You’ve marked the spot on the wall, started the drill… and nothing happens. Or maybe you’ve drilled into the wall a little bit, but you’ve hit something hard and you’re not sure what. I’ve been there. In fact, I think anyone who’s ever drilled into a wall has been there.
The most common reason a drill won’t penetrate a wall at all is because the drill is spinning in the wrong direction. If the drill bit enters the wall and then hits resistance, the typical cause is a metal plate or masonry obstruction.
There are some important details to each of these explanations, though, so lets dive in!
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Drill Bit Won’t Enter the Wall? Check Your Drill Rotation Direction
If your drill is set to rotate the wrong direction, it will be difficult for it to make any progress into the drywall (or plaster.) For the forward direction, the drill should rotate clockwise. If it’s set to rotate counterclockwise, the drill will struggle to penetrate the wall.
To change your drill rotation direction, there is typically a button/rotation selector on the drill. Here’s where it’s located on my Ryobi drill:
Your drill rotation selector may be located somewhere else, but I assure you it exists!
Dull Drill Bits Can Prevent Proper Drilling
In my old, 1910-era home, I had plaster walls. I soon found out that plaster dulled drill bits significantly, and the bits I used to drill through the plaster were worthless after a few holes.
If your drill bit can drill through the drywall, but can’t penetrate the stud behind it, test another bit. Dull drill bits will probably still go through drywall, since it’s a soft material, but may struggle with wood.
If you use your drill bit frequently on wood, or have ever used it on masonry or metal, that might be causing the problem. Replacing the drill bit with a newer drill bit should solve the issue.
In the case of my old home, I would use a dull drill bit to go through the plaster, then replace it with a newer drill bit to penetrate the lath behind it.
Dying Batteries Weaken a Drill
Cheap drills typically come with cheap batteries, so if you’re using a budget-drill that you’ve had awhile, the battery could be the issue. This is especially true if you live in an older home, where the age of the wood can affect the density and make it more difficult to drill through.
Charge your battery. If the drill with a fully charged battery still won’t penetrate, grab a corded drill and see if you’re able to drill a small pilot hole.
If you’re able to drill a pilot hole with the corded drill, the power of your cordless drill was probably the problem.
(At this point, it’s probably worth buying a new drill/driver. Keep the old one, because having two drill/drivers is super handy, but make the new drill/driver your primary tool.)
If you’re still hitting an obstruction with the corded drill, there are a few other explanations.
Metal Plates In Walls Are Intended to Stop Drills
So, as you’re probably aware, your wall hides some useful things, like pipes, electrical wires, and ductwork. Hitting any of these things when you drill into a wall would be bad.
In order to prevent this from happening, metal plates typically cover up these things. That way, when you drill into the wall and hit the metal, you know to stop drilling or risk running into a pipe or wire.
Just to be really clear: Don’t keep drilling at this spot.
If you’ve drilled through the drywall and hit an obstruction, it is probably a metal plate. Move up or down about 5 inches and try again. Do you still get stuck?
Hopefully you hit a stud (which was probably what you were looking for,) which is easily penetrable with a drill bit.
If you hit something hard, keep reading. There are a few other possibilities.
Masonry Constructions Are Difficult to Drill Into
If you’re working on A) an exterior wall, or B) a chimney area, it’s likely you’re hitting masonry, whether that be brick, cement, or cinder blocks.
Drywall is typically attached to masonry construction by attaching to horizontal furring strips. Because of this, you’ll probably drill through 5/8″ of drywall, a 3/4″ gap, and then hit the masonry.
So if you can drill about an 1 1/2″ into your wall before getting stuck, it’s probably masonry.
To confirm this, find the furring strips. A simple magnetic stud finder (I love this one) will find the nails attaching the drywall to the furring strips. Drill a hole a few inches to the left or right of the nail. If you hit wood again, then you’ve found the furring strips.
The furring strips are a good indicator that you’ve got a masonry construction. Depending on why you were drilling the holes, you may need to reconsider your plan.
I once was hoping to hang a few Ikea cabinets from a rail in my basement. However, I soon realized that cinderblocks were behind the drywall, and that I couldn’t attach the rail to studs because the studs didn’t exist!
Some Newer Constructions Have Steel Studs
Steel studs are becoming more and more popular in newer-construction homes. If you’re house is new, and you’ve ruled out all the other other options, it’s likely you have steel studs.
There are a few ways to confirm this, however none of them are great:
- Check with the contractor who built your home, if you know who they are. Alternatively, if you have documents from the build, consult those.
- You can cut a hole in the drywall to see what’s behind it, however patching up the hole is a time-consuming and unpleasant task, so I typically try to avoid this option.
- Take the cover plate off of an electrical outlet. Shine a flashlight from the side, and see if you’re able to see through the gap between the drywall and the electrical box. Honestly, this method will probably only work if you’re really lucky – most builders try to minimize this gap.
Because the cost of accidently drilling into a pipe/electrical/ductwork is so high, I would recommend consulting a professional at this point. They’ll be able to determine if you’ve got steel studs, which is a much better option than assuming you do, and then accidently drilling into a water pipe.
If you find you do have steel studs, know that they are much more difficult to work with than wood studs, and you might find your original project needs to be altered significantly. If you choose to ultimately hang something from the studs, you’ll need drill bits rated for metal, and a few toggle bolts for hanging your item.
Other Wall Obstructions
The six situations listed above are the most likely reasons you’re not able to drill through your wall. However, there are a couple of possibilities that are rare, but exist!
- Soundproofing Equipment– Sometimes different products are added to walls to increase soundproofing between apartments in a single building.
- Concrete Firewall – Concrete firewalls exist primarily in multi-unit buildings, and are intended to prevent fire from spreading uncontrollably. Hitting a concrete firewall is similar to the masonry section above.
- Nails – If you have plaster walls, the lath is nailed to the studs behind it. It is possible that you’re hitting one of these nails.
If you come across another situation I haven’t listed here, feel free to shoot me an email! I’d love to add it to the list!