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I'm making some baseplates in my home for a custom camera system and I'll need to be drilling many holes into plates of aluminum. I'm planning to use 6061 aluminum and need to drill holes anywhere from 1/4" to 1/2". And later will be tapping them.

Is a handheld drill capable of drilling these holes into aluminum up to 1" thick?

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"handheld drill" covers a pretty large range of drills! –  Steven Jan 27 '12 at 22:40
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you might try a drill guide or a doweling jig to get straight holes if you can't use a drill press. –  willoller Jan 28 '12 at 0:41
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3 Answers 3

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Assuming you mean an electric powered drill, it may have the guts. A 1/4 inch hole is no problem, but a 1/2 inch hole will take more work. Clear the chips from the hole as you drill. I think the biggest issue with a hand held drill is if you will keep the drill neatly vertical. This will impact the quality of the holes you drill, if you do not.

A problem with a hand drill for metal is getting the hole in exactly the right place. A good solution is to use a center punch. This puts a small dimple, centered at the location you want to drill. The drill bit will now get started more easily without skating around the surface.

Keep your bits sharp. This will be important. A lubricant is also important, both for drilling and for the thread tapping process. For aluminum, you can use WD40 or 3 in one oil for this purpose, or a kerosene based lubricant that contains some oil. You will be surprised how much better a drill bit cuts with some lubricant, as well as in cutting threads.

Make sure that the piece to be drilled is held tightly in place. Clamp it down, or use a vise of some sort.

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I would say, "yes, but...".

First of all, you'll need the appropriate bit. Tungsten carbide is the go-to for most metal drilling, and such bits are usually also designed to drill efficiently into metal and remove the waste. You can probably also find diamond-tipped bits which will also be good at biting into the metal and removing it. Your average drill bit for hardwoods won't be up to the task; it won't bite, will dull quickly, and will bind easily.

Metal drilling usually requires use of an oil or other drilling fluid to cool the bit. This would make drilling by hand a two-person job; one to hold the drill steady, the other to apply the drilling fluid.

The last point of concern is not overstressing the drill's motor. This is usually just a matter of not pressing too hard, and letting the drill do the work in its sweet time. But, it also generally means having a drill with the chutzpah to handle the job. As was said in the comments there are plenty of hand drills with enough torque for this kind of work, but your $30 range is probably not in that class.

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Here's a video showing tips for using a hand drill to cut through 3/16" steel. With thick aluminum, I usually start with an 1/8" pilot hole, take that to 1/4", then 3/8", then 1/2". With an inch to go through, you may also need to use a 5/16" bit to ensure a nice round hole at the end. When you ask a drill to cut too much metal at a time it will bend, wiggle and give you a poorly shaped hole. As you get to the bigger bit sizes, you'll need to slow your drill down. This looks like a decent little speed table.

If I understand your project correctly, you'll be wanting these holes to have flat bottoms? That's tough without a milling machine, however, it can be done on aluminum with a mototool (preferably variable speed), a flat topped tool steel cutting head, and plenty of time.

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