I have a small project during which I drill hundreds of little holes (the largest of which is 1/8 in.).

Typically, I have always started with this process, then added ornamental carvings/burnings, then done my routering, and finally, my finishing stain/varnish.

I observed that I must spend a lot of time with a nail to work the holes again as they get a but of liquid down them during this last process. Fine by me, part of the point of the coating is protection so a little extra work to preserve that is not an issue. At least this is what I was thinking 10 years ago.

Now however, I'd be willing to bet that the depth and uniformity of the Varathane is not complete or homogeneous in a hole nor will it be consistent across holes.

Masking isn't an option, the holes are too close together, and there isn't really a huge concern about load bearing requirements or precision tolerances (as I mentioned before, I can rework/reopen the hole with a nail), so basically I'm wondering if the protective finish will actually be adequately getting into the holes to actually provide a benefit, or if I'm just better off doing it at the end and knowing that the holes are unfinished.

  • Do you have a compressor? If you have an easy source of compressed air you could flood the drilled surface (if necessary by immersing the entire piece) to make sure the holes are coated, then blow excess finish out of the holes.
    – Graphus
    Commented Jul 3, 2017 at 6:51
  • 1
    From what are you anticipating "protection" in the holes? If this isn't something that sits out in the weather, drilling holes last (and leaving them unfinished) would make no practical difference that I can see. i.e. a cribbage board (for a common example of something drilled full of holes...)
    – Ecnerwal
    Commented Jul 3, 2017 at 12:06

1 Answer 1


I have a small project during which I drill hundreds of little holes

Sounds like a cribbage board, but you don't say for sure. In any case, you do mention that having finish inside the holes isn't strictly necessary.

I'd like to add that getting total, complete coverage of finish in every nook and cranny of a piece is not entirely necessary. Take a look at just about any antique piece of furniture and you'll find that the "show" sides have a finish applied and the "non-show" sides don't. Heck, often times, the craftsman wouldn't even take the non-show side past rough planing.

So, to answer your question, finish first, drill after. If you're using brad point drill bits, they should be able to leave a nice, clean hole through the finish. If you're using a close-grained wood (like maple) you'll get better results than using an open-grained wood (like red oak).

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