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Is drilling pilot holes required when attaching a solid wood table top to a desk frame with wood screws?

We used to offer a pilot hole service when we delivered our solid wood desk tops to fit frames with adjustable cross beams like Fully, Flexispot and Flytta or custom legs, at present we are not offering this service, so we thought sharing some tips might be useful.

To learn about how to fit a desk top without pre-drilled holes to a desk frame, read this post, it discusses why some desk frame manufactures not use pre-drilled holes, how to attach a solid wood table top to a desk frame and which desk frames cannot be attached by means of wood screws.

This post specifically discusses pilot holes: when you need them, and how to drill them. But first…

What is a pilot hole?

A pilot hole is a small hole that is drilled into the wood using an electric drill and a drill bit with a small diametre, it prepares the way for the screw to follow.

Why drill pilot holes?

  • To remove excess material which can prevent denser hardwoods, like oak or walnut from splitting.
  • To ensure the screw enters the wood at the precise location required.
  • To keep the screw straight.

When drilling pilot holes might not be necessary

If your top is made out of softer hardwoods, like pine or asian hardwood. A screw will easily fit into these wood types without the need for a pilot hole.

If your electric screw driver is quite good. Sometimes people drill a pilot hole because they have had issues with the drill giving up before the screw is all the way in, especially with denser hardwoods. A good quality electric screw driver should not really have a problem driving a screw into any wood type.

If you are using good quality screws. If you have had heads snap of screws you might be tempted to always pre drill a pilot hole. As noted above, that is not a bad idea, but potentially just ensuring you are purchasing good quality screws could negate the problem. We tend to use Goldscrews from Screwfix. We would never advise you buy screws from a corner shop or bargain store. Screws need not be expensive (£3-4 for 200) but don’t go for the cheapest ones. Additionally, find screws with a tighter screw thread, this allows the screw to revolve more times, making it easier to drive in.

If you will frequently take the desk apart, it might be best to avoid using a pilot hole. Drilling a pilot hole gives the screw less material to dig into. Every time you take the top of the frame, you will make it a little easier to attach next time. With a pilot hole already in place, you may not end up with enough traction in the same hole to have a solid fasten after a number of assembles.

Tips for drilling pilot holes

Drill bit diameter. Very likely you are using quite small screws, probably around 25mm in length. Screws of this size do not have a large diameter. When choosing your drill bit, ensure it is maximum 50% diameter of the screw you are going to use, generally we would use the smallest bit we have.

Drill setting. Your drill may have a few settings, make sure it is not on the hammer setting. This is used when drilling into brick, and will not be required for this job.

Drill bit length. The worst thing you could do is drill through the entire thickness of the top. When fitting your drill bit, try and sink the drill bit as far as possible into the chuck, then press it up against the side of the top to check it has no chance of going the whole way through. If the drill bit is still too long, you can mark the max depth of the drill bit with masking/electrical tape.

Drill bit type. Make sure you are using a drill bit for wood, not brick or metal. Most drill bit sets come with all 3. The wood drill bit type has a sharp point in the middle, which is very useful for digging into the wood before you pull the trigger.

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