Every year, Tools of the Trade takes the opportunity to recognize standout tools that caught our attention during the previous year. Some rose to the top during testing, while others impressed us as being a leap forward in technology, design, or features that define the current state of the art among tool manufacturers.
Innovation is a key theme of this year’s picks. A few of the tools are new-to-market concepts; others exemplify the latest and greatest within their respective categories. All are worthy of special recognition.
We couldn’t include every tool that has made a splash since last year’s awards, but here are the 12 top picks we chose to showcase for our audience.
1. Bosch GSL2 Surface Laser
The GSL2 is unlike any other line laser we have seen. Lasers usually project plumb and level lines; the surface laser projects a pair of parallel angled lines onto the floor. The lines overlap to form a single fine line at an elevation set by the user. If there is a dip or rise in the floor, the lines will diverge, yielding a widened double line at that location. The farther apart the lines, the greater the dip or hump in the floor. An included protractor-like target allows you to measure the height of any variation found.
The GSL2 is self-leveling and rotates its lines in an effective radius of 60 feet with the help of its full-function remote. The tool is powered by either AA batteries or an optional Bosch 12-volt max rechargeable tool battery. This is the type of ingenious but simple tool that makes us wonder why no one thought of it sooner. Price: $549. 877-267-2499. boschtools.com.
2. DeWalt DCT418S1 Radar Scanner
DeWalt’s affordable new DCT418 scanner uses radar technology to quickly and easily pinpoint hidden hazards within walls or floors. Simply roll it across the surface for a mapping scan, then roll it back along the same path to identify what was detected the first time across. The type and location of the components within the wall appear as pictographs on the color LCD display. The pictographs are easy to interpret — a stud looks like a stud, nonferrous metal like a copper pipe, and so on.
The radar scanner is powered by DeWalt’s 12-volt max battery and works through drywall, wood, concrete, ceramic tile, and marble, with a sensing depth of up to 3 inches. Materials it can detect include ferrous and nonferrous metal, wood, PVC pipe, and live electrical wiring. A signal-strength meter lets you gauge the unit’s confidence in what it detects, so you can decide whether you need to double-check something found behind surfaces difficult to scan. Price: $299 (kit). 800-433-9258. dewalt.com.
3. Makita 18- to 36-Volt Battery Adapter
In an ideal world, cordless-tool batteries would be completely interchangeable — at least within the brand. With the introduction of the X2 adapter, Makita has brought that dream one step closer to reality. The adapter allows the company’s growing line of 36-volt tools to be powered by two 18-volt LXT batteries.
The product came about when Makita’s U.S. branch pitched the idea to the company’s Japanese headquarters as a way to attract its well-established 18-volt customer base to the brand’s 36-volt tools. With the X2 adapter, users can add new and larger tools to their arsenals without having to purchase types of batteries and chargers they don’t already use.
The adapter (without batteries) is sold with the brand’s 36-volt rotary hammer and chainsaw, or it can be purchased separately to retrofit the rotary hammer, which has been available in the U.S. for a while.
It features a fuel gauge for each battery, so you can check your charge status to make sure both batteries are balanced for efficient output. The X2 snaps on and off either tool’s 36-volt battery connection for easier tool storage. Price: BVC02 adapter $80, HRH01ZX2 rotary hammer with adapter $359, HCU02ZX2 chainsaw with adapter $369. 800-462-5482. makitausa.com.
4. Milwaukee’s Brushless M12 Tool Line
Although they started small, subcompact tools have come to be big performers on the job site, and no company has taken these 10.8-volt (12-volt max) tools further than Milwaukee. Its M12 Fuel brushless line exemplifies the move toward smaller, lighter tools with the power and runtime to get the job done. The line currently includes a drill/driver and a hammer drill/driver with 1/2-inch chucks, a chuckless drill/driver, an impact driver, 1/4- and 3/8-inch drive impact wrenches, and a 5/8-inch-capacity SDS-plus rotary hammer.
With their surprising power, long-running 2.0 and 4.0 amp-hour batteries, and compact and efficient brushless motors, these tools are poised to replace 18-volt tools for many applications while providing notable savings in size and weight. We predict this type of “right-size” tool will become more popular as subcompact models continue to improve, and will allow pros to go big with smaller tools. Price: Bare tools from $139 to $219, kits from $189 to $319. 800-729-3878. milwaukeetool.com.
5. Powermatic PM1500 Band Saw
The new PM1500 was originally designed to be Powermatic’s flagship 14-inch band saw, but too much power and cutting capability was packed in and it burst at the seams and was released instead as a 15-inch model. We’re only partially kidding: With its 3-horsepower motor and capacity for 14-inch-tall and 14 1/2-inch-wide stock, this 400-pound machine outclasses even many of the 18-inch band saws on the market. The real benefit of the 15-inch wheels is that they can run thicker and wider blades than 14-inch wheels can — large blades up to 1 inch wide, in fact, which are best for resawing or milling rough stock into boards.
This machine’s other features include massive cast-iron wheels, a rock-solid guide post with rack-and-pinion gear adjustment, dual dust-collection ports, and a large cast-iron table with a T-square fence that features an extra-tall faceplate for stability.
For extra safety, the saw has a removable magnetic lockout key that disables the power switch, an interlock switch on the tensioning lever that won’t let the saw start with the blade untensioned, and a foot brake that switches the power off and mechanically stops the blade. Price: $2,900. 800-274-6848. powermatic.com.
6. Category Award: Higher Amp-Hour Batteries
The meteoric rise in cordless tool technology over the past several years has generated fierce competition among tool brands battling to assert dominance in one arena or another.
Manufacturers have focused at various times on torque, battery chemistry, voltage ratings (max vs. nominal ratings), brushless motors, and — for the last year or so — higher amp-hour (Ah) battery ratings.
Putting a higher Ah-rated battery on a tool is like putting a bigger fuel tank in a vehicle: It doesn’t go faster, but it does go farther. The battery isn’t actually larger, though; its cells have greater energy density, so the pack stores more power in the same amount of space.
For years, most cordless battery packs contained 1.0- or 1.5-Ah rated lithium ion cells. With a single string of these cells, compact packs could achieve a 1.0- or 1.5-Ah rating. Full-size packs contain two strings of cells and could achieve a 2.0- or 3.0-Ah rating.
To be fair, some brands have used cells rated higher than 1.5 Ah, but the practice has only recently become mainstream. The current standard is to assemble packs with 2.0-Ah cells, which yield compact and full-size packs rated at 2.0 and 4.0 Ah respectively.
As of now, Bosch, DeWalt, Metabo, Milwaukee, Ridgid, and Ryobi offer 4.0-Ah battery packs in the U.S. market. Panasonic offers 4.2-Ah batteries. The 4.5-Ah packs from Stihl and 6.0-Ah packs from Hilti use three strings of cells to achieve those higher ratings.
It’s unclear which (if any) tool company will win the Ah rating war, but tool users will almost certainly benefit from the longer runtime and proliferation of new types of cordless tools that better batteries will make possible.
7. Festool Planex Drywall Sanding System
The Planex LHS225 drywall sanding tool by Festool has redefined what a dust-collecting drywall sander should be. Yes, it sands — but what really stands out about the tool is how effectively it collects dust.
The sander has two dust-collection settings: the standard setting that picks up dust around the perimeter of the sanding head, just inside the surrounding dust brush; and a setting that pulls dust through holes in the center of the 8 1/2-inch sanding pad. This through-the-pad setting is designed to help support the weight of the sander when used overhead on ceilings. The unit will indeed hold itself up against a smooth ceiling with the vacuum turned on and the sander turned off.
To help you reach all the way into corners, a section of the surrounding dust brush lifts off. And to keep the sanding head from sticking to the work surface, the sander features an adjustable vacuum bypass valve. The tool is powered by an efficient brushless motor that can be adjusted to rotate the head at speeds from 310 to 920 rpm.
The sander comes with one extension, which should allow a person of average height to sand 8-foot ceilings. With an additional (optional) extension, that same person can sand 11-foot ceilings. An optional harness is available to support the weight of the sander and hose for lengthy bouts of overhead use.
For maximum performance, Festool recommends pairing the sander with its CT36 Auto Clean vac, which collects fine dust and comes with a special lightweight hose. Price: Sander alone $1,050, sander and vac $1,748. 888-337-8600. festoolusa.com.
8. Hilti TE 30-A36 Cordless Rotary Hammer
Hilti is so confident in the power and performance of its latest 36-volt cordless SDS-plus 1-inch rotary hammer, it’s promoting the tool by running it against similar-sized corded tools. And not just the competition’s corded tools — against Hilti’s own corded models, too. According to the company, the TE30-A36 can drill and chip up to 40% faster than the largest corded SDS Plus hammers available and handily beats even SDS-max hammers of the same weight class. This standout tool is seen as an important step on the path to the cordless job sites Hilti envisions for the future.
In addition to power and speed, the tool has superior runtime. The maker claims it can drill 35 holes 3/4 inch by 8 inches deep in concrete on a single charge, a feat made possible by the combination of a brushless motor and a 36-volt, 6.0 amp-hour battery — the highest Ah rating we’ve seen to date. This three-mode combination hammer has Hilti’s active torque-control and vibration-reduction systems to protect users from injuries due to bit binding and vibration. Price: $1,599. 800-879-8000. us.hilti.com.
9. Bostitch Low-Profile Framing Nailers
The concept of going smaller and lighter is gaining in pneumatic framing guns. We’ve recognized compact models in the past, but this year Bostitch turned heads with new low-profile framing nailers in all three collation angles. Whether you shoot plastic-collated, paper-tape, or wire-weld nails, Bostitch has you covered with the 21-degree LPF21PL, 33-degree LPF33PT, and 28-degree LPF28WW.
As their name implies, these nailers are characterized by heads short enough to easily fit between 16-inch framing members, and all weigh in at less than 8 pounds — the cutoff manufacturers currently strive to beat. Bostitch still offers larger, heavier guns, as these compact tools max out at 3 1/4-inch fasteners and won’t shoot the thickest-gauge nails available. The low-profile line allows carpenters to use smaller, lighter guns for the common tasks that account for most of their time framing.
Premium features include a tool-free switchable trigger and depth-of-drive mechanism, a rotating rafter hook, an internal air filter, a protective nose pad, and a magnet in the nose that holds the last few nails straight. Price: $239 each. 800-556-6696. bostitch.com.
10. Panasonic Dual-Voltage Tools
Panasonic’s latest cordless tools are flexible-fuel models that accept the brand’s 14.4- or 18-volt batteries rated 3.1 amp-hours (Ah) or higher. Not only can buyers use their existing batteries of either voltage in a new tool, but they can use 14.4-volt packs in place of compact packs (which Panasonic doesn’t offer).
In our testing, the dual-voltage 18-volt impact driver was equally powerful with new 4.2-Ah 14.4-volt and 18-volt packs — but it was lighter and easier to handle with the smaller battery. And speaking of amp-hours, the individual cells in these packs are rated at 2.1 Ah, the highest number we have seen in a power tool.
The dual-voltage line includes the EY74A1 drill/driver, EY75A1 impact driver, EY75A2 impact wrench, and EY45A1 reciprocating saw. The impact tools feature brushless motors with three speed/power settings, and all of the tools have an IP rating of 56 — a measure of how well they resist dust and water. When sold in kit form, the tools come with 18-volt batteries, which suggests they are intended to help existing 14.4-volt users transition up. Price: Bare tools from $180 to $243, kits from $460 to $470. 800-211-7262. panasonic.com.
11. Husqvarna TS-60 Tile Saw
The TS-60 wet saw for tile and stone has a 10-inch blade and the high-end features you’d expect from Husqvarna’s latest saw — including a patented water-delivery system unlike any other.
To better control the mess created by water and slurry, this manufacturer directs a stream of water through the blade channel in the rolling table beneath the tile being cut. As the table travels toward the blade, the blade is immersed in the water stream just before and during the cut. Because the blade contacts the water under the tile, there is virtually no airborne spray.
For bevel and plunge cuts, or if you simply need a wetter cut, an onboard water valve can be opened to direct a stream of water onto the blade from above, as with a typical wet saw.
Other well-thought-out features include a radically elevated rear splash tray, a built-in bull’s-eye level to make sure surfaces drain effectively, and useful wheels built onto the folding stand and the saw itself for easy one-man portability.
For increased service life, the motor features electronic soft start and a protective circuit with an LED that first flashes red, then stays red, and finally shuts off the motor if it becomes overloaded. Price: $1,199. 800-288-5040. husqvarna.com.
12. Keen Utility Line
After entering the work-boot market a few years back with mostly hiker-inspired styles, Keen now offers more than 50 models. Like the company’s casual and sporting footwear, boots in the Keen Utility line are recognizable by their trademark asymmetrical rubber toe caps, which follow the shape of a human foot. Besides a roomy toe box, Keen boots and shoes feature all the high-tech materials and construction details workers want and need for durability and comfort.
Footwear options include waterproof, insulated, electrostatic-dissipative, puncture-resistant, and slip-resistant materials, as well as metatarsal guards and steel, aluminum, or plastic composite protective toecaps. Styles range from lightweight work sneakers to tall, heavy-duty leather lace-ups and wellingtons. Women’s sizes are available too. The boots come with a 90-day comfort warranty. Price: Varies by style; men’s Pittsburgh (pictured) $180. 866-676-5336. keenutility.com.