Pilot Holes: When You Need Them, When You Don’t

If you only have one drill, pilot holes are an annoying and time consuming extra step when building with wood. So do you actually need to drill them?

Pilot holes are necessary if you’re drilling into hardwood, laminate, or need a precisely located fastener. They’re also recommended if the wood is likely to crack, or if appearance is important. You can skip the pilot holes when doing a rough build with softwood where appearance isn’t important.

But as always, there are exceptions to these rules. Read on to find out all the details!

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When to Drill A Pilot Hole

So, as you probably knew, pilot holes remove material from wood to make room for your screw or nail. This makes it easier to drive the screw into the wood.

Because of this, screws in pilot holes are often neater than those driven with brute force. Additionally, since wood is removed to make room for the screw, the wood is less likely to crack when the screw is inserted.

Therefore, there are a number of times you should absolutely drill a pilot hole, and a couple times you can skip it. Lets take a look.

Hole Location

If you’re inserting a screw in a small piece of wood, or near the edge of a piece of wood, drill a pilot hole first.

Because your screw is closer to the edge, the addition of the screw to the piece creates force that could crack the wood.

Pilot holes remove the excess wood before the screw is inserted, so that when the screw enters the wood, there’s space for it. This makes the wood less likely to crack.

Hardwoods

It takes a lot more force to drive a screw into hardwoods than it does into softwoods. Therefore, it’s more likely your drill will slip and damage the wood, or your screw will wiggle around and not enter the wood at the right spot.

Hardwoods are also denser than softwoods, and so therefore the screw and sawdust combo creates more pressure inside the wood if there isn’t a pilot hole. Drilling a pilot hole creates space for the screw, and therefore reduces this pressure.

Because of this, if you’re working with hardwoods, you’re better off drilling a pilot hole before you start.

Laminate

Laminate is often a flat, smooth surface. It’s hard to dent that surface, or make the first impact to drill through it. Therefore, if you try and drive a screw without drilling a hole first, it’s difficult to start the screw.

Instead, the screw wiggles around a bunch without actually entering the wood/laminate.

It’s much easier to drill a pilot hole first, plus you can guarantee your hole/screw ends up exactly where you want it!

Appearance Considerations

It is more difficult to drive a screw into wood with brute force than it is to drive a screw into a pilot hole. Because of this, often times the end result is less attractive.

When I skip the pilot hole, often times my drill bit slips off the screw and makes an unsightly dent in the wood. Other times, the screw doesn’t drive quite as far into the wood as it would’ve with a pilot hole, making it stand out from the wood just a little.

Therefore, if appearance of your final product is important to you, it’s worth the time to drill pilot holes before driving your screw.

Screw Quality

As mentioned, pilot holes make it easier to drive screws into a hole. And if you’re working with low quality screws, this is important.

Low-quality screws are easier to strip, and more likely to break if you put a ton of pressure on them. And let me tell you, a screw half embedded in wood with the top broken off is near-impossible to remove.

As a result, if you’re working with low quality screws, you’re going to want to drill a pilot hole first.

When You Can Skip The Pilot Hole

The internet will tell you that woodworking best practice is to drill a pilot hole. And yes, that’s probably true.

But there are projects where I’m willing to skip the pilot hole to save time. They’re often utility projects made of softwood, and intended for outdoor use.

This goat milking stand, for example, was an outdoor project that will be stood on by goats. It’s going to get dirty and messy. Yes, I want it to look nice, but a few imperfect screws and dents are hardly going to make a big difference.

That said, if you have two drill/drivers, drilling a pilot hole isn’t a big deal. If you only have one drill/driver, then you have to switch out the drill bit every time you need to drive a screw, and that can be time consuming. Cutting corners is more understandable in that case.

But if you have two drill/drivers, go ahead and use one for pilot holes and one to drive screws. Then the pilot holes won’t really be a big extra step.

How to Drill Pilot Holes

Step 1: Mark the Location

Start by marking the location you want to drill the hole with a pencil. Try to dent the wood a little bit – if you’re working with softwood, that should be pretty easy. Hardwood might be a little tricker.

The dent will help keep the drill bit in the right spot when you start to drill.

Step 2: Select Your Drill Bit

You’re looking for a drill bit slightly smaller than the screw itself. Some people recommend a drill bit that’s the size of the diameter of the screw without the threads.

That’s cool and all, but I don’t know the diameter of my screws, and I doubt you do either. Just get a drill bit that’s slightly smaller than the screw, and you’ll be in good shape.

Step 3: Drill the Hole

Secure the drill bit into the drill, and line up the drill bit with the mark and indent you made in step one. Make sure the drill is set to turn clockwise before you start.

That’s typically a switch somewhere on the drill. For my drill, it’s located here:

Do you really need a pilot hole? Come find out when to drill and when to skip the pilot hole! #woodworking

Then press the drill lightly against the wood, and start it up. How fast the drill/driver turns is directly related to how much pressure you put on the button, so only put a little pressure on a at first.

It might take a second or two grab the wood, but given your drill is turning the correct direction, it should start entering the wood pretty quickly. Once you’ve started drilling the hole straight, you can speed up the drill by pressing the button more firmly.

Keep pressing until you’ve drilled the hole to your desired depth. If you don’t want to drill the hole all the way through the wood, be careful to watch the drill bit depth as you go.

If you see smoke, or are meeting resistance, back the drill bit out of the hole, and let the wood chips fall to the ground. This reduces the friction in the hole by removing the unnecessary material. Then re-insert the drill bit, and continue drilling.

Once you’re done, back the drill bit out of the hole, and admire your pilot hole.

Do you really need a pilot hole? Come find out when to drill and when to skip the pilot hole! #woodworking

The above picture is of a pilot hole drilled with a countersink bit. I talk more about these below, but they’re what I usually use when drilling pilot holes, since I really love when my screws are fully flush with the wood.

Step 4: Drive The Screw

Replace your drill bit with the correct drill bit for driving in your screws. Then line the screw up with the hole (perpendicular to the wood,) and slowly press down on the trigger.

Do you really need a pilot hole? Come find out when to drill and when to skip the pilot hole! #woodworking

The screw will start to turn, and will enter the hole with only light pressure from you. Continue until the screw is all the way embedded in the wood.

Special Pilot Holes

If you’re looking to get a truly flawless look, you might want to consider investing in countersink bits for drilling your pilot holes.

These bits drill a little space for the head of your screw along with your pilot hole, so that the screw head sits neatly flush with the wood.

Do you really need a pilot hole? Come find out when to drill and when to skip the pilot hole! #woodworking

I have a set, and while at first it felt like a bit of splurge purchase, I absolutely love them, and use them all the time. They’re great for when I want to have an attractive visable screw.

For example, this vanity light is hung on the wall with two long screws that are visible on the front of the piece. But they actually look great, primarily because of the countersink bit!

Do you really need a pilot hole? Come find out when to drill and when to skip the pilot hole! #woodworking

The countersink bits are also great if you’re planning to paint your piece, and want to make sure the screws are completely hidden. Simply countersink using the countersink bit, then cover up the screw with wood filler before painting.