I’m going to split power tools into two general groups, hand held power tools, and the big expensive ones like table saws. I’ll deal with the big ones in the next installment of this.
The goal of this whole series is to help you avoid making the mistakes I made, some of which have been pretty darned expensive. Far too often I’ve ended up paying big bucks for an overhyped, high end tool when a medium priced tool or even a cheap one would have worked just as well. Or even worse, I spent a lot of money on speciality tools I only used once. So hopefully this will help you avoid the mistakes I’ve made. And I’ve made a lot of them when it comes to small power tools. I never should have bought that battery powered DeWalt circular saw, for example. I never should have spent that much money on a reciprocating saw… Well, you’ll see as you read along.
DC Vs. AC – Corded or Battery?
Some of the tools I’m going to be talking about in this section are available either as battery operated, or AC versions which have to be plugged in. So which is better? Unfortunately the answer is, it depends. It depends on how much you are going to use the tool, what the tool does, etc. For some of these tools, the battery versions are so ridiculously expensive that buying one is just silly. For others, the battery versions are so much weaker and less capable that again buying one would be silly. For others it’s a coin toss as to which is better.
Buy separately or buy a kit/collection?
A lot of tool makers will gladly sell you a whole bag full of their stuff, and regularly push these collections as “deals”. DeWalt, for example, will gladly sell you a kit that includes a drill, reciprocating saw, circular saw, flashlight, even a radio, that all work off the same battery system. So will other tool makers like Milwaukee. But while they make it sound like this is a good deal, it usually isn’t. Generally you end up paying just as much for those tools as if you’d bought them separately. And often you’ll end up paying for tools you will seldom, if ever, actually use. If the collection is indeed made up only of tools you will actually use, and they aren’t overcharging you for them, then sure, go for it. But that radio? You’ll probably never use it. And that circular saw? I hate to say this but most battery operated circular saws aren’t very good, even the brand name ones. But I’ll come to that a bit later. Let’s talk about drills first of all.
Electric drills are an essential tool for any handyperson, hobbyist, woodworker or even someone who just putters around in the garage occasionally. Drills have become a utility tool, used not just for drilling holes, but for driving and removing screws and bolts, polishing, sanding, etc. I honestly can’t remember the last time I used a regular screwdriver. I grab my battery operated drill with a screwdriver bit it chucked into it. Of all the power tools in the shop or the garage, the drill is the one that is probably going to be used the most often.
Generally speaking the argument of DC Vs. AC with electric drills was over long ago, and batteries won hands down. Oh, you can still buy corded drills, really good ones. And they’re generally less expensive than the battery powered versions. But battery operated drills have become so efficient, so good, and so damned convenient to use, that the only AC powered drills I have are specialty items like hammer drills or drywall screwguns. The drill I use just about everyday is the one over there on the left, a DeWalt that runs on a 20V LI battery system that is shared with several other DeWalt tools I own.
Sidenote: A brief word about drill size, i.e. how big a drill you can chuck into the chuck. Most hobbyist and handyman type drills are 3/8 inch, which is generally fine. I prefer one that has a half inch capacity, but I’m probably tougher on drills than you are and need larger capacity than you do. You can get bigger drill bits with smaller shanks that will fit a 3/8″ drill, of course, but I think the 1/2″ capacity drills are better all the way around. The motors in the bigger ones are generally stronger and the whole drill is more heavy duty. The drawback is money, of course. 1/2″ drills are going to be more expensive. But for the average home owner, hobbyist and even woodworker, the smaller sized drill will probably work just fine.
What Does A Drill Need?
Any drill, whether corded or battery powered, should have should have all of these features.
1 – Reversible – you should be able to reverse the direction of the drill with the flip of a switch. Why? Because in all likelihood you’re going to use that drill not just for drilling holes but for driving or removing screws, tightening or removing bolts, etc. and being reversible is absolutely necessary.
2 – Keyless chuck. The chuck is the part of the drill that accepts the drill bit or screwdriver bit, etc. Once upon a time we had to use a chuck key, that thing over there on the left, to tighten up the chuck to hold the bit or whatever in place. The gear on the key matched a gear on the chuck, and you twisted it to tighten it up. And everyone had trouble keeping track of the damned chuck key. They were always getting lost. Or the gears would get stripped. Or you could never get it tight. You get the idea. They were a royal pain in the neck. Keyless chucks let you clamp down on a drill bit or whatever by just twisting a collar around the chuck by hand. Best invention to hit the drill market since, well, rechargeable battery packs, really.
3 – Variable speed. The speed of the drill should increase as you increase pressure on the trigger, and decrease as you let up on the trigger. Some cheaper drills come with just a fast/slow or hi/lo switch. That’s okay but it isn’t a real replacement for a variable speed trigger. Why do you need it? Because drilling different materials requires different speeds. And you don’t want that drill immediately jumping to a gazillion RPM as soon as you hit the trigger when you’re trying to drive a screw into a board.
4 – A clutch. A clutch is a device that limits the amount of torque, or force, that the drill applies. This allows you to set the drill so it will stop turning when it has to apply more force than you want. This makes it a lot easier to drive screws, use it as a nut driver, etc. You set the clutch, and when it gets the bolt or screw tight, it stops turning before it strips out the screw or twists your wrist off. It should be adjustable so you can set it where even gentle resistance will trip the clutch, all the way up to full torque.
Those four things are absolute musts. There are other features that are nice to have but not absolutely necessary. A built in light so you can see what you’re doing is nice to have. So is a built in bubble level so you can make sure you are drilling level and plumb.
As I said before, that drill in that photo up there is the one I use almost every day, and it’s proven itself to be pretty darned tough and has been able to handle everything I’ve thrown at it. It’s been dropped, kicked, slid across floors and otherwise beaten and abused, and has handled everything it has needed to. I don’t think it’s over priced, either, even though there are cheaper ones out there that are almost as good. Without a battery it’s going for about $80 on Amazon. And it also works off the same battery packs my little circular saw, sawzall, string trimmer and leaf blower use. Yes, all my battery operated tools are DeWalt. I’m not a DeWalt fanboy and I certainly don’t get any kind of reimbursement. But I do like that DeWalt drill a lot and think it’s well worth the money. And just to prove I’m relatively unbiased, I’m about to badmouth DeWalt’s battery operated circular saw in a moment here.
I’m not telling you to run out and buy one like mine. There are a lot of drills on the market that do everything this one does, and do it just as well, and are even cheaper. And when it comes right down to it, well, a drill is a drill, right? If all you need to do is drill a few holes and drive a few screws, a cheap 3/8″ drill off the shelf from Walmart is going to do it. As long as it has the necessary features and seems to be made reasonably well, go for it. The DeWalt is a good choice, but you can also get good drills from Milwaukee, Skil, Black & Decker and a dozen other brands, and almost all of them are going to do the job.
Circular saws like the battery operated one of mine over there on the right are pretty much ubiquitous. Just about everyone who has ever needed to cut a piece of wood has one and, well, why not? They’re handy, they’re cheap (or should be), and not too difficult to use. If you need to whack six inches off a 2X4 or cut a board in half, chances are good you’re going to reach for a circular saw.
But then I realized I haven’t used my circular saw is something like two years. Seriously. When I wanted to take a photo of my saw for this, it took me twenty minutes just to find the dopey thing. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need one. I don’t generally use one because I have alternatives like a table saw, power miter saw and stuff like that laying around the shop. For lopping off the occasional 2X4, cutting down a sheet of plywood or something like that, there really isn’t any alternative.
This is one of those cases where basically a saw is a saw is a saw. There is little or no difference between brands. Sure, the more expensive ones will be of a bit better quality and will probably last longer, but generally this is a case where a $50 saw is going to serve the average person just as well as a $150 one will. Seriously.
And this is a situation where you do not want a battery operated tool. Battery operated circular saws are almost universally underpowered, have less cutting capacity, usually, and generally can’t stand up to the same kind of heavy use (and abuse) that even the medium priced corded versions can deal with. And you end up paying two or three times as much for a decent battery powered saw as you’d pay for a corded one. I have a 20 year old Skil circular saw laying around somewhere that has more power, bigger capacity and is easier to use than that $120 battery powered DeWalt that I own in that photo up there. And I paid a whopping $40 for the Skil brand saw. So for three times the money I got a saw with less power, less cutting capacity, and a battery that lasts a woefully inadequate amount of time? Oh, brother…
That isn’t DeWalt’s fault, of course. To be fair the saw itself isn’t bad. It’s about average or even a bit above average quality for it’s price. But almost all battery operated circular saws just aren’t very good. It’s basic physics. Cutting wood takes a lot of energy and a motor with a lot of torque. A DC motor and battery pack that is light enough to be easily handled by the average person just doesn’t have the torque or the energy storage capacity. So almost all battery operated circular saws are under powered, can’t cut material as thick, and the batteries discharge astonishingly fast. Stick with the AC ones.
What about features you should look for? Uh, well, okay, how about one that cuts wood? Seriously, that’s really all you need to be concerned with. Oh, and is it well built enough that it isn’t dangerous to use. And that’s about it. When it comes to circular saws, the bells and whistles on the high end models aren’t worth the money. You can drop $300, believe it or not, on a high end circular saw, and in the long run it doesn’t do anything that a $50 Black & Decker or Skil does.
There is one upgrade that will make just about any circular saw, especially the cheap ones, work even better, and that’s a better blade. A lot of these cheaper saws come with blades that are a joke, little more than a piece of stamped sheet metal. For about $20 or or a bit more, you can get a carbide toothed blade that will cut better and last much, much longer. Frued makes excellent circular saw blades (and blades for miter saws and table saws). About the only good thing about my DeWalt battery saw is that it comes out of the box with a decent blade.
Routers can easily turn into the proverbial money pit, to be honest. We’re talking some serious cash here. Almost every hobbyist woodworker I talk to thinks they need a router. And when I ask them what they actually use it for, they either lie and tell me they use it all the time, or admit they’ve used it maybe twice since they bought it and it’s been gathering dust on the shelf ever since.
Okay, so what the heck is a router and do you need one?
A router is sort of like a combination high speed drill and plane built into one. It spins at up to 28,000 RPM or so, turning a bit that has cutter blades shaped in various profiles.You use ’em to make decorative moldings, putting edges on table tops and panels, rounding over edges of boards, to cut complex shapes, and the list goes on and on. Basically they’re used for for shaping and adding decorative elements. You can get jigs and templates that will let you do things like make dovetails and other speciality joints.
That’s my Porter Cable up there in that picture, and as you can see from how dirty it is, it gets a lot of use. It’s an old 890 series router, with an optional plunge base, 1/4 and 1/2 inch collets (the thing that holds the bits), variable speed, soft start, and I dropped a considerable amount of money on it. I’ve had it for – well, must be more than ten years now, and it’s still going strong. It was not cheap. They don’t make this particular model any more but it looks like models comparable to this one are going for well over $200, probably closer to $300, and that’s without a plunge base, bits and accessories. When I add everything up I probably have close to $1,000 sunk into just this one tool system. See what I mean about a money pit?
But do you really need one? I could use a router to cut a sheet of plywood. But I don’t. I use a saw for that. I could use it to round off sharp corners on a table top. But I generally don’t. I’d use my little block plane for that. There are a lot of things a router could be used for, but it’s generally easier using a different tool for the job. What they are good for is mostly decorative things like moldings, making dovetail joints with a jig and things like that. So unless you make fine furniture or are making custom moldings for a window or picture frame or something like that as I do, you probably don’t need one.
These are one of the greatest inventions ever, in my opinion. Anyone who has ever had to sand a 3′ by 6′ table top by hand before finishing it will tell you the same. I have four of them laying around at the moment, but I only use three. The one on the left, the square one, does work but it doesn’t have any kind of dust collection system so it sits on the shelf. The other three get used regularly, though.
Despite the variety of sanders in that photo, IMO the only one you really need is an orbital sander like that Bosch up there. That’s really my workhorse sander. It uses sanding disks that attach with a hook and loop system, has holes in the disk that match holes in the sanding disks that permit it to suck up a lot, but not all, of the dust generated from sanding, and does a pretty good job of smoothing wood down. Discs are available in a wide variety of grades ranging from very coarse to very fine.
Prices bounce all over the place, but dear lord don’t spend a lot on one of these! I’ve seen prices pushing $200 for a sander that doesn’t do any more than a $40 Skill or Black & Decker.
Belt sanders like the Skil can be useful. Generally I use mine for hogging off large amounts of material with a coarse belt on it. Works well for fitting doors that stick, for example. But it gets used nowhere near as much as the orbital.
The “Mouse” is the red one with the point from Black & Decker and generally only used for finish sanding into tight corners. It’s handy, but do you really need one? Probably not. It also has no dust collection system on it so it gets messy real fast.
Generally speaking power sanders are reasonably cheap and can save you a lot of time. If you’re building furniture or doing any kind of finish carpentry, you probably need one.
Sometimes called a “sawzall” these things have pretty much replaced things like hacksaws, pipe cutters and the like for a lot of us. I wouldn’t technically call it a woodworking tool, but damn, the thing is handy. I’ve worn out three of these over the years. This DeWalt is the latest to move into the workshop. I use it for cutting pipe, trimming branches, sawing off bolts, well, you get the idea. You can get different saw blades suitable for everything from cutting steel, to wood, to demolition work.
Do you need one? Well, maybe? They’re certainly handy to have around. If you do buy one, don’t buy one like mine!!! I almost put this one in the “Holy Cow Did I Screw Up With This One” category because that puppy up there would set you back over $170. Dear lord, did I really spend that much on a saw? What the hell was the matter with me? Was I drunk? Temporarily insane?
No, no, no, no… If you decide you need a reciprocating saw, don’t spend more than $100 on one. This isn’t rocket science. All the thing does is move a blade back and forth for heaven’s sake. $170? Really? What the hell was I thinking? If I needed to stick with DeWalt they make one for $100 that would have worked just as well.
This is the last one I’m going to cover in this segment. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about nailers, but damn, they’re handy, so I’ll touch on them briefly.
Now if you’ve ever hammered a nail in and, after smashing several fingers, bending a half dozen nails over and hammering the heck out of your wood, you’ve told yourself there has to be a better way of doing this. There is. Nail guns. Now there are electric ones and pneumatic ones (air powered). Generally speaking the electric ones are, well, frankly every electric one I’ve tried has been crap. I’m sorry, but they were. I stick with pneumatic.
I have three. One is a finish nailer for finish nails (duh), one is a pinner, a special type of nailer that uses headless nails called pins. They don’t have much structural strength and are generally used for holding together glue joints in furniture until the glue cures. I also have a big framing nailer for, well, framing (also duh).
Do you need one? Well, not really, to be honest. They certainly do make life a lot easier if you’re remodeling a house or putting up trim and stuff like that. But you can get along without one. They aren’t all that expensive, though. Well, unless you add in the cost of the air compressor you’ll need to power them. And you can generally rent them, along with an air compressor, at tool rental places so if you only need one for a short time for a special project like remodeling a room, you don’t need to buy the thing.
Specialty Tools, Or, Holy Cow Did I Screw Up With This One
I make mistakes. A lot of them. Over the years I’ve bought a lot of tools I wish I hadn’t. For whatever reason, buying xxxxx seemed like a good idea at the time, or I bought into the hype and advertising or whatever. And now I’ve ended up with a tool that spends its life collecting dust and providing a home for spiders. Here are a couple of examples.
My biscuit joiner. What the hell is that? Well, back in the good old days when “This Old House” was an actual home improvement show that showed you how to actually do stuff instead of what it is today, which is apparently an advertising platform for whatever company gives them free stuff or coughs up a few bucks, the biscuit joiner was the tool to have if you were making tables or panels according to their in-house carpenter, Norm. And I was gluing up a lot of boards to make panels for wardrobes and tables and said, wow, this is something I have to have. I mean, if Norm says I have to have one, well, I do. Right? Spoiler warning: I didn’t.
The tool is basically a special purpose saw that does only one thing, cut matching slots in two boards that accept those wooden biscuits you see in the lower left corner of the case. Cut the slots in the edge of the boards, slop on some glue, slip in the biscuits, shove the boards together, and it makes a strong, secure joint that is better than just merely gluing the two boards together.
Only it is utterly useless. Yes, it will indeed let you cut matching slots for the biscuits and all that. But it doesn’t matter. If you know what you’re doing that joint isn’t going to fail whether you have those biscuits in there or not. As I mentioned in a previous post, I have never had a glue joint fail if the joint was properly prepared, and I used a good quality glue and properly clamped everything while the glue cured. Never. I’ve had the wood fail alongside of a glue joint. But the joint itself? No. That includes edge glued boards. So why the heck do I need a biscuit joiner? I don’t. I used it twice, realized it was a complete waste of time, shoved it back on the shelf and there it’s sat for the last, oh, decade or so. I don’t remember what I paid for that thing, but I might as well have just flushed the money down the toilet.
I do know what I paid for this thing up there because the price tag is still on it, $199.99. And once again it was money not well spent. I bought it because I was refurbishing hardwood floors at the time and thought it would be really useful. It wasn’t. I did use the saw attachment to cut out boards that needed to be replaced, but I could have used tools I already had for that. The other functions like sanding, scraping and all that which are listed on the front of the box? It would do that, yes, but very, very badly. (Handy hint: the phrase “As Seen On TV” actually means “Totally Useless”. If it appears anywhere on the box or in the advertising for a product, don’t buy it. Just don’t.)
The thing about speciality tools in general is that they usually don’t work very well, and they almost never work as well in real life as they do in the advertising. I have a tenon jig for a table saw that works, but takes so much time to properly set up that by the time I have it ready to go I could have cut the tenon by hand faster. I have sharpening gadgets that either don’t work at all or actually make tools more dull than they were to begin with.
Well, you get the idea.
That’s it for now.
2 thoughts on “Tools Part IV: Small Power Tools”
Wow, this article is totally relevant to me. I am a “tool guy”. Nearly everything I have is DeWalt. Some of it is cordless and some is not.
My experience is a little different than yours. I spent over $300 on a (AC powered) DeWalt table saw. At the the time I needed it to rebuild my deck. I figured even though I might not need it for much after that, it more than paid for itself as opposed to hiring a pro. Well, years later that table saw became one of my favorite, most used tools. I don’t just look at the cost of a tool. I also look at how much it will save me. Maybe it’s a roundabout way of bullshitting myself into justifying blowing money on cool toys, but I have recouped the cost of my tools many times over.
I also have a DeWalt cordless impact driver. I had my doubts but bought it for $170 anyway. Wow, am I glad I did. It’s a must-have now. I recently had to mount a TV on the wall. That impact drive spun down four inch lag bolts like they were nothing. I suggested to my dad that he have one too. He was skeptical at first like me. But I pointed out that he’s older (almost 81) and ever since he had surgery on his hands he can’t turn a wrench with the same gusto he used to, so maybe it was a good idea. He took my advice and was thrilled with it.
I also have a cordless drill, vacuum, air compressor, (AC) miter saw, (AC) drill, (AC) circular saw, (AC) jig saw, cordless oscillating tool, and a cordless work light, all DeWalt. Yeah, my garage looks like a DeWalt showroom. I don’t use all of them all the time, but when I’m in a jam they bail me out.
I have a Harbor Freight angle grinder. I think it cost like twenty bucks. I use it maybe once a year. My most economical find was a DeWalt AC powered sawzall, in a metal case. I got it at used at a garage sale for five bucks. Five bucks! Yessh, the CASE was worth more than that!
I have perhaps several hundred hand tools for everything from electrical work to plumbing to carpet laying. I inherited the handyman gene from my dad. Between maintaining my own house and friends hitting me up for favors, all these tools get used.
I don’t mind so much paying more for good tools. I do however just want to scream at how much blades and bits and other attachments cost. Some of that stuff cost more than the tool they’re used in. The cheap blades/bits are not worth having and the good ones cost so much it will make you cry.
My most expensive “power tool” is the F-150 truck I haul all this stuff around in.
Thanks for the great article; I look forward to the follow up.
Thanks for the comment Chris. Your thoughts are always appreciated 🙂
I tried to keep what can be a complicated topic as simple as I could and write it more for people who are just starting out and are getting overwhelmed by the enormous number of different tools, the often eye watering prices, etc. Heck, I could have written a whole book about just hand planes and still not covered everything. I wanted people to know that you can do a lot with just a few, relatively inexpensive tools. I have a lot of expensive tools, a lot of them speciality tools like my mortising machine and router table and stuff like that which the average handyman or woodworker can get along without, but which are really handy to have for some of us. I have something like 6 different hand planes, some pretty expensive, and I love some of them and use them, but you don’t really need.
Of late this place has started to look like a DeWalt showroom, to be honest. Their stuff is pretty good if a bit on the expensive side, and very good quality. Sawzal, drill, circular saw, a couple of power sanders, leaf blower, string trimmer, all working off the same battery system. But geez, when I look at the prices I paid for some of that stuff and look at the more generic tools I’ve used that do the same thing but are a lot cheaper… Well, the reciprocating DeWalt saw I have costs about $200 without the battery and you could get along just fine with a cheap Skil or some other brand. And you’re right about the blades! Holy cow some of them are expensive! When you get into the high end specialty saw blades, wow the prices get nasty pretty fast.
Sounds that like me you have a lot of money invested in tools, and for good reason. But I wanted people to know they don’t have to have that many tools and don’t have to spend that much just to get started. It’s like amateur radio. I know a lot of people who look at the glossy ads for high-end gear and think they can never afford it so when I talk about radio stuff I often emphasize the cheaper stuff like my Yaesu 450 and avoid talking about the really expensive stuff I have. I don’t want people to to get turned off by the prices by some of this stuff and know they can do this on the cheap, so to speak.
The next installment is going to talk about big power tools like jointers, table saws, planes, etc. My problem there is most of my big expensive equipment is 10+ years old now and the models I have are out of production so I’m having to do a lot of research to see what is currently on the market, prices, features, etc. And wow have prices on that stuff gone up! Prices on a lot of my big equipment have literally more doubled in the last ten years and I’m not sure why.
Oh, and one of the big tools, my big planer, is also a DeWalt.
Harbor Freight tools – I’m afraid I’ve has some *very* bad experiences with stuff from HF over the years. True, some of the basic stuff is just fine, but some of the stuff has been down right dangerous. So I haven’t even looked at stuff from HF in years. But people tell me now that the quality has improved enormously over the last few years so maybe it’s time to take a peek at their stuff again. But I’ve heard some disturbing stories from some people about some of their stuff that keep me nervous. Well, we’ll see.
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