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Where there's a will, there's a drill

Put that annoying extension cord away. Today's cordless tools go anywhere and provide power to spare -- at reasonable prices.

August 14, 2003|Doug Smith | Times Staff Writer

My first drill had an aluminum case, a one-third-horsepower motor that made blue sparks and a three-pronged cord for safety. When the bearings went bad, my father and I took it to a shop to be repaired.

As pleasant as it is to remember that antique, I don't miss it at all.

That's because decades later, a new model came along that transformed a lifetime of know-how into savoir-faire.

This tool fits my grip like a chef's knife and whips up creations for the house with the ease of a Cuisinart. It's the unsung hero of household emergencies. If a clogged kitchen drain threatens to turn a dinner party into a catastrophe, this drill powers a 15-foot snake through the grease ball before the guests know anything has happened.

It's an 18-volt cordless, a tool that graces chores with simplicity, precision and the freedom to explore my own aesthetic in accouterments.

The catalyst for my initially wary entry into the cordless realm was an accumulation of small tasks out on the frontier, which is to say beyond the range of a 50-foot extension cord. I had grown exasperated with stringing double cords or dragging work back to the shop when I spotted my first cordless, a 9.6-volt Skil at a bearable price of 70-some dollars. I bought a spare battery for half the price of the drill and never regretted the investment. I almost immediately retired my half-horsepower hammer drill except for the rare occasions when I needed to sink a half-inch hole in concrete.

This drill was so innovative, it didn't even have a key -- that indispensable but irascible little tool that still holds the record in my shop for becoming lost the most times in a single day. Why, I can't help asking, did it take toolmakers a century to think up a chuck that can engage and disengage with a quick press of the trigger? Or a variable-speed trigger with a feather touch? Or, most amazing, the 24-point clutch that allows me to sink any size screw to the perfect depth?

A few attachments elevate the drill to assembly-line efficiency. The most important is a Phillips head bit to drive home everything from a flathead wood screw to an Ikea barrel-bolt nut. A set of six hex-mounted speed drills takes care of pilot holes.

With this kit, I can construct and install a redwood gate or assemble a planter box of any size in a couple of hours. If I don't like the way it looks, I disassemble it and build it in another shape using the same wood and nails.

I used that first cordless for about 10 years. For the last few, I hoped it would die so I could move up. No luck. It easily outlived the 14.4-volt era and could well have held out for the 24-volt era, which is just around the corner too.

Just like computers, electric power tools are now doubling in power every 18 months or so as their prices hold steady or even tumble. Today I can buy a 9.6-volt with a spare battery for less than I paid 10 years ago for the battery alone.

My resistance crumbled when Ryobi put together a cordless package with a reciprocating saw, a circular saw and a high-intensity hand-held light, in addition to the drill, all for less than $200. I didn't need any of these tools. But they have quickly supplanted a number of old standbys, simply because they are quicker and can go anywhere.

Since then, Ryobi has thrown in a cordless chop saw and speed saw (don't ask!) plus a third battery for less than $300. This proliferation of products might lead a person to ask what to buy, when to buy it and how much to pay.

I think some things aren't worth buying at any price. Those homeowners who know they'll never screw anything more daunting than the back plate of a double-A battery pack could get by easily with a $20 cordless screwdriver. But why skimp when a much more powerful drill can finesse the fine stuff and still do most of the heavy work outdoors?

Black & Decker, Craftsman, DeWalt, Makita, Milwaukee and Skil all offer a range of choices and prices. Professionals may spend more than $300 for greater power and durability. A low- to mid-priced drill probably is all a homeowner needs.

For a first-time buyer, I'd suggest a 9.6-volt. It will be inexpensive, versatile and as easy on the wrist as a whisk in egg white.

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