Drilling Through Ceramic Tile

A discussion of power tools and bits for effective drilling into hard ceramic tile. May 2, 2011

I mounted a bar wall today on a ceramic tile floor. I have drilled through tile many times with a hammer drill and a masonry bit. I had a horrible time drilling through the tile today and eventually ruined the bit. I was wondering how you guys do it. Do you use a special kind or brand of bit?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor S:
You should not use the hammer function. Use carbide or diamond abrasive type bits with. Hammer drilling tile can cause broken and cracked tiles.

From contributor R:
After wasting a half day and burning up a dozen bits (including tile bits) trying to drill through porcelain tile with a hammer drill, a guy lent me a rotary hammer. The rotary hammer drilled through like it was pine. Bought an inexpensive small Bosch rotary hammer and some SDS bits and haven't touched my hammer drills since on any masonry drilling. Just start drilling slow with the rotary hammer. Had another job recently drilling about a hundred holes into 20 year old foundation walls - didn't break the bit and finally realized I wore the bit out because it was drilling like my hammer drill would have.

From the original questioner:
Would you care to explain the difference between hammer drills and a rotary hammer? And what exactly is an SDS bit?

From contributor K:
Sounds like you were going through porcelain tile. Thatís way harder than plain old ceramic tile. I have special drills for porcelain given to me by a tile guy. I just use a regular drill. Hammer drills can crack tile, thatís why the tile guy gave me bits!

From contributor R:
My understanding is a rotary hammer exerts the hammering action on the bit in a rotary direction, as compared to a hammer drill, that exerts the hammer action like pounding on the bit with a hammer. SDS refers to the shank type. An SDS bit has keyway like slots. A typical rotary hammer chuck is pulled back and the bit is inserted a certain position and the chuck is released. No chuck key required. You cannot use standard bits in a tool with a SDS chuck. I use a lot of Tapcon and there are SDS bits for Tapcon.

From contributor M:
A hammer drill is a regular drill with a hammer-function, the bit hammering into the material as it drills. It has a switch to change modes, you can drill as with any other drill into wood, etc, or it can function as a lightweight rotary hammer.

A rotary hammer is designed specifically to drill into masonry products. Rotary hammers have a special chuck that takes bits with some configuration of grooves on the shank so the bit can better withstand the torque of the hammering action. There are two main types of chuck for a rotary hammer, SDS and Spline-drive. SDS is the more commonly available type but Spline, while an older system is deeply rooted in the industry and tools and tooling should be around for a very long time to come. Spline drive is generally for larger bits and scaling chisels. These two chuck systems are not interchangeable. You must buy the bits for the chuck system. It is possible, in theory, to use SDS bits in a regular Jacobs-type chuck. There are no wood-boring bits available in either SDS or Spline drive.

SDS comes in two sizes: SDS+ and SDS-Max. The max size if for bigger bits, core bits, scaling chisels, etc. SDS+ and SDS-Max bits are not interchangeable, but SDS+ will do practically anything you will need as an installer. I use SDS+ for most things and the Spline-drive for bigger stuff. SDS+ has about a 1" bit limit. Floor tiles are generally fired to be denser and more durable, but any of these tools, including a hammer drill should easily go through ceramic tile, provided you have a decent bit.

From contributor S:
To the original questioner: please listen to those telling you to use a ordinary drill with an abrasive type bit. As for hammer vs. rotary vs. SDS vs. SDS MAX vs. Spline drive systems, they all do the same thing. The most basic system is different in that it uses the weight of the drill/operator to create the impact force. None of these system impacts in the rotational direction, that is an impact driver used for screws and bolts. The more powerful systems (SDS and up) use either very powerful spring/cam systems (low end) or pneumatic impacting (most over 200$ use this). These are FAR more powerful than the hammer drill function on an ordinary drill. They do not use the weight of the tool but rely on the force generated within the tool.

From contributor U:
As mentioned before, water is a great way to keep the bit cool and will certainly add in its life. The water will keep any dust minimal as well. Be very cautious about drilling grout joints. If the grout is wide enough that the bit does not hit the tile edge, then no problem. But if the bit will be drilling a portion of the tile edge, you stand a higher risk of cracking an entire piece of tile. A lot depends on the type of tile. Keep sharp bits and plenty of them. You can also create a chip by tapping the tile with a nail set, or old bit. The chipped spot will help the bit stay in one place rather than walking all over the place. Again be careful and only hit hard enough to make a small indention. Also if you tap a piece of tile and it has a hollow sound to it, try to drill elsewhere. The hollow sound means that piece has a void and was not set properly. This condition improves the probability the entire piece of tile will break or bust if drilled.

From contributor K:
Use a core bit. This bit has diamond on the end but hollow in the center. You can get different sizes. We had commercial job mounting uppers to 12" square tile were we had to use togglers since we didn't have stud location. We drilled a 5/8" hole with core bit. We took spray bottle with water and had a guy squirt the bit as we cut. Hammer drill didn't work with standard masonry bits, but the core bit worked great. The key is to keep the hole wet. I ended up buying them at the local tool supplier.