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Drilling Wood: What’s the best speed?

So you brought home a new drill press or router, and suddenly you realize you can adjust the speed! But then what is the best speed for drilling wood?

The best speed for drilling wood depends on the diameter of the bit and the material drilled. Larger diameter bits require a slower speed, as do hardwoods. Drilling into softwood with a twist drill bit up to 3/8″ in diameter requires a speed of 3000 RPM, while the same bit with hardwood requires 1500 RPM.

Keep reading to dive into the specifics (and find the charts!)

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Drill Speed Theory

So, then: why does the drill speed matter?

If you drill too fast, you risk overheating the drill bit and the surrounding wood. This results in burnt wood, and a damaged bit.

If you drill too slow, you’ll tear the wood instead of cut it cleanly, which honestly just looks bad. This isn’t the end of the world, but it does result in extra work on your part to clean things up.

So, ideally you want to drill with the perfect speed. I’ll give you a chart of those below for a bunch of common types of drill bits. And I suppose you could print those charts and tape them to your drill press. Honestly, that’s a great idea; you should probably do that anyway.

But wouldn’t you rather understand how it works? I would, but maybe that’s the teacher me. If you don’t, scroll down and you’ll find everything you need.

Basically, think of a figure skater. When she spins with her arms out, she spins slower than when she brings them in.

When you’re working with a larger diameter drill bit, it’s like that figure skater with her arms out. It takes a whole lot more work to spin quickly compared to the smaller diameter bit.

Therefore, at higher speeds, a larger diameter bit is going to overheat faster than a smaller diameter bit. So while 3000 RPM might be suitable for a 3/8″ bit, a 1/2″ bit will overheat at that speed.

Similarly, it takes more work to drill through hardwoods than softwoods. So drilling through hardwoods requires a lower speed than softwoods, otherwise the wood/bit will overheat and burn.

So, summary? Softwoods=higher speed. Larger bit = slower speed.

Here’s how that plays out:

Twist Drill Bits

Twist drill bits are the most commonly used type of drill bit, so lets start there. Here’s a speed chart to help you out:

Twist Drill Bit SizeRPM for SoftwoodsRPM for Hardwoods
0″ – 3/16″30003000
1/4″-3/8″30001500
7/16″-5/8″1500750
Greater than 5/8″750500

Theoretically, everything you need should be in the above chart. But what if it doesn’t seem right? If you’re getting burn marks, or the bit is chewing up the wood, you’re at the wrong speed.

Guess what? You can fix that!

Have burn marks? Slow down! Chewed wood? Speed up!

And just in case there is a very lost person here – these speeds are intended for use with a drill press. Some routers require speed settings too, which I’ll address at the end.

But if you’re working with a normal electric drill, you shouldn’t need to manually set the speed. Most electric drills are variable speed, (and the same rules apply – if you’re burning the wood, slow down. If you’re chewing it up, speed up,) but the speed you used is based on how much you pull the trigger, not a speed you actually set.

Brad Point Bits

From far away, brad point bits look like twist drill bits, but if you look a bit closer, they have two extra spurs on either side of the main point to help the bit drill cleaner edges and stay in the proper position.

If you’re not sure if you have a brad point bit or a twist bit, it’s probably a twist bit. Those are a lot more common (and less expensive,) but brad point bits are excellent if you primarily work with wood.

Here’s the speed chart for brad point bits in a drill press:

Brad Point Bit SizeRPM for SoftwoodsRPM for Hardwoods
1/8″18001200
1/4″18001000
3/8″1800750
1/2″1800750
5/8″1800500
3/4″1400250
7/8″1200250
1″1000250

Spade Bit Speed

Spade bits are great for when you need to drill a larger hole than a twist bit (or the size of your chuck) allows. For more solutions to drilling large holes, check out this post.

If you’re working with a spade bit, here’s the proper speed settings:

Spade Bit SizeRPM for SoftwoodsRPM for Hardwoods
1/4″ – 1/2″20001500
5/8″ – 1″17501500
1 1/8″ – 1 1/2″15001000

Forstner Bit Speed

I love Forstner bits. They drill a flat bottom hole, giving them a big advantage over spade bits (in my mind, at least.) They are pricier, though.

Forstner bits also have a lot more bulk/weight than spade bits. Because of this, if you take a Spade bit and a Forstner bit of the same diameter, the Forstner bit is going to need a slower speed.

You can see that in the table below!

Forstner Bit SizeRPM for SoftwoodsRPM for Hardwoods
0″ – 3/8″2400700
1/2″-5/8″2400500
3/4″-1″1500500
1 1/8″ – 1 1/4″1000250
1 3/8″ – 2″500250

Router Speed Settings

Routers run at much higher speeds than drill presses, so if you came to this page looking for router settings, you were probably pretty confused. I think this is due to the difference in the shank length of the bit – drill presses use bits that are much longer than the average router bit.

But, despite the fact the speeds are very different, the same theory applies. Larger diameter bits require slower speeds, hardwoods require slower speeds. Routers just run on a different speed scale (between 8000 and 26000 RPM.)

Unfortunately, since there are so many different router bits in the world, I can’t give you a table listing them all like I could with a drill press. Instead, you’re going to need to do some experimentation.

Here’s where to start:

Drill Bit DiameterApproximate Speed (RPM)
0″- 1″24000
1 1/8″ – 2 1/2″17000
2 5/8″ – 3″13000
Above 3″11000

Grab some scrapwood from your project, and try the router at the suggested speed. Is the wood:

  • Bumpy? Slow it down
  • Burnt? Slow it down.
  • Rough or Fuzzy? Speed it up.
  • Perfectly Smooth? Awesome!

Keep experimenting on your scrap wood until you’ve found the right speed!

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