Do You Need To Drill A Hole Before Screwing Into Wood?

If you’re not experienced in DIY and home improvement projects, you might be wondering how it all works.

It’s not completely necessary to drill a hole into the wood before landing a screw. But there are a few reasons why you may want to consider it.

Do You Need To Drill A Hole Before Screwing Into Wood?

It certainly seems like it would be easier, but then again, what if the hole was too large or too small? Maybe it’s just an extra step you can skip.

In this post, we’re going to explore why you might want to drill a hole before screwing into wood. There’s probably more to the answer than you’re thinking.

So let’s get started.

Are Pilot Holes Necessary And When Are They Needed

We’ve already addressed that this step isn’t 100 percent necessary in every case, but there are times when drilling a hole first is definitely recommended.

This hole we’re speaking of is called a pilot hole, and it can help you get the most effective and longest-lasting fastening power from that screw you’re driving. So, if you want it done right the first time or if it’s an especially important job, you should bite the bullet and drive that pilot hole before you insert the screw.

Pilot holes offer a guarantee that your screw won’t break off and the wood won’t crack as you’re driving the screw. And when you don’t have a predrilled pilot hole, cracking and splitting is a definite possibility.

When you’re working with hardwoods, you’re almost always going to want the pilot hole to be the same size as the screw’s smallest diameter. But if you’re working with especially hardwood, or if the screw features deep threads, you’re going to want your pilot hole to be another 1/64-in. Larger than the screw’s smallest diameter.

If you skip the pilot hole altogether or drill one that’s too small, you may end up with hairline cracks in any solid wood or MDF.

It’s always a bad situation when you can see cracks, but even invisible cracks are damaging because these will cause the hole to widen over time, which will lead to joint failure.

Cracks in wood and MDF are damaging to the longevity of your project. You’re going to want to avoid them at all costs.

Also, you’re going to want to enlarge the pilot hole in the top board to allow the screw to pull the boards together. This hole should be about as large as the screw’s largest diameter. If you skip this step, you may end up with a gap between boards that’s unsightly and unfixable.

How To Drill A Pilot Hole Into Wood

If your head is starting to spin, take a deep breath. This is all a lot simpler than it seems at the surface. And now, I’m going to break down exactly how to drill the perfect pilot hole in 6 easy steps.

1. Measure twice, cut once

Mark the spot you’re going to drill with pencil or tape before you touch that drill bit to wood. This is most definitely not a time for eyeballing measurements or relying on your finger to mark the placement.

If you hit the wrong spot with the drill, there are no do-overs. You’re going to have a gaping pilot hole in the wrong place, and that’s a very difficult mistake to fix. Pencil marks work very well, but tape also serves a dual purpose of reinforcing the wood and offering extra protection against any potential cracking.

2. Create an indent

Now that you know exactly where your pilot hole is going, use the tip of a nail to create an indent in the wood or MDF in the precise spot where you want to drill.

This may seem like overkill after you’ve already marked your spot, but this little divet will keep your drill from slipping out of place once it’s in motion.

Another useful tip is to use a brad point drill bit. Read more about them here.

3. Choose the right size bit

Here’s where the magic happens, and this is the part that can make or break your project. You want to drill a hole that’s wide enough for you to insert a fastener, but not so wide that it’s wiggly or wobbly in the hole. And to get this right, you need the right-sized drill bit.

Here are some guidelines you can follow:

  • For a nail: Choose a drill bit that’s slightly smaller than the nail’s shank
  • For a screw: Choose a drill bit that’s the same size as the screw’s body without its threads

If you’re worried about getting the right size drill bit for your screw, there are charts you can use that will match screw size with drill bit size, so there’s virtually no guesswork.

But you don’t actually need the chart because it’ll become very obvious as you start comparing drill bits to the screw until you find a match. Just be sure you’re working in good lighting, so you can easily spot the match.

The ideal drill bit will cover the screw’s body and not its threads. And if you’re struggling to find that precise match, always err on the smaller side.

NOTE: In case you drilled a hole that is too big for your screw then go an read this guide on how to fix it.

4. Clamp wood boards

If your boards are moving, shaking and shifting while you’re trying to drill your pilot hole, you’re obviously going to have trouble getting that hole just right. So don’t skip the step of clamping the boards together.

You may even want to secure them with a bit of wood glue, which also helps strengthen the joint. Now that the boards are secure, you can easily use both hands to work with the drill.

5. Keep your drill bit perpendicular and drill slowly

Pop on your protective eye gear to avoid getting sawdust in your eye, and then place the tip of your drill bit into that divet you made with a nail earlier. Hold the drill to keep the bit perpendicular to the wood, and set your drill on a low speed. Once you get going, you can accelerate slowly if you feel it makes sense, but you don’t have to.

6. Stop at the right time

Continue drilling until the pilot hole reaches the same depth as the length of your screw or nail. Now, this may sound difficult to gauge, but there’s a trick that can help you. For one, you can use a drill stop to mark the appropriate depth.

Or you can use a small piece of tape to mark the screw’s length on the bit before you get started. Once you reach that depth, it’s time to stop. When you do this often enough, you might be able to eyeball the appropriate depth, but don’t worry if you can’t.

It’s easy enough to mark the screw length to be sure you’re getting the depth right.

What If You Don’t Have a Drill?

Many people use drills to drive screws, but the purpose of this power tool is actually to drill pilot holes. And, yes, it also drives screws very well too.

But what if you don’t have a drill? If you need to drive a bunch of pilot holes, you may want to consider getting one, but you can get by without a drill if you really need to.

All you have to do is choose a nail that’s the same size as your screw’s body and hammer that nail where you want the pilot hole. Just be sure it’s a straight shot or your pilot hole will be crooked. Then, remove the nail and you have your pilot hole.

This process is going to be a little rough around the edges, but it’ll definitely work in a pinch.

Or, if you’re ready to make that drill purchase, check this guide that I wrote. I’ve included some of my best tips on how to choose the right drill for your needs there too. So, you can choose any from the list or use the tips to find one that’s perfect for you.

So, what about you? Do you have experience driving pilot holes? Or have you always gotten away without them?

Cheers, tools owners!

Related Woodworking Articles:

Hi there! My name is Jack and I write for ToolsOwner. I have a passion for everything related to tools and DIY projects around the house. You often find me in my workshop working on new projects.