Photos: David Sharpe

Walking into a tool store and standing in the middle of a square mile of tools and equipment, it's hard enough to remember why you came in–let alone figure out what you should walk out with. Tool buyers now have so many choices between brands and features in each category, you could spend all day wandering the aisles. But you don't have all day. You're on the clock, and you need to make the right tool-buying decision and get out of there. The challenge is that you need to choose the best tool for your work and decide how much of your hard-earned money to spend on it. So beyond buying what you've always bought, what criteria should you use to maximize your buck?

One key, says Tim Landry, sales and marketing manager at Berland's House of Tools in Lombard, Ill., is to understand something contractors often overlook: "The most expensive tool out there isn't anything you can buy at the store–it's your crew. Giving them what they need to work proficiently is the key to making the right tool choice." So we asked Landry to help us lay down some buying tips and clear up some common questions about choosing the right tool for the job.

WORMDRIVE OF SIDEWINDER?
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What most people call "wormdrives" are really hypoid-geared or in-line saws (only Skil, Bosch, and Ridgid have the oil-soaked worm gear). No matter what you call them, wormdrives, hypoids, and sidewinders do the same thing, just differently. How do you make the call? Maybe you tool up with one of each.

Wormdrive/Hypoid

Pros:

+ Weight: Front heavy, which is good for drop-cutting, especially studs, rafter tails, and deck joists.
+ Blade Options: Blade left provides clean line of sight.
+ Tool Body: Long; good for reaching across stacks of sheathing.
+ Power: Engineers say these kinds of saws have greater torque for the toughest cutting.
+ Durability: The motor will go before the gears.

Cons:

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- Weight: They're front heavy, side heavy, and back heavy. They're just heavy.
- Blade Options: Only comes in blade-left configuration.
- Tool Body: The blade's distance from the handle can make them harder to manage or position for awkward cutting.

- Power: The heavy gearing that gives these saws power also can cause them to twist in your hand at start-up as the gears engage.
- Brake: There's usually no option for an electric brake (DeWalt has the only one).
- Maintenance: You need to change the oil every now and then.
- Blade Change: Tapping out the diamond knock-out adds a step to the blade change; if knock-outs don't remove easily, you can warp the blade, which is bad for finish work.
- Price: Higher.

Sidewinder

Pros:
+ Weight: Lighter, easier to use in more positions.
+ Blade Options: Comes in blade-left or blade-right versions.
+ Tool Body: Compact body design, wide shoe, and good sight lines for accurate cuts, even in finish work like doors and panels.
+ Power: Strong in all sorts of materials.
+ Brake: Many models have an electric brake.
+ Maintenance: No oil to change.
+ Blade Change: No knock-out (or resulting blade damage) to contend with.
+ Price: Lower.

Cons:
- Tool Body: Reach is shorter for rips or across plywood; compact body and blade-right configuration make drop-cutting more difficult in many applications. (It's not as tough in blade-left
configurations.)
- Durability: Tough, but generally less durable.

HOSE OR HOSE-FREE NAILERS?
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As much as we all want to leave the hoses and compressor in the truck, hoseless nailing is a supplement to pneumatics. For fast framing, plug in. Going hoseless is better for out-of-the-way jobs or for punch-out. It's a much closer call for trim carpenters due to improvements in features, performance, and selection of hoseless trim nailers. There's still room for improvement in cost, maintenance, and speed.

CORDLESS DRILL/DRIVER OR IMPACT DRIVER?

Should you get a cordless drill/driver or a cordless impact driver? They do the same thing, right? Not exactly.

Cordless Drill/Driver

Pros:

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+ Go-to Tool: It's versatile in light- to medium-duty work.
+ Drive Mechanism: Drills holes over 1/2-inch diameter more efficiently; some have a hammering function for concrete and masonry.
+ Speed: Clutches and low-rpm settings make them right for more finicky work.
+ Chuck: Grabs all kinds of bits, especially round shank bits.
+ Noise: Quiet, even when working with your head jammed inside a cabinet.
+ Price: Lower.

Cons:

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- Drive Mechanism: Constant torque is better for drilling–but not even close when it comes to nut-, screw-, and bolt-driving oomph.
- Speed: Slower, especially when taxed.
- Chuck: Adds size and weight as it adds versatility; can spin against and damage finish work.
- Size: Almost one-third larger.

Cordless Impact Driver

Pros:
+ Go-to Tool: For big driving power–and all-around drilling/
driving–in a small package.
+ Drive Mechanism: An anvil hits a driver, turning it hard, which achieves gobs of big old power in most driving applications.
+ Speed: Variable-speed trigger and delayed impact help control that power in all but the most delicate tasks and make these tools useful almost anywhere on site; for all-out driving, they're way faster.
+ Chuck: Every tool with a bit should have a bit exchange as easy, slick, and small as the 1/4-inch hex drive. It's almost flawless.
+ Size: They're two-thirds the size of a drill/driver and very comfortable to hold.

Cons:
- Drive Mechanism: The variable-speed trigger is great, but when the screw is less than 1-inch long, the tool ramps up too quickly and can cause overdrives or breakage. Only Panasonic has low and high speed, which helps solve this.
- Chuck: Hex shank bits only, which cost more and can be harder to find.
- Drilling: Not so great for holes larger than 1/2-inch diameter.
- Noise: They're loud. Driving foundation bolts, who cares, but inside a cabinet you won't hear your boom box over the noise.
- Price: Higher.

MANUAL OR SELF-LEVELING LASER LEVELS?
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Assuming you're already convinced about laser levels, this decision is a no-brainer. The cost differential between manual and self-leveling units is so small, you've got to go for the self-leveler. With self-leveling units, you're up and running in a minute, so you'll make up the "extra" money you spent in set-up time alone over a couple of jobs. Get it, turn it on, and go to town.

HAMMERDRILL OR ROTARY HAMMER?

The only time you should debate buying a hammerdrill instead of a rotary hammer is when the majority of holes you drill are 1/4-inch diameter or less. Both tools drill about the same speed in this application. So, which should you buy?

Hammerdrill

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+ Double Duty: Drills wood and concrete.
+ Chuck: 1/2-inch chuck accepts multiple bits, hole saws, etc.
+ Price: Lower.

Cons:
- Capacity: For larger holes, they consume bits and go slowly.
- Power and Durability: Designed for mostly small-hole drilling.
- Noise: Man, they're loud!

Rotary Hammer

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Pros:
+ Go-to Tool: For holes more than 1/4-inch diameter in concrete/masonry.
+ Double Duty: Some hammers chip in addition to drilling–quite handy.
+ Power and Durability: Extra-tough impact mechanism designed for dedicated concrete pounding.
+ Noise: Not much, by comparison.

Cons:
- Bits: Dedicated, more expensive.
- Chuck: You can only use for concrete or masonry unless you have a special adapter for other bits.
- Price: Higher.

SLIDE COMPOUND OR FIXED-HEAD MITER SAW?
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Landry calls the sliding compound miter saw the "microwave oven of tools." "You didn't know you needed it until you got it," he says. "Now you can't live without it." They're more expensive and heavier than fixed-head chop saws, but they cut more, cut better, and work hard from frame to finish. If you have the extra couple hundred bucks, it's worth the extra money in the long run.

CONVENTIONAL OR ARTICULATING LADDER?

Here's the breakdown: Conventional step and extension ladders do what they're designed for: straight climbs from a level surface. While that's all they do, they do it effectively. But articulating ladders are designed for these applications and many more, so why not buy one?

Conventional Ladder

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Pros:
+ Comfort: Wide steps or flat rungs are comfortable to stand on all day; on step ladders, there's a top platform for your tools.
+ Height: Dedicated extension ladders can reach higher than articulating ladders.
+ Price: Individually, step and extension ladders are less expensive than most articulating ladders.

Cons:
- Versatility: Only usable in one configuration.
- Quantity: You need various heights and types of ladders to get you to all the places an articulator goes, and that costs cash.
- Storage: All those ladders take up room in the truck and on site.

Articulating Ladder

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Pros:
+ Versatility: Can bridge stairs or terrain and act as a step ladder, extension ladder, and staging trestle.
+ Storage: Folds up and stores IN the van.
+ Weight: For one ladder that acts like five, it's very light.
+ Accessories: A wide "step" accessory makes the rungs comfortable for all-day use or as a tool platform in the step-ladder configuration.

Cons:
- Utility: When one person is using one ladder–he's using ALL the ladders.
- Accessories: You need to use an accessory to have a tool platform in the step-ladder configuration.
- Price: All this versatility doesn't come cheap.

POWDER ACTUATED TOOLS, GAS-POWERED TOOLS, OR PNEUMATICS FOR CONCRETE, MASONRY, AND STEEL?


If you're banging down boards and beams into the hard stuff, here's a Why Buy rundown on which tool to use where:

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  • Powder actuated tools (PATs) are the go-to tools for general-purpose fastening in concrete and masonry, and for steel-to-steel connections. Whether it's plating, plywood substrate, or fixtures, PATs are the best general-purpose tools.
  • If you're only shooting down metal track, leave the boosters at home and use a cordless, gas-powered tool. They're faster, easier to load, and are great for short pins and lots of production-speed shots.
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  • For fastening furring strips to block or green concrete, a framing nailer with heat-treated nails gets it done.

–Mark Clement is executive editor and Rick Schwolsky is editor-in-chief of Tools of the Trade.