The power tool FAQ
There are many power tools available from the general purpose to the highly specialised. Almost every DIY shop will not only stock a selection of well known brands, they will often offer a range of “own brand” tools, and prices for a similar looking tool may vary by a factor of ten (or more). The choice is 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.
What difference does brand make?
Some brands of tool you will find are just that, “brands”. Typically manufactured in the far-east and then “branded” for the eventual retailer. This also explains why you can find exactly the same tool available under several different brands where the only difference is the label, and the colour of the plastic.
With badged tools of this type, getting spares or any kind of after sales service can be difficult or impossible.
The budget tool
Examples of all the popular tools can be found in a budget form, typically costing £30 or less. These include some brands that specialise in this market, and many DIY shop own-brands. Almost exclusively, these tools will be of the “badge engineered” type.
To compensate for the lack of spares or after sales service the retailer will often offer extended warranty terms and operate a blanket replacement policy. So, if a tool breaks during its warranty period, then the retailer will simply replace it. If it breaks after this time you bin it.
Although a long warranty may seem attractive, remember that you may need to factor in the cost of your time should a trip to the shop be needed to acquire a warranty replacement. Note, also, that it does not help if all you want is a spare part, and not a whole tool.
If you find you are frequently needing a warranty replacement for a tool, it might indicate that you are demanding more from the tool that it was designed to give.
The mid-range is the most confusing area since it can encompass tools from the “edges” of both the budget and high-end categories – 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. Mid-range tools will probably be nicer to use, last longer, and do a better job. Spares are usually available as may be a repair service.
At the high-end, tools are often built and assembled in 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. The quality and endurance of the tool will be high since these tools are designed to satisfy the needs of the professional who will expect continuous use, day in and day out. Needless to say, this quality and the backup and support network has to be paid for in higher tool prices.
How do I tell?
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 manufacturers may make tools in several distinct categories. For example Bosch make mid-range and high-end tools. They typically indicate which is which, not only in their numbering, but also by producing all mid-range tools with green cases, and the high-end tools with blue cases. They also own the mid-range brand Skil.
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 their customers as to which market they are aiming for. So, for example, B&D make a vast range of mid-range tools, but also own the high-end marques Elu and DeWalt. High-end tool maker Makita also sell some mid-range tools under the Maktec brand. Some big conglomerate manufacturers may own a bunch of brands, which they use to identify the range of tool, so Brands like Power Devil, Ryobi, and Milwaukee have the same parent company.
There is a fascinating graphic showing which brands are owned by who, here
Example Brands and Categories
|Budget Tool Brands||Mid Range Tool Brands||Professional "High-end" tool brands|
Often a cause for vigorous debate, the following policies each have merits and devoted champions. Decide for yourself which best fits your mindset and state of pocket!
The disposable tool
This is an easy one! Sometimes a tool is needed for a specific job and then that is it. You may never use it again. 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, since if it gets the job done “well enough” that is what matters. If it lasts longer and comes in handy later, 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 bought 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. Then again at least you know that the tool is new, and won't have been abused by a ham fisted Muppet the week before. The bought tool may also be less comfortable to use, achieve lower standard of results, and take longer. Finally, you need to either store or otherwise dispose of the tool when the job is done.
The second-hand tool
Don’t dismiss this often overlooked option. Second hand tools are often cheaper than new budget ones. Quality will vary but there is a fair chance you can pick up products from all the categories described here.
Prime buying sources include eBay, Amazon Marketplace, car boot sales, the tip, local papers, and sometimes second-hand or charity shops, and the modern day equivalent of pawn shops. Obviously one needs to take care with some sources to ensure the tools are not stolen property.
Be wary of very old tools since they may be lacking critical safety features that are standard on current ones. Read the specific guidance on these issues in the Tool Types section.
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
If you are not sure how much actual use you will make of a particular tool, you can 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 budget tool may not offer the reliability and performance of a mid range or better tool. However the price is often such that you can buy 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 it's 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 in the event of a break-down.
You can have several tools “on the go at once”. With things like drills this may allow faster work since you will not need to stop to swap between say a drill bit and a screwdriver bit; instead 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 “buy to keep” approach
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 and are often more than adequate for many DIY-ers. 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 should be available. This is often true where the manufacturer sells tools in several ranges (like B&D or Bosch for example).
While typically better than the budget tools, you may still find that the quality, comfort of use, and speed etc., may still be a little 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. They are ideally suited to the serious DIY-er, the tradesman and the 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!
These tools are going to be more expensive, and are more likely to be stolen if not carefully looked after! Note, also, that although repair services are available there will be down time while the repair is carried out. Also the general falling price of tools can render a top quality tool beyond economic repair simply because the “new model” is half the price.
Sometimes there is just the satisfaction of using and owning “the best”
 “Comfort” in this case meaning a tool which has: Good dust collection; lack of vibration; handles placed just where you need them; and controls falling right under your fingertips; Actions happening smoothly, and without jerks; Lock nuts being winged or knurled and not requiring tools; a noise level that while perhaps not quiet, is not all rattle, squeak and screech; Not needing to use excess force and so on...
Where should I buy from?
Many tools are available from a wide range of sources including the big name DIY shops and catalogue shops like Argos, to the specialised independent tool supplier. There are a vast number of specialist online tool sellers, as well as the well known all things to all trades vendors like Screwfix and Toolstation.
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 usually 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, although it always pays to shop around.
There are cases where an average quality tool, purchased from an specialist retailer like Axminster or Rutlands, will offer some of the benefits and after sales care that usually only comes with much higher price tools.
The purchasing factors
Once you have bought and used a few tools, it often becomes apparent that there are several non-obvious factors that ought to be considered when purchasing, rather than just features of the product and its price.
For any given purchase you will need to weigh up these factors, since they may often be different for each tool you buy. Experienced DIY-ers will probably include at least the following:
- Tool features
- Purchase price
- Availability of spares and support
- Tool quality (and quality of results achievable with it)
- Total cost of ownership (factoring in your time to buy and maintain the tool, cost of spares etc)
- Comfort of use (not only ergonomic design, but also factors like weight, noise, vibration, effective dust collection)
- Speed of operation
- Size and Weight
- Availability of suppliers (and service where applicable)
- How much you anticipate the tool will be used
- How long you need it to last
- Brand image
Should I buy Mains or Cordless?
Over recent years the range of cordless (i.e. battery powered) tools available has exploded. And the move to modern battery technologies like Lithium-Ion has raised the baseline performance of even budget cordless tools.
There are now mains and cordless versions of nearly every power tool, although some have taken on a whole new life of versatility in their cordless variations like the cordless combi drill or the Impact Driver.
There was a time where the rule of thumb suggested that unless you particularly needed cordless, then buy mains, since they will be cheaper, and perform better. However this is no longer necessarily true now.
Cordless, Pros and Cons
- They tend to cost more if bought complete with batteries and charger
- They may deliver less power than a similar price / size mains tool
- Sometimes they are heavier
- They are far more portable and convenient
- More likely to get stolen
- Don't need a mains supply or extension lead
- Are safer to use in wet conditions (much harder to get a serious electric shock from an 18V battery!)
There is still a reasonable difference between the best and the worst examples of each tool. The worst can be a bit of a compromise all round, the best can be used as non- stop work horses.
Batteries and chargers
The biggest influence on the quality and usability of a cordless tool are its batteries and the charger. It is simply not possible to purchase really 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 them and still get useful performance from the tool. The better modern chargers have forced air cooling built in. This enables them to cool a hot battery before charging, and then keep it cooler while rapid charging. This helps extend the life of the battery packs, and is also more convenient for the user since you can take a "hot" battery off a tool that you have been working hard and slap it straight into the charger without any worry about damaging the battery.
Batteries will still need replacement eventually. With a budget tool this will usually be a non economic exercise even if the batteries are avilable separately, whilst with a higher end tool it may well be more expensive than you anticipate. (although watch out for special deals from the big retailers. You may often find a package deal with say a drill and impact driver, plus a couple of batteries and a charger, sold for not much more than the price of the two batteries on their own!)
Buying into a "Battery Platform"
These days many cordless tools are available "body only", i.e. the tool on its own without batteries or charger. These can make a lot of sense if you have settled on a particular battery platform (i.e. a particular voltage from a favoured manufacturer), and can then share a number of batteries and chargers between a collection of tools. The practice can dramatically reduce the cost of buying new tools, and also gives you a bigger collection of available batteries.
Battery capacity, or where bigger really is better!
A number you will see banded around with respect to batteries is the Amp Hour (AH) rating. Although this is only part of the story (the Watt/hour figure would be more useful), this number gives you an idea of much charge a battery of a given voltage can hold. The more charge it holds, the more work you can get out of it between recharges (but the longer it will take to charge). Battery quality tends to rise with capacity, so batteries with bigger capacities also tend to be better in other respects. (although watch out for the marketing BS on some cheap clone batteries... it is not uncommon to see claimed capacities that are higher than that of the highest capacity cells actually available!
Higher capacity batteries need to be matched with better and faster chargers, otherwise you will be waiting longer for them to charge.
A good quality battery pack should take recharging many hundreds of times before it no longer holding enough charge. Some of the poorer ones may only last for a hundred or fewer charges. Good ones will hold their charge longer when left unused, whilst a poor one may suffer faster "auto discharge" which causes them to lose charge in storage (Note this is far less of a problem with modern Li-Ion packs than with the older Ni-Cd or Ni-Mh tehchnologies).
The world has mostly moved to Li-Ion from the older Nickel Cadmium and Nickel Metal Hydride cells. Ni-Cd cells were phased out (mainly due to the toxicity of cadmium which makes safe disposal difficult). So any new tools is likely to be Li-Ion. Getting new batteries for older tools that were designed for NiCd and NiMh is getting harder, although you can sometimes find adaptors that will let you run an old tool from a modern battery. Note that you will need to take more care not to over discharge or overheat batteries with these adaptors, since the old tool may lack the extra sensors and communication paths between the tool and the Battery Management System that is built into most Li-Ion batteries.
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 as 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”.
Some brands have started offering much higher voltage battery systems (e.g. 36V/40V) for bigger higher power tools, while some have opted to use twin 18V batteries to achieve the same end result.
What about “Watts”?
Watts (W or kW) is the power consumption rating we are used to seeing on mains powered tools, but this quantity is not usually mentioned on cordless tools. Cordless tools are generally designed to be more efficient so as to keep the electrical power consumption low to conserve battery life, whilst providing an adequate mechanical output power. This is especially true with modern "Brushless" motors used in the better tools. This, however, makes for a small "Watts" figure that is not much use as a marketing hook!
With all mains equipment, including power tools, the Watt figure stated is the input power, but the mechanical output power is rarely given. By the time you have accounted for all the heat and noise generated, the useful output power may be much less. Thus a well designed tool with good speed control and a well made gearbox may produce the same usable power at the sharp end as a less well made tool with twice the input power.
You can make a stab at estimating the actual power of your cordless tool by studying its performance. A very high power cordless tool like an angle grinder may run for 10 minutes at full power. If the battery capacity is 3Ah. This tells you that the battery can deliver 3 amps for one hour, or 18 amps for 10 minutes (one sixth of an hour). We can work out the power consumption in Watts since Watts = Volts x Amps. So if this tool has an 18V battery, we would get 18V x 18A = 324W.