Buzzing Through Choices Of Power Tools


August 10, 1991|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

Power tools . . . wouldn't that make a great name for a heavy-metal rock group? As it is, it's enough to make the heart of any serious rehabber beat faster. The lanes of home-improvement stores are full of shiny, promising tools and, if you're a tool lover, as most people who work on houses are, they all seem like great devices to own.

The truth is you can probably remodel a room or even rehab an entire house with a good collection of hand tools and just two power tools: an electric drill and a circular saw.

The single drill should be a good-quality, 3/8 -inch variable-speed, reversible model. It should have a wide selection of bits and a drill index, abox with holes that match each bit, to keep them organized. (The fraction refers to the widest shaft the drill will take. Some larger bits have a reduced shaft to fit a 3/8 -inch drill.) Bits are relatively inexpensive and serve a wide variety of functions -- Phillips head bits that drive screws, drum bits and wire wheels for sanding, flexible-shaft bits for tight spaces. It's hard to collect too many bits.

If the drill has a loose chuck key (the device that tightens the drill around the bit), you can buy a strap that will attach it to the cord. (Some drills come with the chuck key already attached.)

A 3/8 -inch drill has enough power to run spade bits and hole saws, so you can install locks where you may need a hole 2 1/2 inches wide or wider. (You can buy lock-installation kits with the spade bit and the hole saw.)

The 3/8 -inch drill probably isn't powerful enough if you're going to be drilling a lot of large holes or drilling into masonry. It will do those things, but it will wear out quicker. If you need a larger drill, or can afford two, get a 1/2 -inch drill. And, if you are buying a second drill, you might want to consider a hammer drill, which can drill and hammer at the same time to punch through very heavy surfaces, such as concrete and masonry. Some hammer drills operate in two modes, drill alone and drill plus hammer.

And if you really get into drills, it's nice to have a lightweight, cordless rechargeable model. It's great for carpentry and trim work where you need to drill a lot of small holes to avoid splitting trim or fine wood. It's easier to climb a ladder or work in the back of a cabinet with a cordless drill -- which is why cabinet installers use them a lot.

If you buy just one power saw, it should be a circular saw with a 7 1/4 -inch blade and a motor with 2 horsepower or larger. Such a saw will cut any 2-inch-thick lumber. You can buy blades for various uses -- cutting plywood, cutting steel -- but the basic blade should be a carbide-tipped framing blade. (If you're doing finer work, you can buy what's called a hollow-ground planer, which makes a smoother cut.) It's a good idea to have a couple of basic blades, so you can use an old one if it's likely you'll be cutting into nails.

You might want to consider a professional model circular saw; they tend to be heavier and have easily accessible controls that keep your fingers well away from the blade. While it's the most basic saw, the circular saw is also probably the most dangerous. You have to stay alert when you are using it and exercise every precaution. Keeping the blade sharp will help reduce "kick-back," when the saw binds up in the cut and drives itself back. The wider the base the more stable the saw will be, allowing steadier cuts.

OK, you've acquired the drill and the circular saw and your power-tool lust still has not been satisfied. What should you look at next?

How about another saw? Randy's second-favorite saw is a reciprocating saw, or cut saw. It's a sort of electric hack saw, with the front-mounted blade that moves back and forth. It has a wide barrel and a handle at the back for gripping. It will cut virtually anything -- Randy's was used recently to cut off the bottom of an old steel fire escape. It will also cut through joists, pipes and cables, so it's a great demolition saw. And because the blade is mounted on the front, it will cut in close quarters. You can buy wood-cutting or metal-cutting blades in a wide variety of lengths -- up to 12 inches.

Another great saw is the power miter, which can be set up to turn a home job site into a mini-lumber mill. It's a powerful saw that cuts 90-degree and other angles from the top of the board down. It's good if you're doing a lot of framing, because the angles are preset. You don't have to keep stopping to draw cutting lines on the boards. The simpler models will cut lumber up to 2 inches thick and 6 inches wide; fancier models will cut wider boards and compound angles. (But with all models you have to watch where you put your fingers.)

A portable table saw is another versatile tool. It weighs about 40 pounds so it can move around the job site for finish work (door trim and baseboards, for instance). The blades are 8 to 10 inches in diameter and are mounted so you can rip boards (making them narrower, as opposed to shorter) on the site.

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