Portable Power Tools Get Smaller Thanks to Engineering and Li-Ion Batteries
posted on February 1, 2011 by AJ Hamler
AJ Hamler holding tools Author AJ Hamler was interested to find how much smaller portable power tools have gotten over the years like these from Milwaukee.

For some years now, we woodworkers have been faced with an interesting question: “Should I use a full-size tool or just go for a little toss-in-a-drawer tool?”

DeWalt Portable Drills DeWalt's newer portable drill units fit in tight spaces that the old drills don't come close to, with the added benefit of an LED worklight to guide you.

Of course, for most serious woodworking tasks, the little tools simply aren’t an option. Minimal torque, no versatility and not much power (and that power doesn’t last long). They sure are light and easy to use, though. On the other end, full-size tools offer power, speed and stamina, plus lots of versatility with multiple speeds, torque settings, cutter interchangeability and more. But they’re heavy.

Ridgid and Makita Drills RIDGID's 12V cordless drill is dwarfed by a Makita model despite the fact that both units have the same voltage.

Spend an afternoon holding a big 1/2" corded drill over your head installing ceiling trim, and your arms and shoulders will complain for days. We’ve all asked: why can’t there be serious tools that are “just right?”

Finally, there are. And the offerings seem to grow daily in this major downsizing trend.

But why now? If you’re like me, you’ve wanted serious tools in this size category for a long time, so why the sudden explosion? Here’s your first clue: Cordless tools started this revolution.

Cutting the Cord

With the advent of lithium-ion batteries, the door opened for brand-new tools that upped the power while lowering the weight and size.

“While lithium-ion has been around for a while in laptops, cell phones and PDAs, a different type of cell was needed for power tools that could withstand potential spikes in power requirement, say, when you stall a drill, or even the general usage cycle,” says Bosch’s Edwin Bender. “Whereas a cell phone drains the battery within a fairly narrow power band, power tools operate over a much wider range, depending on if you are driving a screw or drilling with a hole saw.”

For small cordless tools previously, 3.6 volts was about the maximum because it took three 1.2-volt NiCad cells to reach that power level; pack more 1.2-volt cells into it, and you quickly got a big, heavy tool. Li-Ion cells multiply the power significantly, but do it in the same space.

“With lithium-ion, you are able to cram three times more energy into the battery without making it larger, so now you get not only the benefit of small size but also enough power to use the tool all day,” says Bender.

As a result, a compact tool with three lithium-ion cells can often be the same size and weight of those little 3.6-volters. Combine three lithium-ion cells — with average voltage of 3.6 and maximum voltage of 4 volts per cell — and you get the current crop of compact tools rated at 12 volts max power.

But why settle on 12 volts, as all the manufacturers seem to be doing? Christine Potter, director of cordless tools at DeWALT, notes that 12 volts hits that just-right sweet spot. “Twelve volts is the optimal voltage for a large portion of fastening applications,” Potter says. “Two cells, or 8 volts, would not be enough voltage (power) for professional fastening applications. On the other hand, four cells or 16 volts approaches the performance, size and weight of 18 volts. Thus, three cells creating 12 volts results in the ideal performance and ergonomics to complement 18-volt products.”

Cordless Options
Bosch 12V battery Bosch has increased the voltage on their batteries from 10.8V to 12V for their newer lines of portable tools.

It’s no secret that drivers and drill/drivers have led the way in this category since Bosch introduced that first 10.8-volt PS20 driver a few years ago. Although the batteries are the same today, Bosch and other manufacturers now cite the maximum voltage of 4 volts per cell when rating the power of these tools. (The label on the current PS20 battery has been changed to reflect this 12-volt rating.)

With Porter-Cable joining the party recently, virtually every major manufacturer offers a driver, drill/driver and impact driver. The reaction has been very positive.

“I have a corded, very powerful drill I use for heavy jobs — a Milwaukee Hole Shooter,” says Andy Barss, a woodworker in Tucson, Arizona. “I like it a lot, but what really opened my eyes were two of the Bosch 10.8/12-volt drill/drivers. I have one, my wife the other, and they’re incredibly useful. I put up a whole dust-collection system with mine.”

Milwaukee and DeWalt's Lithium-Ion Batteries Most tools use tall Lithium-Ion batteries like the Milwaukee on the left, but DeWalt's shorter batteries provide a more stable base for standing tools upright.

Because they share a similar battery design — a triangular stick that slides up into the handle — most drill/drivers look and feel about the same. The new crop of “12-Volt MAX” tools from DeWALT has gone in a new direction with flat battery packs, as has Ryobi’s One+ line. They’re still 12-volts made up of three individual lithium-ion cells, but they’re arranged side-by-side instead of in a triangular bundle. The configuration — a standout in this class — makes it possible to set them securely upright.

Porter-Cable 12v Saw Porter-Cable's 12v reciprocating saw comes with several handy features like an adjustable handle and a workpiece clamp.

On the heels of the drill/driver tide, other 12-volt compact tools are beginning to appear, beginning with reciprocating saws. Milwaukee’s “Hackzall” led the way, followed quickly by Hitachi’s CR10DL and Ryobi’s One+ Hybrid saw, both of which feature an adjustable handle. Porter-Cable’s “ClampSaw” also has an adjustable handle, as well as a unique modified shoe that clamps to the workpiece.

Portable reciprocating saws Portable reciprocating saws come in several different sizes and work for different jobs like these compact models from RIDGID and Milwaukee and a full-size unit from DeWalt.

Other new cordless offerings are a bit rarer — some represented by only one company — such as DeWALT’s DCT410S1 12-Volt Max inspection camera and DCT414S1 infrared thermometer. Dremel has adapted lithium-ion technology to their signature rotary tool to introduce the Dremel 8200. Also from Dremel is the 8300 Multi-Max oscillating tool, a 12-volt cordless take on the venerable Fein MultiMaster. Bosch and Craftsman also offer cordless oscillators with the PS50B Multi-X and Nextec Multi-Tool, respectively.

Ridgid flashlights RIDGID's smaller line of flashlights are half the size of their older models, and provide better lighting too.

And, of course, just about everybody offers a flashlight. Combo kits have always included one, it seems. The difference is that these smaller ones are lighter and, in many cases, brighter than those big clunky ones we’ve seen over the years. You might actually use these.

Oddly, as of this writing, there aren’t many circular saws in this class, with the near-twin Ryobi CS120L and Craftsman Nextec saws in a lonely category — for now. Unfortunately, the 3-3⁄8" blades on these saws have limited use for woodworkers. As a result, full-size machines, either cordless or corded, are still the common choice here.

“I’m now looking into a circular saw that’s smaller and lighter than my corded Porter-Cable 7-1⁄4" saw, says Barss. “That one is fine, but a lighter one with less cutting capacity would be great.” His wish may have come true.

Corded, but Uncommon
Bosch 1hp router Bosch's 1hp Colt router may be corded, but it was one of the first small routers on the market and quickly became one of the most popular.

A funny thing happened on the way to the compact revolution. Users welcomed cordless offerings so readily that manufacturers began to wonder if smaller corded tools would have a viable market, too. If users like Barss are any indication, there is a market.

“Compact cordless is a reality, and as a general rule users desire more power in a smaller, lighter-weight product,” says Bill Harmon, a product manager for DeWALT and Porter-Cable. Harmon noted that the market is there, but the challenge lies in the fact that once you limit a tool to a target weight range, current motor configurations eventually max-out on the power they’re able to deliver in the space available. Still, manufacturers are eager. “I’d say generically speaking we’d like to go that route, but currently much of this is dictated by the user’s desire to trade off power for size.”

And there’s the key for compact corded tools, just as with cordless. For some jobs — building a deck, demolition work, remodeling — you’ll still need tools with enough power to make Tim “The Toolman” Taylor a happy guy. But for day-to-day work, the options are wider.

“Compact tools can perform the majority of a contractor’s needs without the need of a full size tool,” says Rachel Lombardo, Porter-Cable’s manager of corded products. “This size vs. power equation gap is closing and users prefer to use more compact designs when available. Knowing that compact tools can’t perform all tasks equally, their value is the weight, ease of use and the ability to get into smaller areas easily.”

Small corded tools — like their cordless counterparts — have been around for ages, mainly small drills, palm sanders and the like. An upgrade to these occurred several years ago with the introduction of laminate trimmers. These little routers were great for, well, trimming chores, but they often lagged for tougher work. Bosch was a leader again in this area with their Colt router, a 1-hp dynamo that caught on quickly with woodworkers.

“The Colt is fast and easy to use for light routing tasks, but it has the power that laminate trimmers lack,” says woodworker and writer Ralph Bagnall, noting that compact corded tools offer something besides lower weight. “I really like the small Porter-Cable belt sander and the Bosch Colt, because they offer more control in many situations than their ‘full-sized’ brothers. I’ve already replaced full-sized belt sanders with the smaller Porter-Cable.”

Porter cable small sander Porter-Cable's miniature 371K belt sander might be underpowered, but it beats its larger counterparts for small detailing jobs.

The sander he’s referring to is the Porter-Cable 371, introduced just a few years ago. You won’t be stripping a deck with one of them anytime soon, but for small work — cabinet doors and drawer fronts, say, or flat railings – it has more than enough power in a very light and easily controlled package.

Corded Considerations

The Bosch Colt and Porter-Cable 371 may have been the early birds in the corded category, but other manufacturers are catching up.

In addition to their 12-volt cordless oscillating tool, Dremel offers their Multi-Max corded version. Smaller, lighter and yes, less powerful than the full-sized Fein MultiMaster and Rockwell SoniCrafter, it still tackles a variety of chores for which the two larger machines could quickly cause arm fatigue.

RIDGID Circular Saw RIDGID's 61⁄2" circular saw has nearly as much power as its larger brethren, and its compact shape makes it perfect for smaller jobs.

Remember that smaller circular saw Andy Barss longed for earlier? RIDGID has one as part of their “Fuego” corded line. It includes a 6-1⁄2" circular saw, a 5" fibercement saw, compact orbital reciprocating saw and a small but beefy one-handed recip saw. (RIDGID also has an 18-volt Li-Ion version of the one-handed recip.)

DeWalt 1-1/4hp Router DeWalt's 1-1⁄4hp router provides a lot of power for in a small package, with an optional base that turns it into a plunge router as well.

The biggest news in this category has to be the recent introduction of a pair of compact routers from DeWALT and Porter-Cable. Rated at 1-1⁄4hp, could they be the “missing link” between laminate trimmers and full-size routers? At just 1/2hp less power than the Porter-Cable 690 and DeWALT DW616 routers, they’re much more powerful than today’s laminate trimmers.

Porter Cable 1-1/4hp router Porter-Cable's 450 router shares quite a bit in common with DeWalt's offering, making it a perfect bridge between laminate trimmers and full-size routers.

“Most lam trimmers are 5 amps and this is 7, so just by the math you’re looking at over 28 percent improvement in power, which allows for larger bit cutting and less bogging of the bits, less vibration and less burning due to bit slowdown,” says Bill Harmon. “Although with the increased power the compact router becomes an upgrade to the trimmer that allows you to do many of the mid-size applications with one hand, so there will certainly be a gravitation toward this product because of how many applications it’s able to accomplish that you can’t do with other trimmers today.”

The two machines look like twins and share several specs, but there are differences. The DeWALT has variable speed and LED guide lights, two features the Porter-Cable doesn’t offer. Both machines weigh just a hair over four pounds, and both have an option no laminate trimmer has ever offered: a plunge-style base.

The compact category is still in its growing stage, especially for corded machines. Chances are good that between the time I write this and the time you read it, more corded compact tools will be on the drawing boards if not nearing official introduction. With both users and manufacturers excited about the category, that’s a trend you can count on.

“Outside of jobs such as demolition and remodeling, one-size-fits-all products will be a thing of the past,” says Rachel Lombardo. “Compact [tools with] appropriate power and size will lead the corded category, and pace cordless development and expansion.”

posted on February 1, 2011 by AJ Hamler
previous post next post
Leave a comment

What People are Saying:

I have been ordering from Rockler for almost 20 years and have found their products to be very inexpensive and of high quality. Shipping is fast even when an item is back ordered. The best prices I have found anywhere."

- Orval - 08/07/2012

What People are Saying:

I have been ordering from Rockler for almost 20 years and have found their products to be very inexpensive and of high quality. Shipping is fast even when an item is back ordered. The best prices I have found anywhere."

- Orval - 08/07/2012
Feedback X