It goes without saying that anyone that works in the construction industry will end up with a garage, shed or factory full of power tools. But having initially opted for the university path, it wasn’t until nearly nine years into my career that I had any real need to work with my hands or think seriously about buying any power tools. Of course I had collected a range of power tools – either passed down from my grandfather or purchased during one of my frequent trips to Bunnings while working around the house – but I knew they weren’t good enough for me to be able to rely on when working on site.
Faced with needing to buy a good set of power tools, a few questions arose:
- What makes a power tool good, average or bad?
- What brand should you buy?
- Do you actually get better quality if you spend more?
- Are battery tools as good as corded tools?
- Where’s the best place to buy them and get good advice?
Having spoken to a few builders and tradesmen who already had a considerable collection, I settled on five major criteria – in order of importance – that I would use to answer these questions and decide which power tools I should buy:
- Available range
The full range of tools that are available is not the same for each brand. Some smaller or international brands have a limited range or don’t sell their full range in Australia, which obviously makes expanding your collection difficult. Major brands like Makita, DeWalt and Milwaukee have extensive ranges and provide all of the main types of tools you would expect to find available, with differences being in the specialist trades they target. Some of the considerations I made when comparing ranges between brands included:
- 12V, 18V and 36V – for the work I am likely to perform, I am far more likely to use 18V and 36V tools. The 12V range is less important to me than it might be to an electrician doing fit-off work or someone doing DIY projects around the house.
- General Construction – drilling, grinding, fastening, tightening, sawing, sanding and planing
- Demolition –breaking, blowing and vacuuming
- Gardening – lawnmowers, line trimmers, chainsaws, hedge trimmers
- Metalwork – grinding, cutting, drilling and dust extraction tools
- Camping / Adventure – lights, chainsaws, fans, radios and coffee machines
Tools such as lights, fans, radios, coffee machines, drills, grinders, saws, blowers and vacuums service just about every trade, so it’s unlikely the major brands won’t provide their own version within their range. There are genuine differences between the ranges offered by major brands for tools that focus on gardening, metalwork or demolition. The difference in the range of power gardening tools and 36V tools was a major factor in my decision to select Makita over Milwaukee or DeWalt.
The available range on offer can also vary quite significantly between stores. Stores such as Bunnings only carry selected brands, target DIY customers and carry a more limited range. When comparing the available ranges between stores, I also realised that:
- Quite often the most expensive model on offer at Bunnings was not the flagship model. When simply comparing the price for a Makita drill from Total Tools and Bunnings, it seemed like Bunnings’ prices were identical. The drill they were actually selling though was one model down from the flagship model. For the same money I would get a better model if I bought it from Total Tools.
- The warranties for tools purchased from Bunnings are not the same as for tools purchased from a tool shop. Some of the tools at Bunnings only came with a DIY warranty and would not be fixed or replaced in the event they failed when used for commercial purposes.
- The level of expertise and advice provided by tool shops is generally far superior. Tool shops have strong relationships with sales representatives from all the brands they stock, have regular trade presentation nights and are aware of the full range of tools on offer; regardless of whether they stock them in store or not. In my experience, they are more willing to provide you with brochures, discuss tools they don’t traditionally stock in store, provide additional information or to call the sales representatives to answer detailed, technical questions.
Another obviously key criterion is how the tools perform. Just because a particular brand offers a tool in their range, doesn’t mean it’s going to be any good. Some of the considerations I made when comparing performance between similar tools offered by the different major brands included:
- Durability – will this do what I need it to do over and over and over again or will it fail after a few heavy uses
- Comfort – weight, balance, vibration, grip / body position, noise
- Versatility – does the design make this tool versatile
Assuming the tools being used are all top of their range, I wouldn’t expect to see any noticeable difference between the major brands. There are countless YouTube videos comparing Maktia’s best impact driver to DeWalt’s and Milwaukee’s, with very little difference between them. I do think however, that there is a difference in durability between Makita’s entry level impact driver and Makita’s flagship model which is covered more in the Price section below.
Comfort and versatility are big considerations and I do think that there is a noticeable difference between some of the brands with some of their tools. The weight of the tool and how that weight is balanced can have a significant impact on how you feel at the end of the day, as can how you grip the tool and position your body needs to be in to use it. Attachments are also generally provided to improve comfort; such as a side handle for a hammer drill that can be the difference between avoiding a serious wrist sprain or fracture while drilling. While only minor, small differences in design may restrict how you use the tool in tight spaces, off a ladder or overhead.
When assessing performance, the difference between Makita’s caulking guns and Milwaukee’s was another reason I chose to select Makita.
batteries and chargers
Each brand provides a variety of battery capacities, with bigger not necessarily being better. Bigger batteries are much heavier and take far longer to charge, so often I would rather swap more frequently between three smaller, lighter batteries than two larger, heavier batteries. Regardless of the brand, tools such as grinders and blowers are going to run batteries down far quicker than fans or drills.
While not necessarily a consideration that swayed me toward a particular brand, batteries and chargers are definitely a reason for me to stay with one brand. At last count, I have fifteen 5.0ah and eight 6.0ah batteries, with two single, three dual and two quad battery chargers; none of which would be of any use if I bought a Milwaukee or DeWalt power tool.
I found the cost of new power tools an interesting consideration to balance. There is not a great deal of difference in cost between the brands, but there is a difference in cost between the various models offered within a brand’s range. A hundred and fifty dollars difference between a base model and flagship model is not an insignificant difference, especially when multiplied out over ten or twelve tools in a package.
In my experience, when you need to rely on your tools day in, day out, you absolutely get what you pay for. There is no material difference in the performance of a base model tool compared to a flagship tool when working at home in your garage. Yes it may take longer to drill some holes or make the necessary cuts, but the job will get done and likely to the same standard regardless of what tools you are using.
When you are on site – out in the elements, under pressure or working to a schedule – you will notice a difference between the base and flagship models in the way you work.
Additional power, torque, electric braking, revolutions per minute etc all make a difference when you are completing the same task for hours, days or weeks at a time. My experience has been that flagship brushless tools last longer and are less likely to require replacement parts over the life of the tool.
As with most things, the more you buy at once, the more you are likely to save. Whether a large upfront investment is possible will obviously be determined by your available budget, but most brands will allow you to customise the packages that are on offer. This is another reason why I recommend purchasing tools from a tool shop instead of Bunnings, as a tool shop is far more likely to offer better packages and to customise packages. End of financial year sales and promotional events offered by tool shops are another great way to save money when buying a number of tools at once.
In the six years that I have been using Makita power tools, I have been incredibly happy with the performance of each and every tool, as well as the service I have received from a variety of Total Tools stores. I have always purchased the flagship models, and am yet to replace any of the tools that I originally purchased; with only minor scheduled servicing and replacement parts being required over that time.