Talking Tools: Cordless versus corded tools, what's right for you?

    So you're looking for a new tool to get your current project done. One of the biggest questions is, corded or cordless?

    Corded tools have been around for almost as long as there's been an electrical grid. There are many great corded tools out there, and some older lathes and band saws I know, were made either before, or during World War II. There's truth in the saying "They don't make them like they used to". However, before we all get wistful expressions thinking about "the good ol' days". There's usually a reason for that. Technology, materials, and priorities change.

    It has really only been since the mass production of the Lithium based batteries (early 2000s) that cordless tools have become feasible contenders to the long-established corded tools.

    If you're in a hurry, this the break down of the pros and cons of each option:

      Corded Tools Cordless Tools
    Cost: Cheaper. Price is paid up-front at the time of purchase. More expensive, and batteries add additional ongoing costs. Possible that cordless tools be sold without batteries at all (skin only) with only one battery and a charger, or two batteries and a charger. Model numbers in these cases can be very similar, so you might get caught out.
    Tool Power: Generally more powerful. It's hard to beat 2400W Generally not as powerful, but usually more than enough for most tasks.
    Life Expectancy: Longer due to few parts dying of old age. No chance that neglected batteries lose effectiveness, explode, or leak. Brushed motors may need brushes replaced periodically. Batteries only last a number of years before they need replacing. Batteries left uncharged for a year don't always work well afterwards.
    Versatility: Extra power allows tools to be used in heavier duty tasks. However, the cord limits the places you can work. Cordless tools are powerful enough to do the vast majority of tasks, and can operate anywhere the tool can be moved to. (Big selling point).
    Charging: Worst case scenario, you need a generator. Otherwise you have constant power, and no interruption to work.

    You need multiple batteries to work long stretches like corded tools. Heavier duty tasks will drain batteries faster.

    That means you need bigger batteries, more batteries, and more chargers to keep up with the work.

    Annoyances: Cord can be limiting, a trip hazard, and they do get damaged over time. Batteries can add significant weight/bulk to a hand tool, which makes it more difficult to operate. Batteries need regular charging.
    Need to know:

    Many older/cheaper corded tools have brushed motors, (electrical contacts that maintain the flow of electricity as the motor spins). These brushes are a consumable which are usually easily replaced, but also cause a little friction which reduces the available torque of the motor.

    Most corded tools still use consumable parts, such as sanding pads, grinding wheels, reciprocating/oscillating blades, etc. This is also true of cordless tools, but it bears mentioning here. When the cost is almost entirely "up front" I mean for the tool itself.

    Some corded tools (generally higher end) have replaceable cables. It's very easy to simply remove them from the socket and drop in a new one.

    Warning:

    When ordering things online, make sure you know the input voltage, amperage, and plug, particularly when talking about second hand gear and larger, stationary tools. Here in Australia, where we run on 240V at 10A, we have 2400W to play with. This is much higher than than the 100-110V (often at 10A) of the U.S., Japan, and many other countries around the world.

    That said, if you buy a 15A or 20A tool, or worse yet, a "three phase" (often described as 3PH).. you simply can't run that on a typical Australian circuit. You need an electrician to install that sort of circuit for you.

    • When it comes to batteries, higher voltages on cordless tools means the motor will likely have greater torque, and are able to turn bigger sanding disks, larger drill bits, wider grinding disks, etc... and/or handle harder materials such as steel, rather than just wood. For example: You'll often find that a 12V drill has a 3/8" (9.5mm) chuck. Whereas an 18V usually has a much more versatile 13mm chuck in recognition that it can handle bigger bits. However, voltage does not tell you how long the battery will last. Which brings me to:
    • Amp/Hour (Ah) battery rating. Again, this determines how much work you can do on a single charge. You'll find the cheaper gear has a lower rating around 1-1.5Ah. Mid-range 18V gear often starts with 2Ah batteries, and you can go up from there to 4-5Ah but these batteries are bigger, heavier, and more expensive.
    • Critical Terminology:
      • "Skin only": No batteries or charger are included in the kit. (In short, it's incomplete).
      • "1 charger, 1 battery: " This is the absolute minimum to get the kit working, and this is often shown in cheaper kits. However, work stops when you have to recharge the battery.
      • "1 charger, 2 batteries": This is the common kit on mid-to-high range cordless kits. You can charge one battery while the other works.
    • Batteries are brand/series/voltage specific.
      • You can't use a Makita battery to run a DeWalt drill.
      • Also, really old DeWalt cordless tools probably don't handle new batteries either. Finally..
      • You can't plug an 18V battery into a 12V tool (or vice versa).
    • Save money!
      • It's counterintuitive, but it's often cheaper to buy tools in one single brand/voltage kit, even when you have to buy tools you don't want. You'll get so much more value, and it only goes up as kits get bigger. Shop around and wait for a sale though.

    Cordless tool obsessions: Have tool shops become facilitators of brand-based fanaticism?

    I call this photo: "Come to the Blue Side"

    Go into any tool shop like Sydney Tools or Total Tools, and you'll find that many have whole aisles dedicated to one brand of tools. They've literally separated the shop into brand-coloured sections much like the team-loyal spectators of major sporting events. One aisle might be the blue of Makita, another, the red of Milwaukee, another area will be defined by the fluorescent green of Ryobi, somewhere, there will doubtless be the wall of black and yellow for DeWalt. Festool, being so expensive, will often have it's own demonstration area where all things Festool will be laid out and conveniently easy to put your hands on. This is in stark contrast to the "no you can't open the box" of the other brands.

    I wasn't kidding about the whole "red" team aisle. I'm honestly surprised that this tradie is brave enough to walk down the Milwaukee aisle in what is clearly DeWalt colours. ;~P

    Only a few years ago, you'd have found many of these shops arranged completely differently. Circular saws here, drills there, routers two shelves over, and sanders two in the other direction. So what has changed? and why have so many tool shops forsaken the easy side-by-side comparison of a similar-tool-based arrangement for this brand loyalist, fanaticism-inducing, and in my humble opinion, much more difficult shopping experience?

    One possible answer: cordless tools.

    You'll find that battery powered tools are definitely fashionable, and widely promoted, sold individually and in sets/packs/bundles these days. Why? Because it's about getting the customer to keep returning and buying more stuff. Let me explain..

    Corded tools are almost a one and done deal. You buy them, and if you accidentally cut the extension cord you're plugged into, you just buy another extension cord. Even if they have consumable parts like the brushes in some motors, if they're treated well, a corded drill can last many years before they need replacing. I still have my corded Makita hammer drill from 20 years ago, and it works fine. But corded tools are limiting in their own way.... if you need to move them around. So let's look at the ideal of cordless tools....

    Here comes the marketing spin for cordless tools:

    With the undeniably massive improvements in battery technology of the last 20 years, we've come a long way from the pitiful performance (14 hour charge, 10 minutes of actual use) of the Nickel-Cadmium batteries found in the cordless drills of the 90s. Thanks to new Lithium-based batteries, cordless power tools of previously unheard of capacity have become reality. Cordless tools naturally offer the ability to work unhindered by power cords, and offer a significant amount of convenience, which leads to greater productivity and workplace flexibility.

    It sounds wonderful, and it's all true... However, this is not without downsides... and associated costs.

    The costs of cordless tools:

    Cordless tools are generally less powerful (not necessarily by much.. at least... in short bursts) and more expensive than their corded counterparts to begin with, but this is not where the real cost lies. The greatest costs are in one way or another, generated by the batteries, which are a bit of a two-hit downside to cordless tools:

    1. Batteries only last a few years, so you'll need to replace them (and probably the tools) given enough time. So there's planned obsolescence.

    2. Batteries are essential to the tool, but are also expensive, and in a way, addictive. They literally get you hooked, then you need to keep buying more.

    Batteries, weirdly, are sometimes sold as "accessories", despite being so essential. A single battery can run anywhere between $80-$199 each and are "brand specific". If you already have a Milwaukee drill, you can't insert a Makita battery when it goes flat. But if you have the cordless varieties of drill, impact driver, angle grinder, reciprocating saw, and jig saw by the one company and of similar vintage), you can interchangeably use one battery for any of those tools. I think this is the reason for brand-separation in shops these days. To stop people buying incompatible hardware... that, and the fact that most people are stuck with whichever cordless brand they already have. Nonetheless, I still think they've taken it too far by ordering the corded tools this way as well. So now we can be confused as to whether or not we're buying a corded or cordless tool, and it isn't always obviously labeled on the box!

    Regardless of the brand you choose, to run any cordless tool reliably, you need to have multiple batteries so you can charge one while you use the other. Really heavy users may need to stock up on charged batteries before they start work each day which of course, needs more batteries and multiple chargers to handle that load. In some cases, some larger cordless tools require two batteries simultaneously in order to function well. This leads to additional problems, because the additional bulk and weight of the batteries can make tools more cumbersome to use than their corded counterparts, despite the lack of cords.

    How portable is it really?

    Cordless tools invoke the almost universally constant view that things are easier to move around. Ok, so if you're a home based DIY-er, then portability isn't really that important. However, things change when you need to move the accessories with the tools. If you are bicycling over to a friends place to help them work with your own cordless tools, carrying a circular saw, a drill, an impact driver, 8 batteries, two chargers, and an extension cord for the chargers.. you might just be better off with three corded tools and an extension cord. Cordless does not mean universally lighter, more compact, or easy to move. Remember that.

    Batteries aren't all created equal!

    What does voltage really mean for tools?

    It may shock some, but some batteries offer far more power than others. Whether you're using a 12V (volt) system, an 18V system, or adjustable 18V/54V "FlexVolt" system,  the voltages might sound really impressive, but this is more about how much power is on offer at any given moment, not how long the battery will last under a certain load. That said, you'll find that as the voltage increases, the motors power goes up (usually higher speed, and/or higher torque... depending on your settings). Higher torque means that the tool can handle larger bits, heavier duty tasks, and work with harder materials such as steel. It also means that you need to be able to handle that torque, or you might find your arm twisting at funny angles if you aren't careful. So it shouldn't surprise you that higher voltage systems have bigger drill chucks (and take larger bits), wider sanding pads (faster sanding through greater area of effectiveness), larger grinding wheels (faster cutting of metals, and less frequent disk changes), etc.

    Using a cordless drill as a guideline for choosing a voltage...

    Take the largest drill bit you have (or plan to use). Find out how big a chuck you'll need, and choose your voltage accordingly. 12V systems only go to 9.5mm (3/8"), so if you want to go to 13mm (1/2") bits... which is a common size most drill bit sets/indexes go to.. then you should be looking at 18V or more. If you're not sure, I'd try to aim for 18V anyway, as this has served my crazy DIY tendencies for a long time. Since we live in Australia, the humble metric 10mm bolt is a popular fastener.. it's for this reason, you'll find most drills are 18V or more.

    A Ham anecdote/tale about why I chose the Stanley Fatmax system...

    Other features you might want to consider (beyond voltage) is the drill transmission. Back in 2015 in what seems like a pre-Covid dream to me, I chose my Stanley kit because it has the usual clutch (so you don't overpower and destroy your screws/project) and somewhat unusually,  a dual speed gearbox. One gear is for speed (great for soft materials) and the other gear is for torque (power for working with hard materials and/or larger bits). It honestly surprised me that the torque on the $180 Stanley drill didn't just exceed, but destroyed a Makita and a Milwaukee drill's torque ratings where each cost over $300. This was shown to me by the guys at the local hardware store.. who got into an almost-violent (and presumably brand-loyalist) argument about which brand I should get... I mentioned that I'd like to see it in action (partly for me, partly because I wanted to avoid rising tensions) so they did a demonstration "just to shut the other guy up". The Stanley was supposed to be "Here's a relatively unheard-of brand for comparison".... which totally won in my eyes, had the same length of warranty, slightly cheaper batteries, and the kit was $137 cheaper than it's nearest competitor. The only down side is that hardware store closed down, so I have to order batteries online.. and they're getting harder to find. Of course, I expect things have changed since 2015... so do your own research and see who's "on top" today.

    Back to battery basics (sorry about my digression)

    What on Earth does "Amp Hour" (Ah) mean?

    The voltage alone isn't a good indicator of the battery. To get a complete view, you need to look at the "Amp hour" (or Ah) rating. Some 12V systems go as small as 1-1.5Ah. This is enough to run a small drill for about 20 minutes of continuous drilling (lighter load).. that might be  a whole day of drilling for a DIYer. Most smaller 18V batteries start around 2Ah and go up to 4-5Ah... which runs a more powerful drill for the better part of an hour, a 150mm/6" angle grinder for about 25-30 minutes, and a reciprocating/jig saw (depending on task) about 15-30 mins. Larger capacity batteries (think 4Ah, 5Ah, and beyond) while useful, are a bit of a "double-edged sword"... they make life easier, and faster, and more gets done on a single charge.... but the cost, size and weight of the battery will increase. Also, charging times on larger batteries tend to increase as well... unless the cells inside the battery are charged in parallel (or simultaneously).. some chargers do, and others... not so much.

    I can run my 18V drill continuously under (light-ish) load for roughly 35 minutes on a 2Ah battery. More like an hour on my 4Ah battery. Since drills are seldom run continuously, this might be weeks or even months worth of power on a single charge. Depending on how often and how hard you drive your drill.

    Getting the best deal with cordless tools:

    Getting the best deal for tools means that you have a little bit of research to do before you hand over your money.

    In general, knowing the tools that you want is going to be a big help. That way, you don't buy the things you don't need, and put your money where it will do the most good. However, in my experience, tool manufacturers like to mess this logical and common sense approach with "kit" pricing. Often, it's best to buy one large set of cordless tools that has everything you need and maybe some extras, than it is to buy just the tools you want. (Weird I know) Sometimes, it's actually cheaper to buy a set of 4 tools than it is to buy two, and you'll get extra batteries included.

    I started with just my Stanley drill. Later I decided I wanted a reciprocating saw, and an impact driver. To buy the impact driver alone, would cost me $175, and the reciprocating saw, another $189. The total for both was $364. Instead, I bought a 4 tool kit that included:

    • A second drill
    • The impact driver
    • The reciprocating saw
    • An angle grinder
    • 2x 2Ah batteries in the box
    • another charger

    ... and the cost. $416. When one battery alone costs roughly $100, getting two, a charger, an angle grinder, and another drill all for the equivalent of $52 made more sense to me. I distribute the workload of my drills between the two (handy to have one for holes, another for countersinking, and the impact driver for driving screws.

    Beware "Skin only":

    Skin only means that you get a cordless tool with no batteries or charger whatsoever. This is perhaps the most expensive way to buy cordless tools. Often, a manufacturer might offer the same tool, with multiple combinations like:

    • Skin only
    • Tool with one battery and charger
    • Tool with two batteries and a charger.

    So make sure you order the right one. It also makes it a little less obvious when comparing prices, as the models can be very similar. Skin-only offerings are only really viable, when you already have an extensive collection of that brand, and you just want that one extra tool. However, being caught out like this is how manufacturers make their money from you. Buying a kit all at once has some merit, even if there's no kit that has your exact match. So talk to the shop when you're making a purchase and see if they'll do you a deal. Alternatively, ask which brand is having a promotion, trade in deal, redemption offer, or any other combination of bonus deals. It's kinda scary how much the larger bundles will save you. You may even get a substantial discount, cash back, free batteries, additional tools, store credit, or a combination thereof.

    Many promotions for cordless tools:

    As I just mentioned, there are many promotions, trade in deals, store credit, cashback, extra accessories and tools via redemption, the list goes on. Have a look at any of the tool manufacturer or tool retailer sites and the chances are there's at least two different brands making some sort of offer in any given week. Come back around tax time, and you'll hear "End of Financial Year (EoFY) sales being mentioned everywhere. After Christmas, New Years, Easter Weekend, Father's Day, and any other reason to have a sale means that you should never pay retail price for your tools.

    Manufacturers do this to try and poach customers of other brands, particularly when they're coming up to the time their old equipment is getting hard to maintain in a suitable amount of batteries. A substantial trade in deal, on top of bulk purchase discounts, with manufacturer redemptions, and/or store credit (just because you spent money), and the potential to get tax deductions if you're in the trades, (or use the tool to generate some taxed income) can make a significant impact on the cost of a complete system upgrade.

    Interestingly, if you buy lots of cordless tools, many of the redemption deals I have received comes in the form of corded tools. I've gained three corded circular saws, two corded angle grinders, and a fleecy hoodie that was unsurprisingly, corded with a draw string on the hood. :-) So the redemption offers don't always help you with your cordless tools. If they do, they're likely to throw in a battery or two.. occasionally a skin-only 125mm/5" angle grinder or something.

    Despite all my whining, cordless tools are extremely useful:

    I don't want you to get the impression that I don't like cordless tools. Far from it. However, the simple truth is that corded tools have more power, a greater life expectancy, lower cost, and simpler setup, if you're comparing like for like.

    Having three chargers (one DeWalt, two Stanley) and a combined total of 8 batteries to use amongst cordless 7 tools (drills, impact driver, reciprocating saw, jig saw, angle grinder, and brad nailer) means I can do a surprising amount whilst away from power. Interestingly, redemption schemes gave me many of the corded equivalents of the same tools, so I can choose to operate in a corded or cordless manner, depending on my situation.

    Cordless tools are fantastic for the average home DIY-er who only uses their tools occasionally, and for those who operate away from power sources. Heavier users will most likely find that they'll need to make a substantial investment in batteries in order to do a solid days worth of work. In that case, corded tools might be a better fit for them.

    While batteries and power are important, there's still other factors to consider when buying tools. Things like torque forces (not all drills are equally powerful), warranty periods, and of course, price should always be a factor. How you intend to use the tools is another important consideration. If you have a workshop, then corded tools may be the best choice. If you crawl into a lot of tight spaces, work away from power, and only use your tools for lighter duty tasks then cordless may be better suited for your needs.

    There's no right or wrong answer, I don't care if all your tools are colour matched, or a complete representation of the brand-coloured rainbow. There really isn't a huge amount of difference between a drill made by Makita, or Bosch, they'll definitely both drill holes. I just hope you buy what you need, and don't get caught out buying one individual "skin only" tool after another.

    Stay safe and happy DIY-ing!

    Ham.


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