A Forstner bit is a cylindrical drill bit used to bore flat, deep holes into wood. It is particularly popular in furniture making and other large-scale woodworking projects in part because of its ability to drill deeply and precisely, even against the grain or through various inlays and joined pieces. Forstner bits typically come in a range of different diameters, but in most cases all are intended for mounted drill presses rather than hand-held tools. They typically require a lot of force, which can be dangerous and sometimes even unwieldy on a smaller appliance.
How the Bit Works
Most drills are guided through material by a central point, but Forstner bits are primarily guided by the outside rim. This means that they can be used to drill pocket holes, which are holes drilled at an angle; partially overlapping holes; and holes that are on the edge of the material. They have central spurs, but these are normally used to locate and mark a center-point rather than to serve as the actual drill guide.
When the bit enters wood, it bores down by essentially spinning fragments up and out with a sawing, rotary motion. The sides of the bit often look jagged and when they first enter the wood they often shear it and leave it somewhat splintery. As the bit’s radial sides continue through the hole, though, the edges tend to smooth out. Most of the time the result is a flat-bottomed hole.
Where and When It’s Used
The bits are named for Benjamin Forstner, a 19th century American gunsmith who is credited with inventing them. Gunsmiths were the first to popularize the bit; they prized it for its ability to bore a smooth-sided hole in woodwork. Today, the bits are more commonly used by furniture makers and home builders. Big projects like these often require a drill that can quickly move through multiple pieces, join different types of wood, and cut through multiple surfaces. The Forstner bit fits that bill for many carpenters.
They are available in a wide array of diameters, typically ranging from 0.25 to over 3 inches (6 to 75 mm), and they are often sold in sets that come with an array of sizes. Even bits with very small diameters are often able to bore through deep, thick wood at most angles. Their unique shape makes them very efficient at removing a lot of material, known as “hogging,” in a short amount of time. They’re also really useful for making precise holes for hinges and other moving parts.
Carpenters often praise this bit’s ability to drill precisely and cleanly through imperfections, like knots and baubles, in wood. A lot of this owes to the rim. The Forstner bit’s rim guides itself, which means that it won’t be thrown off when it hits problem areas or end-grain the way a center point-guided bit could be.
Speed and precision are also important factors. Experienced woodworkers often say that the Forstner is able to do work faster and better than almost any other bit, and can do a number of different tasks, too. It can drill both complete holes and partial bores; it can cut on an angle and against the grain.
Drawbacks and Precautions
This bit typically requires a lot of force, which means that it isn’t usually very well suited for a hand drill. People who want to use it typically have to invest in a drill press, and even then they often have to have at least a bit of training in order to control and properly use it. The bits also tend to be somewhat difficult to sharpen, and they don’t have any way of blowing dust back out the way some bits do; what this means in practical terms is that carpenters may have to pause more often to clear the bores. These bits also tend to be a bit more expensive than their counterparts.