I’ve been accumulating impact drivers since 2012, when we did our first home renovation. An impact driver is lighter, more compact, and more powerful than its older sibling, the power drill. It’s better for 90% of the jobs that you would normally use a drill for, and I think everyone should own one, or even two! But at this point, I have four of them, and I need to thin out the herd, so to speak.
So I thought it’d be fun to put my drivers to the test, and figure out which one (or two) I really want to keep, and which ones can find a new home.
Why you should own an impact driver
For putting screws into thick or dense materials, nothing works better than an impact driver. It’s less prone to stripping screws than a normal driver, and because of the way it produces torque, it puts less strain on the user. Unlike a traditional driver, it won’t stall or kick back when the screw gets stuck.
Here’s the other thing: impact drivers are small, light, and easy to maneuver.
What makes them different
A normal power drill applies constant torque; the motor spins a shaft, which transfers energy to the screw. An impact driver has an internal hammer/spring mechanism which builds up and dissipates energy in concussive blows twice per rotation of the shaft. This allows the tool to generate much more torque. Which a normal drill, you need to apply downward force, and use arm to keep the handle of the drill from spinning. With an impact driver, you don’t need to apply (much) downward force at all (remember the concussive blows?), and you also won’t need to fight the tool to keep it from spinning away from the rotation of the shaft.
What they’re good for
I bring an impact driver to almost every job. Installing decking, hanging sheetrock, any kind of framing … heck, I even use mine for hanging wall art. If you’re drilling a hole through a 2×4 or a ceiling joist with spade bit, you’ll definitely want an impact driver.
What they’re not good for
Impact drivers are pretty heavy duty tools, so they’re not great for precision jobs, like drilling pilot holes, drilling into soft materials, or anything that requires you to stop the drill perfectly on a dime. That said, with practice, you can get pretty good with an impact driver, even when precision is called for.
The face-off criteria
Okay, so clearly this isn’t going to be a scientific comparison. If you want a full-blown review of every impact driver on the market, I suggest you Google it; there are dozens of good ones. But, also, if you need that much detail, you probably wouldn’t be here in the first place. I just happen to have built up a small arsenal of impact drivers over the years, and this is my way of deciding which one is best.
We tested each of these by timing how long it took me to drive a 4-inch #10 screw into a piece of scrap lumber (4×4). The criteria are, admittedly, pretty subjective, but anyway, here goes:
DeWalt 20-Volt MAX Lithium-Ion Cordless Impact Driver
I just got this one as part of a combo-kit (includes the drill also). It was the fastest of the bunch when it came to driving our screw: just under 2.5 seconds!
I like this driver a lot because it’s extremely compact, but still powerful. The onboard LED lights are super bright, and the charging pack is really small (i.e. less wasted space on my workbench).
My rating: Two thumbs up
Milwaukee M18 18-Volt Cordless Compact Brushless Impact Driver
As a rule, I love Milwaukee tools. I’ve just always found them to be well made and well designed. This one’s no different. I got this one as a product sample last fall, and it quickly became my go-to tool. It’s smaller than my other drivers, and the build quality just feels nice in my hands. In my test, it was just a smidge slower than the DeWalt, at 2.95 seconds.
My rating: Two thumbs up
Rigid 18-Volt Impact Driver
The Rigid driver I have isn’t for sale anymore (it was the first one I ever bought), but I think it’s pretty comparable to this one. I love this tool, and as you can (maybe) see from the photo, it has gotten a ton of use of the years. I’ve dropped it off ladders, smashed it under toolboxes, and abused it any number of other ways. It was slow in my testing though, at 4.43 seconds to drive the 4″ inch screw. Could just be signs of age?
Overall, not a bad one to have in the arsenal, but I think the impact driver technology has moved forward.
My rating: 1.5 thumbs up
Ryobi 18-Volt One+ Brushless Impact Driver
Ryobi is the ‘entry-level’ tool brand at The Home Depot, and for some people, that can be a turn-off. But Ryobi is actually owned by the same company that owns (and manufactures) Milwaukee and Rigid; it’s just the marketing and branding that’s different. This impact driver isn’t my favorite of the bunch; it’s a little bulkier/heavier that the others, and the battery charging station is needlessly large. The Ryobi performed fine in my test, driving a 4-inch screw in 3.43 seconds (faster than the Rigid!). And I liked the feel of the grip and trigger on this tool better than all the others.
Overall, I think this tool would make sense for a lot of homeowners, especially if you’re already tied into the Ryobi battery platform. But it’s not the one I’d grab first.
My rating: One thumb up
Makita 12-Volt MAX CXT Cordless Impact Driver
Wait!! What’s this doing here? I know, I know … its a 12-volt. Not really in the same category as these other guys. But I picked this up because I wanted to see how much of a difference the voltage really made, and because this Makita driver is absolutely tiny. Seriously, it’s just waaaaaay smaller and lighter than all the others, and that, for me, would be a huge benefit … if the power is sufficient.
Unfortunately, for me, it’s not. This tool took a whopping 8.6 seconds to drive the same 4-inch screw that the DeWalt drove in 2.5 seconds! The reduction in power was immediately noticeable. Although I’d love to be able to replace my bulky drivers with this featherweight little dude, I think I’d just be annoyed at the lack of output. Also, the 12-volt Makita batteries aren’t compatible with all my other 18-volt Makita chargers, so there’s no real benefit there. I’m sure the 18V Makita impact driver is rock solid (I love all my other tools from this brand), but I couldn’t really justify buying another impact driver.
So, there you have it. My totally biased ratings lead me to the following conclusion: I’m going to keep the DeWalt and the Milwaukee. The Rigid has served me well but I think it’s due for retirement, and the Ryobi is a fine tool, but my brother-in-law will be happier to own it than I will (easy birthday present, coming right up).
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