How to Use a Manual Hand Drill


Before the age of cordless drills, people had to use manually-operated hand drills to drill holes in wood, metal, and other materials. I am blessed to own a couple of different hand drills that used to belong to my grandparents. They are some of my favorite vintage tools and are still useful today

Hand drills are easy to use with a little basic knowledge and practice. With the correct drill and technique, you can even drill large and deep holes in tough materials.

Although I have a very powerful cordless drill, I still use my grandfathers’ old manual hand drills in certain situations. Here is some information about how to use manual hand drills and when you should use one instead of a power drill.

Manual Hand Drills

Choose the Correct Hand Drill

Hand drills, like many other tools, come in many different shapes and sizes. The smallest hand drills are called eggbeaters because of the resemblance that they share. “Eggbeater” hand drills are the smallest and most simple type of hand drill. They are suitable for drilling smaller holes up to 1/4 inch.

Medium-sized hand drills usually feature a more complicated set of gears and are suitable for drilling slightly larger holes than their “eggbeater” counterparts. Many of these also have selector switches for drilling in tight spots where you can’t rotate the handle a full 360 degrees. Hand drills such as these are best for drilling holes up to 1/2 inch.

The largest type of hand drill is called a breast drill. It is used for drilling large and deep holes in tough materials. It is called a breast drill because you press your chest against a plate at the back of the tool as you are drilling, allowing you to put more weight behind the drill. These were mainly used to bore holes in beams when assembling large structures.

There are other types of manual drills that you can use as well, including braces, push drills, and t-handle augers. Each of these is its own unique tool that deserves its own article, which I plan on writing about later.

Secure the Drill Bit

After you determine what size of hand drill you will use, the next thing that you need to do is determine the drill bit that you need and secure it in the drill’s chuck. Some hand drills have a chuck key which you can use to tighten the chuck around the drill bit. If you have one, use it. However, many hand drills do not have a keyed chuck. For drills such as this, you will have to hand-tighten the chuck around the bit.

One nice thing about hand drills is that they can use modern drill bits. Other tools, such as push drills require the use of special bits or adapters. Hand drills use a chuck similar to those found on modern power drills, which allows you to use common twist drill bits.

The size of your hand drill will limit the sizes of drill bits that you can use with it. For example, some larger hand drills’ chucks are too large to hold a 1/16 inch drill bit. On the other hand, smaller hand drills won’t have enough torque to drill larger holes. For this reason, it is nice to have multiple hand drills of different sizes.

Mark the Hole

After you have selected your drill bit and secured it in your hand drills’ chuck, the next step is to mark the hole’s location. You can do this in wood using a nail set punch and in metal with a center punch.

Marking holes is always a good idea when drilling, but is essential when using a manual hand drill. Since you are using both hands to control and operate the hand drill, your drill bit is more likely to slip while in use. Marking your holes will help keep the bit in place as you are drilling, reducing the chance of it slipping. If the drill bit slips it could scratch or mar your workpiece.

To mark a hole in wood, place the tip of a nail set punch on the desired location and tap it lightly with a hammer. This will create a small dimple that the tip of the drill bit can rest in. For metal, do the same thing with a centerpunch, except hitting the punch a little harder. You could also use an automatic center punch to ensure your marking is precise.

Clamp the Workpiece

Now you will want to clamp the workpiece. This is essential because you will be using both hands to operate the hand drill. Clamping your workpiece will reduce the chance of damaging it and make drilling a lot easier.

Use Good Technique While Drilling

While you may be able to get away with sloppy technique while using a power drill, manual hand drills are far less forgiving. The most important thing to remember while using a hand drill is to keep the bit straight and perpendicular to the workpiece. This will make drilling easier and reduce the likelihood of breaking a drill bit, especially smaller ones.

Also, avoid the temptation to put too much pressure onto the drill bit and drill too fast. Using a little patience will go a long way when using non-powered tools. If you use good technique and have sharp drill bits you will get the job done.

Clean Out Chips as You Drill

As you are drilling, be sure to clean out the chips as you are going. This will prevent the chips from compacting in the drill bit, reducing it’s cutting ability. To do this, simply back the bit out every once in a while as you are drilling. This should help the chips fall out, but you may have to knock them out yourself.

Maintain Your Hand Drill

Manual Hand Drill

Hand drills, especially older ones, are very tough and easy to maintain. Both of mine were stored in some pretty rough conditions before I got them. One of them was in a damp basement while the other was in a storage shed. Despite this, both of them were still operational and only required minor cleaning.

If you want to keep your hand drills in good shape, all you need to do is apply a drop of oil to the gears and the chuck. This will prevent things from freezing up and keep your drills running smoothly.

Tips for Using Manual Hand Drills

Prevent Drill Bits from Slipping

When using hand drills that don’t have a keyed chuck, use drill bits with 1/4 inch hex shanks. Thanks to the growing popularity of impact drivers, drill bits such as the Milwaukee bits pictured are pretty easy to find. Hex shank drill bits will not slip in the chuck and will fit in almost any hand drill.

Drilling Straight Holes

Sometimes you may need to drill deep holes that need to be perfectly straight. In situations such as this, drill guides are extremely helpful and are relatively inexpensive. They will allow you to drill precision holes with either manual or electric drills without the use of a drill press.

Drilling Large Holes

Drilling large holes with manual hand drills can be a challenge. To make it easier, start with a smaller drill bit and work your way up to the desired hole width. This will allow the drill to remove less material at a time, reducing the amount of resistance that you have to work against.

When to Use a Hand Drill

Although modern electric drills are more powerful and easier to use than ever before, there are still times when manual hand drills are a better choice. Here are some times when using they are a better choice than a power drill.

Precision Drilling

Hand drills give their users much more control than handheld power drills. This control will allow the user to drill to controlled depths without the use of a drill press. The slower pace of hand drills reduces the chance that the user will remove too much material.

Working with Delicate Pieces

Manual hand drills are a better choice than power drills when working with delicate workpieces or those that use rare types of wood. The control that they give their users makes them a safer choice for inexperienced hands than high-powered electrical tools. Many times, they are also capable of drilling cleaner holes, which is essential when appearance matters.

Safety Tips for Using Hand Drills

Wear gloves: Although hand drills may seem less dangerous than power drills, wearing gloves is an absolute must. Using a hand drill for a prolonged amount of time or to drill large holes will probably give you blisters, even with gloves on. It is also very easy to pinch yourself with the gears while you are drilling, which can be very painful.

Wear safety glasses: A manual hand drill will still toss chips in every direction imaginable. For this reason, always wear safety glasses when using them.

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