DIY 101: building your toolbox – the cordless drill


I’m very excited to announce a new monthly column: DIY 101! Sometimes it feels like DIY projects should be redefined as FIOY– “figure it out yourself”– projects. I know from experience that the gap between looking at an object and thinking “well I can make that” and enjoying a successfully completed project can be a large one. I’m excited to create a collection of tutorials and reference guides that will make the process of tackling projects much easier. My hope is that in the process of “figuring out” your creative DIY endeavors, you can always turn to our DIY 101 archives to find answers.

I want to start off the new series with some information on how to build up a complete DIY toolbox. The well-rounded DIYer will have everything from a needle and thread to a jigsaw stashed away, for the very reason that you never know what kind of solution you’ll need to come up with. For the next few months I am going to suggest some incredibly useful tools to have on hand.

Today we start with the cornerstone of handiness and DIY versatility: the cordless drill.

CLICK HERE to find out more about cordless drills and how to choose one after the jump!

1. Anatomy of a drill:

2. Choosing a drill:

Cordless drills are available in various sizes and battery powers, which are measured in volts. Look for drills with lithium-ion rechargeable batteries. These batteries are more expensive, but they last longer, weigh less, and have a shorter charging time than their alternative, the nickel cadmium battery. In my opinion, they are worth the investment.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when purchasing your drill:

  • Weight/Grip – I highly recommend testing out the drill in person. Hold the drill as if you were going to be drilling something into the wall at shoulder height. You don’t want your hand to be shaking and your wrist to be aching after only a few seconds– the drill should feel relatively light and you should have a good grip around the handle and be able to press the trigger easily.
  • Torque (power) – The voltage on cordless drills ranges from 6V to 18V and will determine how much torque (spinning power) you can get from the drill. 18V cordless drills are the most powerful, but can also be rather heavy compared to lower voltage drills. If you simply need to hang pictures and do a few light wood projects, you can definitely get by with a 7V or 9V drill. If you want to do larger wood or furniture projects, or drill through varied materials like metal, plastic, or tile, go with a drill between 12V and 18V–you’ll need the extra power.
  • Speed – The speed is measured in RPMs. Faster speeds are for drilling holes and lower speeds are for driving in screws. Some drills will come with variable speed options, while the more inexpensive drills might have only one speed. I highly recommend you purchase a multiple speed drill. The ability to drill at a slow speed allows more control and helps prevent slipping and stripped screws.

I have to say that am quite happy with my Makita 18V cordless model. It’s compact and lightweight– perfect for my small hands. It has enough power for all of my DIY experiments and has a nifty feature that I love: an LED bulb turns on when you push the trigger, conveniently illuminating those hard to see drilling spots.

Now that you have picked out a drill, here are some recommended bits to get you started on multiple kinds of projects. Most bits are interchangeable among drills; you don’t need to purchase bits in the same brand as your drill, but you should ask the salesperson or bring your drill along to ensure the bits is compatible.

3. Types of Bits:

  • Standard Bit Holder + Bits: This is a bit holder with removable bits. You can purchase a collection of flat and Phillips head bits in various sizes at the hardware store. The black rubber surrounds a sliding sheath, which will slide up over the crew head and bit. This allows you to drill without holding the screw in place.

Use for: Drilling in screws of various materials and sizes into wood, metal, and plastics.

  • Boring/Spade/Paddle bit: This bit has many names, but only one job– making cylindrical cuts into wood. These bits can cause the surface of the wood to splinter and chip, which is called “tear out”. If you want to drill a hole straight through a piece of wood, I recommend having a scrap piece underneath when drilling. Press down on the two pieces of wood as your drilling to minimize tear out. It’s also a good idea to wear safety goggles and a dust mask when using these bits (and anytime you drill) because many little shavings will go flying as you drill.

Use for: making clean holes with ¼” diameter or higher, creating cylindrical depressions in wood for dowels,  jars, etc.


  • Countersink bit: This bit is used when you want screws to sit flush with the surface of the wood. The countersink bit has a tiny chuck on it that allows you to switch out the drill bit inside.

Use for: pre-drilling holes for screws or nails that you want to sit flush with the surface of material. Use a bit with a slightly smaller diameter than your screw or nail to ensure a secure fit.

  • Masonry Bit: The bit has a carbide tip which provides extra cutting power and should not be used on wood, plastics, or metal. Drilling through ceramic usually produces lots of heat, so proceed slowly and have a small glass of water close by to apply to the hole occasionally.

Use for: drilling into plates, tiles, terracotta pots, and bricks.

  • Twist Bit: These bits are meant for wood and soft plastics, and are the most common bits to use for simple wood projects. They come in a range of sizes and are usually made of low carbon steel. High carbon steel bits are also available. These are more expensive, but allow you to drill through metal and will stand up to hardwoods better than the soft carbon.

Use for: wood projects, wood furniture, dowels, tin cans or any metal or plastic projects.

4. Helpful Tips on Drilling:

  • ALWAYS use eye protection. Drills create flying shards and splinters, and your face is usually close to the action. You may also want to use gloves and ear buds if working on heavier duty projects. Be safe!
  • If you’re handling anything heavy or precarious, have a buddy around to help hold the item as your drilling or screwing. I’ve been the dummy who tries to hang a shelf by myself. It’s not a good idea.
  • Purchase a few c-clamps to secure smaller projects down when drilling. This helps keep your hands away from the action and allows for more precise, even drilling.
  • Masonry materials (terracotta, porcelain, ceramics, etc) can overheat from the friction of drilling. It’s good to work at a slow speed and have a glass of water handy when you are drilling so you can stop periodically add a few drops to the point of contact to cool it down.

Next month I’ll discuss more essential elements for building your DIY toolbox. In the meantime, here are some of my favorite DIY projects that you can create to show off your new drill!

Ginny

this.is.genius.

this might actually help me tackle the harder diy projects that seem too daunting!!

Briana

Thank you so much for this post. I just got a cordless drill for my birthday, and I know the basics, but this post has some really helpful info! Can’t wait to read others in the series.

*Ashley Terese*

This will be cool.. I’ve had my own tool kit since beginning of college for all my art projects.. but I’m definitely going to be forwarding these onto my boyfriend!

Summer

Perhaps the single best column addition! Between this and Barb’s Before and After Basics, we’ll all be DIY experts before long!

Emeline

Oh! I love this idea! I eat up everything you guys do that’s related to DIY, so I’m excited for another column to learn from. Thanks!

Jenn

I LOVE this new series! Good job Design Sponge team! I hate having to rely on my husband for using the power tools. I feel so girly asking … can’t wait to give this a try myself :)

Krista @ Blue Eyed Yonder

What an absolutely wonderful idea! My DIY tool box has grown more and more this year. One of my new favorite additions was my pneumatic nail gun. Whew! Talk about power surge!

With this new column, I know you will empower others to fill their tool boxes and tackle those once “out of my reach” projects. Way to go guys!

Alexander

Great info, thank you. Please keep in mind that, when you will want to replace the battery for your cordless drill after 5 years, it may still be available, but it will be very expensive (you can buy a new drill for the cost of an outdated replacement battery, which will lead you to have to throw away your old cordless drill – not very environmentally). I have gone through this twice and finally decided to buy a corded drill with a lifetime warranty.

Marie

I’m so excited for this column!

I see all the fancy before and afters on here and I really want to see a tutorial/DIY 101 article on how to re-cover chairs/couchs! :) great addition to the team Grace!

christina

this is great, thanks! I bought myself a drill two years ago and couldn’t bring myself to use it until this fall because the directions were just some cartoons without any words. It seemed entirely possible to kill self by accident. Thank you for explaining things so I don’t have to keep relying on my boyfriend, or go to the hardware store and feel the gender stereotypes descending upon me like pepto-bismol-colored storm clouds.

kate

thanks for posting this…can’t wait to read the other parts. Great stuff that everyone should know!

Just an FYI for readers- cordless is always awesome and convenient…but research corded drills before choosing between the two. Sometimes, depending on what project you are using it for, a corded will be better. Do you need more power or more portability? :)

mg

The information about the various sorts of bits is great! Thanks so much. I’m with the commenter above, however – check out a corded drill as well. You can get a respectable corded drill for $20 or $30, and a great one for $50 or $60. The drill you recommend above costs $180!

It will have the torque and speed of a much more expensive cordless drill, and it will never run out of batteries, nor will it ever be dead when you pick it up after six months of non-use (there’s nothing more frustrating than realizing you can’t get on with a project until a battery charges). The cord can be an annoyance, but a decent extension cord can get you a long enough reach for anything indoors and honestly for most applications, for me anyway, it just hasn’t been a problem.

BLight

You forgot my favorite type of drill bit: Forstner bits. They cost a little more, but they make very clean cylindrical holes.

Shan

I really love my cordless drill. It was a hand-me-down from dad, who didn’t like it, and I use it all the time.

Alison Cole

Awesome! Enthusiastic to see more coming. A lot of us girls grow up forbidden from the toolbox and it’s a real shame. Thanks for a dose of sensibility!

Phillylass

I’m so so so grateful for this new feature. What a fantastic idea! I’ll be bookmarking every post!

Prissy

Thank you for the new feature! Love it and love my cordless drill…Now I know the proper bit for each project.

Christine

Awesome site feature! This is a super handy reference. I live in a old house and have to rely on bugging my dad or brother.

Lauren

I’m so excited for this new feature! I’ve been thinking of buying a cordless drill for awhile now but had no idea where to start!

Emily Rae

Um, AMAZing. The detail. The second and third sentences — exactly! Thanks for caring enough to equip us with this in-depth info.

Heidi

Great primer! As someone who is an avid DIYer and architect this was a pretty comprehensive list. I would say that anyone looking at a drill should go to the store and try them out in your hands. I find 18v drills too big and heavy! When I got married we registered for power tools. We have had a pair of dew alt 12v drills ever since. I haven’t tried the lighter lithium battery models which would probably be more comfortable. If you are doing anything heavy duty you definitely want at least a 12v. I can count the number of times I have needed a stronger drill on one hand. I would also say that you should get more expensive twist bits. The cheaper ones tend to split the wood more and take more effort to drill. One good option is to buy a less expensive set and then supplement with a few higher quality bits in a couple of standard sizes.

Jude

Thank you, Kathy. I just bought a cordless drill at one of the hardware store Thanksgiving sales, and I’m looking forward to getting over my irrational fear of power tools!

Katy

Great new addition! I just have one mighty important safety tip to add: beware the hair! If you have long hair, put it up. I was using a drill on a project once and before I knew it my long hair had been wound up in the drill like yo-yo string. My dad spent an hour disassembling the drill to release my (very greasy!) hair. I was lucky I wasn’t scalped. So take heed, my longhaired friends and put up your pelos.

Paloma

Wow!! Totally love this kind of information. I’m trying to do DIY projects.

Leonie

This kind of post is just what I need! Looking forward to future installments, thanks :)

Dan

Nice post but the bit about torque is not quite right. I found this on another website:

Torque controls are normally found on drills with a screw-driving function, torque control shuts off the drill when a certain turning force is reached. The size of screw together with the material accepting the screw will influence the torque required for a particular job. Normally the adjustment is by a numbered dial – often up to 16 positions with low numbers being low torque. This all helps ensure that screws are not driven in too far; or over tightened.

Gosia

Thank you so much. This is just fantastic. Perfect resource to narrow the gap you’ve mentioned.

Steven Hoober

I agree wholeheartedly with Hannah. The best drill series
in the world now are these improbably tiny (e.g. just as powerful
as anything else) Mikwaukees. They are all readily available around
$120 or less. Check the company website. Things I would have
touched on in addition: – Right angle drills, and cabinet drills.
There are specialty ones, so even if you don’t want to buy one,
knowing they exist means you can bug the tool guy down the street
to borrow it. – Forstner bits and hole saws. Much nicer large
diameter hole drilling than spade bits, safer. Hole saws are easy
to buy wrong. Got to get the right brand and type of shank or you
are wasting your money. – Masonry, glass and tile bits. –
Countersinks alone. Due to cost and fixturing time, no one ever
seems to bother with the right countersink drill, but just going
back through all your holes with a countersink works fine. Twist is
an arrangement, and does not imply the material being drilled. You
are referring to HSS bits. Might be worth running over types of
material, so someone who just has to drill a hole in a stainless
bracket can have a chance to do it. Actually, materials might be a
good DIY 101 topic. Identifying and using materials. Most folks
don’t know that stainless (for example) can be so hard it cannot be
drilled, or some casting so brittle they will shatter. No, corded
drills are silly these days except for very high power situations
(masonry). You cannot in fact get a nice one for $20. You can get a
crappy one, but have to pass $75 to get a corded drill worth
owning.

Fhung

I am loving your DIY 101 Series! Been wanting to get myself a cordless screwdriver/drill too! Thank you!

BTW… what is the name of the font you have on the blackboard up there? Thaaanks :)

Fhung

Ooh never mind about the font – I found it quickly by googling “chalk font” :) Thanks anyway – it’s a lovely font! And love your inspirational blog!

C.Noble

Thank Goodness for this Blog, it’s exactly to the “T” what I’ve been scouring the internet for — just a concise, comprehensive guide on the DIY-er’s toolbox, especially the power drill. I’ve just newly discovered this blog and I love it!

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