Can you break my power tool purchase gridlock?
February 15, 2021 10:11 AM   Subscribe

I'm doing that thing where I fail to purchase a thing because I get completely bogged down deciding among the options. In this case, the thing in question is a cordless power tool set. Anyone want to tell me, "Just buy this one?" What tools are really worth owning for someone about my speed?

I'm a homeowner. The only power tool I own is a drill. Its batteries are shot. It's old and outdated enough that I wonder if I should take the money I’d have to spend on replacement batteries and put it towards a new drill, instead. As long as I'm getting that, I'm thinking about whether to get a set with one or more other tools that share the same batteries. Including...

A saw:
- I've used a borrowed circ saw a couple of times, and I suspect that's what I really oughta use for the kinds of tasks I'd do. But, I find them intimidating, and that would be a barrier to frequent use.
- We have a little folding handsaw that we use a lot around the yard. So if we had a reciprocating saw, I know it'd get used. And they're so approachable! I could just grab it and use it! Maybe I could use it to cut stuff that I really oughta use a circ saw for?
- Or I could get both.
- Or a jigsaw as the best/worst of both worlds -- less intimidating than a circ saw and more fit-for-purpose than a reciprocating saw?
- Or screw all of this and just get my wood cut at Home Depot? (But they don't do angle cuts.)

A sander: While I'm at it, maybe I should get a sander, too?

So I'm waffling anywhere between "just buy an $18 replacement drill battery" and "spend hundreds on a combo kit." Part of the problem is that I'm not sure about my uses. I wasn't sure when I bought my drill decades ago, and it's gotten plenty of use, so maybe that's ok? In addition to emergent, around-the-house tasks, here are some things I think I might make... I don't think this is going to become a primary hobby, so if these do happen, it would be very gradually as my skills increase over time:
- A cage for a blueberry bush
- A simple firewood shelter (maybe with a pallet floor)
- Wall-mounted cat climber-upper and scratcher and lounger things
- A window insert with purchased cat door leading to a very minimal, very small catio
- Some kind of shoe-shelf/bench/coat rack for our entry area (but this may stay beyond my abilities)
- Furniture upcycling? But I'm not ready to spend on tools just for that -- it's more that if I had them, I'd use them for that, too.

I'm frugal -- I don't like owning things I don't need, or spending more on high-end versions when the basic version would serve me fine. So if I knew *which* tools to get, I'd probably just go for whichever 4.5-5 star combo kit at Home Depot has those tools for the lowest price. But that's partly because I don't know specific characteristics worth getting or avoiding (e.g., 18v vs. 20v, amps, various usability features...), so I'd love to know if I should get a different one instead. E.g., Here's a Black & Decker drill/driver, jigsaw, and sander for $99. Is that what I should get?

I know this is a lot, so if there's one part I'd prioritize, it's this: What power tools are really worth owning for someone about my speed?
posted by daisyace to Shopping (42 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You can rent tools from Home Depot, ya know...
posted by kschang at 10:23 AM on February 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

... and there may be a local tool library in your area.
posted by aniola at 10:26 AM on February 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

The Wirecutter has a great rundown on the gear that should be in everyone's basic toolkit, including recommendations for a drill and a bit set and a very strong recommendation for a hand saw. This might not answer your question about specific power tools, but maybe could redirect your focus to getting a really good basic assembly of tools...?
posted by Sublimity at 10:27 AM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks! I have decent hand tools, there's not a good tool library local enough to me, and for things I'd use at least a few times, I think buying would come out better than renting while also not saddling me with time constraints.
posted by daisyace at 10:34 AM on February 15, 2021

Best answer: 18v and 20v are effectively the same in this context. I’d get a Dewalt drill and driver that under household use and decent battery hygiene should be BIFL, especially if you spring for brushless. Add on tools as you need them unless there’s some kind of “get X free when you buy Y” special (there frequently are). “Bare tools” (without batteries) tend to be pretty inexpensive. Don’t fall into the trap of “oh I’ll find a use for that” to get a bigger combo set.

Jigsaw isn’t a replacement for circular saw, you’ll find that to be pretty frustrating the first time you try to rip a piece of plywood or even crosscut a 2x4. (It also seems less dangerous but IMO is way more likely to cause injuries, albeit more minor.) Reciprocating saw for any woodworking is asking for pain (physical and emotional). Also more dangerous than a circular saw. I think you should force yourself to use the circular saw and get comfortable with it. Pick and project and start it under the supervision of a handy friend; it’s entirely possible your discomfort is based in technique or a poorly-balanced saw; good ones should be super stable.
posted by supercres at 10:40 AM on February 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I agree, if you want to cut wood and a good handsaw with miter box won't cut it, then get a circular saw perhaps with miter box, some sawhorses, and clamps if you don't already have them. That will get you 99% of the way there. Neither a reciprocating saw nor a jigsaw replace a circular saw.

Reciprocating saws are good when you want to do deeper cuts through multiple materials, like quickly demolishing a set of kitchen cabinets. IMO not a good replacement for a circular saw.
posted by muddgirl at 10:44 AM on February 15, 2021

Best answer: You're going to get a lot of different answers and everyone is going to recommend the brand they own, because for the most part one is as good as the other. My brand is Makita. I love my Makita.

I would avoid buying a set. Most of the combo sets I see come with things like a flashlight that isn't as good as your basic AAA flashlight you can buy for $5.00. Reciprocating saws are useful if you're doing demolition but not great for most other things.

Circular saws are very useful if you're cutting plywood. An 18v cordless one is good enough to go through a sheet of 3/4" or a 2x4. Jigsaws are less accurate but great for cutting curves if that's what you want. You generally wouldn't want to use a jigsaw for cutting through 2x material. There's some crossover between jigsaws and circular saws but for the most part they have different uses.

A random orbital sander is useful if you build stuff out of wood. Whether you're doing fine woodworking or building a sandbox out of 2x material, it has a lot of uses. Buy plenty of disks for it.

Generally the rule with tools is buy them when you need them.

Here is what I would buy if I were you:

I suggest Mikata. Someone else will tell you why their brand is better. They are neither right nor wrong. Aside from the really cheapo Harbor Freight stuff, most of them have the same features. The key is to STICK WITH ONE BRAND so that you can swap out the batteries. Be careful because there are different battery types even between brands.

A cordless drill/driver combo set. You can drive screws in with a drill but an impact driver is SO MUCH BETTER for driving screws. Also this way you have the drill for drilling pilot holes and you don't have to change the bit every time you want to drive a screw.

A circular saw. You probably won't use this much and not in the places you'd use a drill/driver so go ahead and save some money and just buy a basic corded model.

A jigsaw. Either a cordless that uses the same type of battery as your drill or a less-expensive corded tool. Again, you're not going to be using it as much or in out of the way places so corded is fine and might have more power.

With a jigsaw and a circular saw you can cut through most things. While you're at the hardware store pick up an 8 foot aluminum bar to use as a straight edge.

A cordless sander. Corded is fine but with cordless you can just whip it out whenever you need it. This can mean the difference between sanding something and deciding it's not worth the trouble to sand something.

That B&D set you linked doesn't look very good. The drill and the jigsaw look useful but the batteries look very small and I wouldn't expect them to have much power or last very long. The flashlight looks mostly useless. The sander is a corner type sander that isn't really good for much beyond sanding the edges of things.

Keep in mind I'm someone who prefers to spend more for good tools that will last me forever. I get that other people prefer to spend less money for "good enough" tools. It's really just a matter of preference.

I don't know if you're still semi-local to me but I have an old B&D corded jigsaw I've been meaning to put on the free stuff facebook group. You can have it if you want it.
posted by bondcliff at 10:47 AM on February 15, 2021 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I agree with supercres about the circular. A jigsaw is not a replacement. I get a ton of use out of my compound miter saw (power, not box) and based on your project list I think that you would too, plus you may feel more comfortable using it than you would a circular.

I've had good luck getting brand new tools for cheap by looking for "open box" listings on eBay.
posted by mezzanayne at 10:47 AM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh, and circular saws can be intimidating but you get used to them. Learn about kickback and how to avoid it, which is what cases most of your problems.
posted by bondcliff at 10:50 AM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Also also, if you buy a cordless drill that comes with a battery and charger, and then you buy an extra battery (or two), you can then buy the bare tools on Amazon that don't come with batteries. They are much cheaper and the batteries charge very quickly so you can have more tools than you have batteries and almost never have to wait to charge something.
posted by bondcliff at 10:55 AM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

It's not bad to buy a battery-powered drill and small set of drill bits. Maybe a battery-powered screwdriver too (but this often leads to stripped screws so be careful using it). This is what I have, but any of the other brand suggestions in these comments are equally good.

Other than that, don't buy any power tool you haven't rented first. Once you rent a thing a couple times, you might decide to buy it - and you'll be more confident about the purchase decision.
posted by splitpeasoup at 10:57 AM on February 15, 2021

Came here to drop knowledge. Found that bondcliff pretty much has the same experience as I do. So +1 there.

In terms of picking tool colors/brands, Harbor Freight for anything you want to use once and only once, pick a color for your cordless ecosystem, and otherwise buy what's on sale for corded. If you have money to burn, buy Festool.
posted by bfranklin at 11:04 AM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

FWIW, I found that a speedsquare (a metal triangle that you hold flush to the top of the wood) is a great thing to have with a circular saw- it helps you cut straight lines on stuff like 2x4s, in a controlled fashion. A decent black & decker workmate and a speedsquare is a great combo for getting comfortable with the tool and getting good results.
posted by jenkinsEar at 11:07 AM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Circular saws are useful if your jobs are mostly cutting sheet materials. You can make them a lot less scary by always adjusting the cutting depth before use. They're best used with a makeshift fence clamped to the workpiece. You don't do freehand cuts with a circular saw.

Jigsaws seem versatile, but they're not great at cutting straight in any plane. You can do long straight cuts using a fence, but often the blade will end up bend off-vertical if you don't cut really carefully and slowly. If you've ever had a jigsaw blade jam while the rest of the tool throws itself up off the workpiece, you'll know they can be scary tools too.

Like mezzanayne, I get most use from my compound mitre saw - mine's a sliding one, which allows for wider cuts. It's a mid-range German model, and wasn't expensive. When you have jobs that involve floorboards, trim, decking or any other task where you're cutting lots of things to length, it's a game-changer. I loan it out a lot.

Drill-wise, modern batteries are an order of magnitude better than the old NiCd or NiMH batteries. Make sure you have more batteries than tools. I bought a fairly basic 18V Hitachi drill maybe 10 years ago. The battery is still good, and I like it so much I jumped at the chance when two more of the same drill came up on a local selling group a few months back. Brushed or brushless motor doesn't make a massive difference, but you want a drill with a nice steady variable speed control. I think there was a previous Ask where drills and impact drivers were discussed in a lot of detail (I'm in the camp who have never found an impact driver useful).

Nth-ing not bothering with the reciprocating saw. They're fine for garden work or destructive things, not good at all for anything requiring a clean edge or a straight line.
posted by pipeski at 11:13 AM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'll second Bondcliff's suggestion that you not buy a set. Pick an ecosystem with a range of consistently well-reviewed cordless tools, and buy individual tools as needed. Festool is the Cadillac brand that nobody really needs. Makita, DeWalt and Bosch are all really solid choices for high-quality tools, with Ridgid ranging from just-as-good to maybe a half-step down. Ryobi is going to be a full step down, but generally good enough for occasional use / homeowner situations. Anything from Harbor Freight or the 1001 unknown brands that rise and fall every week on Amazon should be regarded as disposable.

Not everything needs to be cordless. Cordless tools that draw a lot of current will blow through batteries at an annoying rate. Corded tools tend to be lighter and more powerful, to last longer, and never need battery replacements, and because they don't share batteries you can buy best-in-class rather than confining yourself to an ecosystem.
posted by jon1270 at 11:33 AM on February 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Harbor Freight for anything you want to use once and only once

Harbor Freight gets somewhat of a bad rap; their tool quality scales with price just like everywhere else and even the cheap stuff can still last a long time with proper maintenance if you read the manual. They also have a pretty good 90-day 'no questions asked' return window for most things, and a lifetime warranty for hand tools, if you have problems. My process is that if I buy the cheap one and use enough that I break it or wear it out, then I buy a studier one; if it doesn't break, hey, cheap useful tool.

The "chop" saw -- electric compound miter saw -- is the best option if you need to cut boards to length ("crosscut") . I would get one of these before a circular saw, as others mentioned a circular saw is more for long straight cuts, like a table saw; a miter saw replaces your biceps with a hand-saw, and is less likely to kick or bind (or go diagonally) compared to cutting a 2x4 to length with a circular saw. They can be big and difficult to move around, though, and more expensive than a handheld circ saw. It's way less intimidating, as long as you keep your hand out from the blade's path, it's tough to risk injury. All of your 'future projects' seem to have a need for crosscut saws, and this would do the trick more than a circular saw.

I wouldn't get that go-kit, though; the drill is probably the most useful part. There's a 20v B&D cordless drill for around $60 that we have two of and they work great.
posted by AzraelBrown at 11:37 AM on February 15, 2021

Response by poster: This is already super-helpful! Here are my take-aways so far:
- I can't just sub in a smaller, less scary-looking thing for a circ saw's jobs. A circ saw (or even better a miter saw) is my next priority after a drill/driver, and I don't need a reciprocating saw.
- A sander would be next on the list. (Then maybe a jigsaw.)

What I'd still love more confirmation and clarity on:
- True or false: Combo kits may not offer any economy-of-scale over buying a tool at a time, as long as the subsequent tools are compatible so I don't re-buy batteries.
- I like my ~20-year old B&D drill fine, except for the hosed batteries. It has a nice pop-off front that supports quick switches between two bits (e.g., screw and drill). Maybe if I'm not getting a combo kit anyway, I should just get replacement batteries for it? Bondcliff's suggestion to go with a corded circ saw makes sense, since I don't think of that as a grab-and-go tool anyway. That leaves a sander, and then maybe a jigsaw. If I buy replacement drill batteries, those wouldn't be compatible with it. But they could be compatible with each other if I get both, and they're lower priority than the drill/driver and circ or miter saw anyway. OR... with the improvements pipeski mentions, is the money better spent on a new drill/driver rather than on replacement drill batteries @$18?

(Bondcliff, I was hoping you might chime in even though we're at nearly opposite ends of the DIY scale. And thank you for the generous offer -- I moved farther away, but I'll DM you anyway.)
posted by daisyace at 11:41 AM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I let the only man I’ve ever dated cut down my IKEA table with a Jigsaw. After that incident neither I nor the table was ever straight again.

Buy a circ saw.
posted by Pretty Good Talker at 11:53 AM on February 15, 2021 [17 favorites]

Best answer: I am a woman with small hands and I have found that most circular saws, regardless of brand, are designed for hands much larger than mine, which makes them physically uncomfortable for me to use. If you happen to have the same issue contributing to your circular saw ambivalence, and are thinking about a power miter saw to do some of the jobs you might otherwise do with a circular saw, get that miter saw. I love my miter saw. I have a power circular saw, two power jigsaws, and all manner of unpowered handsaws, but I use my compound miter saw more than any other saw in my house. I use it for a lot of things other people would use a circular saw for. It does not eliminate the need for a circular saw by any means, but, it lets me use my circular saw less, and therefore care less about the extent to which I like my circular saw (which is not a ton).

If the circular saw is your main point of annoyance when it comes to selecting a tool set, if you can figure out how to do this safely during the pandemic, I would suggest borrowing a few different brands of circular saws from friends and neighbors, or going to a store with open displays of circular saws, so that you can actually pick up and hold the saw and feel the size of the grip in your hand, and how well the grip lets you hold it.

When I do use my circular saw, for things like cutting large pieces of plywood, I use sawhorses and lots of clamps to hold everything very steady, and I measure thrice and mark my cuts very clearly, so that I ONLY have to focus on moving the saw, which helps.
posted by BlueJae at 11:58 AM on February 15, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I will add to the chorus of suggesting a compound miter saw. If your primary need is cutting through 2x material or other < 8" boards, that will be so much more useful, so much less intimidating, and so much better than a circular saw. It's a bit less portable but if you have an area on a bench you can put it you might never need to move it.

The most scary close call I ever had with a power tool was on one of those saws though, so don't assume it's safe just because it doesn't look dangerous. I was cutting PVC pipe on it and I didn't have it tight to the fence and a jagged chunk of it flew right by my face and almost pulled my thumb into the saw. Woke me right up and I've been much safer ever since.

If you'll be cutting straight lines through sheet goods, then add a circular saw to your arsenal.

Combo kits may not offer any economy-of-scale over buying a tool at a time

I think any combo kit you're going to wind up with two semi-useful tools and two tools you never use.

If you already have a cordless drill you like then start your brand loyalty with a jigsaw or sander, and make sure they sell the tools you'll think you'll want down the road. When your drill dies, buy a new drill with compatible batteries to your other cordless tools.

I don't want to be "that guy", but if you're getting into any power tools also buy yourself a good pair of safety goggles and wear them religiously around things that spin around or go up and down really fast.
posted by bondcliff at 12:07 PM on February 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding bondcliff - and wear ear protection!

I can't add a whole lot - I agree about choosing an ecosystem for interchangeable batteries. And I don't mind having corded circular saw and sander. Cordless drills are far better - definitely finding that having a pair for driver and pilot hole is a big time saver. (mine came as a pair and that was worthwhile).

If you get a mitre saw do get one with a slider - it makes for a far more versatile tool.

And realize that you can get sheet goods cut at places like Home Depot. Much easier than hauling 4 x 8 sheets of plywood depending on your project.

Oh and one more - If you are left-handed like me be sure to hold tools like circular saws in the store. We have two - and one is so right-handed in its set-up that I absolutely cannot use it.
posted by leslies at 12:30 PM on February 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: What power tools are really worth owning for someone about my speed?

You might ask yourself: What projects are you doing or want to do, where you might do them more than once in your tenure in your home?

A good power drill makes sense, because putting holes in things and screwing/unscrewing things is something you will do often in a home.

Any other tools are going to be useful only for certain projects. Are you doing any extended drywall work? A palm or orbital sander might be useful. Are you doing deck or tiling work? A miter saw may be useful.

I would not recommend a combo set. Get the best tool you can, specific to the project you are working on. If you aren't going to do that project more than once, rent the tool you need.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 1:27 PM on February 15, 2021

Best answer: I'll confirm that combo sets don't make a ton of sense - you're not getting the set you need, you're getting something that looks shiny.

You absolutely want to swap out that drill with a new and decent quality cordless drill, that's going to get the most use of any of your tools, be it assembling kit furniture, screwing things to other things, or making holes. The 18v battery class drills are strong enough and long enough lived for just about any work you need to do, especially if you have a second battery pack on the charger.

I like to have a cordless reciprocating saw handy. It's not quite as deadly as a circular saw (more likely to cut you, less likely to sever), and it's pretty good for making quick cuts that don't have to be especially square. Since it's cordless, you have endless application for it in your yard, etc.

I'll confirm that if you need to make fairly short square cuts (i.e. most cuts that aren't plywood), a corded chop saw is going to be excellent for that. It's built for the purpose, and it gets the work done in a hurry. This is something that it makes sense to buy used (i.e. Craigslist &c), since you can by a older saw that might not have a ton of life left in it in the grand scheme of the world, but that will last for a darned sight more cuts than you're going to make with it.

A circular saw is absolutely handy, but maybe a bit further down the list. Get an inexpensive corded one. The cordless versions are either undersized and underpowered, or they're expensive. And for homeowner projects, you want to do your cutting in one place.

Jigsaw? Never owned one. That's a wood working tool that verges into being somewhat handy for construction, not a construction tool that can be used for wood working.

As far as brands - My dad spent his late career as a handy man / general contractor, and ended up using Ryobi in the end for his cordless tools. They might not be as sturdy as some of the other brands, but they're plenty sturdy enough, and they're cheap enough to come out ahead even if you have to replace them. And while they've fiddled with the details of their batteries a couple times, you can use the style from 20 years ago with a new tool built for the new batteries. Or you can use the new batteries with a 20 year old tool (like my Goodwill find reciprocating saw).
posted by wotsac at 2:06 PM on February 15, 2021

My incremental cordless tool purchases have been Makita. Their tools are well-made, in my own experience, and it's handy to be able to take a battery from the drill and pop it into a weed trimmer, say. Once you find a brand, it can be useful to stick with that brand, so that you can keep a couple batteries and swap them out on the charger.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 3:14 PM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Circ saws: I have a regular corded circular saw (makita), but found what I really needed:
It's a cordless mini circular saw (4.5" blade).
For quick cuts and more maneuverability, this is what I pick up most often.
Dewalt and others make them.
Drill/driver: just gonna say it, love my small Bosch PS32-02, works in tight places like the car.
(I'm a homeowner, artist, and motorhead, not a carpenter).
posted by artdrectr at 4:07 PM on February 15, 2021

Best answer: Bondcliff offered good thoughts.

I have a sliding compound mitre saw: it is a little circular saw that swings down on an arm (a.k.a. a chop saw), but it is also a mitre saw that makes angle cuts, and also a compound saw (so angles in two dimensions at once). It will handle a board up to ten or twelve inches, and a couple of inches thick. I love it and use it for any boars it can take. Huge boards get ripped on the table saw or with the circ saw, but this tool really handles lots of tasks -- and my wife and teen-agers have handled it comfortably.

I have a corded circular saw that I have not mastered and struggle with; I suspect there is a flaw in how I handle it. I have a corded jigsaw that certainly loves curves. I have a recip that I use like twice a year for DESTRUCTION but little else.

Honestly, buy a good set of drill and impact driver (I got a Makita set last fall and love it) now, and then as you need things, buy them according to Bondcliff's guide.
posted by wenestvedt at 4:32 PM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: reiteratin'

- You DONT want a reciprocating saw, they're designed for demolition only. For woodworking they're dangerous and make shoddy cuts. They do look cool.
- Cordless is great for drills but maybe not really needed for most other tools. Impact driver is only for rough framing, decks, sub-floors, heavy-duty assembly, but not otherwise. Driver/drill is recommended for light/fine assembly.
- Compound-Mitre/chop-saw is better and safer for cross-cuts. Keep a tight grip on what you're chopping! (like bondcliff says)
- Whatever you do DONT use a table-saw for cross-cuts. It will kill you before I do.
- Jigsaw is useful for notches and inside cuts, but you can get away with a small hand-saw or a (not-fancy) Japanese-saw if you only need to do little bits sometimes. For the last little bit there's the cheap dinky little handle that grips a hacksaw blade.
- Get your plywood sheets pre-cut in store for projects (like leslies says). Write down your specs clearly on paper and ask the staff nicely (they often grumble a bit but they'll help if you're clear about the specs. They charge extra per cut. No re-do's. They don't guarantee perfect accuracy in pre-cuts, but I found store pre-cuts sizing pretty okay (places like Home Despot).
- You can rent hand power tools from places like Home Despot.
- For home use, inexpensive brands like Ryobi are fine.

+ If you like your B&D drill, get the replacement battery.
posted by ovvl at 4:34 PM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've done a crapload of reno work with Ryobi cordless tools. Including using them in ways they were never designed to be used. They're not what I'd call professional grade, but they're not "falls apart when you are using it" either. Especially now that they're all Li-ion batteries. So that's my recommendation.

Use the bundles to your advantage. Don't just buy a $400 set of everything. Half of it will never be used.

A regular drill can do a lot, especially in the 18v range. And unless you're doing a lot of heavy duty work like making a deck you don't need an impact driver, and if you're not drilling into concrete you don't need a hammer drill.

Whether you get a chop saw, circular saw or recipro saw after depends on whether you're doing finishing/projects, construction/big renos, or demolition.

As for saws -- the chop saw's advantage is precision and safety. Circular saw's advantage is versatility in the hands of a careful user and rapidity of ruining your materials otherwise. Recipro saw is never a precise tool but can be almost as good as a jigsaw for cutouts, and is great for disassembling things permanently (you can get tree lopper blades, which are very handy also).

A jigsaw is a special case of saw that, if you are patient enough with, can be almost as good as a chop saw or circular saw, and is more versatile, but if you rush or are sloppy, will just make a mess of your materials. A jigsaw with a carbide blade can cut tile in precise shapes, for example. But it will never be as precise as a saw designed for a particular job; it'll never cut straight lines like a well wielded circular saw, and it won't cut precise miters like a chop saw.

If I was building out my tools from scratch for minor home renos including finish carpentry (moulding, for example), my first four power tools would be cordless drill, cordless reciprocating saw, a plug-in chop saw (a cheapie), and a plug-in random orbital sander with vacuum extraction.

These tools are versatile when they have to be, precise where needed, and do things far better than you can do them by hand.

If you need panels goods cut, have the place where you buy the panels do it for you. If you wind up doing a lot of panel cutting, get a plug-in circular saw AND a clamp-on straightedge so you don't fuck up your materials.

I guess by brand I'd get the Ryobi cordless tools, ideally the drill and saw in a bundle (it happens sometimes), making sure I got at 1 more battery than I had tools, and the fastest charger they sell. For the plug-in tools I'd just buy whichever mid-market brand was on sale. You're not a contractor, you're not going to beat the shit out of your tools, you just need ones that maintain alignment and operate reliably.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:12 PM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have a bunch of tools and have used them all. I really love my 15 year old Bosch orbital jigsaw, it's come in handy for all kinds of cuts in all kinds of material using the right blade, and it's easy for me to use as a slender woman. Nthing a chopsaw, nice clean cuts, I have a cheap Ryobi.
posted by mareli at 5:24 PM on February 15, 2021

Best answer: Some scattered thoughts:

1. Sometimes it is cheaper to buy the combo set. If you want a drill, driver, circular saw and/ or reciprocating saw, two batteries and a charger, the “let us hook you on our tool universe” kit often goes on sale for shockingly good prices. This is how Home Depot hooked me on cordless 18volt Ryobi tools. It was just so cheap!
2. Whatever tools you buy, esp the Ryobi, photograph the receipt and keep it on your phone. Sure, you are supposed to be able to return any broken Ryobi tool at Home Depot and be handed a new tool in the store. Not without a receipt.Ask me how I know this.
3. If you are cutting branches in your yard, a cordless reciprocating saw will make your work so much easier and faster. Same with cutting the branches up to dispose of. I have done this many times. I consider it a kind of “outdoor demolition.” I have also used a cordless reciprocating saw to cut a desk into two nightstands and a 30 by 30 inch square of desktop I cut up more precisely with a circular saw and used for something else.
4. A cordless weed wacker is a joy to use. For tall weeds or hillsides there is nothing faster and easier. I had a Ryobi. It was lightweight, which was good, but the string had a tendency to get bolloxed up. Still loved it. Gave it to my envious neighbors when I moved.
5. Take a look at the Makita Subcompact 18 volt line. Makita is much more expensive than Ryobi, but the tools just feel elegant in your hands. They are so much lighter. The features are so much more thoughtful. The cases are cases you would actually use to keep the tools in. I love my Makita drill, driver and super fast charger with two batteries.
6. Makita tools also go on sale. All the different lines do. Don’t buy anything but a bare tool you need right now at full price.
7. Milwaukee has a set of 12 volt tools that are powerful and small. I was very partial to Milwaukee corded reciprocating saws when I had to gut an entire lathe and plaster house. Milwaukee kept repairing them for me, even though they said it was my fault I burned out the clutch on plaster walls. They even once repaired my plumber’s jackhammer I dropped from exhaustion. I don’t know if Milwaukee would still do these repairs for free. Now that I know how to use tools I don’t abuse them anyway, but I still feel loyalty to the brand.
8. A compound miter saw is an extremely useful tool. It is a corded tool because it is stationary. It needs to sit on a table or counter. It makes very accurate cuts. I used a Makita corded compound miter saw to put in 1200 square feet of white oak flooring. That was a great saw. I sold it for what I paid for it when I moved states.
9. Before buying a new battery for your old drill, check that they have upgraded to the newest battery technology. I support making use of the drill you have been successful with in the past, for good memories and to avoid waste. Still, you want to have current battery technology for power and longevity.
10. Someone above said go into a store and handle the tools to see what suits you. This is your best bet. Before Covid, the tool company reps would often come to Home Depot to demo their tools in conjunction with a sale.
11. I have four corded sanders of different types. Yet I can’t force myself to sand the drawers of the chest that I have primed because the dust inside is prohibitive and the apartment building has locked all outside plugs. Sanding is a pain in the neck if you are required to do it near an outlet. If you will use a sander, get a cordless one. Drills and sanders are the two most critical tools to have cordless. Then saws, except a compound miter saw is best corded.
12. The way the cordless tools look and feel to you matters. If you don’t like the colors or the way they feel in your hands, you will resent using and storing them.If you feel you paid to much for them, you will resent using and storing them. Pick tools you like the look and feel of in your hands. Wait for them to go on sale. Be mindful of the warranty so if a tool goes bad you don’t feel ripped off. If you get a combo bag with a tool you won’t use, sell on Craigslist or eBay, etc, as new bare tool. Keep the flashlights, nobody wants to buy those.
13. Tools, new or used, are one of the few things one can always sell. Conversely, tools are one of the things one can always buy used. One can always start a conversation with any neighbor or homeowner by asking what tools they favor. See, you started a conversation with me by asking what tools I favor. Makita, Milwaukee, Ryobi for lowest cost,etc.
posted by KayQuestions at 6:14 PM on February 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

Also chiming in to recommend a compound mitre saw - keep an eye out and when you see a decent one on sale, pick it up. I've got room to just leave mine set up on its nifty stand with the slide-out board stabilizers/rollers, handy for quick little cutting jobs; for larger jobs like flooring or installing baseboards & trim, I can move it to where I'm working. You can do an awful lot of projects with a chop saw & pre-cut plywood panels.

Buy good safety glasses that are comfortable to wear, and also look cool so you'll want to wear them. I used to be quite cavalier about safety gear but I figure I must have used up all my luck by now so I listen to that tiny voice that says: hmm that looks like it could possibly end in a trip to the emergency room.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 9:16 PM on February 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

I want to nth Harbor Freight for tool buying. If you're not going to use a tool much, their stuff is fine. And if you need bits, they are the place to go. Every drill bit and screw driver bit you can imagine. I got a set of hole saws there that got the job done and are still totally usable. Some of their stuff is junky, but other stuff is a good deal.

The big thing I do when I start a project is watch YouTube videos of other people doing the project. Then you get a clear idea of the tools you need to complete the project. (For the record, I'm not very handy, yet I managed to completely redo my lower kitchen cabinets, countertop, sink, faucet, and dishwasher just by reading the directions that came with the supplies and watching YouTube videos) I did need my dad to visit with his reciprocal saw to cut up the old cabinets. I bought my tools as needed, and now have a collection of tools.

I bought a Milwaukee circular saw for cutting countertop, which is the same brand my grandpa used when he was a carpenter. My dad still has that saw, but it lives 400 miles away from me now. The key to saws is buying the right blade for the material you're working with, and replacing when dull or damaged.
posted by DEiBnL13 at 9:55 PM on February 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm of the school that buys the tool you need for the job at hand considering both the type of tool and the quality. That may mean that someday you will want to buy a $200 circular saw because the $75 saw you already have is giving up the ghost or just isn't precise enough or robust enough for the new task, but the likelihood is that the cheaper tool is all you'll ever need.

Getting cordless tools from the same maker that use the same battery is a great idea, but makers also change to new, incompatible batteries from time to time so the plan has a limited time horizon. If you buy one tool a decade, its probably not going to work out.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:39 AM on February 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So I own a million tools and dozens of power tools. And just yesterday as I chipped a load of ice off my dammed gutters ahead of the storm, it struck me that my RUBBER MALLET might be the single most useful and used tool I own. It has literally a million uses for any situation you need to whack things and not damage them.

I’m also on team circular saw and impact driver.

And I’ll say this: I own some Makita and some DeWalt and some B&D and some Ego battery powered tools. Like a few of each. It’s super annoying managing the batteries and chargers. But I’ve truthfully found off-brand Chinese-made (they actually almost all are) tools from Harbor Freight or whatever are usually solid and get the job done for a homeowner/hobbyist level of abuse. And my current favorite off brand knockoff $49 impact driver with some absurd name is my favorite impact driver ever. The battery doesn’t quit. Tons of torque. Half the price of a DeWalt. I bought it to work on a rusty old truck I’m restoring because I didn’t have a cordless one. I love it.

There is a lot of brand fetishism around tools. The fact is that the average homeowner will use a power tool far less rigorously than the average contractor. As long as the tool is safely designed and “good enough,” I’d almost rather buy a new one in ten years than spend twice as much up front. Just my experience, as someone who has been building a tool collection for a long while now.

On the other hand my every day leave it upstairs and handy cordless drill is a B&D that I bought like 14 years ago and use on a near daily basis. The battery doesn’t hold a charge for long anymore but otherwise it’s as solid as ever. I think it cost me $30 back then.

More diverse cheap tools beat fewer nice ones in my experience. I don’t do a ton of carpentry except basic stuff (but I built a really nice workbench this summer!). I mostly do plumbing, electrical, automotive, and yard jobs. My tools go outside a lot. I’ve got backups on backups for most of the core ones by now. So for me Harbor freight spec usually gets the job done fine. There’s a limit.
A really bad tool can be ineffective and dangerous. But if budget is a constraint at all, cheap power tools have gotten really good and expensive ones don’t always work any better, even if they may be more durable.

But do not skip the rubber mallet. That is the most useful damn tool.

ETA you should spend money on expensive blades and bits. That is value for money.
posted by spitbull at 5:50 AM on February 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: spitbull: ... cheap power tools have gotten really good ...

This is an important point: cheap tools used to suuuuuuck compared to "professional grade," but now the state of the art is so good that even Chinese copies of entry-level gear are very competent. Like around 1990, when some people still thought of "import cars" as trash but Honda & Toyota were making durable, inexpensive vehicles.

(Also, "But do not skip the rubber mallet. That is the most useful damn tool" reminds me of the apocryphal Commencement speech that ended with "Wear sunscreen"!)
posted by wenestvedt at 6:48 AM on February 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One other thing: a really good power tool designed to last 20 hard years is awesome. But at the rate battery technology is changing and improving I would expect the power systems on all these cordless tools to be obsolete far sooner than that, replaced by smaller, denser, more powerful batteries that will then be available on cheap knockoffs shortly thereafter. It’s been like Moore’s law for a few years now. Maybe major brands will update batteries without altering the charging platform. But what’s their motivation? You’ll buy a new one if you have to. The pros certainly will and just amortize it and write it off.

Wrenches and saws and hammers? Buy top quality lifetime tools. They never go out of style.

Battery powered tools? It’s like modern cars. They’re more reliable and efficient than ever even at the lowest spec end of the market. But their computer systems and infotainment systems and hybrid or gas power trains will be obsolete technology before the car becomes un-drivable or rots away. Or you know, like the 1991 Apple PowerBook Duo I own that still runs fine, but can’t connect to the outside world.
posted by spitbull at 7:04 AM on February 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you decide of getting a cordless circular saw, I heartily recommend this Makita 6.5” model. It's smaller than the standard 7.5” corded versions, so easier to manipulate and still very powerful. It's surprisingly light too.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:37 AM on February 16, 2021

I used to have Milwaukee cordless tools, but got annoyed when they changed their battery interface (and I needed to get new batteries), so now I'm investing in Makita. Once you get past "hammer" (and even then) tools are pretty specialized, and using the wrong tool for the job quickly gets frustrating or worse.

Drill: I've got one of Makita's ultralight cordless drills. Super convenient but not super powerful, if that matters.
Circular saw: these tend to burn through batteries quickly; I'd recommend getting a corded one. Or get a bench saw.
Jigsaw: They're handy but not remotely equivalent to a circular saw.
Chop saw: Also handy for what it is meant for: making consistent cuts in framing members. But unless you get a huge one, the cuts are limited to about 5" length/depth.
Sawzall: As mentioned above, these are mostly useful for demolition. They're imprecise and hard to control. If there's a saw to be afraid of, it's this.
Sander: What kind? Belt? Random orbit? They all have their place. I've got a corded Ryobi random-orbit sander and it's fine, but I still wind up doing a lot of hand-sanding.
posted by adamrice at 10:17 AM on February 16, 2021

Lots of great advice here!

One way I've picked up decent tools is by asking older relatives if they have a spare one hanging around that I can borrow. Then when I'm done with it, I offer to buy it for cheap. It often works! At one point, my dad gifted my son a rubbermaid tote full of used, but good quality, corded tools, which was nice of him.

FWIW I love my Harbor Freight cordless drill. I also have a corded Hitachi drill that I keep around that I still like.

Two upkeep/upgrade points:
+ Saws get dirty. Clean them with compressed air/shopvac blowers.
+ For drills and mitre/circular saws, get good quality blades and bits. They make a big difference in results, in my experience. I had neglected my circular saw blade for too long, then upgraded, and it was like getting a new tool.
posted by Caxton1476 at 2:16 PM on February 16, 2021

Response by poster: This is so great -- I've learned a lot and I really appreciate it.

I imagined that replacing my drill meant I shouldn't miss the economy-of-scale of a combo kit, and now I see I should just get the tools I need, when I need them -- that a drill was the exception among power tools in that it makes sense to get one first and assume it will find uses second. I know that next time I feel like taking on a project, I shouldn't think, "oh, but I don't have access to a power saw and it's not worth buying one just for this," but rather, "ok, this project is the confirmation that I'm ready to buy a saw that I'll use again over time."

A miter saw wasn't even on my radar, and now it's up there as a possible top priority. And I know not to get it or a circ saw without a cord, so it doesn't have to be in the same family as my other tools, which makes it a lot easier to look for used bargains.

And lots more great info all throughout, but those are my top take-aways for now. Thank you for being so helpful!
posted by daisyace at 3:13 PM on February 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

Saws need different blades for different materials. This may not be obvious, so I am stating it plainly. :7)

Finer work needs more, smaller teeth, while coarse work can stand the sloppiness of few, large teeth. Some materials need a blade made from a certain kind of steel. Read the manual for your saw, and the packaging of the blades!

The wrong blade will not cut, or might tear pieces out of the material, or might overheat... Just make sure to buy the right blade for the task at hand.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:52 AM on February 17, 2021

I'm way late this question but I'm surprised no one has mentioned pawn shops? I get a lot of tools I'm uncertain (or even certain, honestly) about there for cheap and if I need to 'level up' i already know what I'm using regularly.
posted by theRussian at 7:21 PM on March 5, 2021

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