one drill, one guide

[estimated reading time 7 minutes]

while there is a general obsession today with doing everything freehand (something i have never understood in the slightest), i am a woodworker who loves absolute perfection, precision and the guarantee of success. so i use guides, jigs and mounts to get predictable results with my cutting, paring and drilling. every time. well, every time it matters.

for about 90% of the cuts we make, they’re going to be finished later with some other tool. so perfection is irrelevant. and it would simply take extra time to get things set up to guarantee a precision that doesn’t matter. have to be careful not to be obsessive about details when the details aren’t even going to appear in the finished piece. but, when it’s going to be seen or touched or referenced, i’m not going to take the risk of doing it without a solid guide. you can and there’s nothing wrong with that. but i refuse to work without a sizable net unless i have no choice.

the problem with this is that most people assume you have to have a drillpress to make it possible. or, i suppose, a beam/post-drill, which is, practically speaking, a rudimentary drillpress. but that’s not at all the case. let’s take a look at how to make a straight-line drilling guide two different ways, neither of them needing a drillpress. and what you might be able to use even if you don’t want to make one yourself.

we’ll start with that, actually. you want a drilling guide but you don’t want to buy one of those expensive ones (they’re actually worth it but i know money is sometimes tight when it comes to shop things and wood is so expensive it’s never great to waste money when it’s available in limited quantities). so what can you use that you might already have lying around?

the first thing that will help you drill straight is a washer. i know that sounds silly. believe me. when i was first told this, i thought my teacher was completely off his fucking head. but i didn’t say that. cause i’d have gotten a chisel shoved up my ass. twice. anyway, i thought something probably exactly like what you’re thinking — what good is a 2mm-thick piece of metal at keeping a 200mm twisting rod straight? well, it’s not. but washers are cheap. like a few cents each. and so is superglue. you probably already have lots. take a couple of dozen washers, clamp or tape them together to form a cylinder with the inside diameter the same as the drillbit you want to use, add some thin ca (cyanoacrylate/crazy/super) glue and let it solidify. you might have to shove a little sandpaper on a stick in there if you were sloppy with your glue but other than that it’s a ready-made guide. stick that on your workpiece and you’re going to get a straight, flat hole.

while we’re on the subject of simple, many dowel plates are thick enough to guide your drill. remember, you’re only using this just to start the cut. once you’re a couple of centimeters below the surface, the wood itself becomes your drilling guide and it’s much easier to go straight. no, it’s not guaranteed you won’t shift from your original line and it’s good to use the guide for as long as possible, especially if you haven’t done this thousands of times in the past. but if you pay attention and you use a good starting guide, you’ll probably be within a reasonable margin of straight and true.

but what if you don’t want to use the stacked-washer approach to drilling? this is where the two possible approaches come in. one is a bit twitchy, i have to admit. but remember you only have to make this guide once. this isn’t something you do every time. it’s a single-event investment of time and, unless you fuck it up, it’ll last you for years and guarantee straight cuts.

get a piece of wood that’s about half the thickness of the length of your target drillbit. you can make many holes in the same piece or use a different piece for each size of bit. don’t forget to label them, though. the last thing you need is to use the wrong bit in the hole and get it out of true or have it wiggling and it be useless as a guide in the first place. clamp your drill or brace to something. anything. solid edge of a toolbox, side of a piece of equipment, whatever. so the tip of the bit is resting against the top of the block you want to make your guide from. while you drill the hole, raise the block. i’ve seen this done with a jack but realistically just do a few turns and add a shim then do another few turns and you’ll get through it. like i said, this is twitchy. and it’s not really the method i’d use in practice. but if you want guaranteed results it will get you there. the point is you want to ensure the bit is straight in all directions as you drill and the guide will also be that way.

here’s a better method, though, if you are prepared to do some trial and error. yes, you might get this wrong the first time. but you can try it dozens of times and you only have to get it right once. this is the method i actually use if i don’t have a guide or a drillpress. (the other method is something i was taught and … well, it’s effective and foolproof and less wasteful of materials — but it’ll take you ages to get through it and this, even if it takes a few tries, is fast.)

take a combination square and set it to a specific distance — maybe 3cm but it doesn’t matter. now draw intersecting lines in both directions so they cross on the side of a board. if you set it to 3cm, you should end up with an intersection point exactly 3cm from two edges (about 4.25cm from the corner but that doesn’t matter and pythagoras won’t care if you know). now flip the board (this board had better be surfaced on all sides or this is going to go crazy on you but your boards should always be surfaced before you use them for anything unless you’re a consummate barbarian) and do the same on the bottom. the two intersection points should be in a single line directly through the board. get your drill/brace. start drilling from one side then finish from the other. yes, this is the point of having a drilling guide, making a straight hole through the board. and you’re doing it freehand, something i try to avoid at all costs. get it right? perfect. holes don’t meet in the middle? dump it. try again. my first time doing this, i think i can admit it took me seven attempts to get it absolutely perfect.

once you get it right, though, you now have a repeatable thing. seven tries for perfection? not a great result. of course, i think i was about twelve and using a brace that was slightly less stable than an intoxicated llama navigating a minefield in the dark. but i got there eventually and so can you — probably much faster than either me or the llama. having it right means, though, that this 10cm-thick board guarantees every hole you drill in every board from then on will be straight and true. clamp it on, start your hole, bottom your bit and remove the guide. now your workpiece is the guide and you can finish the hole. it works the same way for the more-cumbersome method of creating this jig but either way is totally fine.

if you use serious hardwood, this jig will last you for years — hickory, hard-maple, something exotic if you have some around because you really only need a piece that’s thick — and it doesn’t have to be thick in the traditional sense. it doesn’t matter which way the grain is running. of course, you don’t need to finish this guide unless you really want to. or add decorative carving or anything. it’s a shop fixture and you’ll probably make dozens of them — at least one for each bit size. but here’s my advice about it. get a dowel that’s slightly smaller than your bit. flood the hole with ca glue and let it soak in. once it’s dry, ream the inside to guarantee a smooth fit. this will keep the inside from fracturing. do the same for the top and bottom surfaces and you’ll have a much stronger guide that will last you far longer. when it wears out, you don’t have to go back to trial-and-error as long as it has one last cut in it. just use your existing bit to make the next one.

need to make another one with a bigger diameter? drill a hole in the new guide with the old one and the old bit. now start the new bit in it and the center of the bit (assuming it’s a nice bit) should find the center of your hole. i recommend making the first one about the size of the snail of your auger bits or the width of the guide-screw on whatever bits you’re using. this is particularly useful for auger bits, though, which is probably what you’re using if you have a brace-and-bit and don’t use a drillpress — drillpresses are pretty cheap for benchtop models so i’m assuming you’re probably a handtool woodworker if you’re reading this far into the guide.

but here’s where things go off the track — it’s actually not that hard to drill a straight line. it’s drilling angles that’s difficult. now you’re probably thinking of compound angles. and that’s just silly. there’s no such thing as a compound angle when you’re drilling. a drill rotates on all three axes at the same time. every compound angle is actually just a simple angle with the workpiece rotated on the surface. if this doesn’t make sense to you, watch a video of someone drilling the leg-holes for a windsor chair or any piece of staked furniture. there are many calculators online to take a compound angle and turn it into the angle of rotation (sightline) and angle of elevation (resultant angle).

but there are certainly angled holes. once you figure out what hole you want to drill, unless you have a drillpress you’re still going to have an issue with this. with a drillpress, you can just use a wedge to angle the workpiece on the table and drill a straight hole. but if you angle the workpiece with a wedge you’re still referencing against the face if you use this drilling guide we just talked about, right? of course.

but that’s the problem with how we’re trained to use powertools. we’re told to use the jig to shift the wood. you just have to switch your mental process to that of a handtool-focused woodworker. remember the difference between handtool and powertool woodworking in essence — powertool users take the wood to the tool while handtool users take the tool to the wood. so instead of taking the wood to the wedge, take the wedge to the wood. double-stick-tape the wedge to the wood in the right place, add your drilling guide on top of the wedge and start drilling. perfect holes at an angle every time because, as you’ve likely discovered by now, the guide doesn’t care the wood isn’t straight. it doesn’t know. it’s drilling into the flat face of the wedge and coming out the other side at the angle you want.

anyway, i’d start with washers. move on to a guideblock. make some wedges and be thankful i didn’t have to spend money on … well, anything at all. hopefully (as i can’t avoid this pun forever) this wasn’t too boring. enjoy your holes. thanks for reading!

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thank you for reading. your eyes have done me a great honor today.