Choosing a Cordless Drill
What to look for whether you're buying your first drill/driver or upgrading to a model with more power
Whether you are just learning the basics of simple maintenance or are taking on a second addition to the house, a good drill is essential. And if it's a cordless model, you can drill holes and drive screws with the same tool — and not have to worry about finding an outlet near the work to power the drill. The good news: There are hundreds of these drills on the market. The bad news: It's not always clear which drills you should be considering.
THE HANDLE on a cordless drill is either a pistol grip or T-handle. The T-handle is most comfortable for general drilling and driving screws.
Power, Handles, Clutch
For cordless drills, power is measured in battery voltage. Higher voltage means more torque-spinning strength to overcome resistance. Over the last decade, top-end voltage has increased from 9.6 to 18V, but the range of models include 6, 7.2, 9.6, 12, 14.4 and 18V. Today's higher-voltage drills have enough power to bore big holes in framing lumber and flooring. That's impressive muscle. But the trade-off for power is weight. A typical 9.6V drill weighs 3 1/2 lbs., while an 18V model weighs up to 10 lbs. Handles Before cordless drill/drivers arrived, most drills had pistol grips, where the handle is behind the motor like the handle of a gun. But most of today's cordless models are equipped with a T-handle: The handle base flares to prevent hand slippage and accommodate a battery. Because the battery is centered under the weight and bulk of the motor, a T-handle provides better overall balance, particularly in heavier drills. Also, T-handle drills can often get into tighter spaces because your hand is out of the way in the center of the drill. But for heavy-duty drilling and driving large screws, a pistol grip does let you apply pressure higher up — almost directly behind the bit — allowing you to put more force on the work.
An adjustable clutch is what separates electric drills from cordless drill/drivers. Located just behind the chuck, the clutch disengages the drive shaft of the drill, making a clicking sound, when a preset level of resistance is reached. The result is that the motor is still turning, but the screwdriver bit isn't. Why does a drill need a clutch? It gives you control so you don't strip a screw or overdrive it once it's snug. It also helps protect the motor when a lot of resistance is met in driving a screw or tightening a bolt. The number of separate clutch settings varies depending on the drill; better drills have at least 24 settings. With that many clutch settings, you can really fine-tune the power a drill delivers. Settings with the lowest numbers are for small screws, higher numbers are for larger screws. Most clutches also have a drill setting, which allows the motor to drive the bit at full power.
The least expensive drills run at a single speed, but most have two fixed speeds: 300 rpm and 800 rpm. A slide switch or trigger lets you select high or low speed. These drills are ideal for most light-duty operations. The low speed is for driving screws, the high speed for drilling holes.
For more refined carpentry and repair tasks, choose a drill that has the same two-speed switch and a trigger with variable speed control that lets you vary the speed from 0 rpm to the top of each range. And if you do more hole drilling than screwdriving, look for more speed — 1,000 rpm or higher — at the top end.
Batteries and Chargers
Nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries represent the latest breakthrough in batteries. They're smaller and run longer than standard nickel-cadmium (Nicad) batteries. NiMH batteries also pose less of a hazard when it comes to disposal than Nicads because they don't contain any cadmium, which is highly toxic. Makita, Bosch, Hitachi and DeWalt offer NiMH batteries, and other manufacturers will soon produce these power cells too. All cordless drills come with a battery charger, with recharge times ranging from 15 minutes to three hours. But faster isn't necessarily better. A contractor might depend on fast recharges, but slower recharging isn't usually a concern at home, especially if you have two batteries. What's more, there are drawbacks to fast charging. A quick recharge can damage a battery by generating excessive heat, unless it's a specially designed unit. If you want a speedy recharge, go with a tool from Makita, Hitachi or Panasonic, whose "smart" chargers are equipped with temperature sensors and feedback circuitry that protect batteries. These units provide a charge in as little as nine minutes without battery damage.
Check out drills in home centers, noting their weight and balance. Try out vertical and horizontal drilling positions to see how comfortable you feel. Contoured grips and rubber cushioning on some models make them very comfortable, even when you're applying direct palm pressure. While you're at it, see how easy it is to change clutch settings and operate the keyless chuck. Home centers often discount hand tools, so be on the lookout for promotions. If you know the model you want, check out prices over the phone. Mail-order suppliers with sizable drill offerings include William Alden Co. (, 800-249-8665), Tool Crib of the North (, 800/ 358-3096) and Woodworker's Supply (800-231-2748). If you purchase a drill online or through mail order, be sure to account for the shipping charges when comparing prices against those at a home center.
Match the Tool to the Job
With all the different models of drill/drivers on the market, it's easy to buy more tool than you really need. The solution: Buy a drill based on how you will use it. It doesn't make sense to pay $200 for a tool you'll use only to hang pictures. Nor is it a good idea to pay $50 for a drill only to have the motor burn out after a few days of heavy work. You don't have to drive yourself crazy trying to think up all the possible jobs you'll have for your new tool. Look at the three scenarios that follow below and see where you fit in. If you ever need more tool than you have, you can step up in power and options. Or rent a more powerful drill for those projects that require one.
|LIGHT MAINTENANCE AND REPAIR||REPAIR AND REMODELING||HEAVY-DUTY CONSTRUCTION|
|JOBS||Installing drapery brackets; drilling holes for drywall anchors; assembling a barbecue grill; putting new handles on cabinet doors and drawers; removing and replacing door hinges.||Building a storage rack; replacing deck railings and fence pickets; drilling pilot holes and driving screws in hardwood or plywood; making furniture; hanging drywall.||Drilling holes for bolts and spikes in pressure-treated wood and landscape timbers; drilling holes in masonry walls; installing decking; drilling into steel.|
|FEATURES YOU'LL NEED||These tasks are quick ones, so a tool with one battery will do. For drilling holes and driving screws, get a drill with two fixed speeds; variable speed is an option. Also, look for an adjustable clutch.||Go with at least a 9.6V tool; you'll need the extra power. In fact, a 12V drill fits the bill for this job list, but the added power brings extra size and weight.||No question about it — you're in the big leagues. These projects — especially drilling large-diameter holes and driving long screws — demand a high-voltage tool.|
|NOTES||For the best combination of power, portability and price, stay in the 6 to 7.2V range. The Ryobi HP61 ($39) is a nifty 6V, two-speed model. This super-compact tool comes with a built-in level, onboard storage for two bits and a clutch. You also get four drill bits, a dozen driver bits and eight socket drivers. A comparable tool is the Black & Decker 9099KB (7.2V, $39).||For these tasks, you'll want variable speed, two speed ranges, a clutch and a T-handle. Be sure to get a second battery so you don't run out of power in the middle of a project. Drills in this category range from $60 to $140. Two professional-level 9.6V models that have all these features are the Hitachi FDS10DVA ($110) and Makita 6222DWLEK ($100).||Buy a minimum 12V, or better yet, a 14.4V model. Lower-priced models include the Black & Decker HP532 FireStorm (14.4V, $110), Bosch 3315K (12V, $159) and Skil 2582:04 (14.4V, $109). But you might want to step up a notch for a 1/2-in. chuck to handle larger bits and longer-lasting NiMH batteries. First-class choices include the Hitachi DS14DV (14.4V, $199), Porter-Cable 9873 (14.4V, $194) and Makita 6333DWAE (14.4V, $214). And if you're looking for pure power — with a downside of more size and weight — move up to the DeWalt DW995K-2 (18V, $269).|
What to Look For in a Cordless Drill
- Chuck jaws: Maximum capacity on most drills is 3/8 inches. Some 14.4 and 18V drills can handle 1/2-inch-diameter bits.
- Clutch: More settings give you greater control of the depth screws are driven.
- Speed-range switch: High is for drilling; low is for driving screws. Look for the widest range between them.
- Forward/reverse switch: Should be easy to operate with your thumb and trigger finger.
- Hand grip: Texture and contour should aid your grip; try out the grip before you buy.
- Voltage: More voltage means more power but also added weight.
- Battery: Two are better than one. New NiMH batteries offer some advantages.
- Trigger: Make sure your index finger fits around it comfortably when gripping drill. Variable speed offers the greatest control.
- Keyless chuck: Hand-turn it to open and close the chuck jaws.
Where to Find It:
Black & Decker U.S. Powertools
701 E. Joppa Road
Towson, MD 21286
see your local Sears store
or call 800-390-8792
Hitachi Power Tools USA
3950 Steve Reynolds Blvd.
Norcross, GA 30093
14930 Northam St.
La Mirada, CA 90638-5753
Panasonic Power Tool Division
1 Panasonic Way #4A-3
Secaucus, NJ 07094
4825 Hwy. 45 N, Box 2468
Jackson, TN 38302
Ryobi America Corp.
1424 Pearman Dairy Rd.
Anderson, SC 29625
S-B Power Tool
4300 W. Peterson Ave.
Chicago, IL 60646
Tool Crib of the North
Grand Forks, ND 58208-4040
5604 Alameda Pl. NE
Albuquerque, NM 87113