I Bet You Thought You Knew How to Use a Power Drill...

I know what you're thinking. "No, I really do know how to use a power drill." That's what I thought, too, until I nearly broke my wrist trying to drill into aluminum on the wrong settings. Not my proudest moment, and not something I want anyone else to experience!

So, I turned up my nerd factor and got to researching. Now you can quietly peruse this thorough guide and no one will ever know you didn't really know how to use a power drill. I won't tell anyone. Promise.

Drill Basics

Drills work by using torque to drill holes and drive screws. Put simply, torque is a twisting force that causes rotation. There are some lovely equations involving torque, if you’re into that sort of thing. But, if not, no worries. Luckily, math isn't necessary for operating a drill.

Handheld power drills can be battery-powered or corded. Corded drills have more power and are therefore a must for hardwoods and larger-bore holes. At the front of the drill is the CHUCK—a specialized clamp that holds the bit in place. Rotate the chuck to tighten and loosen the three jaws inside the cylinder to accept different size bits. This feature allows one drill to accept a range of drill bit sizes.  

Just behind the chuck is a NUMBERED CLUTCH DIAL, which is arguably the most important feature on a drill, and the one you will adjust most often. The clutch controls the torque range; a higher number means more torque. To adjust the clutch, spin it to align your target setting to the arrow on top of the drill. The spin of your drill will only apply as much force as the clutch allows. The clutch will disengage the motor when there is too much resistance, which helps prevent over-tightening screws and the bit slipping and stripping the screw. When driving a screw, always start with a low torque setting and work your way up!

Your clutch dial will also have a DRILL SETTING (and if it’s a hammer drill, a hammer setting as well). The drill setting should only be used for drilling, never for driving! The drill setting prevents the clutch from disengaging the motor, which means the drill will continue to spin even if it meets great resistance, putting your wrist and hand at risk of serious injury.

Most drills will have a VARIABLE SPEED TRIGGER. Depressing the trigger slightly will start you with a slow spin; likewise, depressing the trigger completely will get you quickly to full speed. This feature is more useful than you think. Start slow to assure accuracy, and work up your speed and torque as needed.  

The BUTTON ON THE SIDE of the drill shows which direction it will spin. Drilling holes and driving screws will use a forward/clockwise/righty-tighty motion. Loosening and removing screws will use a backward/counter-clockwise/lefty-loosey motion. Depress the direction button only slightly so that it is between the forwards and backwards positions to LOCK the drill and deactivate the trigger. Use this safety feature whenever you are changing bits, making other adjustments, and during travel and storage.

On the top of the drill is a GEAR SWITCH with two or three settings. This switch changes the rotation speed of the drill. Higher numbers mean faster speeds but lower torque. Generally, you will want to use a higher speed for drilling holes and lower speed for driving screws... but you knew all that, right?

Types of Bits

A power drill itself won’t accomplish much without a BIT, the attachment held by the chuck that is used to drill or drive. When pre-drilling for screws, choose a DRILL BIT that matches the screw you will be using. If you hold the drill bit directly in front of the screw and look at it, only the threads of the screw should be showing. This will assure a hole wide enough for the screw to go in without splitting the wood and small enough so that the threads of the screw can hold it in place firmly. For driving bits, choose a bit that matches the DRIVE TYPE (slot, Philips, square, star, etc.) and size of your screw. Test your driving bit with your screw before you begin to make sure it will drive firmly and not risk slipping and damaging pieces.

The most standad drill bits are TWIST DRILL BITS. They are cheap and simple, the hamburger helper of drill bits. The drawback is that they can wander a bit before digging into the wood, costing accuracy. Some drill bits will have a BRAD TIP, a point on the end of the bit that increases accuracy. Brad points can be found on some twist drill bits and most spade and forstner bits.

SPADE BITS are flat (spade-shaped) and are available in larger sizes than most twist bits you’ll find. They're effective at drilling larger holes, but they make an aggressive, rough cut. Forstner bits are preferred for drilling larger holes in wood as they make a much cleaner cut and are best used on a drill press rather than a handheld for accuracy.

To prevent an unsightly screw head from sticking up from the surface of the wood and spoiling an otherwise smooth finish, you can use a COUNTERSINK BIT. After drilling a hole, use this bit to create a small indentation so that the screw will sit flush against the surface of the wood.

Driving bits come in different shapes to accommodate different types of screws. They also come in different sizes! Don’t assume that any Phillips bit will work with a wood screw. A bit that is too small will not lock into the drive properly and will likely strip the screw and ruin the bit. A bit that is too large will not seat well into the drive and will similarly risk slipping and stripping the screw and damaging the bit. When matching a bit to a screw, always make sure the bit sits firmly into the screw head.

Longer bits can be installed directly into the chuck of a drill. Short bit tips are best used with an extender. Bit extenders are also useful because bit tips can be swapped out quickly without having to open/close the chuck. Many, but not all, driving bits are magnetic. This helps free up a hand by holding a screw in place as you start to drive it into a hole. Similarly, bit extenders sometimes come with a sleeve that you can slide forward to hold a screw in place, and it automatically retracts as the screw is driven into the surface.

Installing the Bit

Before removing or installing a bit, always lock your drill using the directional button, or unplug it in the case of a corded drill. Place the bit, business end pointed out, between the three jaws in the chuck. Hold the bit in place as you spin the chuck to tighten the jaws firmly around the bit. Hold the chuck and tighten by gently depressing the trigger. This is best used when switching from a large bit to a smaller one (or vice versa) to cover the distance faster. Use the motor to tighten part of the way and then hand-tighten the rest of the way. Make sure that the bit is centered between the three gripping arms inside the chuck and that the shank is held tightly. After installing a bit, give it a test spin to make sure it is centered and secure. A loose bit can cause damage to your material, drill a crooked hole, or cause debris or the bit itself to fly off.

Drilling

When drilling, always make sure the drill is in the forward position. A drill bit spinning the wrong way against wood will burn the wood and bit without accomplishing much, and can cause injury if the drill catches and spins unexpectedly.

For best accuracy, use a punch to mark a DIVOT where the center of the hole will be, then line up the tip of the drill bit to the divot. To use the punch, put the metal tip where you want your mark to be, hold the punch perpendicular to the surface, and press it into the material. The spring mechanism inside will punch a small divot into your material.

Always PRE-DRILL a pilot hole for your screw. This will make the screw easier to drive, hold more firmly, and will help prevent the wood from cracking, which is especially important at the end of a board. When drilling a large diameter hole, start with a smaller bit to drill a pilot hole. The larger bit will then drill easier and more accurately. Use a slow speed when you first start drilling to prevent the bit from jumping around. The larger the drill bit, the slower the drill should spin. Use the lowest gear when using larger bits, and use the clutch to increase torque as needed. After drilling the hole, keep the drill spinning as you back the bit out of the hole. When drilling a hole all the way through wood, clamp a scrap board behind where you are drilling to prevent the drill bit from blowing out the back and splintering the hole. When drilling deep holes, take breaks so the bit remains cool and doesn’t scorch the wood! Remove sawdust debris from the drill bit intermittently to prevent clogging.

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Driving

When driving, make sure your driving bit is appropriate to the screws being used. If you’re working in a small space, you can use an extender to get extra reach from the drill. Drive slowly so as not to strip the screw and use the gear switch and clutch to fine-tune your speed and torque. If the screw is not driving even with higher torque, you may need to widen the hole. Back the screw out, choose a slightly larger drill bit, and drill into your hole, widening it. Careful not to overshoot and drill a hole too big for the screw to drive securely into. If desired, use a countersink bit to create a divot in the wood so that the screw sits flush to the surface. Lastly, if you want what you are working on to last, always pre-drill.

Safety

A handheld drill is one of the safer power tools you can use, but that does not mean you can't get hurt.

  • Make sure the drill is in proper condition! Ensure the power cord or battery is intact and that the jaws of the chuck hold a bit firmly in place. Do not use a power tool that seems damaged or does not appear to be functioning correctly.
  • Appropriate Clothing! Avoid loose clothing and jewelry, and tie back long hair. Wear fitted, thick gloves to protect against the strong vibrations and burns. Wear protective glasses to protect your eyes from tiny bits of material and dust created while drilling. Regular eyeglasses are not enough to properly protect your eyes; use goggles or safety glasses. Use a breathing mask or respirator when drilling material that creates a lot of dust.
  • Power down between work! Lock a drill when you are changing bits, transporting it, or storing it, and avoid leaving a drill plugged in when you are done working. Clamp the piece you are drilling rather than trying to hold it with your hand. Smaller pieces can bind in the drill bit and become spinning weapons of doom faster than you can react.

There you have it! Mind blown at how much you didn't know about using a power drill? Well, there's more where that came from. Follow The Escapery for more on our prop building, how-to's, and safety tips!

Katie Mae Poore