You may not believe it, but there is a lot more to drilling holes in metal than just a drill and a bit. Sure, you can make a hole, but if you want your hole to be in the right spot and your drill bits to last, there are some techniques that you should learn. How you drill and what you use makes a big difference in the quality of the work and longevity of your tools. Here’s a primer on how to drill holes in almost anything.
Watch Your Drill Speed
The most critical issue that kills the most drill bits is speed. Yes, you want to get the job done as soon as possible, but good drill bits are expensive. Don’t give your drill bits a premature death by spinning them too fast. Speed means heat, and heat takes the temper out of your drill bits. Even Cobalt bits can be killed with too much heat over time, but the typical high speed steel (HSS) bits are more susceptible to heat. If you see smoke coming from the part and you are not using lubricant, the edge on that bit is likely already gone. The rule of thumb for drilling speed is the harder the material, the slower the speed. You can blast through wood on high-speed. You can get away with high speed on a chunk of aluminum. But mild steel and cast iron must be drilled on slow, while stainless must be done very slowly.
Keep The Material In Mind
The material you are drilling makes a difference in how you drill. As mentioned above, the speed varies by the material, but also how you drill. The thicker the material, the more important the technique. Soft materials like aluminum and brass generate long spirals of swarf instead of chips. This can bind up your bit. The way to avoid this is to do break every 10-15 seconds or so. A break is to stop drilling, reverse the bit to break the swarf, remove the bit to clear away any residual chips, and then continue drilling. Once you have the process down, it only adds a couple seconds to the process.
Stainless steel is trickier. Chances are you won’t be drilling thick stainless, rather you will encounter stainless steel sheet metal. Stainless steel is very difficult to drill because it is so hard. The trick with stainless steel is using very slow speed and low pressure. The problem with stainless steel is that it work hardens at fairly low temperatures, meaning that it the act of drilling stainless can actually make it even harder than it was before. Once it is work hardened, you are never going to get through. You can literally melt a high speed steel bit on work hardened stainless and never get a hole in the material.
Lubrication Saves Drill Bits
Adequate lubrication is the best way to ensure a long life for your drill bits plus quick and easy drilling. The lubrication reduces friction and heat, which makes the process easier. When adding lubrication, spray the drill bit before drilling and add lube as needed. You may see smoke as your are cutting, that is okay as long as you are working slow. If you are pushing too hard or spinning the bit too fast, then you are generating too much heat and killing your bit. It is a fine line that takes some practice to figure out.
Drilling Technique Makes A Difference
Let the drill and drill bit do the work. You need pressure to keep the bit cutting, but too much pressure means excessive heat. Ease up on the drill and let the bit cut.
Before drilling, mark your location with a marker or pencil. Using a center punch and a hammer, make a center punch mark in the center of your drill location. A properly placed and struck center point will keep the bit from walking as you start the hole. Bad things happen when the drill bit catches or binds in the material being drilled. Usually this mean twisting your wrist or with small parts, whipping the part around. You can be seriously injured when this happens. To avoid a dangerous situation make sure your part is clamped in a vise or on your workbench before you drill. This frees up your other hand to support the drill and will result in a much better job.
If you are making a hole larger than 1/4”, it is a good idea to use a drill a pilot hole with a smaller bit, such as 1/8”. This ensures that the new hole is in the right place and it helps aid in faster cutting with the larger diameter bit. It is a good idea to step the drilling process with several sizes up to the final size for thick materials. The less you cut each time, the less strain you put on the drill, the bit, the part, and yourself. This also cuts down on the heat.
Another tendency when drilling is to get the bit at an angle. This is tough to overcome once the hole is already drilled. Take extra care to ensure the bit stays running in the alignment that is necessary for the application. Small diameter holes mean thin drill bits. This always leads to a larger possibility of breaking a bit. The longer the bit, the more likely it is to break. This is one of the reasons that maintaining adequate pressure but not too much is critical. When a bit breaks, if you are pushing too hard, you can stab yourself with the drill or the be impaled on the broken piece. It is not something you want to happen, so wear gloves and be mindful of the pressure you are exerting on the bit.
Any time you are drilling on a surface (not suspended on the vehicle or in a vise), you need a soft backup surface to drill into. All drill bits have a cone shaped tip, in order to complete the hole, the bit has to go all the way through the part. A piece of wood is a good backup surface and readily replaceable.
Drilling metal is a necessary task for many repairs and modifications, getting the job done right and safely is important. Take your time, be patient, and always protect your eyes and skin from potential damage. Always use sharp bits, if your bits are dull, they need to be sharpened or replaced. A dull bit is an accident waiting to happen.
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A life-long gearhead, Jefferson Bryant spends more time in the shop than anywhere else. His career began in the car audio industry as a shop manager, eventually working his way into a position at Rockford Fosgate as a product designer. In 2003, he began writing tech articles for magazines, and has been working as an automotive journalist ever since. His work has been featured in Car Craft, Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Truckin’, Mopar Muscle, and many more. Jefferson has also written 4 books and produced countless videos. Jefferson operates Red Dirt Rodz, his personal garage studio, where all of his magazine articles and tech videos are produced.