The Best Drill for Common Household Projects
If someone were to ask me to recommend a solid cordless drill for general use around the house, I would tell them to get the 12-volt Porter-Cable Drill/Driver. After about 30 hours of research and testing, I found it to be ideal choice due to its nice combination of power, weight and size, all for a fair price.
The Porter-Cable proved that it has enough power for general around-the-house tasks. Independently published reviews showed it to be a tool that can drive hundreds of screws and drill hundreds of holes on a single battery charge. In my own test, I used the Porter-Cable to sink 6-inch-long TimberLOK framing screws into dense pressure-treated lumber. Because of the small battery, it is a very compact drill that is easier to use and can fit in more places than the larger, bulkier 18-volt models—perfect for an around-the-house drill.
If the Porter-Cable is not available, we recommend the 12-volt Hitachi DS10DFL. It has the same power as the Porter-Cable, and an extremely comfortable handle. The downside is that it is missing a couple nice features and the LED doesn’t shine where it is supposed to.
Why should you believe me?
I’ve been in the construction industry for over 10 years as a carpenter, a foreman and a site supervisor. I’ve been using tools for well over a decade and have been writing about them for six years. I have my own website where I cover the tool industry and I’ve had tool-related articles published in Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, This Old House and Tools of the Trade.
How we chose our drill
There are a lot of cordless drills in the world. In doing the research for this piece, I gave at least a cursory glance to over 100 different models. There are drills for everyone from the homeowner to the construction worker. In order to make a recommendation, I first needed to define exactly who the recommendation is for and what kinds of tasks would be expected of the drill.
This is a drill is for the occasional user. It’s a kitchen drawer drill. This recommendation is not for the rabid DIYer who has plans to build a deck, a doghouse and a tree house this summer. It’s going to be a good fit for someone who simply needs a drill as a tool to get things accomplished around the house. Things like putting up hooks, installing baby gates, swapping out light fixtures, drywall repairs and straightening a saggy gutter. It’s a drill for someone who wants to help their kid make a nice science fair project but not someone who is going to put on an addition. It’s not the perfect drill for constant heavy-duty use, but it can certainly replace a few rotted deck boards. My intent is to recommend a drill for the average person to have around the house that they can rely on when they need it.
A drill of this nature—any drill really—can be judged on power, ergonomics and good charge time. Other features like onboard bit storage, an LED or a belt hook come into play, but if a drill doesn’t have those first three things, it’s not worth considering.
There is quite a bit of information available online regarding cordless drills. The pro brands get a lot of coverage; the DIY/homeowner brands less so. Consumer Reports has a mega roundup of nearly 70 tools at their site which was a good starting point. This Old House, Popular Mechanics, Tools of the Trade, and Gizmodo all had category-wide reviews of the 12-volt drill/drivers.
There is quite a lot to consider when choosing a drill. I narrowed down my search with the following criteria.
Cost: I’ve been writing about and reviewing tools for years. With that knowledge in hand and after much discussion with our internal editorial team, we decided that $70 to $100 is an appropriate amount to pay for an around-the-house drill. There are certainly more inexpensive models, but typically we’ve found that a $30 drill looks and acts like a $30 drill, which is to say it’s big and flimsy and not worth your money. Also, the tools in the lower price range are almost all built around NiCd batteries and not the preferred lithium-ion style.
Battery type: Three different battery types exist in the power tool world: nickel-cadmium (NiCd), nickel-metal hydride (NiMH), and lithium-ion (Li-ion). The nickel-based batteries have been around for a while, but the Li-ion technology is a fairly recent development in the tool world. Introduced to power tools in 2005 by Milwaukee, Li-ion batteries have since become the industry standard and are slowly pushing the nickel batteries to the edges. Li-ion offers a lighter, more compact tool with a longer run time per battery charge.
On their packaging, Ryobi says that their Li-ion battery provides 20% more run time and is 45% lighter than a comparable NiCd battery. Hitachi echoes this saying their 18-volt allows for 25% more run time and weighs 40% less. Similar sentiments can be seen over and over in tool company press releases.
In addition to being lighter, Li-ion batteries also hold a charge longer while in dormancy. Many drills, particularly ones geared towards the homeowner, use this as part of their marketing. The box that contains Black & Decker’s 20-volt drill says that their battery is capable of holding a charge for 18 months. Other companies make similar statements. This is an ideal feature for someone who may go many months between breaking out the drill.
Pro brands like Bosch and Milwaukee have completely given up on nickel platforms and have focused all of their energy towards expanding their Li-ion product line. DeWalt, another pro brand, has made all of their tools compatible with both their older NiCd batteries and their newer Li-ion ones. They even sell a dual chemistry charger, capable of charging both types. Yet in the “What’s New” page at their website, there are 28 tools featured that come with at least one battery. Not a single one of them is a NiCd.
Ryobi, a company geared towards homeowners and DIYers, has taken a similar tack. All of their cordless tools can accept both NiCd and Li-ion batteries. They also have a dual chemistry charger. Their “New Products” page has 36 cordless tools; all but one are branded with their Li-ion colors and not their NiCd colors.
As these examples show, nickel batteries, while still supported by some companies, are being slowly phased out of the industry.
Li-ion makes for a lighter, smaller tool with a longer run time. They are more expensive, but the additional cost is worth it for a technology that is going to be around and supported. With nickel-based batteries on their way out, it wouldn’t make sense to recommend them.
Voltage (and how to cut through the BS): The power of a drill is measured with volts. For standard drills, the voltages available are 18, 14.4 and 12. Smaller tools are available with 4-volt batteries, but those are little more than screwdrivers with no drilling power. The pro brands also have product lines of larger voltages; 28 from Milwaukee and 36 from Bosch, for example. These are beyond overkill for a homeowner looking to hang pictures and set up a book shelf.
First, some clarification is needed concerning voltages. When Li-ion batteries arrived on the scene, tool companies started ‘tweaking’ the voltage numbers as a marketing tool. In 2006, Bosch introduced a 10.8-volt driver which was all well and good until other companies released similar tools and started referring to them as 12-volt drivers. What happened was that Bosch was referencing the nominal voltage (the voltage that the tool operates at), like manufacturers had always done. The other companies decided to use the maximum voltage (the spike that occurs when the trigger is first pulled). Bosch was then faced with consumers seeing their 10.8-volt tool next to a 12-volt tool and assuming that the 12 was more powerful. To combat this, they rebranded their 10.8s as 12-volts. That was basically the end of the 10.8-volt era in power tools.
Last year, along similar lines, DeWalt and Black & Decker, both owned by the same parent company, each released a 20-volt line of tools. The batteries have all of the ingredients of an 18-volt, but now the companies are using the maximum voltage in the name. If you look closely at the packaging, there should be a little asterisk next to the 20 indicating in very, very small print usually on the bottom of the box that the number refers to the maximum voltage and not the nominal voltage. One of the drills I tested for this piece was the 20-volt Black & Decker. When I speak of the tool in general terms, I refer to it as an 18-volt tool, because it’s comparable to the other 18s tested. It does not have two additional volts worth of power, and even if it did, two volts of power doesn’t offer enough real-world differential to matter to the typical user.
Another interesting occurrence in the voltage arena is that the rise of the Li-ion 12-volts seems to be pushing the 14.4s out of the picture. Because the smaller drills are now more formidable, they’ve closed the gap between the 18-volts to such a degree that a middle voltage is no longer needed. Bosch, Skil, Ryobi, Milwaukee, and Black & Decker all have decided not to include 14.4-volt products in their Li-ion lineups. Amazon is selling a 14.4-volt Li-ion DeWalt battery, but their US website makes no mention of any 14.4-volt tools to go along with it. So it seems that 14.4-volt tools are following nickel-based batteries right off the stage.
Depending on the build quality of the particular drill and battery, there is a wide variety of performance between drills of the same voltage. I decided not to limit myself to a single voltage class, but rather looked at everything available within the range of 12 to 18 volts.
Chuck size: The chuck is the name of the three-jaw mechanism that pinches down on the drill bit or driver bit. Smaller drills designed for the homeowner have a ⅜-inch diameter opening and larger models have a ½-inch opening. The bigger size can fit large auger bits, mixing paddles and other heavy-duty attachments. There is really no need for a ½-inch chuck if you’re interested in small jobs and hobby-type tasks. While I didn’t limit my search to just tools with the smaller chuck, I didn’t feel that the larger size was an essential piece of the puzzle.
One battery or two? A drill, even for the occasional user, should come with two batteries. It’s just not worth it to be stuck in the middle of a project and having to wait for a battery to charge, particularly when some chargers can take hours to completely fill a battery. This becomes even more important with Li-ion batteries. Nickel-based batteries slowly die out with each screw, but Li-ion batteries hold what feels like a full charge until they are completely depleted. One screw goes in fine, the next one stops half way and that’s that. With no warning about when your drill is going to give out, having a second battery on hand is a must.
Using this information and the published reviews as guides, I narrowed things down to five different drills of varying voltages. The Consumer Reports article was an easy reference point for price and features and the 12-volt round-ups at This Old House, Popular Mechanics and Tools of the Trade confirmed that the Porter-Cable was worth serious consideration as an around-the-house drill.
I tested the drills for durability, power and battery life. For durability, I tipped each one off a six-foot step ladder onto a concrete floor twice. To test power and battery life, I used each drill to repeatedly sink and remove a 6-inch TimberLOK screw into a chunk of pressure-treated 6×6 until the battery fully drained. I ran the test twice and took the highest number. TimberLOKs are nasty looking mega-screws used for structural situations like rafters, collar ties, deck ledgers, etc. According to TimberLOK’s website, they have the holding power of a ⅜-inch lag bolt and a single one can replace a structural hurricane tie and the 10 nails that hold it on. My test was designed to simulate the installation of a deck ledger against a house. While the overall recommendation isn’t for someone building a deck, it was a good reference point and probably the most aggressive task a home drill would be asked to complete. I also tested each drill’s low-end clutch setting. When engaged, the clutch causes the drill to stop at a low level of resistance. This is valuable when using small screws, like on electronics or ones that can easily strip out. I set each drill to the lowest setting and used them to drive an aluminum storm window screw into a piece of pressure-treated wood.
For the most part, the tools all survived the durability test and they all performed admirably in the clutch test. The results of the TimberLOK test did highlight differences between the tools and played a role in my final recommendation.
Below are the results of the TimberLOK test. I also ran it with the new Milwaukee Fuel 18-volt hammer drill to get a sense of how the tested tools compared to a high-end heavy-duty construction tool (retail: $335). The Ryobi drove the screw 28½ times, the most of the drills tested for this article. The Milwaukee sank and then removed the screw 79 times. So yes, there is a great difference between the mid-range drills and the ones designed for contractors.
- 18v Milwaukee: 79 screws (driven and removed) – $335
- 18v Ryobi: 28½ screws (driven and removed) – $99
- 14.4v Hitachi: 23 screws (driven and removed) – $112
- 18v Skil: 22½ screws (driven and removed) – $93
- 18v Black& Decker: 22 screws (driven and removed) – $87
- 18v Black & Decker AutoSense: 16 screws (driven and removed) $80
- 12v Hitachi: 16½ screws (driven and removed) – $80
- 12v Porter-Cable: 17½ screws (driven and removed) – $86
It may seem strange that the overall recommendation is for the tool that had the least amount of power in my test. On a full battery, the Porter-Cable drove and removed the TimberLOK screw 17½ times. The 18-volt Skil and Black & Decker were at 22½ and 22 respectively. The 14.4-volt Hitachi also performed the task 23 times. Only the Ryobi was significantly higher at 28½. Just falling short five screws is a solid showing for a tool that weighs less than 2 1/2 pounds. This test shows that the Porter-Cable has considerable strength when compared with the much larger 18-volts. Beyond that, the 12-volt has a usability level that is far superior to the 18-volt drills. It is a compact tool and simply much easier to handle.
The Porter-Cable weighs 2 pounds, 6 ounces while the 18-volt drills all come in at over 3 pounds, with the Skil and Ryobi at 4 pounds. The Hitachi 14-volt weighs a full pound more than the Porter-Cable. The Porter-Cable is under 7 1/2 inches long and just about 7 1/2 inches tall. The Skil is 9 inches long and over 9 inches tall. The Black and Decker, the smallest of the 18-volt drills, is 8 inches long and 8¾ inches tall.
The shape of the 12-volt is also completely different from that of the 18-volts. Because of its small size, the 12-volt battery slides entirely into the handle of the tool. The 18-volt batteries are so large that they only attach to the bottom of the handle. On average the 18-volt batteries form a 2x3x5 inch block that sits below the handle. That’s approximately 30 cubic inches. When I comfortably grip the Porter-Cable, the handle only extends about 1½ inch below my hand. Because it is lighter and smaller, the Porter-Cable is much easier to handle in tight places. It’s the ideal tool for hanging hooks between basement joists or adjusting the slide on a cabinet drawer.
Unlike the 18-volt drills, the Porter-Cable is small enough to wedge into a back pocket so a trip up the ladder to adjust the gutters is made safer and easier. The feather weight of the tool also means less anguish to arms and shoulders when working overhead to switch out a ceiling-mounted light fixture, install a new smoke detector, or hang a bike hook in the garage rafters.
The Porter-Cable also comes with a full complement of additional features. It has a belt hook that can be moved from side to side with a small screw, depending on if you’re a righty or a lefty. Of the other tools tested only the Hitachi had a hook. When the trigger is pulled, an LED lights up the tip of the drill. This is a standard feature in pro-level tools, but I only saw it on the Porter-Cable and Black & Decker—not the Skil, Ryobi or Hitachi. With just the lightest touch of the trigger, the LED can be engaged without the drill. This is obviously helpful in low-light areas like an unfinished basement but is also good for cabinet work as well.
The top of the Porter-Cable has a magnetized groove that accepts driver bits. Having multiple bits on hand is handy for dealing with old door hardware, light fixtures or assembling kids’ toys.
The only major feature that is missing from the Porter-Cable is the onboard battery gauge found on the Skil. It’s a useful feature, but as long as you make sure to keep the spare battery on the charger, it shouldn’t affect your work flow too much.
The charger that comes with the Porter-Cable is compact and can fill up an empty battery in about 30 minutes.
Despite its small size, the tool still managed to handle everything thrown at it in the independent reviews. The tool performed admirably in 12-volt roundups by This Old House, Popular Mechanics and Tools of the Trade.
Roy Berendsohn, long-time tool writer for Popular Mechanics, “liked this tool’s textured grip surfaces, balance and decent power and speed.” Sal Vaglica, editor at This Old House said that the tool contained “a respectable mix of battery life, torque, and fast recharge time.” In Tools of the Trade, Michael Springer, known in the industry as a knowledgeable and meticulous tool tester, rated the Porter-Cable as his favorite of the second-tier 12-volts. His upper echelon consisted of drills by Ridgid, DeWalt, and Milwaukee, all priced above $140, almost twice that of the Porter-Cable. Springer said that the drill was an “impressive high-performance tool at a bargain price.”
The Porter-Cable posted up some impressive stats in the testing:
This Old House used the tool, with a full battery, to drive 431 1¼-inch drywall screws into ½-inch drywall and 2x pine. They also put a ¾-inch spade bit on it and drilled 29 holes into a ¾-inch thick piece of red oak.
At Popular Mechanics, they charged a battery and sunk 164 2½-inch screws into pressure-treated lumber. They put on a new battery and drilled 166 ½-inch holes into 3/4 inch thick pine.
Also, in an editor’s review at Fine Woodworking Asa Christiana had this to say: the tool “easily sank long, 5/16-in.-dia. lag bolts into fir studs with no pilot holes. Then I did the same test in hard maple, with 3/16-in. pilot holes. Even then, the drill-driver managed a full inch of penetration. This is more than enough power for woodworking—and all but the toughest carpentry tasks around the house.”
These numbers all came from 12-volt roundups, so there is no corresponding data for the 18-volt drills. The larger tools would no doubt have bigger numbers. If we take the TimberLOK test and transfer the percentages, the Ryobi would drive just over 700 screws where the Porter-Cable drove 431. It would also drill 47 holes with the ¾-inch spade bit, compared to the Porter-Cable’s 29. These are by no means vetted numbers, but they give a sense of where the Porter-Cable might stand when compared to the larger tools. But again, is this additional power and run-time necessary for what you’re going to be doing with the drill?
In addition to my own controlled test, I used the Porter-Cable to install a small mahogany deck. The 12-volt had no problems predrilling holes in the dense wood for the whole day on a single charge. I found the drill easy to use and it never bogged down.
The one review where the Porter-Cable didn’t fare so well was the 12-volt round-up by Harry Sawyers at Gizmodo. Of the four tools tested, the Porter-Cable was ultimately ranked last. This is actually not surprising, seeing as the competition consisted of two pro-grade 12-volt drills (Ridgid and Milwaukee) and a new 12-volt hammer drill made by Bosch. In all of the other reviews, these tools ranked higher than the Porter-Cable but are all priced over $140.
In the piece, the drills are subjected to tasks that I would consider very rare for the average homeowner. Sawyers used the tools to drill holes with a ½-inch auger bit and a 1-inch spade bit.
According to Sawyers, the Porter-Cable really strained while drilling with the ½-inch auger bit. He chose that particular style of bit because “the cutting edges remain in contact with the hole wall” creating increased resistance around the bit. ½-inch holes can also be drilled with spade bits which have much less resistance and are easier on the drill. I put one of these on the Porter-Cable and had no problems drilling 68 holes in 1½-inch thick pressure treated lumber on a single charge. Same hole as in the review; just a different bit with a different result.
The other test in the Gizmodo article was with a 1-inch spade bit. The Porter-Cable “was consistently the slowest at punching a 1-inch spade bit hole in the 2 x 6, with times that ranged from 11.9 seconds to 18.6 seconds.” I replicated this test on a pressure-treated 2x and managed to drill 15 holes on a single battery. It was tough work for the drill and at times it did bind up and stall out, matching Sawyers’ results. But in the end the tool did get the holes drilled. Using a 1-inch spade bit to go through pressure-treated lumber is a significant task and one that I suspect an around-the-house drill won’t encounter very often, if at all. But even if it does, the capability to drill the holes is there. It’s not necessarily fast or easy, but it’s there.
The Gizmodo article gives a good sense of the upper reaches of the Porter-Cable’s abilities. Sawyers deliberately pushed these tools to the edge. Every drill has a limit and if the Porter-Cable starts to struggle with a ½-inch auger bit and a 1-inch paddle bit, then it should be able to handle the projects that the average homeowner is going to subject it to.
As the articles in Tools of the Trade, This Old House, Popular Mechanics and Fine Woodworking show, the drill is powerful enough for normal tasks like driving screws and drilling small-to-medium-sized holes. Still, if you are looking for a drill that can consistently and easily put 1-inch holes in pressure-treated lumber, there is a recommendation for a more powerful drill below.
Reviewers at Amazon give the tool high marks with a score of 4.5 out of 5 (47 reviews). The few negatives are centered around an issue some had with the chuck. A number of people said that over time, the bit works itself loose. In all of the testing I did, most of it fairly aggressive, the chuck remained firm on the bit. It worked properly during my deck project as well.
The Porter-Cable also has a very nice two-part warranty. For the first three years, a limited warranty covers “any defects due to faulty materials or workmanship.” But the more significant part is that for the first year, the company will “maintain the tool and replace worn parts caused by normal use, for free.” Of the other tools I looked at, only the Hitachi has a longer limited warranty (lifetime), but none of the others have even close to a full year of service built into their plans. In fact, the Porter-Cable warranty is the only one that goes beyond the “faulty materials and workmanship” language and offers to do anything about repairing normal wear and tear.
A slight downside to this drill is that the Porter-Cable 12-volt battery platform is very limited, consisting of only this drill, an impact driver, an oscillating tool, and a mini-reciprocating saw. All of these are geared towards the pro crowd and the occasional user won’t find much use for them. We don’t think it’s a dealbreaker.
For power, the Hitachi is very similar to the Porter-Cable. In the Popular Mechanics piece it was ranked as a little stronger than the Porter-Cable, but in the This Old House and Consumer Reports rundown, it was ranked a tad lower. In our own TimberLOK test the two drills were only one screw apart (the Porter-Cable was the stronger of the two). Basically the power is just about equal between the two tools.
Hitachi opted to go with a more traditional looking battery which leads to a couple benefits. Because only the stem of the battery clicks into the handle (and not the entire battery, like the Porter-Cable), they were able to make a thinner contoured gripping area and one that feels much more comfortable to hold on to. This battery style also allows the tool to be placed in the “standing” position. If you have your hands full and need to quickly grab the drill, this is a benefit.
Unfortunately, the Hitachi doesn’t have any on-board bit storage or a belt hook, two very useful features found on the Porter-Cable.
But where the Hitachi really stumbles is the LED. For some reason, the light completely misses the tip of the bit, leaving it in total darkness. The LED shines about 1/2-inch away from where it should and the contrast between the bright light and the shadow is so significant that it is difficult to see the tip of the bit in mid to low-light scenarios. Working outside in the sun this makes no difference, but indoors, particularly if you’re tinkering around in the evening, the misplacement of the LED is impossible to ignore. Springer, in his Tools of the Trade rundown noticed this as well.
But still, the drill is compact, powerful, and very easy to hold.
If You Need More Power
The Other Contenders
The Black & Decker AutoSense ($80) is interesting in that it has an automatic clutch. According to Black & Decker, when the tool is in screw mode, “a microprocessor analyzes the rate of change in torque and stops screws flush.” Because the tool doesn’t have a traditional clutch, B&D was able to shave a decent amount of size and weight off the tool, ending with an 18-volt tool similar in size to a 12-volt tool. When the auto clutch works, it’s a cool feature, but while driving the TimberLOKs as well as other screws, we had a number of false stops which proved frustrating. The tool also only comes with one battery and no case.
The Skil 2898LI-02 ($93) proved to be a durable tool – not even showing scuff marks after the drop test, but like the Ryobi it’s very bulky and, worse, it only comes with one battery so there’s no reason to recommend it over the Ryobi if you want to go heavier duty and don’t mind the bulk. This charger also takes about an hour to do its work.
The Black & Decker LDX220SBFC ($87) was the smallest of the 18-volts tested but unfortunately the most fragile. The drop test caused a split at the seam of the housing and the forward/reverse toggle stopped working properly. The B&D 18-volt line is designed for the homeowner so like the Ryobi system, it includes power tools as well as lawn and garden equipment. This one was rated very high in the Consumer Reports rundown and received a CR Best Buy. It also has a 1-hour charger and only comes with one battery.
The Hitachi DS14DSFL 14.4-volt drill ($112) was another CR Best Buy, earning the top spot in the Light Duty Drill Driver’s category. They state that the tool “combines the smaller, 3/8-inch chuck you’ll find on other lighter-duty drills with enough drilling speed and power for some larger jobs. Good balance and easy handling are pluses. Features include two lithium-ion batteries, two speed ranges, a smart charger with 40-minute recharge times and a flashlight.” There’s no battery charge indicator, however. The five consumer reviews over at Amazon are all positive.
Wrapping it up
So with all said and done, the recommendation stands for the Porter-Cable 12-volt drill/driver. Combining power, size, maneuverability and durability, it would make the perfect drill for a homeowner.
12-Volt Cordless Drills: We Test 13 of the Best, Popular Mechanics,“...liked this tool’s textured grip surfaces, balance and decent power and speed.”
Tool Test: 12-Volt Drill/Drivers, This Old House,“...a respectable mix of battery life, torque, and fast recharge time.”
Porter-Cable - PCL212IDC-2 12v Compact Lithium Two Tool Kit, Fine Woodworking, December 9, 2012,"This is more than enough power for woodworking—and all but the toughest carpentry tasks around the house."
The Best Kitchen Drawer Drill, Gizmodo, August 15, 2012,“...was consistently the slowest at punching a 1-inch spade bit hole in the 2 x 6, with times that ranged from 11.9 seconds to 18.6 seconds.”
Tool Test: Subcompact Drill/Drivers and Impact Drivers, Tools of the Trade, August 8, 2011,"Impressive high-performance tool at a bargain price."