist, brad, and pilot bits, and are able to penetrate much more deeply into large beams or even tree trunks. 

Material-Specific bits

A tile drill bit has a carbide tip. This minimizes chipping and cracking while drilling through tile. Tile drill bits can be used on porcelain or ceramic.

Another material that requires a specialty bit is glass. The tip is a single thin triangle of sharp metal. When attached to a rotary drill operated at slow speeds, the tip can bore through tempered or untempered glass. 

You can purchase all types and sizes of drill bits at a hardware or home improvement store. You can also purchase a sharpener to sharpen your own drill bits.

Corded vs Cordless Drills

Both corded and cordless drills are great, but which option is best for you? Chances are you already have a drill, but each type has their unique features.

Cordless drills are incredibly convenient. They can be taken to the project without any hassle. No need to for extension cords. Provided you have a charged battery, they are perfect for quick drilling jobs.

Corded drills have a cord, but usually have more power. While it can be a bit inconvenient, you want to opt for a high powered corded drill when you’re drilling into tough materials.

Impact Drivers vs Drills

One source of confusion for new drill users is the difference between drills and drivers. These two tools look very similar, although an impact driver is usually smaller than a drill. 

While a drill can be used to bore holes or drive screws, an impact driver is a powerful but single-task tool. They tend to be more comfortable to use over a long period of time. If you have a lot of screws to insert, choose an impact driver. For a flexible, multi-purpose tool, opt for a drill. 

Conclusion

A power drill is one of the safest and easiest tools to master. Learn the parts of the drill and how they work together to drill and drive. The drill bit you choose must match your drill and the application at hand. Start slowly and check your drill often to avoid mistakes.

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.