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?”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.