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How to Drill Into Steel Like a Pro

My guess is this summer you’ll be faced with some DIY project where you need to drill into metal. Steel is the most common metal you’ll find around your home and it’s not as hard to drill through as you might think.

Rookie DIYers will usually make a few mistakes that can cause damage to the metal, tools or surrounding finishes, cause frustration, and create a string of bad language that might cause a sailor to blush. You can avoid all of this by just following a few simple steps!

You can watch a nice short video of me showing how to drill into steel by going here:


Degree of Difficulty: hammer-2-5

Step One: Gather a power drill that has adjustable speeds. A scrap piece of wood to place under the piece of metal being drilled will be very handy. You’ll also need sharp drill bits made to drill into metal. These bits are clearly marked for that purpose on the label and frequently contain cobalt in the steel used to make the bit. You’ll need a sharp nail or center punch tool. Metal cutting oil or standard motor oil will also be required. A clamp or two to hold the metal in place while drilling may be necessary. If drilling thin metal, heavy work gloves could prevent a nasty slice or cut.

Step Two: If the piece of metal you intend to drill is thin and lightweight, you may want to clamp it securely to the piece of wood. The drilling action can cause the metal to spin rapidly as the drill penetrates the metal. This can happen without warning and cause a nasty cut if you’re not careful.

Step Three: If you’re drilling a large diameter hole, say 3/8-inch or larger, you’ll want to drill smaller pilot holes first in the metal. Start with a 1/8-inch hole and increase the hole by an 1/8-inch as you work your way to the larger hole diameter.

Step Four: Drilling into metal, especially metal over 1/4-inch thick, can create lots of heat and friction. Heat can and will damage drill bits. Professionals use oil when drilling steel. The oil lubricates the metal and drill bit as it spins. The oil also acts as a heat sink absorbing much of the heat. Simply squirt oil on the metal before you start to drill and add more oil as you drill.

Step Five: When you’ve determined where you want your hole, try to create a small depression in the metal with your nail or a center punch tool. This tiny depression helps center the drill bit so it doesn’t wander as you turn on the drill.

Step Six: When you start to drill, use a low speed and moderate downward pressure on the drill. High speeds cause too much friction and high heat levels. Slow and steady drilling speed is best when drilling metal.

Step Seven: If you notice any smoke, you’re drilling too fast or not using enough oil to lubricate the drilling process. Slow down and add more oil.

Step Eight: When the drill bit is about to break through the other side of the metal, it can grab onto the metal causing the drill to twist in your hand or cause the metal to spin. Be very aware of this as you are about to break through the metal with the bit. Grasp the drill tightly and pay attention.

Summary: It’s not hard at all to drill through metal. Aluminum is very soft and will drill easily. One-quarter-inch steel plate is a challenge, but you can do it. Try to practice first on smaller pieces of metal. It’s vital you have a variable-speed drill and very sharp drill bits. Let me know how you do!

Column: HT018


6 Responses to How to Drill Into Steel Like a Pro

  1. Hi Tim -- Thanks for the drilling thru metal article.

    I started my career in a millwright apprenticeship at GM. One of first jobs was drilling metal using drill press or hand drill.

    For horizontal drilling he placed a washer on the metal using it as a reservoir for oil around the bit. Works great.


  2. Wish I had read this years ago before I tried to drill in metal. All of the mentioned problems happened (except the nasty cut fortunately) Now I'll know better for the next time.

  3. Read your tips on drilling steel and can sum it up in one word:

    HAWG WASH....... its a drill lubricant that is one of the best fluids I have ever used. I have a Milwaukee magnetic drill and use cutting broaches whenever I am drilling steel, and they recommend using Hawg wash for all drilling work. Look it up and give it a try....

  4. Good article!
    @Joe Cotter, cool tip on using a washer as an oil reservoir. I'm going to "steal" that tip from you. Thanks!

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