Budget drills a bargain? Getting good value for under £40

Wednesday, 9th September 2020

THE first review I ever wrote for TOOLKiT (then titled ToolBusiness Magazine) more years ago than I care to remember, was a roundup of cordless drills. They ranged in price from £12 to nearly £100. Lithium Ion had not been heard of and if you got 12v of power you were lucky – the norm was more like 7.2v or 9.6v. Nevertheless, it was enough to drive screws up to about 35mm (in softwood with a pilot hole) or drill holes up to about 10mm in diameter. Compared to using a pump-action screwdriver – the Yankee – using a cordless drill was positively controlled and easy.

THE first review I ever wrote for TOOLKiT (then titled ToolBusiness Magazine) more years ago than I care to remember, was a roundup of cordless drills. They ranged in price from £12 to nearly £100. Lithium Ion had not been heard of and if you got 12v of power you were lucky – the norm was more like 7.2v or 9.6v. Nevertheless, it was enough to drive screws up to about 35mm (in softwood with a pilot hole) or drill holes up to about 10mm in diameter. Compared to using a pump-action screwdriver – the Yankee – using a cordless drill was positively controlled and easy.

I am not a believer in the notion that things were always better in the old days. Some things might have been better, but I wouldn’t swap my 21st century tools and fixings. They are simply better, quicker, easier, more accurate and possibly even relatively cheaper too. So it seemed like a good idea when the editor suggested that we evaluate some budget cordless drill drivers to try to get a perspective on how things have developed. Accordingly, I was given a budget of around £120 and told to scour the sources to find a representative sample of cordless drills to examine closely.

As expected, online offers are many and various but I wanted to find the tools where the delivery time was realistic, (not direct from China) and also where a non-specialist tool user might look if they needed a budget drill. I managed to find three samples from the high street stores Argos and Robert Dyas. These represented good value and the typical tools that an occasional tool user might buy. Wickes supplied the last sample.

All the drills had the now universally adopted, more powerful Lithium Ion battery packs. No more nasty, poisonous NiCads. But clearly the battery packs on the samples were at the cheap end of the market – 18v battery packs for top branded tools could easily cost £100 or more.

Great expectations

As can be seen from the specs, our expectations of these tools is high. Keyless chucks, softgrip handles, variable speed triggers and an LED are included as standard. These features make for a much better ‘feel’ from the tools and they have been expected on more expensive drills for years, so they can’t cost that much to include.

I was also struck by the fact that each drill seemed to handle well with a comfortable grip, easy-to-reach trigger mechanism and easy adjustment between modes. They certainly didn’t feel clumsy. I think this just shows how the knowledge and experience gained by designers of these tools has enabled them to shortcut the design process to come up with a good design first time. The tools certainly seem to handle and perform well, possibly even better than (if my memory isn’t too faulty) the pioneering cordless drills from the 1980s.

The tests

What I then needed was a set of standard tests based on the specifications of the drills to try each one in turn and see how each performed. With two 14.4v and two 18v drills to try, each test had to be fair to the capabilities of each tool.

First up is, of course, the drilling test. Ensure a fully charged battery is in place and then use a new drill bit (10mm is max size in each case) to drill as many holes into a test piece as you can before the battery runs out. I used quality drill bits because, although some drill bits were supplied in the kits, I wasn’t convinced that they would last well enough to conduct a fair test. Fortunately, I had enough 18mm plywood offcuts to conduct the tests easily. I could have used thicker stock for the tests but that would mean having to lift and clear the drill bit several times and that might affect the results. This probably means that the number of test holes exceeded my expectations but I did also try using the drills in 75mm thick softwood and they still

managed to drill through that without too much effort.

Biggest diameter holes test

Spade bits enable bigger holes to be drilled because they have very little friction. The downside is that the holes can be rough and inaccurate if you don’t take care. All the drills managed 15mm (copper pipe size under sinks) and I drilled sequentially bigger holes until I got to 32mm diameter – my largest spade bit.

Longest screws test

Self-explanatory really – there is little need to pull out a screwdriver these days – a good drill driver will drive most screws with ease. The best test is to try to find out what the limits are when driving increasing sizes and gauges of screws into a big wooden block. All drills managed to drive 4 gauge 70mm long screws into softwoods but things became decidedly more difficult beyond that.

To the outcomes……

Wickes Cordless Drill Driver 10.8v Lithium

Features:

Case: Plastic carry case

Chuck: Keyless chuck (2-handed) 10mm

Torque settings: 18+1

Speeds: Variable 2+forward/reverse

Battery Pack:1.5 Ah L Ion

Light: LED

Charger: 30 minutes

Battery: 3 light charge indicator

Soft grip handle

Specs:

Torque 18Nm

Steel 6mm

Wood 19mm

Weight 0.97kg

Cost £35

The Wickes drill driver is the most compact and light of the set, but the design is more pistol-like with the battery stored inside the handle. It needed to be used in ‘slow gear’ to ensure that the 10mm holes were drilled – it stalled in ‘fast gear’. While it drilled its 138 holes it did become quite hot but never seemed at risk of failing. Its 14.4 volts of power seemed to be more than adequate for a drill that is compact and obviously looks like a DIY tool.

It managed to drill up to a 32mm hole in softwood with a spade bit, again needing to be in low gear to avoid stalling. The Wickes drove a 70mm long woodscrew into softwood well with no grunts or groans, but it became more difficult with anything much longer. Drilling steel was a slow process and needed a sharp new drill bit to achieve the results.

Challenge 14.4 Impact Drill from Argos

Features:

Case:  in a card box

Chuck: Keyless chuck (2-handed) 10mm

Torque settings: 18, Screwdriving and hammer

Speeds: Variable 2 speeds+forward/reverse

Battery Pack: One 1.3 Ah L Ion

Light: LED

Charger: 3 to 5 hours

Battery: 3 light charge indicator above trigger

Soft grip handle

Comes with double ended screwdriver bit

Specs:

Torque 15Nm

Steel 6mm

Wood 15mm

Masonry 8mm

Weight 1.190kgs

Cost £30.00

The Challenge faced a challenge when drilling 6mm holes in wood in ‘top gear’. Up to around 4 or 5mm diameter holes were possible in this gear, but anything bigger necessitated the change to the lower and slower gear and that produced a creditable 106 holes on a full charge. The motor became quite hot but never seemed like quitting.

There was enough torque to make my wrists take note after 50 or so holes.

It too managed to drill 32mm holes with a spade bit – perhaps a bit slower than the others, but without obvious signs of strain. Driving screws up to 70mm long was achievable but after that a bit of coaxing was needed. Although the capacity in steel was stated as 6mm in the specs, I ran out of patience before the hole was completed.

As the only drill in the test with an impact mode I did try drilling a 6mm hole in a standard house brick, and it did do the job – so if you were putting up curtain poles in brick, the job wouldn’t take forever. A different story in concrete though, where the bit made very little impression after several minutes of trying.

Guild 18v Lithium Ion Drill Driver from Argos

Features:

Case: Supplied in a card box

Chuck: Keyless chuck (2-handed) 10mm

Torque settings: 16+1

Speeds: Variable forward/reverse

Battery Pack:1.3 Ah L Ion

Light: LED

Charger: 3-5 hours

Battery: no charge indicator

Soft grip handle

Comes with belt hook

Specs:

Torque 18Nm

Steel 10mm

Wood 20mm

Weight 1.22Kg

Cost £30.00

The Guild from Argos manged to drill an amazing 212, 10mm diameter holes in hardwood ply. The motor got hot from continuous use but never missed a beat until the battery ran out. On the holes test I doubt whether many end users could complain about its capabilities – when was the last time you needed to drill 212 holes continuously? Similarly, although it has only a single gear, the torque levels saw it through the spade bit test and the screwdriving test quite well, where the slower speed but greater torque made a big difference. Screws up to 80mm long could be driven with care, but not much beyond that

Hilka PRO-CRAFT 18v Lithium Ion Cordless Drill from Robert Dyas

Features:

Case: Plastic carry case

Chuck: Keyless chuck (2-handed) 10mm

Torque settings: 16+1

Speeds: Variable 2 forward/reverse

Battery Pack:1.5 Ah L Ion

Light: LED

Charger: 3-5hours

Battery: X2 with 3 light charge indicator

Soft grip handle

Comes with 13 accessories (drill bits, driver, bit holder)

Specs:

Torque 15Nm

Steel: not given

Wood: not given

Weight 2.4 Kg

Cost £39.95

The Hilka comes with two batteries and, on the basis of the holes test, it needs them because although it managed 128, 10mm diameter holes on a full charge, this was significantly fewer than the 18v Guild drill.  A tad worrying was the smell of hot connections inside the motor housing and the heat from the battery pack. Heat is the enemy of battery packs so it is always better to let things cool down and change the battery pack if possible. The spade bit test was similar to the others with it being necessary to adopt ‘low speed’ to have enough torque to drill the hole. Driving screws up to 70mm was achievable, but not much beyond that.

What’s to like and dislike?

The truth is, there is lots to like in these four samples I have tested. They all have enough power to do small jobs around the house at a very reasonable price – much less than my weekly grocery shop or a tank of petrol for my hatchback. Such tools will often be bought to complete a fencing job, erect a shed or to hang a few curtain poles. The motors have enough power and torque to drive screws up to 70mm quite easily, and this should be adequate for most domestic jobs.

When it comes to drilling holes, again there is enough power to do several holes, and even drill quite big holes using a spade bit. Big enough to deal with plumbing pipes and cables most of the time.

The drills are all comfortable to handle, easy to use via well-placed controls and are compact enough to fit inside kitchen cabinets for example, with LED lights to illuminate the workpiece. They are not too heavy so could be used by people with smaller hands or with odd twinges of arthritis, or above the head or working on a ladder.

In short, the technology and design of these drills is pretty well sorted and occasional users could buy one with confidence knowing that they would probably get value for money.

However – and it is a big however – what is saving the cash on these drills is the battery packs. In a professional tool, a big 18v battery pack would be expected to push out anything from 5Ah to 8 or 9Ah, so it should last the whole day at work. Also, it will be expected to charge in around 30 to 60 minutes, so workers never have any downtime from their tools. But such capacity costs money. The battery packs have complicated electronic monitoring systems so they don’t deep discharge, they can be partially charged safely, and believe it or not, the high quality Lithium that is used in them is more expensive compared to that used in smaller, less demanding tools. Even while doing this testing I found myself becoming very impatient having to wait three to five hours while the batteries charged between tests. (The exception here is the Wickes drill, which charges in 30 minutes.)

What will also add cost to professional tools is a smart charger, usually a custom fitted case and perhaps a couple of accessories like a belt hook and an auxiliary handle to help manage torque loadings well past the 30Nm mark.

So would I be prepared to swap my drill drivers for cheaper ones? The short answer is no. After trying out the budget drills I reached for my 18v name brand professional drill and did some of the tests again. What you get from a professional tool is speed and power and the sort of capability that makes jobs easy – like driving screws up to 180mm long for example. And it is so effortless – there is no need to coax the tool along. A real ‘Power to the Professionals’ feeling. These days there is no need to stick to 18v tools-10.8 and 12v professional quality tools deliver the compact size and power needed for many kitchen and shopfitters without having to wait five hours for a battery to charge.

I think that users of professional quality tools have been spoilt by the power and sophistication of them. So, unlike the very first cordless drills from the 80’s, we have all the power of the mains but keyless chucks and ergonomic designs that are easy to use safely. Workplaces are made safer too with fewer electrical hazards and no trailing cables. Professional users pay a premium for their very capable cordless tools, but DIYers also benefit from the R and D that went into them by cashing in on good tools at bargain prices well suited to their needs.

There is still a huge market for cheaper tools. Not everyone needs or can afford the best, so it is good to know that there are tools out there to fulfil a range of needs at a range of prices. Win, win I’d say.

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