Choosing a portable power tool
Choice of power tool is a topic that comes up for discussion at regular intervals on uk.d i y, which frequently generates long threads of opinion and counter opinion! (aka arguments, and flame wars!) Much of this discussion seems to stem from different peoples understanding of what “DIY” is all about, as well as each person having often conflicting needs and expectations.
To help focus discussion, this section of the FAQ sets out some of the various tool buying policies that are routinely suggested. If you use this to identify which policy most closely resembles your favoured approach, you should be able to solicit advice from the group that takes this into consideration, and will save you needing to wade through too many heated debates!
What do *you* mean by DIY?
This is not as daft a questions as you may think! Since it will have a big impact on the tools you will consider “suitable”. DIY will mean different things to different people. For some it will be about saving money, for others it may be a relaxing hobby. It could be as simple as occasionally erecting a shelf, or changing a tap washer. For others it could be as elaborate as building their own house! For many today (especially if you live in the south east) DIY is often the only option because finding good trades people willing to actually quote or even turn up for work on some jobs is getting increasingly difficult!
It is safe to say that the tool you purchase with the expectation that it will live in a cupboard for 362 days of the year, may well be very different to the one with which you indulge your hobby of fine furniture making five days a week. So before deciding on much else, it is advisable to decide on what level of use you anticipate making of the tool.
Class of tool:
There are a huge variety of power tools available from the general purpose to the highly specialised. Almost every DIY shop will not only stock a selection of well know brands, they will often offer their own range of “own brand” tools, and prices for similar looking tools can range from as little as £5 to well over £500. The choice can seem bewildering. Understanding the way in which these different ranges of tools are marketed and distributed can go a long way to help understanding this large range.
The prices of budget tools in recent years have fallen dramatically. The majority of tools are manufactured in the far east and then “branded” for the eventual retailer. It is not uncommon to find exactly the same tool available under several different “brands” where the only difference is the label and the colour of the case. Since access to the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) is limited, getting any after sales service and spares for these tools can be difficult or impossible. Often the retailer may offer more attractive warranty terms to mitigate some of these limitations. So if a tool breaks during its warranty period, then the retailer will simply replace it. However if it breaks after this time, the tool will need to be discarded and a replacement sought. Although a long warranty may seem attraction remember that you may need to factor in the cost of your time should frequent trips to the shop be needed to acquire a warranty replacement.
High End tools
At the high end, tools are often built and assembled by factories owned by the brand maker, or built for them by OEMs to the brands own specification and quality standards. There will be a service and support network that will enable tools to be repaired, and spare parts obtained. Needless to say this backup and support has to be paid for in higher tool prices.
Mid Range tools
The mid range can be even more confusing since it can encompass tools from the “edges” of both categories above – often with the range of tools available under one brand spanning a good proportion quality and price range available. It is also an area with a large number of suppliers, sellers, and advertisers, each competing for your money.
Where should I buy from?
Many tools are available from a wide range of sources including the big name DIY shop, to the specialised independent tool supplier. A growing market sector is the dedicated “online” seller.
For easy availability of budget and mid range tools, it is hard to beat the big DIY shops. If you want the best and most knowledgeable advice and after sales service you will need to seek out a dedicated tool merchant. If you are looking for the best possible price the online shop will often give it to you.
There are cases where a average quality tool purchased from an above average retailer will offer some of the benefits and after sales care that usually only comes with much higher price tools.
The purchasing factors
Assuming you have dismissed hiring a tool, there are some are obvious factors like features of the product and its price that you will consider before you buy, but some are more subtle. For any given purchase you will need to weigh up these factors, since they may often be different for each tool you buy.
1) Tool features 2) Purchase Price 3) Availability of spares and support 4) Tool quality (and quality of results achievable with it) 5) Total cost of ownership (factoring in your time to buy and maintain the tool, cost of spares etc) 6) Comfort of use (Not only ergonomic design, but also factors like weight, noise, vibration, effective dust collection) 7) Speed of operation 8) Availability of suppliers (and service where applicable) 9) How much you anticipate the tool will be used 10) How long you need it to last 11) Brand image
The disposable tool
This is an easy one! Sometimes a tool is needed for a specific job and then that is it. Chances that it will be used again are slim. Often hiring a tool is a good way to meet this need, but that will not always be cost effective or practical if you are going to need it on an ad hoc basis spread over several weeks.
In this category tools from the cheaper end of the market can be ideal, often you are not too concerned what the life expectancy of the tool will be, so long as it gets the job done. If it lasts longer then that is a bonus.
Almost any DIY shop will have a suitable supply of tools. The down side it that the quality of the tool compared to a hired one may be inferior since the hire shops will typically buy top end tools so as to get the best life out of them, make sure they stand up to the abuse dolled out in unskilled hands, and to keep their trade customers happy! The tool may also be less comfortable to use, achieve lower standard of results, and take longer. Finally, you either need to store or otherwise dispose of the tool when the job is done.
The second hand tool
Don’t dismiss this option! Sometimes places like hire shops will sell off surplus tools. If you can find one that has not been hammered to the edge of its useful life this can be a way of picking up a top quality tool for not much money.
The buy to try approach
Sometimes you are not sure how much actual use you will make of a particular tool, but you can’t be sure until you have a chance to try one for yourself. Hiring can be a solution here although you would need to a specific project in mind. The alternative is to buy one from the budget or mid range, to see how you get on with it. You may find that your purchase satisfies your need, or it may be a stepping stone to something better. It also means when you do buy “something better” you have a much clearer understanding of what features to look for and which ones can be dismissed as “fluff”.
The “buy several” approach
The own brand tool may not offer the reliability and performance of a more expensive tool. However the price is often such that some people advocate buying more than one of each tool, often for the less than the price of a single better tool. Should a tool fail, you simply discard it and switch to its replacement and carry on working. (The same policy can actually be applied to any type of tool in any price range if it is important that you can carry on working, not just the “DIY shop special”, Even expensive tools bought for business use may fall into this category).
You can have several tools “on the go at once”. With things like drills this may equate to faster working since you will not need to stop to swap between say a drill bit and a screwdriver bit, just pick up a different tool.
You need to balance this with the fact that the money spent on two tools may buy one of better quality, which may outlast the two cheaper ones, give better results, and be nicer to use. Also you will need more storage space if you have several of each!.
The mid range choice
This is the hardest range to purchase from, because there is a huge choice, and it is not possible to make blanket purchasing decisions based on brand for example. Each brand will have good and not so good products in this class. Buying from this range is often what the ad men call an “aspirational purchase” (i.e. you would like something better, but budget dictates you buy something similar but cheaper!).
Mid range tools are often well suited to the less intensive user. The results and quality of work that can be produced will often be higher than with lower end tools, and some after sales service and support may be available (this is often true where the manufacturer sells tools in several ranges (like B&D or Bosch for example). You have ready availability of tools and lots of competition keeps prices low. You may find that the quality, comfort of use, speed etc, may still be lacking.
The “top quality” approach
Sometimes only the best will do. If the work you want to do demands the highest quality of finish, or you want the utmost comfort and ease of use from your tools then this might be the approach for you. You can expect tools in this category to stand up to intensive every day use, even for “trade” purposes. Reliability should also be better than the other groups, and spares and after sales service should be readily available. Ideally suited to the serious DIYer, the tradesman and craftsman. You will be getting the smoothest operation resulting in good finish and low operator fatigue, with good finesse of control. If you have a habit of being a bit “heavy handed” with your tools then remember these were designed to be used and abused on building sites! Sometimes there is just the satisfaction in using and owning “the best”
The tools are going to be more expensive, and are more likely to be stolen if not carefully looked after! Note also that just because repair services are available there may be down time waiting for repairs to be carried out.
Mains or Cordless
Over recent years the number of cordless (i.e. battery powered) tools available has grown enormously. In many cases available power is but an extension lead away and so you may not “need” a cordless tool. There are some items (drills / powered screwdrivers notably) for which the cordless tool is desirable as a class of its own - often in addition to a mains equivalent. If in doubt as to whether to go cordless (for things other than drills) you are probably better sticking to mains.
There are a few “givens” with cordless tools: they cost more, and will often deliver less power than a similar price / size mains tool, and if you use them infrequently then they will be flat when you want to use them!
There is also a huge range of difference between the best and the worst examples. The worst cordless tools are virtually useless. The best can be used as non stop work horses.
The single biggest influence on the quality and usability of a cordless tool are its batteries and their charger. It is simply not possible to purchase good quality rechargeable cells at very low cost. Many budget cordless tools are sold at a price that is less than the wholesale cost of a decent set of batteries. So something has to give! The quality of the batteries will affect how long it runs, and the power or torque available. The quality of the charger will affect how long the batteries take to charge, and more importantly, how many times you can recharge and still get useful performance from the tool. Batteries will need replacement eventually. With a budget tool this will usually be a non economic exercise (assuming spares are available), with a higher end tool it may well be more expensive than you expect.
The other influence on performance is the quality of the motor and speed controller used. A good one will deliver lots of torque and control, even at low speeds. The poorer ones will only deliver torque at high speeds which is far less useful.
Are more “volts” better
In the quest for more power, performance and speed from battery operated tools, there has been a slide upwards in battery voltage. This suits the marketers well since there is a nice “number” to use a sales hook. The bigger the number the better right? Err, no not always. The more volts, the more cells, the bigger and heavier the tool will be. If you want a nimble easy to use drill/driver this is not a “good thing”. Then we come down to quality of batteries again: a top end 14.4V drill will out perform a 18V or 24V budget tool for just this reason, while being smaller and lighter into the bargain.
Which brand is which?
Identifying which of the above groups a tool belongs to is not always straight forward. Many people will not even agree which is which. Some brands may make tools in several distinct categories, (which may or may not be distinguished in some way). In recent years many of the big name makers have acquired smaller brands so as to be able to compete in several different ranges without confusing people as to which market they are aiming for (i.e. B&D own Elu, Skil, and DeWalt)
Budget brand tools:
NuTool, JCB, Many DIY shop “own brand tools”, Power Devil, Ferm
Mid range tools
Bosch (green bodied), Black & Decker, Skill, Wicks own brand (grey bodied), Freud, PPPro (B&Q), Ryobi
Makita, Trend, Bosch (blue bodied), Hitachi, Festool, Fein, Lamello, Freud, Elu, Metabo, DeWalt, Atlas-Copco/Milwaukee, Panasonic
All about Different Tools
The following section lists lots of tools, why you may want them, and highlights specific things to look for that are particular to the tool.
[feel free to jump in here guys and gals and provide some sections! – this could go on a bit]
This is an example of a tool where there is a massive shift in performance as you move from budget to high end. To the extent that a high end tool is to all intents and purposes a different tool to the low end. It makes answering the question “why would I want one?” a bit tricky since the range of things you might do with a good one is much wider that those you would contemplate for a poor one. Hence it is simpler to treat these as two separate types of tool:
The budget / mid range jigsaw:
Ideal for cutting curved lines, (indeed without practice, that may be the only type you can cut!). If you need to cut out shapes, (i.e. hole for a sink in a worktop), or make some ornate woodwork this may be the tool for the job. If you need a jigsaw then there are few alternatives, there are some jobs that only a jigsaw will do. The speed of cut is relatively slow (ones with pendulum action will cut faster (and rougher)). The tools are pretty small and light. They are often a bit uncomfortable to use since you get a fair bit of vibration. They are not suited to being a general purpose saw (a circular saw will often be a better choice). The quality of the cut is moderate, and will need a fair amount of sanding etc prior to finishing if it is to be on display.
Features worth having include tool less blade change (sometimes called SDS just to confuse), an illuminated cutting line is nice, as is a dust blower that keeps the cutting line clear of sawdust.
The high end jigsaw
This will do all of the things the budget one will do. However it is a far more general purpose tool. It cuts quickly and smoothly with little or no vibration. It is much better at cutting straight lines, and can often be used with a straight edge or rip fence without the blade wandering to “interesting” angles. Tool less blade change is a given, as is a good speed controller. The base plate will be a solid cast metal rather than a flexible pressed steel one. With a fine or medium blade it will also give a very fine finish to a cut.
The SDS Drill
The Circular Saw
The Biscuit Jointer
The Reciprocating Saw
The Mitre Saw
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