How to Use a Drill – Tips from the Pros

Learn How to Use a Drill and Unlock Its Versatility

Knowing how to use a cordless drill is like Power Tools 101. You just pull the trigger, right? That’s how a lot of people use this tool, and they do just fine. You can, however, get more out of your tools with a little knowledge. Our Pro readers can skip this article, but for beginners and those wanting to learn more than the very basics I plan to help you get the most out of this basic tool.

How to Use the Basic Functions of a Cordless Drill

Let’s start with a basic overview of the drill’s essential functions. Before you get started, the tool needs power. If you have a corded drill, make sure you have enough cord to reach your entire work area. If you have a cordless model, put the battery on the charger and make sure you start with a full charge. Lithium-ion batteries don’t have the “battery memory” that other battery chemistries do, so don’t worry about charging them even when they still have some charge left.

How to Insert a Bit Into a Chuck

The part of the drill that holds the bit is called the chuck. It has teeth that extend out as they come closer together to clamp down on the bit. Turning the chuck collar clockwise opens it up and counterclockwise closes it.

Most chucks are either 3/8-inch or 1/2-inch, referring to the maximum diameter of the shaft it can accept. You might have a 1-inch spade bit with a 1/4-inch hex shaft. Because the shaft is less than the capacity of the chuck, it fits even though the business end is larger than the chuck size.

To insert the bit, slide the bit into the chuck, hold it in the center, and twist the collar counterclockwise until it clamps down. Most modern drills have a ratcheting function and you can feel, and sometimes hear, it ratcheting down as the teeth clamp tight.

drill chucks CU

Pro Tip: Once you have the bit secure, give the trigger a light pull and look to see if the bit is spinning straight. A little bit of wobble (called runout) is normal. However, a big wobble means your bit is off-center. Loosen the chuck, re-center the bit, and tighten it back down to fix it.

How to Select Gears and Modes

Some drills have multiple speeds. The important thing to remember is that for a drill, speed and torque (rotational power) are inversely related. When the motor is in a faster gear, it has less torque. When it is in a slower gear, there’s more torque.

2-speed gearbox

Use high gear for lighter drilling and driving tasks and use low gear for bigger bits. It’s okay to try high gear first. If it’s too much, the motor will stop on its own. When that happens, switch to a lower gear and finish the application.

Note that some drills are single speed with no gears to choose.

Selecting the right mode for the job is different than selecting the gear. Most modern drills have two modes: drive and drill. Driving is for screws and involves using the clutch (more on that in a minute) and drilling is for creating holes.

hammer drill clutch settings

The major difference between those modes is that using the clutch in driving mode limits the torque and drill mode does not.

A special kind of drill called a hammer drill has a third mode. In hammer mode, the drill adds an up-and-back impact to help the bit chisel as it drills. You should only use this mode in concrete, brick, stone, and other masonry.

How to Use the Variable Speed Trigger on a Drill

Most drills have a variable speed trigger. That means the more you pull it, the faster it goes. A partial pull, called feathering, lets you have more control as you drill. It can be helpful for controlling the start of a hole that needs to be perfect, ensuring the bit doesn’t slip in and out of the fastener head (called cam out), or a wide range of other reasons.


Fathering the trigger works no matter what gear or mode you’re in.

How to Shift Between Forward and Reverse

Just above and behind the trigger, there’s a switch you can hit to toggle forward and reverse. Most drills have directional arrows embedded in them to help you remember that pushing in the right side is forward and pushing in the left side is reverse.

How to Set a Drill Clutch

A drill’s clutch functions in drive mode—we’re driving screws instead of drilling holes. Drill clutches are usually a mechanical system. When the rotation exceeds a certain torque, the clutch begins to slip to help you avoid overdriving a screw.

To set the clutch, twist the clutch collar to the position you want. The lower the number, the lower the torque the drill applies.

hammer drill clutch and modes

Some drills separate the mode selection from the clutch setting on different collars. If that’s the case for your model, make sure it’s in drive mode and the clutch is on the setting you want.

How to Use a Drill to Make a Hole

When you’re drilling holes, you want to make sure you’re in drill mode and not driver mode. The exception is if you’re drilling in masonry and you have a hammer drill. In that case, you want to be in hammer drill mode.

Start by marking the spot where you want to make your hole and select the correct bit for the job.

Place the tip of your bit on your mark and feather the trigger to give you a controlled start. As the bit begins to sink in, pull the trigger fully until you punch through or hit the depth you’re aiming for.

How to Use a Drill to Make a Hole

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Make sure the bit is going straight into the wood
  • Consider using a jig for angled drilling
  • Keep two hands on the tool for control
  • Use the side handle (if available) for drilling with large bits in low gear
  • Use a few drops of oil when you’re drilling in metal
  • Feel for the end of the hole and stop the drill chuck from slamming into the material and leaving a mark

How to Use a Drill for Screws

As you’re learning how to use a drill for driving screws, you’ll need to get comfortable with the clutch settings.

Knowing what setting to use requires a little experimenting. Using the same screw and some scrap material from what you’re working on, start with the clutch in a low position and see how far it drives into the material when you pull the trigger. Adjust the clutch up or down until you get the screw flush or sunk the way you like it.

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In some cases, the clutch doesn’t have a high enough setting for larger screws. When you run into that, switch into drill mode to bypass the clutch completely. If it’s still not enough and you’re in high gear, shift into low gear to get more torque.

Pro Tip: Most lumber has a lot of variance in it, and many Pros choose to drive screws in drilling mode and feather the trigger to get the right screw depth. There are also screw depth accessories you can buy that are helpful when you’re driving a lot of screws, such as a deck build.

With larger screws and harder materials, you often need to drill a pilot hole first. It helps eliminate splitting wood, cracking masonry, or damaging metal. A pilot hole removes material so that the screw threads can grab the sides without pushing material away. The general rule is to use a drill bit that’s the same diameter as the neck of the screw you’re using.

Selecting a Pilot Bit

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Start slow and make sure the screw is going straight into your material
  • For larger screws, keep two hands on the drill once you get the screw going
  • Use the driver bit that matches your screw—too large and it won’t engage, too small and it is more likely to slip
  • Use self-tapping screws for metal fastening when you can to avoid having to drill pilot holes

How to Use a Drill: Bonus Pro Tips

Use Two Hands

Hold the drill with your dominant hand and place the other one on top to steady the tool and give you more control. Be careful not to block the vents which help cool the motor while the tool works.

Use the side handle (if available) when you’re using larger bits that are more likely to bind up. You have better leverage with it and can avoid painful injuries to your wrist and elbow if the bind binds.

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Chuck Like a Pro

Instead of manually turning the chuck collar, many folks hold it and feather the trigger to close it down gently before hand tightening it to save some time and effort. Be careful not to run it too fast, though. Something has to give when the clutch bites down, and it’s usually one hand or the other!

How to Use a Drill Safely

You’ve got the basics of how to use a drill and it’s time to make some holes! Here are some tips from our Pro Team to make it easier:

  • Wear safety glasses every time—no excuses
  • Know what’s behind the drywall before you start drilling
  • Use two hands whenever possible
  • Use the side handle for large fasteners when available
  • If the outside of the tool or the battery gets hot, give it a rest to avoid burning up the motor or damaging the battery cells
  • Consider wearing a respirator when you’re drilling in masonry
  • Don’t use bits outside the range for your drill (check the manual or guidance)

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