How to Drill Into Tile

Drilling Into Tile

Uladzislau Salikhau / EyeEm / Getty Images

Project Overview
  • Total Time: 10 - 20 mins
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $10 to $20

Drilling into tile is required in bathrooms for hanging towel bars or shelves, as well as for larger pieces like plumbing pipe stub-outs in tile surrounds. Tile is brittle, slippery, and can crack—qualities that make this a tricky project. If you find yourself avoiding drilling into tile, have no fear. As long as you use the right type of drill bit and take your time, you can successfully drill into tile.

Before You Begin

For drilling into tile, the right tools make all the difference. For small holes in tile, choose a spiral thread bit. For large holes, use a hole saw. With either version, choose a carbide tip for reliable, economical hole-drilling. Or use a diamond-tip for high-performance drilling and durability.

Spiral Thread Bit vs. Hole Saw

Holes in tile between 1/8-inch and 5/8-inch in diameter can be drilled with spiral thread bits. A spiral thread has a solid shank and it cores out the tile, pulverizing it into powder. Holes in tile between 3/4-inch and 4-inch in diameter should be drilled with a hole saw. A hole saw is circular and hollow in the middle. It cuts the perimeter of the hole but leaves the middle mostly intact yet removable.

Spiral-Thread Tile Bits
  • Towel rack

  • Soap dish

  • Shelf

  • Toilet paper holder

Hole Saw Tile Bits
  • Shower or bath controls

  • Showerhead

  • Bathtub spout

  • Tile wall surround water supply for toilet

Diamond-Tip vs. Carbide-Tip Bits

All-purpose drill bits are mainly designed for drilling wood, metal, or plastic and should not be used for drilling tile. Instead, use either carbide-tip or diamond-tip drill bits for all types of tile. Diamond-tip drill bits are stronger and last longer than carbide-tip bits. Budget aside, diamond-tip drill bits are generally preferable and can drill ceramic, porcelain, granite, marble, and glass.

Carbide-tip drill bits cost significantly less than diamond-tip bits, making them a better value for occasional tile drilling. A set of four carbide-tip bits costs about the same as one diamond-tip bit. Carbide-tip drill bits are best for softer materials like ceramic tile. Diamond-tip bits are required for harder materials like porcelain, glass, and stone.

Tip

Use a rotary drill, not a hammer drill. Not only is a hammer drill unnecessary but its pounding action may crack the tile. If you have a hammer drill, switch it to rotary mode.

Safety Considerations

When using a hole saw to drill a hole in tile, equip the drill with its control handle to prevent injury to your hands and wrists. Wear safety glasses and a dust mask when drilling into tile.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Rotary drill
  • Carbide- or diamond-tip drill bits
  • Carbide- or diamond-tip hole saw
  • Retractable starter bit (hole saw only)

Materials

  • Painter's tape
  • Fresh water (bottle or sprayer)

Instructions

How to Drill a Small Hole in Tile

  1. Shut Off Services Behind Tile

    Tiled walls often have plumbing pipes and electrical wires running through them, even in showers and tubs. Shut off power to the area at the electric service panel. If you suspect that there are pipes behind the walls, cut off the water by turning off the home's water main.

  2. Find Stud Behind Tile

    Finding a stud behind a wall is easy with a stud finder. But with a tiled wall, the added layer of tile and mortar complicates the process.

    • Start with a conventional battery-powered dielectric constant (DC) stud finder as sometimes it will detect fasteners through the tile.
    • If the DC finder doesn't work, try a rare earth magnet-based stud finder.
    • Use detective work. For example, when drilling into a shower surround that doesn't reach the ceiling, you can find the studs in the upper (non-tile) portion of the shower. The studs likely will continue vertically down into the tiled area.
  3. Add Tape to Drill Location

    Drill bits have a tendency to skate around or wander when rotating on hard surfaces. Placing two layers of painter's tape on the tile provides the drill bit with enough grip to carve out a slight depression in the tile. Though some bits are advertised as no-skate bits, it's still a good idea to tape the area.

  4. Mark Drill Location

    With a pen or pencil, mark the drill location directly on top of the tape.

  5. Cover Area Below Tile

    Tile dust is abrasive, so don't let it fall on shower pans, bathtubs, or countertops. Tape sheet plastic on the floor below the drill area.

    Tip

    Tear off about 6 inches of painter's tape, turn it adhesive-side up, and then stick it to the wall a few inches under the drill point. Form the tape into a slight curve. The tape will capture much of the tile dust.

  6. Start Drilling Slowly

    Turn the drill on low. Drill through the tape. Maintain the drill on low until it carves a shallow dimple in the tile.

  7. Increase Drill Speed

    Slowly increase the drill speed. Keep a steady pressure on the drill but do not press too hard. Stop frequently to let the drill bit cool down. Spray with a small amount of water to cool down the surface and control dust.

  8. Complete Hole in Tile

    Continue drilling the tile until the bit fully penetrates the tile. Slowly remove the drill bit to avoid cracking or scratching the tile.

    Tip

    The moment that the drill fully penetrates the tile, the drill may thrust forward and its chuck may impact the tile. Be ready for this and ease up on the pressure at the end.

How to Drill a Large Hole in Tile

  1. Shut Off Services

    As with drilling a small hole in tile, begin by shutting off electricity and water. Locate the studs and other obstructions that you'll need to avoid.

  2. Chuck Hole Saw Into Drill

    Attach the hole saw to the drill and tightly chuck it in. The hole saw must have a center retractable starter bit. With some hole saws, the retractable starter bit is attached to the saw. On other models, the saw and the starter bit are separate and must be attached prior to chucking into the drill.

  3. Mark Drill Spot With Tape

    Apply a small square of tape to the center of the intended hole. Do not apply a large section of tape as you'll want to monitor the progress of the hole saw on the tile.

  4. Press Drill Against Tile

    Press the hole saw's retractable starter bit to the mark. Begin to drill. Drill until the pilot catches in the tile and digs out material.

  5. Press Hole Saw to Tile

    Keep the retractable starter bit in place in its starter hole. While the drill is rotating, continue to press down until the teeth of the hole saw contact the tile. Increase the speed of the drill. The hole saw should begin to dig out a shallow circle from the tile.

    Warning

    The drill must be rotating prior to the teeth of the hole saw coming into contact with tile.

  6. Stop and Add Water

    Every 30 seconds or so, stop the drill, brush away dust, and let the hole saw cool down. Spray the area with water to control dust and cool the work material.

  7. Complete Hole

    Continue to drill. Apply pressure evenly on the drill. As with drilling a small hole in tile, the drill has a tendency to fall into the wall cavity at the end. So, be prepared for this and hold back on the pressure when you feel the hole is nearly complete.

    Tip

    When tiling a shower or bathtub, you'll most likely be drilling holes in the tile before the tile has been installed. Avoid cutting through the tile and down to a wood or concrete work surface. This can prematurely wear down the hole saw. Cut the tile over an open bucket or on top of a slab of Styrofoam.

When to Call a Professional

Drilling smaller holes in tile with a spiral-thread bit is simple and can be accomplished by most do-it-yourselfers with enough time and patience.

But drilling larger holes in tile with a hole saw can be tricky. Plus, when drilling a large hole in tile, it's usually in the unforgiving environment of a shower or bathtub tile surround. You only have one chance to do it right. So, it may be worthwhile to hire a tile professional to drill large holes in tile.