Cordless power tools were considered little more than toys by some users when they became widely available in the 1980s, but newer versions are proving to be true workhorses.
Helping to improve the cordless image are faster-charging batteries that last longer and give more power, a wider selection, innovations such as interchangeable battery packs that allow continuous use and new accessories.
Combination drill/screwdrivers (drill/drivers) and compact screwdrivers are the most popular cordless shop tools, but a number of others are already available, and more are expected to appear. Portable sanders, jigsaws, circular saws, woodcarvers and nut-drivers are among the cordless selections.
Freedom from the need to be near an electrical outlet in which to plug a cord is the big advantage of a cordless tool. Shedding the cord also allows more freedom of movement -- the user can climb a ladder, crawl into an attic or walk into the woods with tool in hand and no loss of ability to run it.
There also is a valuable safety factor, since there is no danger of electrical shock or tripping over a cord.
I own two cordless drill/drivers, one a lightweight tool that serves for many drilling and screwdriving projects, the other a heavy-duty tool with enough power to handle more difficult drilling and driving. I also own a first-rate corded drill, but it has seen almost no service since the cordless tools joined my shop.
Do-it-yourselfers who haven't tried cordless shop tools should probably start with either a drill/driver or a lightweight power screwdriver. Most screwdrivers, such as Black & Decker's Power Driver and Skil's Twist and SuperTwist, have an in-line, or straight, barrel and handle instead of the pistol shape of a drill/driver.
An in-line cordless screwdriver can be extremely useful even for occasional do-it-yourselfers. Most are sold with a reversible bit with a Phillips tip on one end and a straight tip for slot screws on the other. A serviceable in-line driver can be bought for less than $25. In general, the more expensive the driver, the more power it provides.
An in-line screwdriver can become even more useful with accessories. For example, Black & Decker offers a chuck (about $12) that can be inserted in the driver in place of the screwdriver bit. The chuck converts the driver into a lightweight drill that will hold standard drill bits up to a 1/4 -inch in diameter.
Other available accessories include nut-drivers, a flexible bit hold
er for working in tight places, and special bits for drilling pilot holes for wood screws.
Drill/drivers generally have considerably more power than in-line screwdrivers. Prices range from about $25 to several hundred dollars, again with power generally increasing along with the price. I've used a 12-volt Skil power-driver in heavy-duty projects, such as screwing down decking, with excellent results. This tool costs less than $150 and includes an extra power pack, so that one set of batteries can be kept charged while the other is in use.
Here are some tips for buying and owning cordless tools:
* The tool's voltage rating is a key to the power. An inexpensive in-line screwdriver might be rated at only 2.4 volts, for example. More powerful drill/drivers generally have ratings of 7.2 or 9.6 volts, although higher voltages, such as Skil's 12-volt, are available.
* Check the charging time required for the tool. New cordless tools can often be fully charged in one hour or less, compared with up to 12 hours for earlier models.
* Heft and handle several models of a tool before buying. Variations in handle design, balance and weight make some of these tools much more comfortable to use than others.
* Carefully read and follow directions for charging and caring for tools.
Readers' questions and comments should be sent to Gene Austin, c/o The Features Department, The Baltimore Sun, Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101.