How to use a power drill and impact driver

How to use a power drill and impact driver

My two most often used tools are my drill and my impact driver. They are useful for woodworking, but also for all kinds of home improvement and repairs around the house. Let’s look at the basics of drilling and driving, why I recommend owning both tools, and how to use a power drill and impact driver.

Parts of a power drill - diagram. How to use a power drill and impact driver.

My Drilling and Driving Gear

Power Drill Basics

Most of us are familiar with a drill. It holds a bit and you use it for drilling a hole. It has a chuck that tightens down jaws to hold a bit in place. Most drills today have a keyless chuck that you can tighten without needing a chuck key.

To use a keyless chuck, make sure the jaws are wide enough to hold the bit. To open them up, just unscrew the chuck and you’ll see jaws open.

Installing a drill bit in a keyless chuck
Installing a drill bit in a keyless chuck

Insert a bit. It doesn’t need to drop all the way in, just deep enough for the jaws to grab it. Then tighten the chuck by hand. I usually do this all in one motion by holding the bit and the chuck in my left hand and slowly squeeze the trigger until it’s tight.

Properly installed bit
Properly installed bit

Your drill will have a switch that reverses the spinning rotation, either forward or reverse. Once the bit is in place pull the trigger. If the bit is wobbly, you don’t have it in right.

If you have a drill that uses a chuck key, you will stick it into a hole in the side of the chuck and crank it down tight. My drill press uses this kind of system.  I’ll discuss the drill press in a future basics video and article.

Using a chuck key
Using a chuck key

Power Drill Features

Variable speed trigger

Most drills are variable speed drills. You control the speed of the motor just by squeezing the trigger. The more you squeeze, the faster the bit spins. For drilling holes, I use this feature to get a hole started. If you start at high speed, the bit might wander around until it grabs.

Variable speed trigger
Variable speed trigger

You also need a slow speed to drive screws or other fasteners with a driver bit. A fast speed could cause the screw to strip, or even break.

Gear selector

Some drills also have a gear switch. On my drill, gear one has a slower speed, but more torque or twisting power. That would be great for driving say, a lag screw into a stud. But for driving screws or bolts, I usually use my impact driver instead. More on that later.

Gear selector switch
Gear selector switch

For most drilling, I keep my drill set on gear 2, the higher speed setting. This works great for drilling most holes.

Clutch

Another feature most drills have is a clutch which can help when driving screws. By adjusting this dial, the drill will stop driving when it reaches a certain torque. This is handy when want to be careful not to drive a screw too deep. For example, if you are drilling into drywall, you need to be careful not to break the paper covering. Run a couple of tests to get the correct setting, then you can drill lots of screws without worry. It’s also useful for driving pocket screws and preventing them from stripping or blasting through the wood.

Adjusting the clutch
Adjusting the clutch

Usually, I keep the clutch off and have it set to the drill setting. If I only have a couple screws, I just slowly drive the screw into place.

Battery

Most likely you will want the convenience of a battery powered drill. Today’s batteries can do a lot of drilling and driving on a single charge, and they charge pretty quickly. You should always have two batteries so you can have one in the charger ready to go.

Lithium-ion battery with charger
Lithium-ion battery with charger

While not as handy as a battery operated drill, you can buy corded drills. These are good to have if you need to do a lot of heavy, intensive drilling and driving and don’t want to risk any downtime waiting for a battery to charge.

Drill and Driver Bits

Twist drill bits

The most common type of drill bits are twist drill bits, sometimes called HSS or high speed steel bits. These are inexpensive and readily available at hardware stores and home centers. They work well for wood, metal and other materials. One drawback is that it may be difficult to keep them from wandering from where you want a hole to be.

Some of my twist drill bits
Some of my twist drill bits
Brad point bits

A better choice for woodworking are brad point bits. The point at the tip allows you to position the bit precisely where you need to drill and spurs on the sides of the brad point cut into the wood cleanly. Brad point bits bore a nice clean holes, but they are more expensive.

Centering a brad point bit in a precise location.
Centering a brad point bit in a precise location.
Spade Bits

A spade or paddle bit has a point to get it started and a wide blade for making large holes. Unfortunately, a spade bit is pretty aggressive and can leave a pretty ragged, splintered cut. They are great for rough construction work, maybe boring holes in studs for conduit, but not the best choice for woodworking.

With just two cutting blades, a spade bit can be too aggressive and create a ragged hole.
With just two cutting blades, a spade bit can be to aggressive and create a ragged hole.
Forstner Bits

When you need to drill large, clean, flat bottomed holes, a Forstner bit is the best option. It has a starter brad point and a cutter around the rim. Unfortunately, Forstner bits require a fair amount of force to push them into wood and usually used on a drill press., You can use them with a hand-held drill, but it can be tricky. Your best bet is to clamp your board down to prevent it from spinning loose. Also, as a rule of thumb, the bigger the bit, the slower you want the drill to spin.

Cutting teeth around the rim of a Forstner bit make clean cuts.
Cutting teeth around the rim of a Forstner bit make clean cuts.
Driver Bits

One of the most common uses for a drill all around the house, not just in the workshop, is as a driver. Driving screws is much easier and faster with a drill than by hand. Driver bits come in any type of screw head you need to use, Philips, Star drive, square drive, etc. They all have a hex shaped shank that fits into your chuck just like any other bit.

Common head shapes on these tips.
Common head shapes on these tips.

You can get long drivers that fit directly into your drill, or you can get these little tips that fit into a driver bit holder. There’s a magnet inside the sleeve that holds the bit in place. I prefer using these.

Bit sets

In general, I don’t see any big advantage to spending a lot of money on high-end, expensive drill or driver bits. You can get a huge set with hundreds of bits for under $30. I like to have a huge assortment on hand so I can always find the size I need without having to make a special purchase. In the case of bits, I believe in quantity over quality.

My assortment of driver bits. I always have the one I need.
My assortment of driver bits. I always have the one I need.

 

I like to use the little driver tips. They are inexpensive and fit into a bit holder like this one.
I like to use the little driver tips. They are inexpensive and fit into a bit holder like this one.

There are a lot more types of drill bits and drivers than I mentioned in this article, but these are mostly what I use.

Power Drill Techniques

How to drill a hole

There isn’t a lot to know about drilling a hole. Always press the bit against the wood before pulling the trigger. I usually like to start slowly until the bit feels like it’s starting to sink, then speed it up. Keep the drill running as you back it out.

Positioning the bit using my thumb. Start the drill slowly, then speed up.
Positioning the bit using my thumb. Start the drill slowly, then speed up.
Use an awl to start a hole

If you don’t have brad point bits and need to drill a hole in a precise location, create a divot first using an awl or center punch to get the bit started and keep it from slipping or wandering. If you need to make a large diameter hole, it can be helpful to drill a smaller guide hole first.

Use an awl or a center punch to create a divot. This will help a twist drill bit to stay on target.
Use an awl or a center punch to create a divot. This will help a twist drill bit to stay on target.
Pilot holes

Sometimes, you don’t need to drill a hole to insert a screw. On soft wood or rough construction projects you can just power them into place. But for most woodworking projects you will get cleaner, more accurate results if you drill a pilot hole first. Installing hinges without drilling holes would be a nightmare. For hardwood, driving a screw without a hole can be nearly impossible: you risk splitting the wood or even breaking the screw. Plus, a screw will hold stronger when its threads are cutting into the sides of a hole, instead of pushing the wood fibers apart.

Except for rough constructions work, it's usually a good idea to drill a pilot hole before driving a screw.
Except for rough construction work, it’s usually a good idea to drill a pilot hole before driving a screw.
Depth stop

There are times when you want to stop the drill at a certain depth. Say you want to attach legs to the underside of a table top. Blasting all the way through would be disastrous. Instead, wrap a piece of tape around the bit where you want to stop drilling.

A piece of tape wrapped around the bit will keep me from driving it too deep.
A piece of tape wrapped around the bit will keep me from driving it too deep.
What size bit to use

Rather than fussing with the actual dimensions of the bits and screws, I just find a drill bit that is about the same diameter as the shank of the screw you want to use. Hold the bit and screw together and eyeball it. With the drill bit in front of the screw, you should only see the threads. It doesn’t have to be exact, just make sure you are comparing the bit to the shank of the screw and not the threads.

How to choose the right drill bit size. How to use a power drill and impact driver.

Countersinking

For a clean look, with the head of the screw flush or slightly below the surface of the wood, you can use a countersink bit after drilling your hole to make a cone shaped indentation for the head of the screw. Just make sure you are using regular wood screws with a beveled head rather than a round or pan head screw.

Using a countersink bit
Using a countersink bit

Screw countersunk beneath the surface of the wood.

Screw countersunk beneath the surface of the wood.

Drilling straight

An easy way to keep the drill at a right angle to your workpiece is to screw a couple of scrap boards together and use them as a guide.

A couple board screwed together to keep the bit perpendicular to the board.
A couple boards screwed together to keep the bit perpendicular to the board.
Using a backer board

A common problem with drilling a hole all the way through a board is that is can blast through the other side, causing splintering. To prevent this, simply clamp a board to the exit side and fool the bit into thinking the workpiece is thicker than it is! This is very useful when drilling holes for drawer pulls or cabinet knobs.

Using a backer board to prevent blowing out the back side of a board.
Using a backer board to prevent blowing out the back side of a board.

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Impact Driver

Everything I’ve discussed in this article can be accomplished with just a drill, and that’s exactly what I used for years. Until I discovered the impact driver!

Parts of an impact driver diagram

An impact driver is only for driving screws or bolts. You can’t drill holes with it. It doesn’t have a chuck with jaws like a drill, but instead has a locking, quick-change collet that holds standard hex-shank drivers.

The collet on an impact driver only holds driver bits, not drill bits.
The collet on an impact driver only holds driver bits, not drill bits.
Installing bits

To install a driver bit, just pull back on the collet, drop the bit in, and release it. It has a variable speed trigger like a drill, but instead of just spinning, it also delivers rapid impact blows in the direction it’s spinning. This gives the tool way more torque than a drill and can drive screws into super hard wood or other materials with very little effort.

Installing a bit is easy.
Installing a bit is easy.
Driving screws

Use the impact driver just like use a drill. When the screw gets close to being fully seated, you can slow down the driver and see it slowly torquing into place. With an impact driver, the tip of the bit stays in the head of the screw and doesn’t slip out the way a drill can. If you ever use Phillips screws you know how frustrating it can be to ruin the head of a screw and not be able to continue. An impact driver can also help remove screws whose heads are damaged. Plus, it’s really handy to drill holes with a drill and then quickly switch to the impact driver to drive the screws.

An impact driver drives screws a lot easier and more powerfully than a drill.
An impact driver drives screws a lot easier and more powerfully than a drill.

I highly recommend owning both a drill and an impact driver. In fact, manufacturers often sell them paired in kits. My set, complete with two batteries cost about $130.

Conclusion

There are a lot of other types of drills and bits, but I hope this article and video have been helpful to get you familiar with the basics. My drill and driver aren’t the sexiest tools in my shop, but they get used all the time. In fact, they are the only tools I don’t have dedicated storage spaces for. They are always on one of my workbenches within reach. And trust me, once you get an impact driver, you will wonder why you waited!

Be sure to browse through the other videos in this woodworking basics series.

 

 

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Steve,you can buy drill bits with hex shanks that would fit the impact driver.Never done it myself – don’t see the need – but is an optin

  2. Thought I knew enough about drills and impact drivers but I was wrong! Great job! Very clear with good examples for us newer woodworkers!

  3. Great article for those new. Used a bunch of impact drivers over the years. Have to throw out a recent recommendation. I haven’t ever used the smaller 12v models until I recently purchased a Bosch set for $120. I couldn’t be more pleased and battery life for woodworking projects has never been an issue. The smaller ergonomics are quite a nice change from what I have traditionally used. I have a set of drill bits for the impact driver too. Sometimes I use it to drill and the regular drill for screwing as the impact driver screws too far in. Great job Steve!

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