In today’s home and professional shops, cordless drills are as common as bottles of glue. Now, with all the improvements in lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, these tools have become better than ever. They’re lighter weight than comparable NiCad drills, but just as powerful, with long run times and memory-free battery performance.
As the lithium-ion drill category has blossomed, some great offshoots have also come to market: Li-ion impact drivers. This tool test focuses on the smallest of the bunch in the 10.8- and 12-volt sizes — tools that some folks are calling mini drivers or pocket drivers. They’re great for getting into tight spaces, powerful enough to drive long woodworking screws without choking and pint-sized so they fit in the pocket of a tool apron. In short, they’re mighty convenient in the shop.
This test will help you decide if one of these six tough but tiny impact drivers is right for you.
What’s the Impact?
In case you’re not familiar with impact drivers, here’s the deal. If you’ve ever loosened a bolt by hitting the handle of the wrench with a hammer, you were working like an impact driver. As the driver starts to “feel” resistance from the screw you’re installing, the impact function kicks in and helps bang the screw home. It’s that cool sound you often hear in a mechanic’s garage where they’re using pneumatic impact wrenches to muscle up on recalcitrant nuts and bolts.
Since these tools are designed to drive fasteners, none of them have a three-jaw chuck. Instead they use a 1/4″ quick connect for use with hex-shank driver bits.
Putting Tiny to the Test
If you’re like me, your tools do double or triple duty. I’ve got a dedicated shop my tools live in, but I use them for much more than pure woodworking. It seems like I’m always fixing something in the house or garage. So, for this test I decided to have a look at two extreme requirements of these tools: finesse and power. Finesse is important when driving delicate, tiny screws on your woodworking projects. On the flip side, you’ll also want enough power to drive larger screws on those other around-the-house repair tasks that come up.
I didn’t sweat over how many screws the drivers could sink on a single charge, since all these tools come with with two batteries, and their charge time is just 30 to 50 minutes, depending on the model.
I also considered the more subjective “How does the tool feel?” analysis. My wife has smaller hands, so I asked her to drive a bunch of screws, too, and provide her opinions about the test group.
Finally, although these tools are impact drivers, I was also curious to see how they’d perform on basic drilling operations.
Finesse: Easy Does It
Keep in mind that none of these drivers have a clutch. Basically, you are acting as a clutch as you feather the trigger from low to high rpm while driving the screw. On small screws, if you simply squeeze the trigger full bore and go, the driver can break the screw, strip the head out or strip the pilot hole. My “real world” test for finesse was driving 1/2″-long screws through drawer slides and into a piece of plywood, just like you’d do when installing hardware on a project. The last time I “installed” this many drawer slides I was building cabinets and displays for large retail stores. I found that, without gently feathering the trigger, all of these drivers would have caused damage to the screw or pilot hole.
There was a definite contrast between the tools. I found it easiest to control the motor speed with the trigger on the Makita, Milwaukee and RIDGID impact drivers.
More Power than You Might Think
It’s unlikely that I’ll need to drive 3″ deck screws on a woodworking project, but I figured this would provide a good measure of just how much juice these drivers are capable of providing. And I know that some of you are all about POWER … be honest.
Starting with a fresh battery, I drove a boatload of screws into a 2×4 with each tool, timing how long it took to seat the heads flush. I threw out extremely high and low results, then averaged the rest.
Every driver was capable of pushing these big screws home, which is impressive. Although some tools pushed the screws in faster than others, the feel of the impact in my hand was uniform from tool to tool. The Milwaukee and RIDGID drivers — both 12-volt tools — were fastest. The Ryobi was the slowest. While the impact action was taking place, it wasn’t rattling my teeth or making the driver uncomfortable to hold on to. Additionally, although I drove a lot of long screws with each tool, I didn’t notice excessive heat buildup from their motors.
Mini impact drivers aren’t as noisy as a router, but you should definitely wear hearing protection when driving fasteners with these machines. This is especially important when you’ve got your head inside a cabinet while you’re installing hardware. That said, no one driver was noticeably louder than others in this test.
All right, I know these tools are designed to drive, not necessarily drill, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much wood a driver could drill if a driver could drill wood. What I was really looking for here was how large a hole I could drill before the impact function engaged. If the tool starts impacting while drilling, it slows down the drilling process.
All the tools succeeded at what I’d consider to be a must-have operation: spinning a countersink bit for a #8 screw into melamine without the impact starting up. That’s great, since pre-drilling with a countersink and then driving a screw is a pretty standard assembly operation for woodworking.
Then, I switched to hard maple and found that the largest hole I could drill without the impact engaging was 3/16″ diameter. I had to be more careful feeding the bit on some tools than others. Although this isn’t a huge bit, it’s still relatively good news since a 3/16″ hole is commonly used for pull and knob screws.
The bottom line is that these tools excel at driving, but they are still OK for drilling small holes. Some of the drivers are available in kits that include a drill, which makes a handy combo pack. Or, buy an accessory three-jaw chuck, which locks into the hex drive and would be handy for using those occasional small drill bits. Hitachi sells one (part #725045) for around $30.
Getting a Grip
My hand measures 8″ from the heel of my palm to the tip of my middle finger; my wife’s measures 6″. I had no trouble gripping and using any of these tools, but my wife really appreciated the smaller grip size of the Hitachi driver. If you’re small-handed, you’ll love the feel of the smaller grip size.
In contrast, RIDGID’s R82238 felt the bulkiest of the tools for both my wife and me.
Seeing the Light
All of these tools, except the Ryobi, have a built-in work light. I have to admit that, when these lights first started appearing on drills and impact drivers, I was skeptical. But now that I’ve literally seen their lights, I’ve really seen the light! Actually, there have been many times when I’ve been installing hardware inside a cabinet that the built-in light has simplified the job. And it never hurts to have a little on-board task light shining on your application at the bench, either. In both cases, you’ll appreciate the lights on these tools.
Hauling Your Tools
All six drivers in this test came with a carrying case, which is great, because you know you’re going to put some miles on these tools using them in various places around the shop, home or jobsite. The Makita and Milwaukee drivers have hard-shelled cases, and the rest come with soft-sided bags. Either seems a good option to me. The carry cases provide ample space for the driver, charger and batteries.
I was very impressed with the performance of these impact drivers, especially when you look at how compact they are. It’s easy to visualize working your way around a project during assembly, or while installing hardware, with one of these handy tools in your shop apron. The 12-volt tools will drive a little faster and longer than the 10.8-volt models. But realistically, you’ll still need a larger drill in order to punch bigger holes.
It was extremely difficult to pick a “Best Bet” winner from this field. Heavy-duty users will be happy with the Bosch, Hitachi, Makita, Milwaukee or RIDGID. Moderate to occasional users might appreciate the less expensive Ryobi tool. But, all things considered, I’m picking the Makita as my “Best Bet.” It was only slightly slower at driving 3″ screws than the Milwaukee and RIDGID drivers, it has a nice feel to it, and the price is right.