Eugene is a trained engineer and self-taught home improvement enthusiast with almost 40 years of professional and DIY experience.
A Beginner's Guide to Power Tools
Thinking of buying a power tool as a gift? Or maybe you want to make light work of DIY? This article is an absolute beginner's guide, covering practically every type of tool used for home maintenance, construction, woodwork, metal fabrication or crafts. It gives a basic explanation of what each tool is for, its capabilities, and tips on what to buy. If you find it useful, please take the time to share it on Facebook or Pinterest.
Types of Power Tools Covered in This Guide
- Corded Power Drill
- Cordless Drill
- Circular Saw
- Reciprocating Saw
- Miter Saw
- Angle/Hand Grinder
- Metal Cutoff Saw
- SDS Percussion Drill
- Rotary Tool (Dremel)
- Oscillating Multi-Tool
1. Corded Power Drill
What's it for: A corded power drill is used for drilling holes in metal, plastics, wood, brick, stone, concrete, glass, and tiles. Various types and lengths of drill bits are available depending on the material being drilled; HSS (High Speed Steel) bits for metal, flat bits for wood, and masonry bits for concrete.
How it works: The bit is held in a clamping device on the end of the drill shaft called a chuck. Some drills come with chucks which are keyless and can be hand-tightened, others are fitted with chucks which need to be tightened with a chuck key. This allows the drill bit to be tightened more securely and large bits are less likely to slip, but keyless hand-tightening chucks are more convenient. Most DIY model drills will have a 1/2 inch (13mm) chuck which can accommodate drills up to this diameter, but 5/8 inch (16mm) chucks are also available. These drills range in power from about 500 to 800 watt. 650 to 700 watt provides adequate power for most jobs.
Accessories: If you need to drill holes in awkward spots, you can get a right angled chuck adapter which fits into the chuck of the drill. Alternatively flexible drives are available. You can also use wire brushes and mounted points for grinding.
Things to consider: Drills may have a fixed speed setting, 2 speed settings, or variable speed depending on how hard you squeeze the trigger. Variable speed is most convenient as it allows a drill hole to be started easier without the bit moving all over the place. Also lower speeds should be used with larger diameter bits to avoid overheating the bit due to friction.
For more detailed information on drill bits and drilling, see my other guide on Choosing the Right Drill Bit for Metal, Wood, Tiles, Glass, or Masonry.
Various Types of Chucks
2. Cordless Drill
What it's good for: This tool can be used for drilling holes in metal, plastics, wood, masonry and also used as an electric screwdriver for driving screws. A cordless drill, like any other cordless power tool, has the convenience of freedom from a power cord. This means no cables to trip over or moving extension leads around to provide slack in the cord. A cordless drill can also be used in awkward places, up ladders and on roofs without the inconvenience of the power flex catching in everything. Another advantage is that a cordless drill is better balanced and easier to use with one hand, especially for driving screws. Corded drills tend to be top-heavy and difficult to use with one hand.
For more info on cordless tools, see the section at the bottom of this article.
How it works: Cordless drills usually have either a 3/8 inch (10mm) or 1/2 inch (13mm) hand-tightening chuck. Combi drills have a hammer action function which facilitates drilling of holes in masonry. Cordless drills are available with battery voltages from 10.8 to 36 volts. Higher voltage means more power and torque for drilling larger diameter holes. However, the downside of higher voltages is a heavier drill. 14.4 or 18v is a good compromise.
Cordless drills have various torque settings. This ensures that the chuck will slip when a preset twisting force or torque has been applied to a screw, preventing the screw from being over-driven into timber. For more information on this, see my guide, "What are the Settings for on a Cordless Drill?"
These are primarily used for driving long or heavy gauge screws in tougher timber, faster than a standard cordless drill would be capable of doing. Impact drivers have a hex socket rather than a standard chuck and this accepts impact rated screwdriver bits/bit extenders or drill bits with a hex shank (suitably rated to withstand the impact torque)
Read More From Dengarden
Things to consider: Just like some corded drills, cordless drills may have a low and high speed setting. A gearbox sets the speed and choosing the lower speed setting results in more torque being available for drilling larger diameter holes. If you need to use the drill for driving TEK screws (self-drilling screws for fastening metal cladding to metal or timber), aim for a model with a max torque of at least 55 NM to cope with tough timber.
Bosch tools - GSB 18V-55 Cordless Drill from Amazon
I invested in a Bosch combi drill as a replacement for my ageing NiCd DIY drill. I built a garden shed and needed a quality drill which would be capable of driving over 400 TEK screws to attach metal cladding to the timber structure. The GSB 18V-55, available from Amazon UK is the latest version of my drill. With a 4AH battery, it's capable of driving 90 TEK screws per charge. This brushless model is supplied with 2, 4AH batteries. Batteries are interchangeable between other Bosch tools. Max torque is 55NM which is plenty for driving heavy gauge screws. Higher torque versions are also available.
(Note that this is the UK model with a 230 volt charger).
3. SDS Percussion Drill
What it's for: The acronym SDS originates from the German steck, dreh, sitz, meaning "insert, twist, fit" and the system was developed by Bosch in the mid '70s.
How it works: An SDS drill and drill bit has several advantages. Firstly, removing and inserting the bit is easy. The shank of the bit is simply pushed into the chuck and a spring loaded mechanism latches into slots in the shank, holding it in place. To remove the bit, a sleeve on the chuck is pulled back retracting the spring mechanism, and this allows the bit to be pulled out of the chuck. The second advantage is that the wedges which slide into the grooves in the shank prevent the bit from slipping and rotating in the chuck, which can happen with a conventional chuck if it isn't adequately tightened. Thirdly, since there isn't a heavy chuck to accelerate during impact drilling, this ensures that holes are drilled more effectively since the drill reaches a higher speed and has more energy. The percussion mechanism is also pneumatically based and this gives extra energy for hammer drilling in masonry compared to a normal drill which just uses a plate with ridges on it to generate the hammering effect.
Things to consider: SDS drills can be set to rotation mode only, for drilling materials other than masonry, or rotation and hammer mode for drilling masonry. On some models, the drill can also be set to hammer mode only without rotation, for light chiseling. These drills range in power from about 500 to 1500 watt but are usually geared to have relatively low speed and high torque. A mechanical or electronic torque limiting system which allows the chuck to slip when the bit gets stuck is often (but not always) incorporated. A typical scenario is that the bit gets caught on a piece of rebar in a wall, and the power drill tries to keep going. This can wrench your arm (been there, done that!) or force the drill out of your hands if it is not held securely. The torque limiting system is similar to that on a cordless drill and allows the motor of the drill to turn while the bit stays stuck. Even so, this is why it can be dangerous to use a drill when on a ladder as it is possible to be knocked off balance.
The Makita HR2630 230 volt SDS drill available from Amazon UK is the latest version of the drill I have been using for the last 10 years. This is an 800 watt model and has 3 functions: rotary only, rotary plus hammer and hammer only for light chipping. It easily bores holes in masonry up to 26 mm diameter and has a 2.4 joule impact rating. The power flex is made from rubber which is much more flexible than PVC. The tool comes with a large storage case roomy enough to store accessories. A 110 volt model of this tool is also available for use on construction sites.
Can I Use Non-SDS Drill Bits With an SDS Drill?
Not directly, but you can fit a key tightened chuck or hand tightened keyless chuck. These come as two parts with an adapter enabling the chuck to be fitted into an SDS chuck. You can then use round shank SDS bits or hex shank flat timber bits. Note that you normally can't use these chucks with hammer action for drilling masonry.
What it's for: Jigsaws can be used to cut wood, metal, plastic, and other materials. Different types of blades are available to suit the material being cut. Since the blades used in a jigsaw are slim and narrow, this allows curved profiles such as circles to be cut in sheet material. Jigsaws are normally used for cutting timber up to about 40 mm thick (approx. 1 1/2 inch). Long blades can be used in a jigsaw and manufacturers quote maximum cutting capacity up to 4 inches (this seems a bit overly optimistic!).
Things to consider: Variable speed on the trigger is a useful feature on a jigsaw when commencing or finishing a cut. Some saws have a separate speed control, which is a real pain! While a jigsaw gives reasonably good results with thinner timber, the outcome can be variable if thicker stuff needs to be cut. Because the blade can flex if the side pressure is put on the saw, this can produce a cut which is not perfectly square. A circular gives a much better cut and is a faster, more accurate solution for making long, straight cuts in thick timber.
5. Circular Saw
What it's for: A circular saw is a high powered saw (1000 watt to 1800 watt) with a 7 1/4 inch (184 mm) diameter blade or greater, able to rapidly cut through timber up to 3 1/2 inches (90mm) in thickness, and is an essential power tool for cutting sheets of timber. A circular saw will give a more "square" cut than a jigsaw because the blade is more rigid. The large teeth on the blade also make the cutting of boards much quicker than with a jigsaw which is more suitable for short cuts or curved cuts in thinner material. An adjustable rip fence can be attached to the saw, and this acts as a guide to allow boards to be trimmed to size. Blades which have a relatively small number of teeth give a fast but rougher cut. Blades which have a greater number of smaller teeth cut slower, but result in a finer cut.
Things to consider: If you intend to use a circular saw a lot, it's worth buying a pro tool. The Hitachi C7SB2 is an award winning tool and I bought one of these as a replacement for a DIY model. This is a powerful 1700 watt (15 amp) machine and capable of rapidly ripping and cross-cutting over 2 inch thick (60mm) timber. It's sturdy with easy to alter mitre and depth settings. A retractable guard allows plunge cutting.
6. Reciprocating Saw
What it's for: A reciprocating saw or rip saw is a useful tool for cutting timber, plastic and metal. The tool is similar to a jigsaw but usually higher powered and the blades are longer, up to 8 inches (200mm). The tool is also long and slim and can be held with two hands to give better control. It is useful therefore for cutting lengths of timber in situ and flush to surfaces, floorboards, plastic piping, metal bar, and for demolition work.
Things to consider: When buying a saw, don't go for anything less than 800 watt as the machine will struggle when cutting thicker sections of timber. Variable speed is also a useful feature.
What it's for: Sanders are used for smoothing down timber, removing paint, and sanding metal. There are two major types: belt sanders and orbital sanders.
- Belt sander: This has a continuous looped belt of sandpaper which is driven by the motor. The belts are replaceable and available in various grit sizes, coarse for initial sanding and fine for finishing. Belt sanders remove material quickly as the revolving belt tends to throw off sawdust and doesn't become clogged unlike an orbital sander, however it is difficult to sand into a corner because of the curved rollers. The belt is normally 2, 3 or 4 inches wide (50, 75 or 100mm).
- Orbital sander: This uses sheets of sandpaper and the sheets are driven in a sort of circular motion when the sander is applied to the surface. The sheets tend to clog more than on an orbital sander. An orbital sander can sand right into corners because of the rectangular shape of the sole plate. Various versions of these are available including palm sanders which can be used with one hand in tight spots because of the small size and shape of the sandpaper used.
- Sanding pad for angle grinder: A rubber backing pad and circular sanding disks are available as accessories for angle grinders. These are useful for sanding profiled surfaces and also for getting into spots which would be inaccessible to belt or orbital sanders.
8. Miter (Mitre) Saw
What it's for: A miter or chop saw is used for cutting lengths of timber up to 9 x 2 inches. It is basically like a circular saw but the blade has a larger diameter, 8, 10, or 12 inches (200 or 250mm), and the cutting head/arm carrying the saw blade and motor is hinged at the back allowing the saw to be brought down on to a length of wood to cut it. This produces an accurate square 90 degree cut, essential for construction. A basic type miter saw is adjustable so that miter (angled and less than 90) cuts can be made. Compound miter saws enable miter cuts, beveled cuts or a combination of both to be made. A 10 inch sliding compound miter saw is a wise investment for the serious DIYer. The slide action allows lumber to be cut (up to 9 x 2). For square cuts on light timber such as dado rail, picture frame, an 8 inch non sliding miter saw is sufficient.
Things to consider: Never use a blunt blade in a circular saw or miter saw. Blunt blades can catch or snag in timber which can potentially cause an accident.
9. Angle Grinder
What it's for: An angle or hand grinder is an invaluable tool for cutting metal, plastic, roof sheeting, masonry (stone, bricks, concrete), and tiles. You can also use it to grind these materials. Both sheet material and lengths can be cut.
How it works: The tool uses a disk spun at high RPM to perform the cutting action. For cutting metal, consumable disks made from abrasive material are used. These are available in sizes from 4 to 9 inches in diameter to suit the specific grinder. In order to cut stone, concrete and tiles, either abrasive or diamond disks can be used. Diamond disks have a longer lifespan, but are more expensive. Angle grinders can come in handy for cutting up stuff for disposal in your trash (like metal chairs and tables). Make sure you grind off the sharp edges.
Accessories: Wire brushes for rust and paint removal, various types of sanding disks and buffing mops for polishing.
Things to consider: Several accessories are available for angle grinders including sanding pads and wire brushes which can be used for removing rust and paint.
Hitachi G12SR4 6.2-Amp 4-1/2-Inch Angle Grinder
This G12SR4 model from Amazon is rated at 6.2 amp / 110 volts (680 watt). It's a good general purpose grinder, adequate for cutting and grinding most stuff around the home. You can also use it with a wire brush for de-rusting and removing paint (The product shown below is the latest version of the grinder I use in the photos above). Higher powered versions are available up to 1000 watts from this Amazon seller for quicker cutting through heavier material.
10. Rotary Tool (Dremel)
What it's for: Generically called "rotary tools" but more commonly known as "Dremels" (even though other companies make them too!) these tools are the lower powered, DIY equivalent of die grinders. Die grinders are employed by toolmakers in industry for shaping the dies and moulds used in factories for metal processes such as casting and pressing. With a rotary tool you can grind, sand, carve, cut, slot, router, hollow, engrave, sharpen and debur (remove ragged edges from material).
How it works: Rotary tools are like power drills but more slender, designed for one hand use. They have an electric motor which runs at very high speed, up to 35,000 RPM, and this spins a chuck type clamp which holds various sized collets or sleeves. These sleeves can hold a variety of types of accessories.
Here's a list of the accessories available:
- Grinding stones are available in all shapes and sizes and can be used for general grinding, material removal, hole enlarging, sharpening, de-burring, and removing sharp edges from metal.
- Sanding drums, discs, and flapwheels can be used for sanding and smoothing wood, metal, and plastic.
- Polishing accessories are small buffs which can be used with metal polish or polishing compound for giving a fine polish to metal.
- Toothed metal cutting disks like miniature circular saw disks can be used for cutting wood or plastic.
- Diamond coated or abrasive cut-off wheels are available for cutting metal.
- Soft plastic and wire brushes are another accessory, useful for cleaning surfaces.
- High speed cutters of various sizes and shapes can be used for grinding, carving and hollowing materials such soft metals, plastic, and wood.
- Tungsten carbide cutters do the same as standard cutters but can be used on hardened steel, stainless steel, cast iron, and ceramics.
- Diamond points can be used for fine detail work, cutting, carving, engraving, and finishing of glass, ceramic, and other hard materials.
You can also use a rotary tool with small drill bits.
Things to consider: The accessories for rotary tools are usually not much larger than 1 inch so unlike an angle grinder, the tool is geared towards small scale work such as model and jewelry making. However the tool can come in very useful in the home workshop where a larger tool would be too cumbersome.
11. Oscillating Multi-Tool
A multi tool or oscillating tool is a relatively recent power tool. The motor drives a head which oscillates or twists backwards and forwards through an angle of a couple of degrees (similar to the head on a hair clippers, but rotating). Several types of accessory can be attached and driven by the head. These include:
- Toothed blade for cutting wood, plastics and non-ferrous metal
- Bi-metal toothed blade for cutting ferrous metal (iron/steel), and timber with embedded nails
- Scraper blade for removing tile cement and mortar on walls and bricks/blocks
- Diamond coated blade for cutting tiles and grinding stone
- Sanding pads for sanding wood, plastic, removing paint etc
A multi-tool is useful for applications where a jigsaw, handsaw or reciprocating saw can't be used. The latter have blades which move relatively slowly over a large distance, so the blade can end up hitting stuff if there isn't clearance. A multi-tool on the other hand has a head which moves very rapidly (typically 10,000 oscillations per second) over a small angle. So the accessory has a small range of movement perpendicular to, rather than towards the workpiece. A typical application of a multi-tool is to trim the underside of a door jamb so that tiles or flooring can be slid underneath. The tool can trim, but can also be used for plunge cutting, e.g. to cut out holes in plasterboard (drywall) for fitting socket outlets.
12. Metal Cutoff Saw
What it's for: A metal cutoff saw is like a miter saw but normally used to make 90 degree and miter cuts in metal bar and hollow metal sections.
How it works: An abrasive disk similar to the type used on angle grinders but with a diameter of 14 inches performs the cutting action.
Things to consider: Although probably the least likely power tool to be used by the average DIYer, a cutoff saw, like its timber counterpart, enables accurate angled cuts to be made, which is essential when constructing metal frames, gates, etc.
120/110 or 220 Volts Power Tools?
Voltage supply differs from country to country.
- UK: 230 V domestic, 110 V for site power tools
- US: 120/240 V domestic, 120V for site power tools
120/110 V tools have a lesser risk of causing injury/death because of the lower voltage. In general, these are mandatory on construction sites because of the increased risk of tools getting wet or power cords being damaged, but they can also be used in the home. 120/110 V tools can be powered by generators, or alternatively transformers are available to step down the voltage from 240/230 to 120/110 volts. These step down transformers also isolate the 120/110 volt supply from the mains and the secondary windings of portable transformers is earthed (grounded). This gives a 55 V - 0 - 55 V output from the supply connector, with both live and neutral (in a sense both outputs are live/hot) only at 55 V wrt earth/ground. This reduces the risk of shock if for instance contact is made with a damaged power cord.
Using Power Tools Safely
Power tools can be dangerous, so you need to understand your tool and it's potential to cause injury
- Read the manual supplied with your tool.
- Make sure power cords and extension leads are undamaged. DON'T tape up leads, replace them instead!
- Don't use corded tools during rain because of the danger of electrocution. Cordless tools aren't waterproof either and can be damaged by water ingress.
- For added safety, use a plugin GFCI (RCD) adapter between the power plug and socket outlet. (You can use this with the plug of an extension lead if powering several tools).
- Light your work area adequately so that you can see flexes and don't cut through them. Position flexes to lessen the likelihood of this happening.
- Only change bits and blades or make adjustments with the tool disconnected from the socket outlet or the battery removed.
- Wear adequate PPE.
- Declutter your workspace to prevent falls.
For more detailed information on electrical safety, see my safety guide on Preventing Electric Shock in the Home and Garden.
Tips for Buying Power Tools
If you are going to be giving a tool a lot of use, it makes sense to buy a professional model. It will last longer since it will usually be built more sturdily and the internal components will be more heavy duty and durable. Motor windings are normally wound using heavier gage wire, and armatures are often covered to prevent particles getting sucked into the motor and abrading the winding insulation. Internal component parts such as fans and gears are often made from metal for durability. Also parts will be easier to source. If a tool is only going to get occasional use, a DIY model should be fine.
What to Look for in a Tool
|Tool||Recommended Basic Specs.|
Combi with hammer action, 18 volt, 10 mm chuck
650 watt, keyed 13 mm chuck
600 watt, variable speed on trigger
600 watt, 75 mm wide belt
650 watt, variable speed if possible
254 mm blade, sliding compound
800 watt, variable speed
What Are the Advantages of Cordless Tools?
All of the tools described above are available in cordless versions. Cordless tools have obvious advantages:
- No cord to trip over or get tangled in
- Can be used remotely from a mains supply without the need for extension leads
- No danger of electrocution
Cordless tools are available in 12, 18, 24 and 36 and 48 volt versions. If you buy a cordless tool, get one with two batteries so that you can have one battery on charge while using the other. Batteries are quite expensive when bought separately at a later stage.
The capacity of a cordless drill battery is measured in amp-hours or AH. Higher amp-hour capacity batteries will give longer use between charges. Most cordless tools now use lithium ion rechargeable batteries and this technology doesn't suffer from the memory effect associated with older technology NiCd batteries. Also lithium batteries have a higher energy storage density than NiCd or NiMh. This results in a lighter battery for a given capacity. Another advantage of lithium batteries is that they hold their charge much longer, so a tool is always ready for use.
The latest trend in cordless tools is the use of brushless motors. The absence of brushes reduces friction, prolonging usage time when the battery is charged. Power output is also supposedly increased. Brushless tools are more expensive, so you may get a better deal on a cordless drill with brushes, which have somewhat dropped in price.
Is It Better to Buy Bare Cordless Tools Without Batteries?
If you decide to buy a range of tools from the same manufacturer, a cheaper option is to buy the tool as body only, i.e. a bare tool without batteries. Then you can just buy one or more batteries and share them between tools as needed. Note that batteries aren't standard, even if they're the same voltage and therefore not interchangeable between different brands of tools.
Air Tools and Compressors
An alternative to cordless/battery or corded/mains powered tools are air powered tools.
The three main advantages of air or pneumatic tools are that they can be stalled without burning out, there's no danger of electric shock and many of them are slimmer and can be used in tight spaces.
Check out my guide here on How to Use Air Tools and an Air Compressor in Your Workshop.
Recommended DIY Books
I learned a huge amount of information from this book! The Collins Complete DIY Manual is an excellent guide, comprehensively covering plumbing, electrics, woodwork, heating, garden construction, paving, plasterwork, glass cutting, painting, tiling and all other aspects of home maintenance and improvement. This older version from Amazon UK contains a lot more info than the newer editions.
Note that electrical wiring information in this manual is geared towards UK users and may not satisfy more recent and stricter regulations.