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Are pilot holes always necessary?

Do You Need To Drill A Hole Before Screwing Into Wood?

If you’re not experienced in DIY and home improvement projects, you might be wondering how it all works.

It’s not completely necessary to drill a hole into the wood before landing a screw. But there are a few reasons why you may want to consider it.

It certainly seems like it would be easier, but then again, what if the hole was too large or too small? Maybe it’s just an extra step you can skip.

In this post, we’re going to explore why you might want to drill a hole before screwing into wood. There’s probably more to the answer than you’re thinking.

So let’s get started.

Are Pilot Holes Necessary And When Are They Needed

We’ve already addressed that this step isn’t 100 percent necessary in every case, but there are times when drilling a hole first is definitely recommended.

This hole we’re speaking of is called a pilot hole, and it can help you get the most effective and longest-lasting fastening power from that screw you’re driving. So, if you want it done right the first time or if it’s an especially important job, you should bite the bullet and drive that pilot hole before you insert the screw.

Pilot holes offer a guarantee that your screw won’t break off and the wood won’t crack as you’re driving the screw. And when you don’t have a predrilled pilot hole, cracking and splitting is a definite possibility.

When you’re working with hardwoods, you’re almost always going to want the pilot hole to be the same size as the screw’s smallest diameter. But if you’re working with especially hardwood, or if the screw features deep threads, you’re going to want your pilot hole to be another 1/64-in. Larger than the screw’s smallest diameter.

If you skip the pilot hole altogether or drill one that’s too small, you may end up with hairline cracks in any solid wood or MDF.

It’s always a bad situation when you can see cracks, but even invisible cracks are damaging because these will cause the hole to widen over time, which will lead to joint failure.

Cracks in wood and MDF are damaging to the longevity of your project. You’re going to want to avoid them at all costs.

Also, you’re going to want to enlarge the pilot hole in the top board to allow the screw to pull the boards together. This hole should be about as large as the screw’s largest diameter. If you skip this step, you may end up with a gap between boards that’s unsightly and unfixable.

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How To Drill A Pilot Hole Into Wood

If your head is starting to spin, take a deep breath. This is all a lot simpler than it seems at the surface. And now, I’m going to break down exactly how to drill the perfect pilot hole in 6 easy steps.

1. Measure twice, cut once

Mark the spot you’re going to drill with pencil or tape before you touch that drill bit to wood. This is most definitely not a time for eyeballing measurements or relying on your finger to mark the placement.

If you hit the wrong spot with the drill, there are no do-overs. You’re going to have a gaping pilot hole in the wrong place, and that’s a very difficult mistake to fix. Pencil marks work very well, but tape also serves a dual purpose of reinforcing the wood and offering extra protection against any potential cracking.

2. Create an indent

Now that you know exactly where your pilot hole is going, use the tip of a nail to create an indent in the wood or MDF in the precise spot where you want to drill.

This may seem like overkill after you’ve already marked your spot, but this little divet will keep your drill from slipping out of place once it’s in motion.

Another useful tip is to use a brad point drill bit. Read more about them here.

3. Choose the right size bit

Here’s where the magic happens, and this is the part that can make or break your project. You want to drill a hole that’s wide enough for you to insert a fastener, but not so wide that it’s wiggly or wobbly in the hole. And to get this right, you need the right-sized drill bit.

Here are some guidelines you can follow:

  • For a nail: Choose a drill bit that’s slightly smaller than the nail’s shank
  • For a screw: Choose a drill bit that’s the same size as the screw’s body without its threads

If you’re worried about getting the right size drill bit for your screw, there are charts you can use that will match screw size with drill bit size, so there’s virtually no guesswork.

But you don’t actually need the chart because it’ll become very obvious as you start comparing drill bits to the screw until you find a match. Just be sure you’re working in good lighting, so you can easily spot the match.

The ideal drill bit will cover the screw’s body and not its threads. And if you’re struggling to find that precise match, always err on the smaller side.

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NOTE: In case you drilled a hole that is too big for your screw then go an read this guide on how to fix it.

4. Clamp wood boards

If your boards are moving, shaking and shifting while you’re trying to drill your pilot hole, you’re obviously going to have trouble getting that hole just right. So don’t skip the step of clamping the boards together.

You may even want to secure them with a bit of wood glue, which also helps strengthen the joint. Now that the boards are secure, you can easily use both hands to work with the drill.

5. Keep your drill bit perpendicular and drill slowly

Pop on your protective eye gear to avoid getting sawdust in your eye, and then place the tip of your drill bit into that divet you made with a nail earlier. Hold the drill to keep the bit perpendicular to the wood, and set your drill on a low speed. Once you get going, you can accelerate slowly if you feel it makes sense, but you don’t have to.

6. Stop at the right time

Continue drilling until the pilot hole reaches the same depth as the length of your screw or nail. Now, this may sound difficult to gauge, but there’s a trick that can help you. For one, you can use a drill stop to mark the appropriate depth.

Or you can use a small piece of tape to mark the screw’s length on the bit before you get started. Once you reach that depth, it’s time to stop. When you do this often enough, you might be able to eyeball the appropriate depth, but don’t worry if you can’t.

It’s easy enough to mark the screw length to be sure you’re getting the depth right.

What If You Don’t Have a Drill?

Many people use drills to drive screws, but the purpose of this power tool is actually to drill pilot holes. And, yes, it also drives screws very well too.

But what if you don’t have a drill? If you need to drive a bunch of pilot holes, you may want to consider getting one, but you can get by without a drill if you really need to.

All you have to do is choose a nail that’s the same size as your screw’s body and hammer that nail where you want the pilot hole. Just be sure it’s a straight shot or your pilot hole will be crooked. Then, remove the nail and you have your pilot hole.

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This process is going to be a little rough around the edges, but it’ll definitely work in a pinch.

Or, if you’re ready to make that drill purchase, check this guide that I wrote. I’ve included some of my best tips on how to choose the right drill for your needs there too. So, you can choose any from the list or use the tips to find one that’s perfect for you.

So, what about you? Do you have experience driving pilot holes? Or have you always gotten away without them?

Cheers, tools owners!

Related Woodworking Articles:

  • How Do You Attach Wood To Metal Without Screws?
  • Why Are My Decking Screws Snapping?
  • How To Fix Particle Board Screw Holes
  • Can You Screw A Bolt Directly Into Wood?
  • Why Are My Drill Bits Breaking In Wood?

Jack Adams

Hi there! My name is Jack and I write for ToolsOwner. I have a passion for everything related to tools and DIY projects around the house. You often find me in my workshop working on new projects.

ABOUT is a site created by a home improvement enthusiast. Here you will find articles about home improvement projects, gardening, home decor, tools, and many more. Read more

Clearance and pilot holes for wood screws

As the upper part of the shanks of wood screw are unthreaded, clearance holes should be drilled in the top piece of timber, this will allow the timber to be pulled tight onto the underlying surface. If the unthreaded shank is longer than the thickness of the top timber and the screw is larger than 6 gauge or the underlying timber is a hard wood, the clearance hole should be extended into the top of the underlying timber.

Where the underlying timber is softwood and the screw size is less than gauge 6, a drilled pilot hole is not normally required; using a bradawl to mark the position is adequate.

When using brass screws, always insert, tighten and remove a steel screw of the same size before fitting the brass screw — brass screws are relatively soft/weak and using a steel screw to cut the thread will reduce the risk of damaging the brass screw.

For metric drill sizes, see lower table.


Screw sizeclearance
pilot hole (softwood)pilot hole (hardwood)
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Screw sizeclearance
pilot hole (softwood)pilot hole (hardwood)

How to Drill a Pilot Hole

How to Drill a Pilot Hole

Pilot holes are small holes drilled into the workpiece prior to drilling any larger hole. It helps to avoid the mistakes made during the DIY drilling work on the wooden workpiece.

The pilot hole allows widening the hole afterward as per the requirements. The process of creating the pilot holes reduces the chances of splitting wood into parts while drilling.

When To Drill a Pilot Hole?

The pilot holes are beneficial to avoid any failures in wood while drilling for woodworking DIY or professional projects. The materials like laminate, MDF, and hardwood need drilling of pilot holes to avoid cracking or splitting. It makes it easier for fasteners to enter the wood in a shorter time. For softwood, the pilot holes are not necessary.

When drilling a pilot hole consider the following factors:

Drilling on Edge

The pilot hole plays a vital role when screwing near the end of the workpiece or on the edge. Drilling a pilot hole makes it easy for screw threads to penetrate the hole easily. And ultimately reduces the cracking or splitting of the edge or end of the material.

Need Precise location
The screws used to drill do not always enter the material in the operating direction. To drill in precise locations using a drill bit is easier than the tip of a screw. Creating the pilot hole will help to get an accurate location to drill with the screw.

Drill on Dense Materials

A lot of force is required to insert screws into wooden or any other dense materials. It requires drilling a pilot hole to reduce the pressure to drill in these materials. Dense materials include materials like hardwood, MDF, maple, etc. For softwoods, pilot holes drilling is not needed.

In the next steps, you will learn the professional and easy way to drill a pilot hole for your projects.

Mark the spot to Drill

Take your time and take the measurements correctly. Before drilling the holes with the drill bit, mark the pilot hole with a pencil. For marking the location of the screw accurately, you can draw ‘X’ on it. Use the masking tape to add extra safety to the wood against splitting or cracking. By creating the pilot hole you give extra time for the project. Although it eliminates the problems which can slow down the pace of the project.

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Choose Suitable Drill Bit

Choose a suitable Drill Bit to work on the desired material or fasteners. Use a drill bit that is smaller than the diameter of the threads of the screw.

Most of the time we don’t know about the diameter of the screws. According to the visible measurement you can choose a drill bit with a smaller diameter than the screws.

Drill the Hole

Now you are ready with everything. You need to fix the drill bit into the drill. Get your drill and align it as per the marked spot to make the hole. Ensure the drill is set for clockwise operation, before starting drilling. Find the button on the drill to set it.

Once it is done, start pressing the drill against the workpiece or wood with moderate force. The speed of the drill increases as you put more pressure on the switch. Push the button lightly in starting and then gradually speed up the drill.

It takes a few seconds to complete the process of drilling in wood. The time required for drilling the hole depends on the operation of the drill machine speed. It’s time to speed up the drill once you start drilling the hole correctly.

Don’t stop until the hole is drilled to the required depth of the hole. Sometimes you don’t need to drill through the wood and stop at the needed depth during the operation.

Drive The Screw

You got the desired pilot hole. It’s time to replace the drill bit with another drill bit used to drive the screws in the hole.

Take the screw and hold it at 90 degrees(Perpendicular) to the hole and gradually press it down with the drill into the wood. The screw will get fastened by the little pressure applied by you.


Drilling the pilot holes is useful and much necessary in some of the projects to achieve accuracy. It is a smart strategy to drill pilot holes and complete the woodworking tasks perfectly. There are various factors that increase the need for pilot holes before fastening the screws in the wood. The benefit of the pilot hole is that it makes the driving of screws in the wood easy.

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