Posted 09.27.18

Which Rock Bit Can Handle the Job?

Drilling through rock can be challenging. Even if you think you know exactly what you’re getting into, there’s always a chance that you’ll hit a patch of material that is harder (or softer or stickier or cobble-ier) than you were expecting. When drilling through rock, the right HDD tool is the difference between an easy (well, “easy” for HDD) job and hours of wasted time.


Here’s what you need to know about the types of rock bits on the market—and which is best for the job.


Standard shale: It’s all about fracturing

Though shale is a sedimentary rock, it can get pretty hard. However, when it comes to drilling, that layered composition is actually an asset. With the right bit, the shale will shatter and crumble, leaving behind pieces that can easily be floated out of the hole. Because of its tendency to fracture into flakes along its internal fault lines, you can usually get away with using non-specialty (aka less expensive) bits for drilling.


Look for bits with strong carbide cutter teeth that will create an initial impact to smash the shale. The rotation of the bit will cause the fractures to propagate during drilling, delivering ongoing fracturing/cutting action throughout the course of the bore. Keep in mind that there’s a tradeoff in productivity when drilling in shale. You might be able to get by with a standard fracturing bit, but if you run into extremely hard shale, your progress will slow down and you’ll burn through more teeth and bits. The Eagle Claw is a well-structured bit for soft shale formations because of the three teeth on the bit that cause shale to fracture.


Therefore, when drilling in shale, you’ll need to balance the tradeoffs. If you encounter only a small pocket of hard shale along the bore and you want to push through it, sticking with your standard carbide bit will likely perform just fine.


Cobble: Displacement is key

Although solid rock formations can be very hard and require significant force to break up, cobbles can actually be the most challenging for HDD. Because of the variation in size and hardness of material you’ll encounter—along with the chance of hole collapse or small rocks jamming up the equipment—there may not be one single HDD tool that can handle every stretch of your cobble job.


In our tool suite, the best choice is the Iron Fist. Careful placement of carbide cutters and a concave steer face allow you to “rock” back and forth through the cobble, so your tool doesn’t snag and get stuck in place. If you hit a boulder head-on, Iron Fist doesn’t have steering capabilities, but it does an admirable job of boring straight through.


Sandstone/limestone: PDC

Most jobs in soft, abrasive rocks like sandstone or limestone can also be done with an Eagle Claw. The three aggressive teeth on an Eagle Claw bit can gouge and penetrate softer rock formations, allowing you to still drill and steer through them. But it can be slow-going. If you just have a patch of limestone or encounter it occasionally, then an Eagle Claw—and patience—may work just fine.


However, if you need production and you’re into the hard stuff often, then you should consider a PDC bit. Often used for oil drilling, PDC (polycrystalline diamond compact) bits feature carbide cutters coated with diamond dust, instead of plain diamond. These workhorse bits can tear through challenging conditions fast, and they last longer and hold up better over time than tricone bits when used in the appropriate conditions. However, their price reflects it. If you find yourself drilling in challenging ground conditions often, it’s worth it to invest in a PDC bit.


Hard rock: Tricone

If you know that you’re going to need to drill through a serious distance of hard shale, hard limestone or granite, a tricone bit (also called a roller-cone bit) bit should be your go-to. A PDC bit would also work as long as the rock doesn’t get too hard. If the rock gets hard, your best bet is to stick with the tricone bit.


Tricone bits feature three small hemispheres that are held into the body of the bit, each covered with carbide buttons. When the bit is working, these balls rotate independently of one another to deliver unparalleled fracturing and grinding action. The design of the bit forces the rock chips between the cutters, grinding them up even smaller. A tricone bit will chew through shale of all densities quickly, so it’s a great multi-purpose bit.


The only drawback in using both a tricone bit or a PDC bit is that what you gain in grinding action, you lose in steering ability. To be able to steer through solid rock with a tricone or PDC bit, you’ll need a mud motor. This set-up makes the tricone (plus mud motor) a significant investment.


Selecting the right bit for a rock before you begin drilling can save you from wasted time and broken equipment, so choose wisely. There’s usually a tradeoff in terms of performance vs. expense, so you’ll need to weigh what is best for your job now, as well as the type of equipment you might get the most use out of in the future. No matter what you decide, when it comes to drilling in rock, don’t compromise on quality. Investing in quality HDD tools will always pay off.


Have questions about your rock bore? Let’s talk. Your local Melfred Borzall distributor can help.

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