By John C. Harris
I'm old enough to remember the first cordless shop devices. My dad brought home a little Craftsman widget that looked like a fat screwdriver. For the fleeting interval in which it would hold a charge, it could drive slotted or philips head screws. Hours of charging for maybe 15 minutes of driving. In the woodworking world, cordless devices were as much of a revelation as the iPod or digital camera. And the drywall screw is the cordless drill's "killer app."
Nowadays, it's hard to function without a cordless drill, especially in a boat shop. I tracked down all of the CLC staff cordless drills (and a few corded drills for good measure) and here's what I think of them. Like the Great Boatbuilder Sander Roundup, this is a review of the tools in the wild, so to speak. Most reviews of this sort compare brand-new products, which are sent for free to the lucky writers. THIS review is about drills purchased by half-broke boatbuilders, and how they endure in professional shops. The exact model of the drill may not still be available; I've tried to find the closest match in the marketplace for price comparison.
A few old-school corded drills to kick it off.
My father acquired this drill in 1956. He says, "It was a requested birthday gift to me from my non-mechanical father, when I was about 14. I had started building boats at McCallie, and immediately valued power tools." Throughout my own childhood, it was hooked into a clever adaptor that turned it into a small drill press, and did yeoman work for decades. By the time I started building boats as a teenager, it had left its drill press adaptor. I had figured out that to function in a boat shop, you needed one drill loaded with a countersink bit, and a second drill standing by with a screwdriver bit. With this genial combination, you could fire rows of screws into chine logs or decks all day. (I used this drill at age 19 to build the hull it is resting on, a Windmill Class sloop.) It's tired, the poor thing, but still running. I use it at home once in awhile. Good ol' Craftsman!
Sometimes you just need a powerful drill plugged into a wall. I bought this beautiful German-made drill at the welding shop next door. It's a rugged, lifetime tool, and its torque will break both arms if you don't hang on. I can't remember why I bought it in the first place, but I do know that, equipped with a grinding wheel, it was a champion for stripping the nonskid off the deck of my 26-foot cruising sailboat.
On to the cordless drills. When you shop for a cordless drill, there are a couple of things that you mustn't go without.
1. A keyless chuck. I have no idea how I managed to fumble for the missing chuck key all of those years. I don't think you can buy a drill any more with a traditional chuck key.
2. A chuck that will close on a 1/16th-inch drill bit. Hey, we're in the stitch-and-glue kit business, and these boats are held together with bits of 1/16th-inch wire.
3. A clutch that limits how far you can bury a screw in wood. Cordless drills are so powerful nowadays that you can drive the head of a drywall screw right through an inch of wood and out the other side.
4. At least two batteries INCLUDED in the price. So that one is charging while you're discharging the other.
Premium Drills, $150 and up:
- DeWalt DC720 $163
This is my current personal drill. We're up to 18 volts now, wrist-snapping torque compared to the 9 volts or 12 volts I could afford as a journeyman boatbuilder, 20 years ago. It seems that for anything outside of "home handyman" use, 18 volts will likely become the standard, as the price has come down a lot. This was a $250 drill just a few years ago. Like most good cordless drills, you buy these in a package that includes two batteries---one is charging while the other is in the drill. The battery technology is such these days that a nickel cadmium battery will charge in less than an hour, and a lithium battery in 15 minutes!
Battery life is a huge issue in professional settings. I think you could persist for five years with the NiCad DeWalt batteries, but in abusive boatyard settings, you're more likely to get between two and three years. Once the batteries begin to decline, you'll calculate that battery replacement isn't much cheaper than just getting a new drill. We've tried sending the batteries off to shops that repack them. This was about $60 per battery, versus $86 for a replacement. Factor in the shipping hassle, and repacking isn't worth it.
- DeWalt DCD940 - $249
I have two; this is my other main drill. In the last thirty days, as I write this, my pair of DeWalts helped build 23 stitch-and-glue boats. I wield them like twin six-shooters. As you can see, I am very hard on drills. Working clean isn't always compatible with getting boats assembled in one-week classes. I volunteer my own drills rather than goop up the students' drills, so mine are always scabbed over with cured epoxy. They also get dropped, torqued until they smoke, and (I blush to admit this) used as hammers. Seriously, when you need to knock that transom the last eighth of an inch into place, the heaviest thing within reach tends to be an 18 volt cordless drill.
All of my DeWalts have had trouble with the forward/reverse switch. Most of the problem is that cured epoxy fouls the switch, but the plastic clutch connectives in the switches also succumb to fatigue. The pictured drill, only a year or two old, is presently stuck in "forward." I'll need to take it apart to get that working again. So it gets used as a drill rather than as a screwdriver at present.
This is a "hammer drill," the hammer feature not the kind that is helpful in nudging transoms into place. (The "hammer" transmission will rattle loose a stuck fastener.) This particular unit is CLC's lone "shop drill," for general use of all staff. It's always missing, though it made an appearance in time for this article. (Missing cordless drills are responsible for the current CLC policy of "every craftsman for himself" when it comes to tools.) When it can be found, this is a very powerful and durable drill. I think it came to us in 2005. The clutch is getting tired, but it still works. All of my drills have the clutch feature, which will allow you to drive screws to just the right depth. Like most quality cordless drills, you may also select between several speeds. The aging speed control on this individual is sticky and emits an alarming wisp of smoke when shifted.
Makita cordless drills, like this lithium-powered model, get consistent raves. I could never afford them back when I was forming opinions about drills. Aaron, CLC boatbuilder, just bought this one. I brought it up to the front shop to get some epoxy on it because it's just too shiny.
Boatbuilder Nick Schade has the same drill and writes: "The drill is powerful and maintains its power for a long time. It is fairly lightweight and well balanced. It is short enough to fit between 12" spaced forms for screwing canoe forms to a strongback. The recharger is very quick. With my older [Makita] drill I would sometimes use up the charge on both batteries before first one recharged because the charger needed at least an hour to make the battery usable. With this drill I can use a battery in about 15 minutes."
I photographed the entire bulky storage case to register my annoyance with them. As someone who moves from project to project with all my tools jumbled in a couple of old milk crates, I'm not the sort to put the drills away in their fitted cases every time I use them. There is, in fact, a mountain of empty drill, sander, and router cases cluttering the attic storage at CLC. I'd appreciate an option to just buy the drill, batteries, and charger.
Nick remarked in particular on the convenience of the Makita's LED light. The first time I saw a light on a cordless drill (for pete's sake!) I took it as a cynical attempt to lard up the tool with features to justify a higher price. But y'know, the little spot of light on the workpiece is helpful when you're working inside a boat or building jig.
Mid-Range Cordless Drills, $100 - $150
Two CLC boatbuilders have these Ryobi 18 volt drills. Neither could think of anything bad to say. Mark praised the Ryobi's wrenching torque and its durability; his is over five years old, on the same batteries.
This Hitachi belongs to our colleague, builder and designer Eric Schade. He says, "I got the Hitachi 18 volt lithium Ion cordless drill last fall when I was installing the solar array on my roof. I didn't want to be dragging a cord around up there. This drill was powerful and worked a long time on a charge doing heavy work. It came with a charger, second battery, a light, and a case. It is light weight and easy to handle...great for boat building."
I would observe that the Hitachi product stylists need to stop watching Spiderman. The rubber cladding is just over the top. This could be in the Green Goblin's weapons belt.
One of my own drills, dating back to the 1990s. Encrusted with epoxy as it is, it's still essentially in perfect shape. Except that the ancient 12 volt batteries have expired.
Inexpensive Drills (Under $100)
This Black & Decker drill is all you need if you're just building a couple of stitch and glue kayaks and doing chores around the house. It's got all the important features---a clutch for driving screws, variable speed, and plenty of torque from an 18 volt battery. It's at CLC because we once forgot to bring a cordless drill to a show and picked up a cheapie. That was in 2006, and this one's still doing okay. So what's not to like? It looks and feels cheap. And you certainly wouldn't want to use it as a hammer.
We bought three or four of these about ten years ago to use as shop-issue drills. They did okay, but that generation of 12 volt battery didn't have an especially long life. Subjected to determined abuse, the Porter Cables survived about a year. This one won't hold a charge, and it's awaiting either a death sentence, or someone to chum up the money for replacement batteries---which would restore it to full functionality. Notice that this one is laying down. It's not balanced such that it will sit upright upon the battery base, which can be inconvenient. (Used to be, Makitas didn't either, but they've changed the design.)