What is a hammer drill? - Pro Construction Guide
What is a hammer drill

What is a hammer drill? A tool you should own

What is a hammer drill

Milwaukee M18 Fuel ½-inch hammer drill came in with the highest overall torque.

What is a hammer drill? This is definitely a tool you should own. Hammer drills use a traditional three-jaw chuck and effectively drill into masonry, light concrete, stone and wood.

But there’s a crowded field of 18V cordless hammer drills out there. Which one is right for you? We put some of the top contenders to the test, narrowing it down to those with a minimum of 700 inch-pounds of torque that could successfully complete our four tests.

There’s little doubt that Lithium-ion power currently runs the world of drills and impact drivers. With single tool kits starting around $100 (and often on sale for less), the convenience of cordless outweighs any premium gap over corded models.

It’s only in the past year or so, however, that the heavy-duty 18V cordless drill has caught up to the power of corded models and run time has been extended − all thanks to improved battery technology and brushless motors.

What’s really exciting in this “golden age” of cordless drills is that we’re going beyond the power of what used to be considered a standard drill. Makita and Milwaukee have models that exceed 1,000 inch-pounds of torque. Tasks that have long been considered too stressful for cordless tools are now bowing down to the power of Lithium-ion technology and the cordless tools that are powered by these high current output power sources.

No two 18V drills are going to give you identical results. Each manufacturer chooses how to deliver the power most effectively given the tasks they expect users to perform. Also, a drill’s true maximum torque can only be achieved for a brief period of time. Actual sustained power is significantly less.

The first test each drill had to complete was simple drilling. We had each tool drive 12¼-inch holes as pilots for the lag bolt test. Each point was marked into the wood and all 12 holes were driven as quickly as possible without stopping the drill between holes. This test used the highest speed for each model.

Driving lag bolts can be a tough task, even with pilot holes. Each hammer drill was required to drive 12⅜-inch x 3½-inch lag bolts until the base of the head was flush to the wood. Most models completed this task in their low speed gear.

Where traditional twist drill bits have to step aside for larger hole boring, spade bits are a great choice. They are relatively inexpensive and very effective at removing material quickly. The 1-inch diameter is fairly common, and all the drills are capable of handling a traditional spade bit in high speed. Each drill had to drill 12 holes cleanly. If a drill failed to make it through consistently, we dropped it  to low speed and started the test all over.

When it comes time to make really big holes, most professionals turn to hole saws. Most heavy-duty 18V cordless drills and hammer drills should be able to handle hole saws up to 3 inches in diameter. Beyond that, you’re looking at specialty drills. Each drill had to cleanly make it through eight holes.

What is a hammer drill

Of all the drills we tested, the Bosch 18V Brute ½-inch hammer drill gave us the greatest confidence in its build quality.

Test details

Each of the four tests was performed on stacked ¾-inch sub-floor plywood fastened by a combination of thin construction adhesive and screws. Drilling, driving lag bolts and spade bits were tested on four stacked sheets (approximately 3 inches of material). Hole saws were tested on two stacked sheets (about 1½ inches of material).

For the drill bits, we used Milwaukee Titanium Red Helix Twist Bits. The variable helix design helps reduce heat buildup, and the titanium coating improves durability. We turned to Bosch Daredevil Spade Bits for the spade bit test. The Daredevil spade bits have a threaded tip that literally pulls the bit through.

We also used Bosch for our hole saws. The 3-inch Bosch Daredevil Hole Saws feature four carbide teeth that offer cutting speeds up to 10 times faster than bi-metal versions. The cup is also 2⅜ inches deep, so you can make it through sheet goods and a piece of dimensional lumber in one pass. The open flutes are nice, and chip and core removal are easier.

Performance results

What is a hammer drill

Makita’s heavy-duty 18V cordless drill took first place in the final standings.

Before we dig into the results, let’s take a quick look at the maximum torque and rpm ratings for each drill. While this will help explain some of the results, remember that maximum torque can’t be sustained, and there are differences in how the power is distributed in each gear between models.

Speed and torque are inversely related in drills – when one increases, the other has to decrease to compensate for the additional power draw. Bosch’s HDH181 may have a lower maximum rpm than most, but it’s going to channel more power to torque in high speed than a drill with similar power and a higher top speed. The lower the speed, the more available power is being transferred to torque in that gear. That’s the trade-off.

Drilling test

What is a hammer drill

The RIDGID hammer drill finished so far ahead of the others (25.66 seconds) we repeated the test to make sure it was an accurate result.

As you would expect, none of our heavy-duty 18V cordless drill participants had an issue drilling 12 ¼-inch holes in quick succession. What may be surprising are the winners in this test. RIDGID (25.66 seconds) was so far ahead of the others that we tested it a second time to make sure it was an accurate result. DeWalt (27.23 seconds) came in second.

Lag bolt test

The only question we had going into this test was whether DeWalt would be able to sink the 12 lag bolts in any gear besides low. DeWalt was really close in second gear, coming up just a ½-inch shy of sinking it.

Two compelling results showed up in this test. First, Makita (3.66 seconds on average) was far and away the winner. Secondly, RIDGID (4.23 seconds) was right behind Milwaukee – impressive with 500 inch-pounds less maximum torque.

Spade bit test

While most drills can handle a 1-inch spade bit in high speed with some gentle persuasion, going with Bosch Daredevil Spade Bits presented a problem for our entire sub-1000 inch-pound group.

When you use a traditional spade bit, you can back off the pressure and feather it through without binding up the drill. Not so with a threaded tip. Each turn of the bit pulls it further down into the material. Since the threaded tip requires no downward force, all we did was steady the drill while the motor and bit provided the work.

We bored 12 holes with each drill to figure out which tools could drill consistently in high speed and which had to be dropped into low gear. Each drill made it in high. Makita (4.24 seconds) posted the fastest top speed.

Hole saw test

When maxing out the hole saw capacity of each drill at 3 inches, we had to test each drill to see where it would work most efficiently. With every model, we were able to get the fastest consistent times in high speed thanks to the ability to deliver an exact amount of downward force to keep the drill working without bind-up.

It’s also safer to use hole saws in high speed. The incredible amount of torque each drill is capable of can easily wrench your wrist or arm if it binds up in low speed. While the auxiliary handles help, some are better than others. There are absolutely times to cut in low speed, but I prefer to cut in high when the application allows for it. Makita (7.71 seconds average) won the battle.

Ergonomics, quality, value

We also took a look at the ergonomics, build quality and value of each model. The good news is none of the drills are ergonomically sub-professional. There also weren’t any participants that felt cheaply built to us. All of these heavy-duty 18V cordless drill models get our Pro nod in both categories, though some were clearly better than others.

Considering grip, balance, weight, and experience under load, RIDGID eked out the ergonomics win over DeWalt. For build quality, Bosch gave us the most confidence, followed by Makita.

RIDGID still represents one of the best values among professional tools, particularly with their Lifetime Service Agreement. We found the DeWalt, Makita, and Milwaukee kits all for the same price.

Given the performance and subjective categories, we feel Makita offers the best heavy-duty 18V cordless drill value in this group.

Bosch 18V Brute Tough ½-inch hammer drill

• Model: HDH181X-01L
• No-load speed (rpm): 0-440 / 0-1,850
• Maximum torque: 752 inch-pounds
• Weight: 3.66 pounds bare, 5 pounds with 4.0 amp hour battery
• Length: 9 inches

We like the overall design of Bosch’s heavy-duty 18V cordless drill. For those of us that aren’t built like Hercules, the active response technology is a key benefit when working in low speed. There’s really not much I’d like to see changed with this model. Running at lower rpm in both high and low speeds than the competition allows it to deliver a greater percentage of its power as torque. The result is confident drilling and boring applications.

This is the one model that improved its position the tougher each test got. Of all the drills we tested, the Bosch HDH181 gave us the greatest confidence in its build quality. Plan on this model outlasting its warranty by a long stretch. It also comes with Bosch’s top notch LBoxx case and custom insert for storage and protection.

DeWalt 20V Max XR Lithium-ion 3-speed hammer drill

• Model: DCD995M2
• No-load speed (rpm): 0-450 / 0-1,300 / 0-2,000
• Maximum torque: 708 inch-pounds
• Weight: 3.4 pounds bare, 4.74 pounds with 4.0 amp hour battery
• Length: 8⅜ inches

DeWalt wins major points with us thanks to its three-speed motor. Although our tests were mainly low and high stress applications, that middle speed will come in very handy on moderate-duty jobs. The fit and feel of DeWalt’s DCD995 were right there with the top contenders. It ended up tied for second in ergonomics, just a single point behind the top spot. DeWalt comes in with just 708 inch-pounds of torque, but performed at a much higher level.

Makita 18V LXT Lithium-ion brushless ½-inch hammer drill

• Model: XPH07MB
• No-load speed (rpm): 0-550 / 0-2,100
• Maximum torque: 1,090 inch-pounds
• Weight: 4.02 pounds bare, 5.38 pounds with 5.0 amp hour battery
• Length: 8¼ inches

Makita took first place in the final standings. With performance near the top and a low price tag, it’s no wonder this is our pick for the top value in the bunch. Makita offers a noticeably long auxiliary handle to go with its 1,092 inch-pounds of torque. It worked well for us, but we think anything longer would be cumbersome.

We’d like to see Makita work on the grip ergonomics. It certainly wasn’t uncomfortable, but there’s room for improvement.

Milwaukee M18 Fuel ½-inch hammer drill

• Model: 2704-22
• No-load speed (rpm): 0-550/0-2,000
• Maximum torque: 1,200 inch-pounds
• Weight: 3.5 pounds bare, 5.14 pounds with 5.0 amp hour battery
• Length: 7¾ inches

Milwaukee came in with the highest overall torque and it performed very well, earning it a place among the top 3. The only issue we came across in this design from Milwaukee was that it had noticeably more vibration in aggressive tasks.

Milwaukee’s 2704 is going to be the foundation of their One-Key drill platform. While Milwaukee could potentially re-tool this drill to be more tuned in to the tests we put it through, One-Key will allow the user to dial it in. That means we can tell it (using a smartphone or tablet) exactly how to balance the speed and torque based on what we’re doing that day.

RIDGID Gen5X brushless compact hammer drill

• Model: R86116K
• No-load speed (rpm): 0-550/0-2100
• Maximum torque: 700 inch-pounds
• Weight: 3.14 pounds bare, 4.88 pounds with 5.0 amp hour battery

RIDGID caused us all to raise our eyebrows when it set itself apart from the field in our pilot-hole test. RIDGID is priced as one of the best values on the market, and we’re getting excellent run-time with the new brushless motor and 5Ah battery.

This kit (with a pair of 2.0 amp hour batteries) is more than $100 less than any other kit we tested, and it comes with a lifetime warranty. Understanding that it’s going to do its best work in low stress, high volume applications will help set a reasonable expectation for performance. It fact, you’ll see it outperform more expensive models in those tasks.

One of the high points in ergonomics. RIDGID offers what I think is the best rubber over mold on the market. The Hex-Grip provides cushioning and solid grip on the tool, even when your hands are wet. It also has the lowest weight of all the models we tested.

About run time

Missing from our tests is run time. Battery technology and brushless motors have almost eliminated run time concerns in low stress applications. Could we drill with 3-inch hole saws until each battery was exhausted? Sure, but that’s only applicable for a small percentage of pros.

Could we drill hundreds of ¼-inch holes or drive an even higher number of 3-inch screws? Absolutely. The point is we want this text to be about driving performance.

Run time testing is definitely still an applicable test, but these drills are doing so much work with the newest generation of batteries that run-time is becoming less and less of an issue. In addition, not every kit came with the highest amp hour battery pack. Without getting each model in the best possible run-time scenario, in the end, we’d still be left with questions.

−By Kenny Koehler, Pro Tool Reviews

Pro Tool Reviews is the construction industry’s premier tool review publication, publishing over 200 tool reviews a year and hundreds more product previews and tool-related articles. It’s also the home of the annual Pro Tool Innovation Awards, which are given to the year’s most innovative tools, accessories, and fasteners. Visit the site at protoolreviews.com for more info.


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