By Rex Cauldwell

Publication Date: January/February 2003

As both a master plumber and master electrician, I drill more holes for pipe and wire in a day than most tradesmen might in a week. It seems like I've got a drill in my hands most of the day, and more often than not it's a cordless tool. Using cordless drills improves convenience, safety, and speed for most of my jobs, and unless I'm drilling large-diameter or very deep holes, my cords stay in the van.

Test Criteria

Tool manufacturers sell the most cordless drills in voltages between 14.4 and 24. For my needs, 14.4-volt models are a little underpowered and 24 volters seem a bit heavy, so I tested 10 tools with batteries of 15.6, 18, and 19.2 volts. I tested the Hilti SF 150-A and Panasonic EY6432GQKW 15.6-volt tools. At 18 volts, I tested the Bosch 33618, Craftsman 27124, DeWalt DW987K-2, Hitachi DS18DVB, Makita 6347DWDE, Metabo BST18 Plus, and Milwaukee 0622-24. I also tested the lone 19.2-volt model, the Porter-Cable 9984.

I tested the tools on my jobsites and then in my shop running some speed and duration tests. I compared each model's balance, weight, and comfort. I also evaluated how easily I could reach and operate the switches. But the two most important test criteria for me were chuck quality and the number of holes I could drill at high and low speeds.

Design Features

A tool that's easy to move and position makes a big difference over time, especially if you spend a lot of time reaching between joists to sink holes. Tool size, handle thickness, balance, battery exchange, and battery orientation all affect a tool's feel. So do placement and movement of switches.

. Compact tools can feel lighter—even if they're not—and they're easier to maneuver and use. All the drills in this test, except the Craftsman model, are lean and compact and roughly the same size. The 15.6-volt Panasonic is the most compact of the bunch and is good for tight spaces or small hands.

Another handle feature that makes a tool easier to use is a non-slip surface. Most of the tools have comfortable non-slip surfaces that provide a better grip. Hitachi's handle is made up almost entirely of non-slip materials, so it's good for gripping. Metabo's all-plastic handle has no gripping surface, which makes it a bit tougher to hold when you're tired or if your hands are sweaty.

Balance. Once a drill/driver gets over 14.4 volts, battery location, orientation to the motor housing, and handle length can affect a tool's feel and balance. The motors on the DeWalt, Panasonic, Porter-Cable, and Craftsman models are parallel to the horizontal battery and each, except the Craftsman, has fine balance. The Craftsman's balance gets thrown off by its large battery, which is way out at the end of its long handle. The Bosch, Hilti, Hitachi, Makita, Metabo, and Milwaukee tools cant the battery down, creating an angle between the motor housing and battery, which provides a little better balance for me; I find those tools more comfortable to use.

Battery Exchange. Metabo wins the blue ribbon for easy battery exchange. Depressing one large button on the back of the handle with your palm releases the battery, which then literally falls out. Nothing is easier. Craftsman's and Milwaukee's front-slide batteries exchange nicely, too, and Milwaukee's battery is reversible. Porter-Cable's system is a rear slide-in that takes some practice to get right.

The 18-volt Hitachi and 15.6-volt Hilti use long vertical batteries. The extra-long Hitachi release tabs are easy-to-reach and the battery slides out nicely. The short Hilti tabs are hard to reach from underneath, so you must access them from the rear of the tool, making battery exchange slightly more difficult. The Panasonic, Bosch, DeWalt, and Makita have the typical “pinch-and-pull” system that has worked well for years.

Switches. All of the trigger switches felt secure and solid. I prefer large triggers, which are easier to use when wearing gloves or in awkward positions. All but the Hitachi model provide nice oversized triggers.

The reverse switches on all the drills were located at thumb level. The Bosch, Milwaukee, Hitachi, Craftsman, and Porter-Cable switches are big and easy to press. The DeWalt, Makita, and Panasonic are a little too small for my liking, but are pretty easy to press. The Hilti switch is tapered to match the tool body's curvature. It worked fine, but I didn't feel like I had solid contact with it when I used it. The Metabo switch was too far forward, making it hard to reach.

Chuck & Clutch

Chuck. Keyless chucks have seen some serious advances in recent years. Milwaukee, Porter-Cable, Bosch, DeWalt, Metabo, Hilti, Craftsman, and Panasonic have chucks that easily ratchet down and lock onto the bit. This means no more burned palms from cranking the chuck to insert or remove a bit. Bits don't jam nearly as easily, either. The Hitachi and Makita models still use older designs that don't tighten and release as surely, and this resulted in some bits jamming during the high-speed drilling test.

Plastic chucks can cause problems, too. I've cut raised grooves into several of them by inadvertently drilling too close to a proud nail head or hunk of metal. The grooves are sharp and make tightening the chuck downright painful. The all-metal Milwaukee and Porter-Cable chucks—the only all-metal, ratcheting/locking chucks in the test—won't have this problem and seem indestructible. The Bosch, DeWalt, Craftsman, Panasonic, Hilti, and Metabo drills all have ratcheting/locking chucks, but they aren't all metal, they're a plastic/metal combination. The Makita and Hitachi chucks are mostly plastic.

Clutch. All the drills have a multi-position clutch ranging from 16 positions (DeWalt) to 22 (Hitachi). Personally I don't see the need for more than six positions. The Makita requires you to press a tiny button to bypass the clutch for the drill position on the clutch dial. It wasn't easy to use barehanded and was impossible to use with gloves on. Hilti's black-on-black clutch settings are almost impossible to see.

Drilling Capacity: High and Low Speed

For drilling shallow holes, I use spade bits and set my drills at high speed for fast cutting. For deeper holes in double and triple studs or joists, the tool needs more low-end torque to power through the material and evacuate chips from the hole. For these holes, I switch to an auger bit and set the tool to low speed.

To determine each tool's drilling capacity in both speeds, I put a new bit on each tool and drilled until the battery's power delivery trailed off. In high speed I drilled holes in a single 2x4 stud with a 1-inch spade bit. For the low-speed test, I drilled through a double 2x4 with a 15/16-inch auger bit. Each time I looked for the tool that drilled the most holes on a single charge.

High Speed, Single 2x4. The 18-volt tools rule the roost for number of holes drilled. The Bosch drilled so many holes—79—I couldn't believe it, so I recounted them. The Milwaukee tore through 89 holes and I wondered if its battery was nuclear instead of Nicad. Porter-Cable's 19.2-volt drill, at 74 holes, did great too. Each of these tools cut quickly and smoothly, and they didn't feel like they were jumping out of my hand when the going got rough.

The DeWalt drilled 68 holes but was the fastest of the group. Makita came in close behind at 64. The Craftsman made it through 56, and Metabo's bottomed out at 50. The Panasonic tool, at 15.6 volts, drilled 45 holes, but heated up noticeably. Hilti's 15.6-volt tool drilled 43 holes, and Hitachi's 18 volter knocked out 39 holes.

During this portion of the test, it became clear that the DeWalt model is geared not just for high speed, but for really high speed. No drill got close to this tool's 2,000 rpms, which makes a world of difference on site. The rest of the tools' top ends range between 1,400 and 1,700 rpms; the Bosch is the slowest at 1,300 top-end rpms.

Low Speed, Double 2x4. When you need less speed and more torque for deeper holes in doubled- or tripled-up framing, these drills still deliver. This time, the Bosch sunk 40 holes while the Porter-Cable, Milwaukee, Makita, and Metabo sunk 36, showing great low-end torque. DeWalt muscled 34 and Craftsman 32. The 15.6-volt Panasonic and Hilti models delivered 29. Hitachi's tool drilled 20 holes.

Extras

The Makita, Bosch, and DeWalt tools come with battery end caps to protect the battery terminals when not in use. I wish all the tools shipped with these; they help your battery terminals last longer, especially if you carry bits together with the batteries.

Bosch's unit comes with a neat metal D-ring, like a carabiner, so you can hang the tool from belt hooks like the Monster Hook or Bigg Lugg. You also can hook right to your belt. DeWalt has the only three-speed tool in the bunch, which enables you to customize your speed and torque to match your work.

And a few of the tool companies actually provide good tool boxes with their drills. My ideal storage box is made of heavy-duty blow-molded plastic, opens easily, and has obvious compartments for a booklet, extra bits, drill, batteries, and charger. I also want it big enough (but not too big) to hold the drill with a driver or short drill bit attached. Unfortunately, I haven't seen my ideal box yet. Milwaukee and Bosch provide tough boxes with stout clasps and include good bit carry-alls inside. Makita and Metabo thought ahead, allowing room to store the drill with a short auger or spade bit attached. And while Craftsman includes a bit storage container in its box, it could use some improvement.

Winners

Choosing a winner from this bunch is tough. My final four include the Bosch 33618, DeWalt DW987K-2, Milwaukee 0622-24, and Porter-Cable 9984. The Milwaukee's great power, all-metal chuck, outstanding handle, and slick battery exchange give it the edge in my book. Next comes Porter-Cable's 19.2-volt drill. It's got top-notch power and, again, an all-metal chuck. The Bosch and DeWalt models tie for third in my mind. The Bosch tool drilled more holes than the DeWalt and has the best low-end torque, but that's countered by DeWalt's super fast cutting speed. Each of these tools performed so well, however, that these distinctions are small. You can't go wrong with any of these four tools. Following these are the Hilti 15.6-volt tool, Metabo's 18-volt model, and Panasonic's 15.6 volter, and then the Hitachi, Craftsman, and Makita tools.

Rex Cauldwellis a licensed contractor, master electrician, plumber, and home inspector from Copper Hill, Va.

Tools of the Trade has arranged with the companies in this test to donate their tools to Habitat for Humanity.

This article is reprinted courtesy of Tools of the Trade