Cordless tools that make repetitive tasks easier have been around for many years, and as the technology has improved, the tools have became lighter, smaller and more powerful. The negative aspect to battery powered tools has always been the bulk of the battery and its limited storage capacity. The first series of nickel cadmium (NiCd) batteries held enough of a charge to make cordless tools viable when work needed to be done away from a source of power, such as on a construction site, but these tools were expensive, and the batteries heavy. The battery life of the early tools was often disappointing and they could take up to eight hours to fully recharge.
With improvements in battery technology came new battery types and sizes. The voltages kept climbing and the drills kept growing in size and power, which made them ideal for heavy drilling and driving on a job site, but less desirable for repetitive use in workshop environment. It doesn’t make sense to use your largest framing hammer to drive brad nails into trim, and using an 18 or 24 Volt drill for driving screws is an equal amount of overkill. With the introduction of new Lithiumion battery technology, companies have been scrambling to get new smaller cordless screwdrivers onto the market.
The new lithium-ion batteries offer two distinct advantages over the older battery technology. The first is that they have a longer shelf life when charged. We’ve all been there; we put the drill/driver aside fully charged, but after sitting on a shelf for a month or two, when we next reach for it, the charge has faded and the drill is dead. Lithium-ion batteries will hold their charge for a much longer time when the tool is sitting unused on a shelf. For those that are not heavy users of their tools, this can be a very important feature. The second advantage is that the lithium-ion technology holds a greater density of energy in the same size battery package. This means a bigger bang in a smaller package, making smaller, lighter tools that would not have been possible before. Two of these screwdrivers weigh a mere .7 pounds (Skil, Triton), with the DeWalt topping out at 3.5 pounds.
With these tools, the ‘high tech’ is in the battery; the rest of the tool is actually very basic. All these models employ lithium-ion batteries except the King (NiMH) and Makita (NiCd). These screwdrivers are not meant for heavy duty drilling or other forceful work, they are primarily designed to drive screws, and most do this very well. Some of these cordless screwdrivers are very basic units with nothing more than a battery, trigger, direction switch, motor and bit holder while others have added some extra bells and whistles.
A wide range of voltages are available from the various manufacturers, from a low of 3.6 Volts for the Black & Decker LI3000, Hitachi and Triton models to the Bosch which packs a whopping 10.8 Volt battery pack. Generally, as the voltage goes up, so does the power of the screwdriver. The small 3.6 Volt models are incapable of driving larger screws and lag screws into harder material while this isn’t much of a challenge for the B&D VPX, Bosch, DeWalt and Dremel models.
The batteries in these screwdrivers, except the B&D VPX, Bosch, DeWalt, Hitachi, and Milwaukee are non-removable; to recharge them you plug a wall mount transformer into a jack on the screwdriver. The others have removable batteries that must be removed and placed on a charger. The benefit of a removable battery is that you can keep a spare on hand ready to go; this would be particularly handy in a busy workshop. Only the Bosch and Hitachi models come with two batteries. The Milwaukee and Skil have a convenient built-in battery gauge, which lets you know when it’s time to ‘plug in’.
Some of these models offer a single speed (B&D LI3000, Craftsman, King and Triton), typically running at 200 RPM. The B&D VPX, Hitachi and Milwaukee offer dual speeds of around 200 RPM and 600 RPM, while the Bosch, DeWalt, and Dremel offer variable speeds (0 up to 500 RPM). All of these models will cover most of your screw driving needs, particularly if you are driving small screws (say 1 ½” or under).
When drilling small holes, or setting screws without a pilot hole a variable speed driver affords more control. If you find yourself relying on a clutch when driving screws you will pretty well need to look at one of the higher end models as apart from the Craftsman, those under $100 generally don’t have this feature.
The compact size of these tools makes it possible to work in tight spaces where other tools simply can’t go. There are two main handle styles: pistol grip (B&D LI3000 and VPX, Bosch, Dremel, King, Skil, Triton) and barrel type (Craftsman, DeWalt, Hitachi, Makita, and Milwaukee). The pistol grip, which resembles its larger drill/driver cousins, is naturally a little smaller in size and makes a much better fit for smaller hands. The barrel style is long and cylindrical. This allows it to reach into deep narrow openings when required, but the added length can be a hindrance in other situations. To overcome this, these units have a knuckle in the center, which allows them to be folded into a pistol grip when a shorter profile is needed. The addition of a collet lock makes it possible to use some of these to finish driving a screw the last little bit by hand.
As with all tools, ergonomics are important. Some of these, like the Dremel and Triton have a comfortable fit for smaller hands, while others, like the Bosch and DeWalt are larger and more robust and would fit more comfortably in a larger hand: try them out before you buy to find one with a comfortable fit for your hand.
While all the models are reversible, some (like the Bosch, Dremel, Hitachi and Triton) have a spindle lock, which keeps the spindle from moving so that you can use the driver manually as a hand screwdriver. This is particularly handy when you start setting a screw or when you want to do a bit of final tightening, as is often the case when installing hinges.
If you will be working inside dark cabinets or in other poorly lit spaces, consider purchasing a model that has an LED to illuminate the work area (Craftsman, Hitachi, King, Skil). Instead of leaning into a cabinet holding a driver and a flashlight to see where you are going to place the screw, the LED provides plenty of light to locate a screw accurately in a dark cabinet interior.
All these models accept standard ¼” hexagonal drive bits. Some come with a few drive bits, others with the whole enchilada: bits, bit holders and carrying case. A range of inexpensive accessories are available, including standard bits in an assortment of sizes and styles, socket drives, centering bits, and hex shanked drill bits and countersinks. While two models still come with one year warranties (Craftsman, Makita) the bulk offer at least a two year warranty, with Hitachi and Milwaukee offering five year warranties.
These small powered screwdrivers really shine when you have multiple screws to drive. Installing a kitchen full of drawer slides and door and drawer pulls with a manual screwdriver can leave your wrist numb and aching; using one of these can lessen the risk of a repetitive strain injury in this type of situation. People with arthritis and joint problems will find these little tools especially handy for routine work around the house. The compact size of these make it easy to drive screws in hard to reach areas where it would be difficult to start and drive a screw with a larger drill or a manual driver, such as when installing drawer slides in a cavity. If you have a young woodworker that likes to visit you in the shop, these screwdrivers are a great gift. Imagine their thrill when they can have a real cordless drill, just like dad.
Note: Prices listed in this review were correct at time of printing, but may not reflect current prices. See links/retailer for updated prices.
Carl Duguay - [email protected]
Carl is a Victoria-based furniture maker and the web editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.