A Beginner's Guide to Power Tools

Are you confused about which power tools to buy for 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.


Types of Power Tools Covered in This Guide:

Corded Power Drill, Cordless Drill, Jigsaw, Circular Saw, Reciprocating Saw, Miter Saw, Sander, Angle/Hand Grinder, Metal Cutoff Saw, 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.


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.


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.


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.

3. Jigsaw
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.

4. 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. 

5. 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.

6. Sander

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.

 

7. 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.

 

8. 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.

 

10. Rotary Tool (Dremel)

What it's for: Generically called "rotary tools" but more commonly known as "Dremels"these tools are the lower powered, DIY equivalent of die grinders. Die grinders are employed by toolmakers in industry for shaping the dies and molds 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.

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 accessories 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.


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