The (Mostly) Cordless Workshop
For convenience and portability, there's no beating cordless tools. But do they have enough power and endurance to get you through the toughest woodworking jobs? More and more, the answer to that question is "yes." To be fair, cordless tools can't replace most shop machinery, such as planers, jointers, drill presses, and bandsaws—yet. But with one battery-powered tablesaw already on the market, it seems almost anything is possible.
The downside? Battery-powered tools cost 20–60 percent more compared to equivalent corded tools. But, buying bare tools after you get a few battery packs makes that cost less of a hurdle. (Most of the cost with cordless tools lies in the batteries.)
We've tested countless battery-powered tools in the WOOD® magazine shop over the years—including some you might never need for woodworking, but would appreciate nonetheless. So let's take a look at which cordless tools you should consider adding to your shop.
Recent advancements in cordless tools
* Lithium-ion rules the day. Nearly all new battery-powered tools run on lithium-ion (Li-Ion) packs. This chemistry delivers longer run time, faster charges, lighter weight, and the ability to hold a charge longer while sitting idle, compared to the nickel cadmium (NiCd) and nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries of a decade ago. Some manufacturers still make original-chemistry packs for those older tools, but they're getting more difficult to find each year. So if you haven't upgraded to Li-Ion tools, it makes sense to do it the next time you need to replace old battery packs. (A few manufacturers make Li-Ion packs that work with older NiCd tools.)
* Brushless motors. Compared to carbon-brushed motors (the standard for decades), brushless designs make possible smaller and lighter tools with greater efficiency (longer battery run times) and longer tool life. This technology also aided the development of high-demand cordless-tool categories, such as cordless 10" and 12" mitersaws, 71⁄4 " circular saws, two-knife power planers, and the previously mentioned tablesaw.
Brushless motors add 20–50 percent more to the tool cost compared to brushed motors. So, for the near future, there will still be room in the market for brushed-motor tools simply because of their lower prices.
* Higher battery capacities. A battery's amp-hour rating equates to the amount of "gas" in a car's tank: more amp-hours equal more run time per charge. In the past year or so, we've seen 18- and 20-volt packs with 5-, 6-, and even 9-amp-hour ratings hit the market. Higher capacity adds weight—and cost—to batteries, so smaller packs still make sense in a wood shop. And most batteries recharge in less than an hour, with some as quickly as 30 minutes, so you won't have to wait long for a fresh pack.
* Double the power. Several manufacturers now make tools that use two identical battery packs simultaneously to achieve twice the power and/or run time. Makita has a few dozen tools that pair 18-volt packs to create 36 volts of power—no need to buy into a new battery platform. Other tool companies have dedicated 36-volt (or larger) battery platforms for high-demand tools.
* Multi-voltage packs. DeWalt's FlexVolt battery packs work on two platforms of tools. They power the 60-volt line of tools that share the FlexVolt branding, and automatically switch to work on their 20-volt tools (delivering longer run times).
* Chargers with room to spare. Multi-pack and multi-voltage chargers, available in many brands, increase your charging flexibility while reducing the number of outlet-hogging chargers in your shop.
* Longer warranties. The number one complaint about cordless tools from WOOD readers has always been the cost of replacing battery packs. Although some manufacturers still back their tools and batteries for a year or two, others now offer warranties of 20 years (Rockwell) and lifetime battery replacement (Ridgid).
Cordless tools every woodworker should have
Even if you're not sure how much you'll use the four tools shown above, consider buying them in a combo kit rather than getting each at separate times. You'll save money with a kit, get two (or more) batteries, and find yourself using them more than you think.
* Drill/driver. If possible, choose a model with a 1⁄2 " chuck (rather than 3⁄8 "), so you can use a greater range of drill bits and accessories. Most manufacturers offer both compact and full-size drills in the 18/20-volt platform; we prefer the compact models in a shop because of their lighter weight and smaller size. And 12-volt drill/drivers offer even more of a size advantage, yet still have all the power you'll need to build woodworking projects. Most have 3⁄8 " chucks, but you'll love their nimbleness.
* Impact driver. This tool is our first choice for driving screws. That's because it delivers about four times the torque of a comparable cordless drill, and eliminates the whiplashlike jerk common with drills when a fastener seats. Impact drivers come with quick-release chucks, so you can use only driver bits and accessories with 1⁄4 " hex shanks. Look for impact-rated driver bits that can withstand that increased torque.
* Circular saw. The 18/20-volt saws have the clear advantage here, with higher torque and larger blade sizes than the few 12-volt saws on the market. Most come with 61⁄2 " blades—a nice size capable of cutting 2× and 8/4 lumber—but a 71⁄4 " saw provides even more capacity and blade choices.
* Jigsaw. You'll really appreciate not having to avoid a cord when making curved cuts. All cordless jigsaws use the preferred T-shank blades, giving you the most blade choices. And the best saws have guides to keep the blades tracking true. Both barrel-grip and top-handle versions work well; choose the one that feels most natural in your hand.
Fully capable tools for the outlet-impaired shop
* Trim router. A cordless trim router means you can just grab it and go. We like having more than one on hand, each equipped with a commonly used bit, such as a small round-over or chamfer. And remember: You don't need to pay for a battery for each one. Buy them bare, and simply pop a battery into the one you need.
* Mitersaw. The power and capacities of these saws now rival those of the biggest corded models—perfect for building outdoor structures.
* Track saw. These hyperaccurate circ saws work great at cutting up sheet goods and wide lumber with precision. You'll never worry about a cord catching on the rail.
* Radio. Built to withstand the dust and abuse of a job site, these also make sweet music in a wood shop. Get one with Bluetooth capability to play music from your smartphone or tablet. Some models charge batteries, but most do not.
* Tablesaw. DeWalt's FlexVolt 8" saw is the only model on the market as of this writing. It's more powerful than we'd have thought, able to smoothly rip 2× stock with impressive run time, even when cutting hard woods. At about the size of a job-site saw, it also brings those cut-capacity limitations.
* Nailers. You'll enjoy not listening to a loud air compressor, but the slight delay between trigger pull and driven fastener takes some getting used to. Although there are many sizes and types of cordless nailers, 16-, 18- and 23-gauge models serve a woodworker best.
* Lights. Nearly every shop could benefit from more lights, especially portable task lighting. Most cordless kits come with a flashlight, but if not, get an LED model (below) on your platform. Some have stands, clamps, or hooks for easy positioning.
Luxuries worth adding to your platform
* Vacuum. Portability makes it great for sucking up dust and small debris, wherever it might be.
* Power planer. These are great for trimming doors to fit a space; also for flattening turning blanks prior to attaching a faceplate.
* Oscillating multi-tool. You might not use one often, but when you need it for trimming or sanding in tight spaces, very often nothing else will do the job.
* Right-angle drill/impact. These work great for spaces too tight for a normal drill.
* Angle grinder. Great for metal work, yes, but with a wood-cutting blade, use this for sculpting and shaping chair seats.
* Fan. They hang or clamp or sit about anywhere you need relief from the heat—or to blow dust away from you.
* Caulking gun. Power makes it possible to lay a smooth, seamless bead without having to fight the globs that invariably happen with a ratcheting hand-powered gun.
* Inflator. Need to air up a flat tire? No need to lug out a compressor and hose.
* Reciprocating saw. You likely don't do a lot of demolition (hopefully) in your shop, but this saw also works great at cutting PVC and metal pipe.
* Outdoor power equipment. Keep your great outdoors tidy with a string trimmer, hedge trimmer, blower, and chainsaw (below). The first three can completely replace your gas- or electric-powered lawn tools, with power that will surprise you. A cordless chainsaw works best for trimming and light cutting, but proves very capable and far quieter than gas-powered models.
* Heated jackets/coats. Some use 12-volt packs, and some 18 or 20 volts (below), but all produce hours of heat you'll appreciate on cold days.