4.5 Ways to Drill a Hole without a Power Tools

As I started this site I’ve really made it a priority to minimize the amount of Power Tools in my life. Even drills! I even learned to drill a hole without the telltale whir of a power drill. That may sound strange but after years of a high-stress job I decided to pick up a hobby that would force me to work with my hands. And I mean really work with my hands. Sweat, blood, finesse, and muscle. No electric anything. That’s how the art of hand tools was born.

There are several ways you can drill a hole in wood. The most obvious is a hand drill. They turn motion from your arms into spinning rotation magnified by the mechanical advantage of the drill. If you are drilling holes and don’t want to use a power tool, this is most likely the method you are looking for. You probably seen them. they look like this…

Method 1(Hand Drill)

With this method you will need the hand drill and a drill bit. Several benefits of this method include

Benefits:

  1. the ability to easily change size of hole drilled
  2. Ability to easily control Direction and depth of hole
  3. Process works out arms and core

Caveats:

  1. Requires significant to effort. You are going to sweat if you are drilling more than one or two holes. This tool requires muscle behind it to cut into the wood.

To use this type of tool, follow these steps:

  1. Secure a drill bit in the chuck of the hand drill. Make sure this is straight and doesn’t wobble when you drill. A wobble will greatly increase the likelihood of snapping a drill bit.
  2. Align drill to work surface. It may be necessary to start the hole perpendicularly and then adjust the angle of the drill to the desired direction. This will prevent the bit from slipping along the work surface.
  3. Moderate pressure is necessary for allow the bit to cut into the material. Excessive pressure is unnecessary and will not result in a better hole. You may even break the bit.
  4. It is better to turn the bit at a moderate speed. To fast and it will be difficult to control and may grind more than cut. To slow and the bit won’t cut as cleanly.
  5. *Note* remember to continue the spinning motion while removing the bit from the wood. This will help to extricate the drill while preventing binding
  6. Make sure to periodically clear the drill channels as the hole forms. If a significant amount of effort is needed while drilling, there may be too much detritus (broken up wood) in the hole.

Method 1.5(Eggbeater Drill):

A very similar option to the classic hand drill is the same tool but with gears, aka an Eggbeater drill. These integrate a few simple machines to better optimize your strength. By using a large-to-small gear reduction, the bit will spin much faster than the revolutions of your hand. That along with the large lever gives you mechanical advantage and seed.

Additional Caveats for Eggbeaters:

Depending on where you got your hand drill, it may be old or in disrepair. Because this tool utilizes mechanical advantage and your body strength, always make sure to lubricate any bearings or sliding surfaces. This may or may not apply to the classic hand drill. Usually this depends on how the grips are integrated.

Method 2(Burning):

Another classic and popular method is burning. Burning a hole has been used for centuries by all cultures. Everything from burning out the center of a canoe to creating holes to join wall posts and roofs. If you’re going for a smaller hole when you look online you will see this being done with a soldering iron which, I will agree, is not a hand tool. But that is just one way.

This can also be done with a metal rod. You heat the rod in some type of fireplace or brazier. Once the metal reaches a high temperature you push the rod into the wood. After the burning slows replace it into the fire. While the rod reheats brush/chip out the burned fiber. This process of repeated until you have the hole of desired depth. This is a great example of this method

Benefits:

  1. Requires lower tech. This method usually only requires fire and some means of chipping away the burnt wood. If you are attempting to be more precise the only thing that needs to be added is a metal rod.
  2. You get to play with fire. Not only can this be enjoyable but can also reduce stress as an added benefit.
  3. Lower effort than hand drill. You are utilizing the chemical properties of wood to burn which will remove and loosen material for you. Work smarter not harder.

Caveats:

  1. Usually less precise. Even utilizing the rod method, you will still be burning the wood away. This is not as easy control as a drill
  2. This method of visually marks the wood. Because you are burning away material it is inevitable that you will charge surrounding wood. This may or may not be an issue. This problem may be mitigated with some light sanding.
  3. Can take a long time. Since you will likely need to repeat the process many times to get the desired depth, multiple holes may be unfeasible.

Method:

To use this type of tool, follow these steps:

Basic:
  1. This method is usually used to hollow out a canoe or large hole.
  2. Chop/chip the wood to create more surface area
  3. This will also allow you to more easily control what burns
  4. Using tinder, begin burning scored and chipped up area
  5. Fan/blow area to increase coals and burning
  6. Allow area to burn down and begin to cut away partially burned wood and ash
  7. Repeat steps 2-6 until desired depth is reached
Rod:
  1. Start small controlled fire in pit or firbox
  2. Choose rod of desired width to fit requirement for hole size
  3. File end of rod into point. This will help control placement and allow you to push through wood fibers
  4. Place rod into fire
  5. Always make sure to use gloves while handling heated metal. I know it sounds obvious but my burnt hands could argue that point
  6. Once rod end is up to temp push point into wood piece.
  7. Spin and wiggle point to increase burning speed
  8. As rod begin to cool, replace in fire
  9. using a small chisel or screw driver, cut away burned wood.
  10. Try not to widen hole overly
  11. Being as precise as possible now will payoff later
  12. Repeat steps 5-10 as needed until hole is created

Method 3(Chisel):

This may sound silly but if you boil the above methods down to their most basic self its all just cutting a hole. Burning, chipping, drilling, heck even a nail all come down to cutting/pushing away material to allow an object to pass through.

Why not just *cut* out the middle man. I’ve used chisels(for larger holes) all the way to even a screw driver.

Benefits:

  1. Physically easier. Using a chisel allows you to cut away more material without need into wait for a rod to heat up or needing to rotate a tool.
  2. You can chip/cut exactly what you are trying to get rid of
  3. Fewer and simpler tools

Caveats:

  1. Technically more difficult. Learning to use a chisel correctly to only remove material you want removed can take some time and experience
  2. Chisels are not amazing at making round holes
  3. Will need to learn how to sharpen you chisel at some point

Method:

To use this type of tool, follow these steps:

  1. Place chisel perpendicular to the wood close to where you want the hole
  2. Strike the back of the chisel with a hammer creating a cut in the wood
  3. Do this two-three more times creating a circular channel in the wood
  4. Now tip the chisel at a 30° angle to the wood
  5. Strike the chisel lightly to cut away the middle of the circle
  6. You may need to work the chisel around chipping away more material as needed.
  7. Repeat steps 1-6 until required depth is reached.

Note: The next two methods are more for starting fires than drilling holes but are included for completeness as well as a way to start the fires for the burning methods.

Method 4(Fire Drill):

Now while this method isn’t really used to drill holes in wood, I would argue that its successor could be used in a pinch. Now how would one start a fire if you didn’t have a lighter? Tom Hanks in Castaway comes to mind. Utilizing the same method that Humanity has used since the dawn of time, he took a straight wooden rod and roll it quickly back and forth between his hands. By pushing down and rolling on another piece of wood with some dry tinder, it is possible to start a fire. Its could theoretically also be a method for drilling a hole. *don’t do it* I’m pretty sure you would die of old age before you made a stool. The more advanced version is a bow drill which could have some drill possibilities.

Benefits:

  1. Super low tech. Only material needed is a straight rod, tinder, and sticks
  2. Will teach you patients as well as the ability to start a fire without modern tools

Caveats:

  1. Very labor intensive. If you have ever tried to start a fire by hand, you know that without some calluses you are likely to rub your mits raw. Gloves will likely make you less accurate also slowing your progress.
  2. This is really a method to start a fire, not drill a hole through a material

Method:

To use this type of tool, follow these steps:

  1. Make sure you collect dry everything
  2. This method revolves around friction to start a fire so if anything is wet you wont get a spark.
  3. Create  friction by rubbing the stick onto your board
  4. This friction will turn the end of the stick into a hot ember
  5. Transfer the hot ember into your tinder bundle
  6. Blow lightly
  7. Light kindling with tinder
  8. This can now be used for the other burning method listed above

Method 4.5(Bow Drill):

Now while a fire drill is not a viable way for drilling holes, the bow drill method makes it possible. Note I said possible, not feasible. This method could be combined with some other tools(a better bit for one) to increase its usefulness but again, this method is mostly for starting fires for the burning methods above.

Benefits:

  1. Low tech. Will need a rod, a flexible bow, and some type of cordage to string the bow.
  2. Less labor intensive than a straight fire drill
  3. You learn another method of starting a fire without modern tools
  4. Could save your life someday
  5. Not as difficult as the fire drill method
  6. You can create more downward pressure while spinning the stick.
  7. Easier to switch hands

Caveats:

  1. Very slow. A lot of patients is needed to rub a hole through a material. This method is usually used with the burning method for thicker pieces of wood.
  2. Very labor intensive. Even with the bow you will need to work at creating the ember

Method:

To use this type of tool, follow these steps:

  1. Tie a shoe lace or cord onto one end of a flexible branch that is approximating a c shape
  2. Bend the branch and tie off the other end keeping the branch taut.
  3. Get a straight stick(Make this stick thicker than the one used in the fire drill so the cord can grab something)
  4. wrap the cord so it makes a revolution on the stick
  5. cut notch in board for place to rest point of ember stick
  6. Put stone or wood in between hand and end of rubbing stick
  7. Push down while sawing the bow back and forth
  8. This is the same method as the fire drill but with extra help from tools
  9. Use same method as above to light tinder and kindling

One cool thing I found while researching this method is a prebuilt kit on Amazon you can grab to try the Bow Drill out. I think I’ll be ordering one myself to give it a try.

Overall I thing getting holes in wood is very doable with the extension cord. You will learn a lot about wood and your tools. Having to think laterally to solve a problem will make you a better worker and a more capable person. I know I enjoy it.

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