Drill or Punch, which is better?

To drill or to punch, that is the question. While hole-making may not be the most Shakespearean of jobs— after all, what would Shakespeare know about modern construction techniques? —it is essential in nearly every build today. Yet “hole-making” is a misleading phrase. What is hole-making? The obvious and yet so incorrect answer is the perfectly circular cut-out shape we are most familiar with, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Then is hole-making any old dent in the wall, like the softball-sized gouge in the living room drywall from that time you told your kids not to play inside and, of course, they didn’t listen? Not. A hole may be a hole, but “hole-making” in building and construction refers to an intentional opening created by a perforating operation.

A hole-making tool, such as a drill or punch, forces through a sheet of material, creating a hole by shearing. This process includes holes made for anything from electric housing to ductwork, windows to plumbing, structural connections, and more. Without hole-making tools, surely we would live in windowless houses, without outlets for electric power and no in-house plumbing— a cave, in other words. Residential or commercial, our modern buildings rely on hole-making tools. Choosing the right hole-making tool for the job comes down to the essential question: a punch or a drill. Which one should you use?

So you've been flipping through online catalogs and bookmarking YouTube videos, all the name of research, trying to decide between two great tool options. "What's the difference between the Hougen Magnetic Drill and the Greenlee Hydraulic punch?" you ask yourself. Well, that's easy to answer. One tool drills, and the other tool punches a hole. And suppose now you're thinking, "thanks, Captain Obvious." Even though these machines' essential purpose is the same, their applicability depends on the material, size, and the work area's accessibility. Soup to nuts, it's all science.

The use of either hole-making tool applies force to the material. Force applied to an area is called stress, and stress causes the material to stretch and compress, otherwise known as strain. The strain on your material is the make-it-or-break-it factor, literally. All materials respond differently to stress due to their unique chemical bond types. But it doesn't take an engineer to tell you that gold is softer than steel. You can see a material's relative yield strength with your own eyes and hands in some instances. If your hole-making tool's force exceeds your material's yield strength, you can expect that the final product won't make a passing grade. Any permanent plastic deformation to the material because of tool use (fracturing, stretching, or cracking) means you're starting over from scratch. Research your tool's maximum force to determine if it is compatible with the type of material you're working with.

The circular motion and sharp edge of a drill can distribute that force with more effect than a punch for lower impact. But the same force that can cause plastic deformation can also generate heat through friction. Softer metals are more susceptible to warping from heat, creating uneven perforations. Although manufacturer manuals recommend drilling at lower speeds to reduce heat generation, drills cannot compare to a punch when staying cool. Punch tools are the cool kids on the block, so to speak, which makes them ideal for plastic and vinyl. Even on metal, testing shows that punching, unlike drilling, has a less significant impact on the structure, which retains the bearing strength of the material. Punches are a user favorite for various reasons: cost, ease of use, and accuracy. A punch tool also creates a burnished surface at the hole's circumference. Burnishing allows surfaces to become smooth through compaction without losing strength. On the other hand, drills create curls of waste material and raised edges around the site called burrs. It would be best if you used a second burnishing tool with drills to restore the surface.

Before you check drills off your list, the handy-dandy punch does have one key drawback— and it's all about location, location, location. Punches are fixed to a die base and slid around the edge of your work material, so the site of your new hole must allow the punch access to the front and back sides. That's terrific news for most new construction but a roadblock for much of the pre-existing builds. If you can only make use of one side, a drill is your best hole-making friend. Everyone needs a friend like the Hougen HMD150 Low Profile Magnetic Base Drill. You'll appreciate the strong magnet that secures this drill to any metal surface. Make Swiss cheese of thick steel and save money buying this and other drills used or reconditioned at General Equipment & Supply (GES). Think you might need a punch tool instead?— or maybe even both!— check out GES's selection of reconditioned punch and die kits from trusted brands like Greenlee and Current Tools. Because the only thing better than finding the right tool is finding the right tool at the right price.

To drill or to punch? Well, I’m no Shakespeare, but I think we answered that question.