Power Tools That Rule

Cordless Power ToolsGus Sestrap, who oversees some of the most prestigious construction projects in North America, has a unique perspective on jobsite productivity. It’s his responsibility to make sure things happen safely and profitably on projects like the new Seahawks Stadium in Seattle. He’s got access to decades worth of numbers that say a lot to anyone interested in tools.

On the Seahawk’s job, for instance, productivity came in at a whopping US$19,800 per worker per month. Besides being a massive figure, 20-grand of output for each trades person on the job is especially jaw-dropping when you realize that it’s more than twice as large as inflation-adjusted numbers taken in the same way, by the same construction company on similar projects dating back to the 1970s. It’s not that tradespeople sweat twice as much as they did 30 years ago, it’s mostly about the way buildings go together and the bigger and better power tools that make it all happen.

Whether you work on big projects or little ones, success is the name of the game, and speed is part of that. Getting the most from the time you devote to building and renovating depends on understanding what key power tools can do for you, how to buy them, and learning to put the machinery to work for you by taking advantage of repetitive work strategies. Whether or not you’re a professional, getting more done in less time has obvious advantages.

Cordless Circular Saws

Something important happened a few years ago, but hardly anyone noticed. When 24 volt cordless circular saws hit the market they ushered in a new era of convenience and productivity.

It’s now possible to frame an entire house with a cordless saw, just as fast as you could with a corded model. Cordless saws aren’t entirely as powerful as their corded cousins, but they’re gutsy enough to do most jobs without excuses.

Cordless saws help you work better, faster and more safely, but good as they are, not everyone can justify owning one.

Do You Really Need Cordless?

Although it’s convenient, user-friendly and incredibly cool, you do pay a premium.

  • An 18 volt to 24 volt circular saw, for instance, typically costs $350 to $450, plus a new $100 battery every three to five years.
  • I don’t recommend you buy a cordless saw with a lower voltage rating than this range because they’re just not worth it.
  • You might as well use a good “cordless” handsaw.
  • By comparison, the least expensive contractor-grade plug-in saws start at about $180, delivering more power than even the largest cordless model.
  • Assess your needs reasonably before you buy.

Blade Size

Cordless saws are handy everywhere, but shine most brightly on jobs away from the electrical grid, and high up on ladders and roofs where cords are troublesome and dangerous. Besides this obvious truth, blade size is the first technical thing you need to consider as you plan to buy.

  • When you’re shopping, look for models that spin at least a 6 3/8-inch diameter blade.
  • The best cordless saws now take 7 1/4-inch diameter blades, just like typical plug-in models.
  • These offer the depth-of-cut capability necessary for serious framing, including bevel cuts on 2x lumber.
  • In tests I’ve run in the field, a fully charged 24 volt cordless saw can rip the length of a 10-foot long, dry construction-grade 2×8 in about 35 seconds; 14.4 volt machines clock in at about 80 seconds, and 18 volt models chew through in just under a minute.

Charger Design

Most people don’t realize how important charger design is to battery life, with quite a variation across the board.

  • The best designs offer variable charge rates that self-adjust to a dozen different measured battery parameters like internal heat levels, ambient air temperature, charge state, cell condition and others.
  • Smart chargers go easy on batteries plugged in to them, with some even including charge patterns and built-in fans that cool cells and internal circuitry.
  • Also look for diagnostic capabilities that report back to you about battery condition. A substantial, fully-equipped charger boosts the service life of tool batteries compared with simple, lightweight models, all else being equal.
  • Those flimsy chargers that feel like empty plastic shells cost you in shortened battery cycle life.

Extend Battery Life

Heat saps battery life, and at $100 a pop for replacements, understanding how to extend battery life pays big.

  • The fastest way to fry any cordless tool battery is to let the tool stall-out during use. With the naturally tough conditions faced by any cordless saw, this is an especially distinct possibility.
  • An 18 or 24 volt machine draws as much as 80 amps of current during stall-out events. This melts internal insulation between cells in a battery pack, causing short circuits and reduced capacity — both things that boost battery heating even more in the future.

Portable Tablesaws

The old saying ‘good things come in small packages’ didn’t always apply to tablesaws. In fact, small saws used to be junk, a stigma that persists in some people’s minds today. But the truth is, packing power and precision into a lightweight combination is what the best portables now deliver. There are two main types:

  1. Semi-portable contractor saws (about 100 to 150 lbs)
  2. Fully-portable bench top saws that can be carried easily by one person. Weighing in at around 75 lbs. they’re lighter than traditional contractor models, yet deliver the same cutting power. The main difference is a slightly smaller saw table area.

On a technical level, you’re looking for a table saw with a 10” diameter blade, a fence design that allows cuts made to the centre of a 48”-wide sheet of plywood or particleboard, and enough power to handle the full range of cutting challenges. Saws with motors drawing 12 to 15 amps of current offer the zest needed to slice through 2-inch hardwood in a single pass.

Don’t Forget the Drills

An old-time carpenter I knew once said something that showed me how much I take for granted. He learned the trade before electrification came to his corner of Canada, so he knew what life was like when you had to rip 16-foot planks by hand. “If I had to choose just one electric tool,” he offered, “it would be a drill. Dollar-for-dollar there’s nothing more useful.” Drills have been around so long I’d forgotten they were there. But just try drilling a bunch of cable holes using a hand brace. And it’s not just a cordless thing, either.

Cordless Drills

As with cordless saws, battery-free drilling is nice if you can justify it.

  • You’ll find the best value for the dollar comes in tools in the 12 volt to 14.4 volt range.
  • Sure, you get more wrist-twisting power from 18 and 24 volt drills, but the trade off is higher purchase price, higher battery costs, and shortened battery life.
  • All else being equal, big batteries have a shorter working life than smaller ones because the cells are more tightly packed and dissipate heat less quickly.
  • Best Value – Corded Drills
  • Even if you never intend to buy your way on to the leading edge of the drill world, advances offer you value. As the best drills get better, it leaves excellent lower-priced drills in its wake. Corded, variable speed reversing drills with a 3/8-inch chuck offer the best general-purpose value of all time, largely because of how cool and desirable the latest 24 volt cordless drills are.

Mega-drills

At the other end of the spectrum are the specialty mega-drills coming to Canada from Europe. If you need to drill big in masonry, there’s new equipment to help.

I recently had to bore two 4-inch diameter holes through a 24-inch thick solid stone foundation wall to bring power cables and water lines outside to a new building. The only tool I could find that was up to the task was a new European import equipped with a coring bit that fed water directly into the cut. This thing is so powerful you can watch the tool move through the rock, yet without any of the vibration you’d expect from a hammer drill.

It’s easy to believe that tools will keep getting better, but exactly what form that advancement takes is tougher to envision. On the retail horizon right now you’ll find a tablesaw that won’t cut your finger off, even if you shove it directly into the spinning blade; ultra-slim saw blades as thick as cereal box cardboard yet rock solid in the cut; and harder alloys that boost saw blade and router bit performance beyond anything around now. The bottom line is better buildings, a better future for the trades, and a lot more fun more for anyone interested in making things happen.

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Posted on November 11th, 2010

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