How to Cut a Hole in Wood By Hand

October 17, 2022

Cutting out a circle hole on the wood without power tool.

“You are not a full-blooded woodworker if you do not know how to cut holes in wood manually,” said many woodworkers. And I would agree with them! But it might be an overstatement, for you can still become a certified woodworker if your only way of cutting holes in wood is by using power tools. But is it necessary to learn to cut holes by hand? 

Well, it is not necessary if your power tools are working well. But you can never entirely rely on your power tools when cutting holes, for there will be instances when your power tools won’t work, like when there is a power outage, or your power tools break down. If you’re on a roll, with an urgent project to complete, you would surely not want to be delayed. Thus, it will be best to learn the different manual ways to cut a hole in wood.

Ways to Cut Holes in Wood by Hand

If your power tools broke down and you need to complete a project that requires cutting holes, you need to be resourceful. If you have a push drill or bow drill, you can haul it out of the storage cabinet and start cutting holes manually. There are several ways to cut holes by hand, and it will be best to learn these different ways once you need to go manual in cutting holes:

1) Push Drill

Before the invention of the power drill in 1859, woodworkers relied heavily on push drills and other ways to cut a hole in wood. Of course, the push drill is considered a relic of the bygone past, but some woodworkers still find the push drill handy. 

If your power tools are unavailable, you might want to try your hand on the push drill. It will help you learn how to use it, especially when your power tools fail you. But how does it work?

Well, a push drill is similar to other woodworking drills. It has bits that get attached to the handle. You can select the bit you insert into the handle. Afterward, lock it into place. Then, aim the drill on the wood piece you intend to cut, right on the point where you would like to drill a hole. 

As you apply pressure on this drill, you will see its internal screw’s thread rotating the bit. The bits then dig into the wood and cut a hole. It may take several strokes to achieve the desired hole diameter. So, using this drill entails a muscle workout.

The diameter that it can cut ranges between 1/16″ to 5/32.” The use of a push drill might not be suited for all drilling projects. But you can rely on the push drill anytime if you want precise tiny holes.

2) Bow Drill

Once you’ve learned how to operate the bow drill, you will understand that woodworker’s lives before power tools were not that easy, and you will be grateful that you’re living in contemporary times. Nevertheless, learning to use the bow drill to cut holes would be fun. 

The bow drill is as ancient as the saw or the plane. It has two components: the drill shaft or spindle and the drill. Moreover, you must encircle the bow drill with the cord to move the rod. Besides, you can wrap the cord around the rod to set it in a quick rotary motion. The bow keeps the thread taut.

The bow drill is very effective in puncturing holes in materials like wood. Yet, it can also punch holes in the stone. You can also use it to make a fire, which can function as a fire drill. But it will help if you alter its shaft to make it blunter. Besides, you can use this with a fireboard. The shaft will generate enough heat with sufficient pressure and speed to start a fire. 

3) Chisel

Chisels can create holes of any size and shape on wood. Its sharp and flat-tipped edge can hollow out round, square, triangular, and rectangular holes. You can use the chisel with a hammer or mallet. 

The good thing about the chisel is that it can make larger holes than those of a bow drill and push drill. You only need to sketch your circle on the wood and then hollow it out using the chisel. 

Hammer the chisel down to create a dent in the wood. Afterward, you can chisel the circle’s center, chiseling away at the wood until you hollow out the sketched circle. Using the chisel might look easy, but the result might be messy. Yet, with some practice, you can make cleaner holes using the chisel.

4) Palm Drill

The palm drill is the perfect tool to practice drilling, especially for children and beginners. It helps in developing their motor skills likewise. A palm drill is any drill that you can hold in your palm. It may also include softwood hand drills. The palm drill will work once you can’t use your power tools. 

Palm drills get also referred to as hand drills. You can choose the palm drill’s diameter to suit your project. Moreover, the sizes of its bits range from 2mm to 4mm. The use of a palm drill also depends on your hand’s dexterity. Thus, it is easy to use and maneuver. 

It will help if you have enough hand muscle strength to use the palm drill. If your hand gets easily fatigued, you might find its use exhausting.

5) Screws 

If you don’t have the abovementioned tools and have an urgent project to finish, you can use the screws to cut holes in wood. For example, if you got a self-driving screw, it would be much better. Looking at their threads, you can check your screws if they are self-driving. If they have knots, then they might be self-driving. 

Nevertheless, if you don’t have self-driving screws, you can also use the standard screw. You can file it to make a notch. However, this option might be more troublesome, but it can still make the needed hole in the wood. 

To use the self-driving screw, position it where you want to make a hole. Using your screwdriver, you can drive the self-driving screw onto the wood. Once it goes through the wood, back it out by unscrewing it. If the screw did not go through all the way, you could utilize an awl and a hammer to finish the hole.

6) Gimlets

The gimlet, of course, is a drilling tool. You can use it for drilling small holes without splitting the wood. In his book, Architecture, Joseph Gwilt described it as a steel piece with a semi-cylindrical form with one hollow side. It is a small tool the size of a screwdriver and features a screw-like point. 

Using the gimlet, you only need to pierce a hole in the wood. Then, let its cutting edges widen the hole. Besides, you won’t need to exert additional pressure on this tool once it has pierced through the material.  

7) Hollow Metal Punch

If you’re working on softwood and want to make holes in it, you can use a metal punch. The metal punch can work well when making small holes. You only need to use your hammer to make a punch on the wood. 

The hollow steel punch gets mainly used to cut holes in cardboard, leather, rubber, gaskets, and other soft materials. But if you’re desperate to make a hole in wood, you can try using this tool.

8) Awl

If you’re bereft of the abovementioned primitive tools, you might as well try using an awl. Just hold the awl where you want to bore a hole. Then, hammer the awl until it pierces through the wood. 

Since awls are small, they will not make large holes. But for sure, you can make a hole using the awl. Besides, the ease of using the awl depends on the type of material you will handle. 

9) Grab a Nail

Instead of using the awl, you can also use a nail to make a hole in wood. You can pick the nail size appropriate for the hole you would like to make. Nevertheless, you will need to exert effort to pull the nail out of the hole. So, it will be best to choose a nail with a large head for ease of pulling. 

To create a hole, hammer the nail onto the wood until it punches through the opposite side. Then, pull out the nail using your hammer. 

10) Use a Burning Rod

One way to cut holes is by burning. This practice has been in use for millennia. Some ancient cultures, for example, burned holes in solid wood to hollow out their canoes or make joints. This method is also easy to do. 

You only need to select a metallic rod with a suitable diameter for the hole. Then, prep the rod by filing its end to make a point. Afterward, heat the rod, but make sure you’re using heat-resistant gloves when holding the rod. 

Once it gets hot enough, push the rod onto the spot where you will make a hole. Spin the rod to speed up the burning speed. The rod will eventually cool, so remove it when it gets cool. You can reheat the rod if you haven’t completed the hole. 

You can scrape away some excess wood to get the exact diameter of the desired hole. If you only make small holes, you can use a metal rod or soldering iron to burn a hole in the wood. 

Methods of Making larger Holes Without Using a Drill

If you don’t have the benefit of using power tools to make larger holes in wood, you can try the abovementioned options. Yet, the options mentioned above might only enable you to make small holes in wood. Hence, it will be best to know the following tools that can help you make larger holes in wood:

1) Jab Saw

The jab saw gets usually used to cut drywall. It has teeth that are pointed in two directions. Its blade, of course, tapers. For this reason, you can use it to make smaller holes. But using it to make small holes would be challenging. As such, you can reserve its use for cutting larger holes in wood. 

Using a jab saw, however, will result in a more chopped look or cut. Hence, its use is best complemented by sanding to smoothen out the rough edges of the cut.

2) Hack Saw

The hacksaw is designed for cutting metal. It features fine teeth and a C-shaped frame for holding the blade under tension. It also has a pistol-gripped handle. You can use this saw for making larger holes in metal. You can also use it to make other shapes in sheet metal. 

Although the hack saw gets mainly used for cutting metal, you can also use it to cut a hole in wood, though it might not be advisable. You can reserve the use of a hacksaw for cutting holes in thin or softwood. 

To cut a hole in wood using the hacksaw, you can outline your hole on the wood. Utilizing a center punch, tap punch using the hammer. Remove the saw blade from the frame and feed the saw blade through the punched hole you’ve made. Then, reattach the hacksaw blade back to its frame. 

When cutting, ensure you run the saw blade in the correct direction. Then, cut the hole pattern slowly. Once done, you can detach the saw blade again from the frame and smooth it out using sandpaper. 


You can haul your ancient cutting tools out of your storage cabinets if you don’t have the benefit of using your power tools. Hence, it will be best to have these seemingly primitive tools because when your power tools fail you in times of emergency, you can rely on them to get the job done. Of course, using these tools might look primordial, yet in the absence of power tools, these seemingly ancient ways of cutting holes in wood will prove valuable to you.  

You might laugh at the idea of using a bow drill, push drill, or even a burning rod. Yet, these ingenious ways of cutting a hole in wood have proven useful in the past. As such, it will help if you know these different methods, for they can come in handy in some instances. 

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