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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 years now and I finally decided it was time to talk about it. 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 though I’m sure some sticklers for details might take issue with my explanations. But in the end you’ll understand what each drill does and approximately how it does it, so let’s dive in!

The Traditional Drill/Driver

You know ’em, you love ’em, and everyone has at least one. 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 holes and driving screws. But for some special tasks, there are definitely better options out there, and you’ll read about those below. These drills come in all shapes and sizes as well as voltages (the latest are boasting 20v batteries!). But remember, if you’re a shop woodworker like me, bigger is not always better. A big, powerful drill/driver might be useful on the job site where you might use the tool for hours one end without a convenient place to charge. In a small shop, you always have the option to charge and you rarely use the tool for hours. So consider going with a smaller drill as it is easier to carry around and fits into smaller spaces.   Shop Cordless Drill/Drivers on!

The Hammer Drill

A hammer drill pretty much looks like a regular drill, which can create some confusion. 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 fast and furious. This type of drill is very loud and feels like a little jackhammer in your hands. Believe it or not, 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 except the occasional DIY job. Shop Cordless Hammer Drills on!


The Impact Driver

The impact driver is the belle of the ball these days. Its not a hammer drill and its not a regular drill/driver. It even looks different with a small stubby profile and a hex socket in place of the chuck. So what’s the deal with this thing?! Let’s 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 vise grips to spin the bit. This results in a significant increase in torque and much better control. It also means you are much less likely to strip screw heads and you can drive very long screws with little effort and minimal wrist strain. The tool truly is doing all the work and the impact action kicks in automatically as soon as it’s 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 or on sensitive operations where the screw depth is critical. But if you are driving screws for cabinet installs, general project assembly or DIY projects, this type of drill is simply amazing.

So let’s discuss the impact driver a little more and go over my experiences with the DeWalt unit. As a shop-based fine woodworker, my drilling needs are pretty simple. So most of my hole-drilling is done with a basic drill/driver. But any time I need to drive a screw, I reach for the impact driver. If I were doing a lot of on-site installs, an impact driver would be 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 so my apologies for the crappy quality (turn your speakers down). But as you can see, it took very little effort to drive the screw. 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. Shop Cordless Impact Drivers on!

What Should You Buy?

milwaukee-comboObviously, I can’t cover all possible usage situations so I’ll make a general recommendation for people who are like me: makers, DIY’ers, and shop woodworkers. Buy a Combo Kit! Pretty much every drill manufacturer makes a combo kit containing both a regular drill and an impact driver. This is truly the best of both worlds, giving you a regular drill for drilling holes that can take just about any bit and an impact driver for driving screws with hex bits. Here are three combo kits I think are worth your consideration.


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