How to Drill a Pilot Hole

Drilling a pilot hole is an important first step for many woodworking and home improvement projects that require driving screws or other fasteners into wooden materials. A pilot hole serves several useful purposes – it guides the screw to the right location, prevents wood from splitting, and makes driving the screw easier. We will walk through the complete process of correctly drilling a pilot hole so your projects result in strong, splinter-free joints.

Selecting the Right Drill Bit

The key to drilling a proper pilot hole is using the correct drill bit size matched to the shank diameter of the screw you will be driving into the hole. As a general guideline:

  • For screws 1/4” or less in diameter, use a drill bit that is the same width as the screw shank.
  • For larger screws up to 3/8” diameter, choose a drill bit that is about 2/3 the width of the screw shank.
  • For very large screws over 3/8”, use a bit that is 1/2 to 2/3 the shank width.

So for instance, if you are using a 1/4” screw, select a 1/4” drill bit for the pilot hole. For a 3/8” screw, use a 1/4” or 25/64” bit. Having the pilot hole slightly smaller than the screw diameter provides better holding power while still easing insertion.

Match your drill bit material to the hardness of the wood – basic high carbon steel bits are fine for softwoods like pine, while carbide-tipped bits will bore through hardwoods without dulling as quickly. Spade or brad point bits cut cleaner holes than basic twist drill bits. For metal drilling, use an appropriate bit recommended for metalwork.

Drilling Perpendicular Pilot Holes

Keeping the pilot hole perpendicular, or 90 degrees, to the work surface is crucial for proper screw alignment and strength. Here are some tips for maintaining square holes:

Use a drill press for total control

The drill press holds the bit perfectly vertical and allows you to set an exact depth stop. This is the best method for precision pilot holes. If you don’t have a press, try these handy techniques:

Clamp a guiding block to the surface

Attach a block of scrap wood to your workpiece with the grain running perpendicular to the hole direction. Rest the drill on top for stability. The block also prevents tear out on the back side as the bit exits.

Go slowly and check your progress

Drill a short ways into the wood, stop, and sight down the bit to make sure it’s aligned vertically. Adjust your angle before plunging the hole deeper. Retest for squareness frequently in deep holes.

Use a vix bit guide

This conical washer slips onto the drill bit and provides a surface to keep the bit straight as you drill. Very helpful for handheld drilling.

Mark your target area

Draw intersection lines where you want the pilot hole centered. Drill right in the middle of the cross. This helps sight proper angle and prevent wandering.

Let gravity help

If drilling vertically, hold the drill loosely and let the weight of the tool move straight down without torque. Reduce pressure; don’t force the bit at an angle.

Watch your entry point

Be sure to start the hole with the bit perfectly perpendicular to the wood, before tilting. Use a center punch for an aligned entry if needed.

Setting the Correct Drilling Depth

The pilot hole should be drilled to a depth that matches the length of screw entering the wood, without fully penetrating the second material. Here are some methods to target the right depth:

Use screw length

For single-material applications, drill to the full length of the screw shank (not including the head). So for a 1” screw, drill 1” deep.

Set drill stop

Many drills have a depth stop adjustment to preset your drilling depth. Dial this to the needed measurement.

Use masking tape

Mark the desired depth on the bit with tape. Stop when your mark reaches the wood surface.

Check frequently

Drill a fraction of the depth, check, repeat. Plunge the full depth only once the correct depth is reached.

Getting the depth right avoids poking through the second wood piece, protects screw threads, and provides maximum holding strength. For through holes, drill completely through the first board, into the second.

Drilling Technique

Follow these techniques for clean, accurate pilot holes:

Secure the work

Clamp the wood to drill horizontally, or use a vise for vertical holes. Stability is key.

Go slow with steady pressure

Let the bit work without forcing. Apply just enough speed and pressure to chew away the wood. High RPMs can burn holes.

Back out frequently

Every 1⁄4-1⁄2 inch, lift the bit to clear chips. This prevents clogging and overheating.

Support underside for tear out

Hold a sacrificial block beneath to minimize splintering as the bit exits. Or drill from both sides partway.

Use straightedge for line of holes

Align holes in a row by drilling through a straightedge clamped to the surface.

Clear chips

Frequently remove debris from deep holes using a swizzle stick or compressed air.

Avoid applying side pressure which can bend the bit and ruin the hole. Let sharp bits glide through the wood smoothly. Dull bits require forcing and burn the surrounding wood.

Common Pilot Hole Problems

Be alert for these potential pitfalls when drilling pilots:

Wrong drill bit size

Holes that are too large for the screw shank won’t hold well. Too-small holes lead to splitting.

Inaccurate angles

Non-perpendicular holes make screws drive at angles, weakening the joint.

Uneven depths

Not drilling deep enough reduces strength. Drilling through looks bad.

Tear out

Ragged exit holes from drill breakthrough. Support the exit point.


Drill skipping across the surface at an angle. Start with centered indent.


Excess heat chars the wood around the hole. Slow your speed, ease pressure.

Clogged holes

Clear frequently with swizzle stick. Debris on bit strains the motor.

With careful drilling technique and the proper matched bit, you can create pilot holes that guide screws perfectly for strong, long-lasting wood joints. Your projects will have crisp lines and minimal splitting. Just follow this process for drilling pilot holes like a pro every time.

How to Drill a Pilot Hole

Now that we’ve covered the basic process, let’s walk through the steps of drilling a pilot hole from start to finish:

1. Select Your Materials

Choose your workpiece material and thickness along with the appropriate screw type and size for the project. Having these materials on hand will allow you to match the drill bit diameter and depth correctly.

Softwoods like pine are more prone to splitting and require smaller pilot holes. Hardwoods can tolerate slightly larger holes for easier screwing. Know your screw’s shank diameter in order to choose the pilot bit accordingly.

2. Mark Your Holes

Determine the spacing for the screws and use a center punch or awl to mark the precise pilot hole locations. Measuring carefully from edges and drawing intersection lines helps align the holes accurately. Deeply indented marks prevent drill wandering.

3. Select the Right Drill Bit

Match the drill bit diameter to the screw shank based on the guidelines discussed previously. Choose the bit tip style appropriate for the material – brad point and spade tips cut cleaner entry points in wood, while twist bits bore faster.

Inspect the bit for sharpness. Sharpen or replace dull bits for easier cutting. Refer to a drill bit size chart if needed to identify the correct fractional inch sizes.

4. Install the Bit and Set Depth

Chuck the matched bit tightly into your drill. If using a press, set the depth stop to limit the hole depth to slightly less than screw length. For handheld drilling, mark the bit depth with tape for reference.

5. Stabilize Your Work

Clamp the workpiece to drill horizontally or vertically. Use a backing block beneath to prevent tear-out on hole exit. Stability is vital for straight perpendicular holes.

6. Drill Your Pilot Holes

With the work secured, begin drilling your pilot holes by lowering the bit slowly to the marked indent. Apply moderate speed and pressure, letting the bit work without forcing.

Frequently back the bit out to clear chips and cool the bit. Drill only to your premarked depth.

7. Check for Accuracy

Examine each hole to ensure you’ve achieved a clean, perpendicular pilot of the appropriate depth. Adjust your technique if holes wander or become misaligned.

8. Drive Your Screws

With an accurately drilled pilot, you can now drive your screws smoothly into place without splitting the wood. Take care not to overtighten.

Following this reliable process will help you achieve strong joints and beautiful finished projects requiring securely fastened wood. Take the time to drill proper pilot holes and your efforts will be rewarded with quality results.

Tips for Specific Situations

Drilling technique may vary slightly based on the specifics of your project. Here are some specialized pilot hole tips:

Pocket Holes: Use a pocket hole jig stepped drill bit to bore angled pilot holes for pocket screws. Depth and spacing are preset.

Hinges: Boring perpendicular hinge pilot holes requires extra care. Mark lines clearly and clamp a guide block.

Hardwoods: When drilling dense exotic hardwoods, reduce drill speed and clear chips frequently to avoid overheating drill bits.

Pegboard: Drill pilot holes at about 5 degree upward angle so pegs slide in easily but stay put.

Chair Spindles: Angle bit slightly for easier spindle insertion. Depth depends on tenon fit – test in scrap wood first.

Near Edges: Keep pilot holes > 1/2″ from edges to prevent splitting, up to the screw diameter for softwoods.

Carpentry: For nailing in studs, keep pilot hole same diameter as nail shank. Nails require smaller holes than screws.

Understanding appropriate techniques for specialty cases will improve your piloting abilities for any woodworking situation. With experience, drilling perfect pilot holes becomes second nature.

Common Questions About Pilot Holes

Drilling pilots involves some key questions. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:

Do you have to drill a pilot hole?

It’s not absolutely required, but it’s highly recommended. Pilot holes prevent splitting, allow better screw alignment, make driving easier, and strengthen the joint. Taking a few extra seconds to drill pilots is worth it.

How deep should a pilot hole be for screws?

Drill your pilot hole just shy of the full screw length, around 1/8″ less. For example, drill a 1 1/8″ hole for a 1 1/4″ screw. The deeper threads can tap into the solid wood for better holding.

What happens if pilot hole is too big?

Oversized holes give screws too much wiggle room, causing joints to loosen over time. If a pilot is slightly large, switch to a bigger screw or use plastic anchors to fill the extra space.

Can you use the same drill bit for pilot and clearance holes?

It’s best to use a smaller bit for the pilot, and a larger one for the clearance portion in the second board. This allows optimal screw engagement while letting the shank slip through the top material.

How much larger should a clearance hole be than the pilot?

For the smoothest assembly, make the clearance hole 1/16″ to 1/8″ larger than the pilot hole diameter. Softwoods require more expansion room than hardwoods.

Do you need a pilot hole in studs?

While studs can often support screws without pilots, drilling small pilot holes can prevent splitting, reduce driving torque, and allow you to pre-align the screws.

What’s the easiest way to drill straight pilot holes by hand?

For handheld drilling, using a drill guide accessory improves perpendicular alignment. Letting the drill’s weight drive the bit straight down also helps. Take it slow and steady.


Drilling straight, clean pilot holes at the proper size and depth is crucial for joinery strength, fastener alignment, and preventing splits in woodworking. Match your drill bit diameter to the screw’s shank, bore at 90 degrees to the surface, and stop just short of full screw length. With the right approach, pilots can be quick and easy, while adding great value to your projects.

Next time you need to drive screws or other hardware into a material, take a moment to predrill and you’ll get a feel for how helpful pilot holes can be. In no time you’ll drill great pilots automatically and wonder how you ever skipped that step. So grab your preferred drill bits and practice the techniques outlined here. Before you know it, perfectly piloted screws will be a point of pride in all your woodwork.