Buying a drill
January 30, 2021 9:40 AM   Subscribe

A minor home repair has pushed me to finally an old power drill that was never all that great to begin with and that I seem to have lost in a recent move. I'm seeking advice on getting a regular drill/driver, impact driver, hammer drill, or what.

The current project is minor -- our bifold closet door came off its track, and installing a new track means drilling four holes, and I don't want to drag our 50' extension cord into the hall just to get my corded drill there.

I'm stuck on Dewalt because I already have a circular saw and weedwacker that use their batteries (the 20V kind).

I was thinking of getting a regular cordless drill / driver. Based on price and the NYT reviews, I've been looking at the $99 DCD708C2 kit ("ATOMIC 20-Volt MAX Cordless Brushless Compact 1/2 in. Drill/Driver with (2) 20-Volt 1.3Ah Batteries, Charger & Bag," 2.4 lbs).

With two kids under five, I do maybe 35 total hours of DIY a year, and that includes tiny stuff like tightening door handle screws. But I do have aspirations!

The next project I would like to take on is a failing fence, so that would mean a lot of screws into wood. From what I read, an impact driver might be ideal for that, but the cordless drill above would still be fine. Right? (I currently don't understand why anyone aside from, like, drywall contractors would buy an impact driver -- what projects involve a ton of screwing and no drilling? Do impact drivers eliminate the need to drill?)

Then I realized that the other half of what I'd like to do involves the exterior of our stucco house, like swapping out the 1950s-style address numbers and installing a new doorbell ringer. That would require a hammer drill, right? Or for lightweight stuff like that, is another approach better like...glue? I'm seeing the entry level hammer drill for $179 with the full kit ("DCD709C2 ATOMIC 20-Volt MAX Lithium-Ion Cordless Brushless 1/2 in. Compact Hammer Drill Kit," 2.5 lbs).

Advice? Should I just buy the $99 drill for now? Should I just buy the entry level hammer drill figuring it'll take care of everything I might need to do for the next couple of years? I was originally expecting it to be a lot heavier, but at least on Home Depot's website, the weight looks similar. (Oddly, Amazon is listing the weights substantially heavier so who knows.)

Am I forgetting to consider anything? Weight and length were the main things I thought about. Also I read that brushless motors were better and thought the little LED light illuminating the screw would be nice.

My current preference around tool purchases is that I'd rather invest in one good tool that I can keep for a long time rather than two tools that will both break, so I'm also curious if I should go up a level in quality. But I assume that I'm already getting a bit of a step up by buying Dewalt? (Last time, I bought a Home Depot-brand tool multi-pack, and most of those tools didn't last long.)

Thanks for any advice!
posted by slidell to Home & Garden (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm more of a DIY-er than you, by the sound of it, and have owned many drills over the years, so I'll share what I've learned.

It is sensible to choose a tool that you already have batteries for - it avoids an extra charger, and gives you spare batteries. If you don't go with a battery-compatible drill, then one that comes with two batteries is going to avoid those times (like the fence job) where you'd otherwise have to charge and wait. 18V is the minimum voltage I'd look for - anything below is going to be underpowered.

Hammer action is a must for me, as our walls are brick. It doesn't add any noticeable weight to a drill really, which is probably why they've become standard fare. Brushless motors are allegedly a good thing, although my old Hitachi drills (with brushes) are still better drills than the similarly-priced Einhell brushless one I picked up last year. How individual drills behave at low/fast speeds is quite variable anyway. I liked my old Hitachi so much I bought two more used when I spotted them on a local selling page.
posted by pipeski at 9:54 AM on January 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

that would mean a lot of screws into wood. From what I read, an impact driver might be ideal for that, but the cordless drill above would still be fine. Right?

Partially right.

Impact drivers are not good for driving screws into wood. What you need for that is a plain drill with a torque-limiting friction clutch. The issue with using a drill to drive screws into wood is usually that the drill has too much torque, not too little, so it's easy to over-drive the screw which makes an ugly screwhead crater in softwood or snaps the screwhead off in hardwood.

If your drill doesn't have enough torque to drive in a screw, the screw is too big to drive without drilling a pilot hole first, which you should generally do anyway to avoid the wood splitting unless you're driving really thin, really sharp screws like drywall screws into softwood studs. All an impact driver is going to do is help the screwdriver bit rattle its way out of the screwhead.

Impact drivers are good for applying huge amounts of instantaneous torque to socket bits, for doing stuff like getting over-tightened lug nuts off when you're changing a wheel on your car, or loosening rusted-in bolts.

Hammer drills are for use with tungsten carbide tipped drill bits for drilling into masonry. Consumer-grade hammer drills tend to be a bit wimpy for this job, though. If you've got a lot of masonry drilling to do you're probably better off hiring a decent mains-powered rotary hammer.

If what you intend to work with is wood and metals, or panel materials fixed back to wood or metals, a decent quality non-impact, non-hammer drill will be fine. And given that you already have DeWalt batteries, a $99 DeWalt that can make use of those seems like a sound choice to me. I don't think you'll wear that out making a fence.

Brushed vs brushless: meh. In a $99 tool you'll probably break the gearbox before you wear out the brushes.
posted by flabdablet at 10:00 AM on January 30, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: AvE is a very rude man whose tool reviews are the best I've seen.
posted by flabdablet at 10:06 AM on January 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

I am an excessive DIY-er for many years now who works on big projects. Almost all of those Dewalt / Hitachi / etc etc drills will be fine. I actually have the Ryobi One+ 18V stuff now which I was a little dubious about, but my last drill (Milwaukee) broke way too soon and I needed something ASAP and it's what the store had, so I got it. Before that I had a Dewalt for ~15 years. A few small comments:

Regular drill / driver: 95% of the time I use this. Hammer drill: 5% of the time I use this, but I have a stone house with a block basement. Of the time I use the hammer drill most, of the time I use the "hammer drill light" function on my cordless drill, which is fine for block and stuff (as pipeski says above). If I'm working on the granite stones for the outside of the house I bring out the big corded one. Impact driver: I can count on one hand the amount of times I've used it - tire lug nuts, and taking out some big 3" hex head lag bolts. You don't need one.

If I were to get one thing, it would be a single drill/driver with a hammer drill function (stucco is a bit unclear - I've lived in stucco-over-metal-lath-over wood houses before, but I'd err on the side of caution and get a hammer drill), and 2 batteries.
posted by true at 10:09 AM on January 30, 2021

Buy the regular drill - it's a thing you'll find many uses for. If you need a hammer drill for a specialized job that you'll only do once, just rent a big-ass one for the day from Home Depot.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 10:12 AM on January 30, 2021

Great advice here already. I'd try and go Dewalt with matching batteries to what you already use. The regular drill should be fine, but you may well see it sold in a combo with the impact for not too much more. That's how I ended up with mine.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:17 AM on January 30, 2021

I'm going to slightly disagree w/flabdablet (unusual): cordless impact drivers are great for driving larger fasteners like lag bolts, #14 screws and similar into wood, because they won't put as much strain on your hands & wrists. They also seem to make it easier to avoid having Philips bits cam out and destroy the heads of screws. If you're going to drive a lot of non-tiny fasteners that require pilot holes then it can be nice to have both a drill and and an impact driver so that you're not constantly swapping the drill bit for the driver bit.

I agree on the rest of it, though. A clutch is critical for smaller fasteners, and the impact won't have one. The hammer drill option on a typical cordless is handy for drilling into masonry with smaller-diameter carbide bits, but won't serve for larger holes, where you'll be vastly happier with a big corded SDS model.
posted by jon1270 at 10:18 AM on January 30, 2021

Response by poster: I'm hearing three votes for the $99 one and one vote for the $179.

Back to my goal of hanging up new address numbers and a new mailbox in the exterior stucco: think a regular drill with the right bit could handle things like that? If not, it'd be worth the $80 extra, if there are no downsides in terms of the basic function as a drill and driver. Is the rest of the way that the drills work basically similar - i.e., is the hammering a function that you turn on and off, or does it make basic drilling and screwing more unwieldy? I assume I don't want the hammer drill banging away on the tiny screw for the doorknob or whatever other light-duty task.
posted by slidell at 10:26 AM on January 30, 2021

Response by poster: And thank you for all the advice so far!
posted by slidell at 10:26 AM on January 30, 2021

Best answer: Yes, you can switch the hammering action off. For just a couple of small projects involving few small holes in masonry, a non-hammer drill can get the job done as long as you use a newish carbide-tipped masonry drill bit. The drilling will be slower, less tolerant of worn bits, and will shorten the life of the bit, though, so if you're going to drill small holes (~1/4" or smaller) in masonry on the regular then consider the cordless hammer drill.
posted by jon1270 at 10:39 AM on January 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

I use dewalt as my main cordless system, and have for 20 years. Their products are terrific and that $99 drill should be FINE for most everything you need. If you find you really need the impact driver (I use both drill and impact driver all the time) you can buy just the tool and use your existing battery/charger for it.
jon1270 is right about lag bolts. Ultimately I think you'll be very happy with both a regular drill AND an impact driver, but just get the drill for now. Adding the driver later is easy.
posted by asavage at 10:39 AM on January 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

To give you an idea of where I'm coming from, my current cordless drill is a non-hammer 18V Worx brand drill that was the cheapest one in Bunnings on the day that I needed one. It's had reasonably frequent DIY type home use over ten years, including a few episodes of being pushed way too hard to get long lag bolts into hardwood fence posts without pilot holes; stalled it a few times, which is really bad for what I suspect is a plastic gearbox. It's probably not as good as your $99 DeWalt. Once you get to 18V or over, today's cordless appliances really are pretty amazing value for money.

I will defer to jon1270 on the benefits of impact drivers for hands and wrists; I've never personally used one to drive screws because I've never thought of them as the right tool for that job. I will say, though, that the only time I've ever felt strain on my wrists driving screws with my non-impact drill was those long lag bolts that I really really should have drilled pilot holes for.

Once you do have a pilot hole, scraping your lag bolts on a cake of soap to get some dry soap stuck in the threads makes them go in way easier as well, saving wear and tear on both your wrists and your drill.
posted by flabdablet at 10:42 AM on January 30, 2021

Some tangential advice, as I'm a Makita[*] person:
- as already mentioned, getting a drill that can take the batteries for the gear you already have is the prudent thing.
- an 18V hammer drill can deal with putting holes in masonry up to 8mm (5/16"), 6mm (1/4") for hanging your street number sign and your doorbell is totally no problem.
- a hammer drill and a lighter non-hammer drill/screwdriver are preferable over a single machine to do it all.
- GET QUALITY DRILLS AND SCREW BITS. Especially when dealing with Phillips, as those were designed to cam out because back when fastening tools just did not have torque limiting clutches. Select the right size bit, and a damaged Phillips bit should be tossed.
- For new constructions, strongly consider using Torx head screws. They don't cam out, and the bit holds them quite well so you can handle the machine using one hand only if you need to.

[*] concerning cordless tools, that is. A hammer drill, a non-hammer drill/screwdriver, a jigsaw, angle grinder and a recipro saw. Also a coffee maker. Plus, also Makita, a smaller 10.8V cordless screwdriver, which is still powerful enough to poke holes in wood and light masonry, but doesn't strain your muscles when working over your head. For bigger holes there are the appropriate Metabo SDS-Plus and SDS-Max impact drills.
posted by Stoneshop at 11:06 AM on January 30, 2021

For new constructions, strongly consider using Torx head screws

Robertson heads work well too.
posted by flabdablet at 11:55 AM on January 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

Here is a good YT video from an experienced contractor about the differences, pros and cons of impact drivers versus drill drivers:

His opinion seems to be that impact drivers are best for putting in screws.
posted by slkinsey at 1:11 PM on January 30, 2021

I agree with him that impact drivers are a very easy tool with which to break screws or make their heads burrow deep into the wood. I am less sure that making either of those things easy is a good thing. Most of his other points are well made.
posted by flabdablet at 1:33 PM on January 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

Another vote for the brushless drill driver. Sticking with the same batteries means you don't have to get the full kit - you can find 'tool only' for very reasonable prices, so you can get a nicer model for your budget, and use that money to buy a larger battery that will be more useful for your other tools. I currently have a Dewalt hammer drill and it is important to note that it is much larger and heavier than the regular drill/drivers.

The hammer drill has served me well for years and years, but when I replace it I will not be getting another cordless hammer drill. When ever I found myself actually needing a hammer drill my DeWalt made it a real chore - and sometimes wasn't up to the task. A corded version isn't expensive, especially considering a proper hammer bit is $$.

I also labeled my batteries and primarily used just one, which after years of use finally gave out but I still have others that are relatively useful.
posted by zenon at 2:07 PM on January 30, 2021

Response by poster: Just FYI, I've pretty much taken the impact driver option off the table, just debating between a regular drill and occasionally misusing it on the stucco vs paying an extra $80 for the hammer drill. (But the impact driver discussion is interesting nonetheless.)

I appreciate all the help. That video was interesting, too. He says hammer drills are pointless, but even having heard what he said, I think "I rarely drill small holes in stucco" might still be a use case that makes sense.

zenon, I think that in the two options I'm looking at, the hammer drill is only 0.1 lbs heavier? Otherwise I'd definitely go with the regular drill/driver. I'm starting to think it just comes down to whether the hammering function is worth $80 to me.

Thanks again, all!
posted by slidell at 2:14 PM on January 30, 2021

Best answer: A masonry bit with a tungsten carbide tip insert should grind through stucco without difficulty even with a non-hammer drill, so the real issue is what's behind the stucco. If it's stucco over masonry then a non-hammer drill will be slow and frustrating and probably wear out a masonry bit in less than ten holes. If it's stucco over wood, using a masonry bit to drill through the stucco and then finishing with a high speed steel twist drill for the wood could be easily done without hammer.

Best case, your new doorbell ringer is a wireless type that doesn't actually need a hole put through the wall, in which case yes, construction glue should be fine for that as well as for your replacement house numbers.
posted by flabdablet at 2:24 PM on January 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

If the stucco is at least 3/4" thick then you can mount house numbers with small screws even if you don't drill any deeper than the stucco itself. Drill a couple of 5/16" holes into the stucco, fill them with JB Weld, let the JB Weld cure, then drill 3/32" holes into the cured JB Weld to take the number fixing screws.
posted by flabdablet at 2:29 PM on January 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If it can wait until father's day time period, the big box stores have tons of deals on tools like this in june. I picked up a drill + impact driver set for like half price.
posted by TheAdamist at 3:46 PM on January 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

I would go with the hammer drill, but that's just me. I find it useful for both masonry and drywall, a lot of household stuff like putting up shelves, plumbing an outside tap, fitting a new outside light, and so on. I rarely need anything other than one size of masonry bit, as most jobs involve putting in plugs for screws. I suppose 20% of my use of the drill is for masonry, so it's a handy option to have.

I wouldn't want an impact driver; maybe if I did my own car mechanics, I would.
posted by pipeski at 4:10 PM on January 30, 2021

Best answer: If you honestly need a hammer drill you can do what I did: buy a hammer drill afterward. Almost 100% of what I needed to do was served by a battery drill/driver (not impact, not hammer; also not expensive); and at the point I needed a hammer drill I went and got a cheap mains powered one at Harbor Freight. Mains drills have a lot more power than any battery drill I've found and drilling concrete or (thick) stone is precisely when you appreciate it. (Stucco is probably not thick or hard enough to really need the hammer action, but as you can see you can try with a battery drill and you have a fallback option.)

Don't think I came close to $179 for the pair. To give you an idea why: they're currently listing a perfectly reasonable mains hammer drill for $30. It's probably terrible in the grand scheme of things, but it will outlast my need for it and it makes holes.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 5:27 PM on January 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'd like to offer a counterpoint to all this. Don't get a battery drill. If you only use it infrequently, you'll have to replace the batteries on about the second use. It'll be cheaper to buy a new drill. It won't be convenient, because every time you go to use it the batteries will be flat.
Thrift shops are full of old cordless power tools. Once the batteries die they're a liability.
If you're a tradesman the convenience may make it worth buying a tool with a useful life of maybe two years, regardless of whether you use it or not.
I have several ancient corded electric drills. One is at least seventy years old. I can plug it in and use it as though it was new, because it basically is. My orange Black & Decker drill has been through a fire and a flood. It's still perfect. My much newer cordless drill, which I dearly love, has been through three batteries and needs another.
A keyless chuck is a wonderful, time saving thing. Batteries are a huge waste of time and money and resources. I avoid them like the plague. How long does it take to plug in a drill?
posted by AugustusCrunch at 9:33 PM on January 30, 2021

If you only use it infrequently, you'll have to replace the batteries on about the second use. It'll be cheaper to buy a new drill. It won't be convenient, because every time you go to use it the batteries will be flat.

That was certainly my experience with my previous cordless drill, a 7.2V nickel-cadmium Makita that only came with one battery pack. It hasn't been at all the case with the far cheaper 18V lithium-ion Worx drill, which came with two.

The LiIon batteries charge very fast - half an hour from empty - and there's always been enough life in the battery that isn't in the drill to cover the charging time of the one that is, even if it does does go flat quickly after starting a session, which in fact it doesn't do very often. Lithium-ion batteries are pretty amazing.

And apart from the convenience of not having to organize long extension cords whenever I do outdoor jobs, it's also been nice to be able to work with a hand tool that doesn't have a cord dragging behind it.

My hammer drills have all been mains powered, though. Again, I've bought the cheapest nastiest ones the store had on the day I needed them first. Over the last twenty years I think I've spent maybe $50 acquiring two hammer drills; the masonry bits I've worn out with them have cost me more. Generic Chinese tool engineering is pretty amazing these days as well.

If you're not a contractor and not using these things for many hours every single working day, there really isn't any point to spending big on products engineered for that use case.
posted by flabdablet at 10:10 PM on January 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

I'd like to offer a counterpoint to all this. Don't get a battery drill. If you only use it infrequently, you'll have to replace the batteries on about the second use. It'll be cheaper to buy a new drill. It won't be convenient, because every time you go to use it the batteries will be flat.

Nonsense. Maybe with NiCad and NiMH batteries as those self-discharge over time and degrade markedly when improperly charged, but even back then I got years of use out of cordless drills that weren't bargain bin 'specials'. Currently, with Li-Ion packs it's just ceased to be a problem. I still have 10 year old packs in use, and there are times I use cordless tools often and prolonged although they can occasionally sit unused for months. And where cheap NiCad and NiMH chargers could be no more than a wall-wart and a holder for the battery with a little light on it, no smarts and relentlessly overcharging the pack (the best way to destroy it), Li-Ion batteries NEEDS smarts as otherwise they go up in flames. So all Li-Ion chargers charge at the proper rate and stop when the batteries are full. Battery packs contain protection circuitry. Which also means that you can have packs sitting on the charger until you need the drill/jigsaw/whatever, placing them back when you're done.

Note that the Asker already has cordless devices, with no word of battery problems. Also, as already mentioned a couple of times, the convenience of not having to run an extension cord for just a minor job is well worth it in itself.
posted by Stoneshop at 1:04 AM on January 31, 2021 [4 favorites]

If you're going to drive a lot of non-tiny fasteners that require pilot holes then it can be nice to have both a drill and and an impact driver so that you're not constantly swapping the drill bit for the driver bit.

I know you may have already dropped the driver idea, but I wanted to emphasize this bit from jon1270 above. Not having to swap is great! (Especially if you're like me and do pilot holes for pretty much everything.)
posted by inexorably_forward at 2:10 AM on January 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

Picking up and swapping in a quick change bit is about as fast as putting down a hand tool and picking up another. Can even be faster if you keep the unused one on a magnet epoxied to the drill casing.
posted by flabdablet at 2:45 AM on January 31, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks all! I was on the fence a long time but ended up getting the $99 drill. I marked best answers based on whatever helped a decision click for my brain (and may unmark later because it felt a little idiosyncratic and everything was helpful). But you guys got me thinking about all the other tools that the extra $70 could go to, including when things go on sale later this year, or right now. (I'm currently thinking of blowing half on hearing protection earmuffs with bluetooth.) Plus the guy from that video that flabdablet linked got in my head. Anyhow I debated a lot and also really appreciated those who said that the hammer drill does everything they need from top to bottom and was tempted by that, but in the end figured I'd save the money, get a little bit of DIY momentum, and then see what I need (if anything). Thanks again!
posted by slidell at 3:54 PM on January 31, 2021

I sold a corded drill when I got a cordless, then bought another corded drill when the (ridiculously shaped) battery eventually died. It's a simpler tool, but it's consistent, and it takes up much less space. Thirding that pilot holes are the way to go, and make it much less important what you're using to screw in your screws.
posted by rhizome at 9:40 PM on January 31, 2021

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