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Drills vs Hammer Drills vs Impact Drivers

Added on December 20, 2009

I have had the DeWalt Impact driver in my shop for several months now and I finally decided it was time to talk about it. Now this is my first and only impact driver, so I can’t really compare it to other brands. Instead, I decided it would be more useful to you if I discuss the differences between impact drivers, hammer drills, and regular drills. The distinctions eluded me for quite some time until I decided to do a little research and get some answers for myself. The subtle differences can be explained with a few rather simple analogies. So let’s dive in.

The Traditional Drill

You know ‘em, you love ‘em. Over the years they’ve lost their cords, shed a few pounds, and we’ve seen the addition of keyless chucks and on-board lights. But for all the new creature comforts, these drills all operate in pretty much the same fashion. They are affordable, dependable, versatile, and they are great for both drilling and driving screws. But for some special tasks, there are definitely better options out there.

The Hammer Drill

A hammer drill pretty much looks like a regular drill. In fact, you can find a number of models out there that have both a regular and a hammer setting. So what does the hammer setting actually do? Imagine while you’re drilling, someone is smacking the back of the drill with a hammer to help drive the bit further into the work. This is pretty much what is happening when you use a hammer drill, only the hammer hits are very fast and furious. This type of drill is very loud and feels like a little jackhammer in your hands. In fact, I thought the drill was broken the first time I fired one up! These drills excel at plowing through concrete and other masonry. So if you do a lot of work with masonry, this is definitely a drill that should be in your collection. From the standpoint of a shop woodworker, you won’t really have much use for a hammer drill.

The Impact Driver

The impact driver is the drill that gets all the attention these days. Its not a hammer drill and its not a regular drill. It even looks different with a smaller stubby profile and a hex socket in place of the chuck. So what’s the deal with this thing? Lets consider another analogy. Imagine you have a pair of vise grips attached to the shank of your drill bit. Now instead of someone just whacking the back of the drill, they are also hitting the wrench to spin the bit. This results in a significant increase in torque and better control.It also means you are much less likely to strip screw heads and you can drive very long screws with little effort. The drill truly is doing all the work and the impact action kicks in automatically when its needed. The drawback here is that you don’t always know when its going to kick in. So it might be risky to use this drill on your fancy brass hardware. But if you are driving screws for cabinet installs, general construction or DIY projects, this drill is amazing. It should be noted that we aren’t too far off from seeing models that allow you to turn the impact feature on and off. In fact, Bosch will have this feature in some of their new impact drivers. Check out this Tool Monger Preview for more info on that.

So let’s discuss the impact driver a little more and go over my experiences with the DeWalt unit. As a fine woodworker, I don’t see myself needing anything other than a good old fashioned drill. But if I were doing a lot of on-site cabinet installs, I would consider the impact driver absolutely essential. And as a homeowner and DIY’er, an impact driver really makes life easier. I’ve been doing a lot of shop upgrades lately, including hanging new florescent lights and installing my ClearVue cyclone, and the impact driver has been worth its weight in gold. Just for fun, I recorded myself attaching a support plate to the wall. I am driving a 3″ long Spax screw through a 3/4″ piece of ply, through the drywall and into the stud. I did this with one hand, on a ladder, while filming with my phone in my other hand. As you can see, it took very little effort. The video is a little loud so turn your speakers down. Now one last thing you should know about impact drivers is that they only work with bits that have a hex shaft. Most of my bits do, so it wasn’t much of an issue for me.


As someone who does a lot more than just woodworking, the DeWalt impact driver has found a permanent home in my collection. And frankly, the darn thing is so fun to use, it puts a smile on my face every time I pick it up.

When I first got the impact driver, I started a thread in the Community and thought some of you may be interesting in reading the comments and opinions: check it out! So do you own an impact driver? How often do you use it? And if you could have only one drill, which type would you buy?

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