Purpose Drilling of carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) composite plates with high surface quality are of great importance for assembly operations. The article aims to optimize the drill geometry and cutting parameters to improve the surface quality of CFRP composite material. In this study, CFRP plates were drilled with uncoated carbide drill bits with standard and step geometry. Thus, the effects of standard and step drill bits on surface quality have been examined comparatively. In addition, optimum output parameters were determined by Taguchi, ANOVA and multiple decision-making methods. Design/methodology/approach Drill bit point angles were selected as 90 degrees, 110 degrees and 130 degrees. In cutting parameters, three different cutting speeds (25, 50 and 75 m/min) and three different feeds (0.1, 0.15 and 0.2 mm/rev) were determined. L18 orthogonal sequence was used with Taguchi experimental design. Three important output parameters affecting the surface quality are determined as thrust force, surface roughness and delamination factor. For each output parameter, the effects of drill geometry and cutting parameters were evaluated. Input parameters affecting output parameters were analyzed using the ANOVA method. Output parameters were estimated by creating regression equations. Weights were determined using the analytic hierarchy process (AHP) method, and multiple output parameters were optimized using technique for order preference by Similarity to An ideal solution (TOPSIS). Findings It has been determined from the experimental results that step drills generate smaller thrust forces than standard drills. However, it has been determined that it creates greater surface roughness and delamination factor. From the Taguchi analysis, the optimum input parameters for Fz step tool geometry, 90 degrees point angle, 75 m/min cutting speed and 0.1 mm/rev feed. For Fd, are standard tool geometry, 90 degrees point angle, 25 m/min cutting speed and 0.1 mm/rev feed and for Ra, are standard tool geometry, 130 degrees point angle, 25 m/min cutting speed and 0.1 mm/rev feed. ANOVA analysis determined that the most important parameter on Fd is the tip angle, with 56.33%. The most important parameter on Ra and Fz was found to be 40.53% and 77.06% tool geometry, respectively. As a result of the optimization with multiple criteria decision-making methods, the test order that gave the best surface quality was found as 4-1-9-5-8-17-2-13-6-16-18-15-11-10-3-12-14. The results of the test number 4, which gives the best surface quality, namely, the thrust force is 91.86 N, the surface roughness is 0.75 mu m and the delamination factor is 1.043. As a result of experiment number 14, which gave the worst surface quality, the thrust force was 149.88 N, the surface roughness was 3.03 mu m and the delamination factor was 1.163. Practical implications Surface quality is an essential parameter in the drilling of CFRP plates. Cutting tool geometry comes first among the parameters affecting this. Therefore, different cutting tool geometries are preferred. A comparison of these cutting tools is discussed in detail. On the other hand, thrust force, delamination factor and surface roughness, which are the output parameters that determine the surface quality, have been optimized using the TOPSIS and AHP method. In this way, this situation, which seems complicated, is presented in a plain and understandable form. Originality/value In the experiments, cutting tools with different geometries are included. Comparatively, its effects on surface quality were examined.