Photos: David Sharpe

Whether I'm snaking PEX and Cat 5e through a remodel or setting drawer runners on a custom built-in, I often find myself in tight spaces and dark places reaching for a drill. Often, my drill/drivers either don't fit or won't line up at the attack angle I need. These spots are made for compact right-angle or close-quarter drills.

Test Criteria

I tested seven 3/8-inch corded tools -- the Bosch 1132VSR, Craftsman 27996, DeWalt DW160, Hitachi D10YB, Makita DA3010F, Milwaukee 0375-6, and Sioux 8800ES. I also tested three 3/8-inch cordless models: the Hitachi DN12DY and Makita DA312DWD 12-volters and the lone 18-volt model, the DeWalt DW960K-2. I ran the tools in every cramped, hard-to-reach, and out-of-the-way place I get jammed into as a remodeler: under cabinets, working small parts in the shop, atop a ladder, in between framing, and all-around punch-out. I also gave them to my plumbers and electricians, who are experts at working in impossible spaces. I looked carefully at ergonomics and ease of use, and then examined size, power, and weight. While similarly sized and shaped, the corded and cordless versions have distinctive differences, so I compared them separately.

Milwaukee's comfortable handle design and nice power work well for drilling and driving.
Milwaukee's comfortable handle design and nice power work well for drilling and driving.

Corded Drills

One thing became clear early on in my test: The corded models won't become my first choice for regular drilling and driving because they lack some of the refinements of larger corded tools like keyless chucks and suitable ergonomics for all-day use, and they're more difficult to use driving screws. But I quickly found them useful in awkward or impossible spots, like drilling framing for utilities, boring out a cabinet back, and up on a ladder drilling for 3-inch soffit vents. I also noticed that the controls and grips on the corded tools are all designed for drilling more than driving.

Power. I tried hard to burn these little tools up with big-load work like blending joint compound and boring with hole saws. The good news is that I failed. All the corded tools showed the same impressive output when taxed.

I've grown so accustomed to keyless chucks that the keyed chucks on these corded tools really stood out. These little drills do mimic their big brothers' bit-bite, though. They grab and hold onto their bits even when drilling out large holes for rough-ins.

The Bosch, DeWalt, Hitachi, and Makita units have chuck shields, which prevent gouging finished pieces when working up close. The shields leave the chuck teeth somewhat exposed for engaging the key, however, so be careful. DeWalt's shield is best, housing the teeth for most of the chuck's circumference, leaving only three slots for the key. The Bosch, Hitachi, and Makita worked fine.

Makita's LED light is handy for dark spots between joists or inside a cabinet.
Makita's LED light is handy for dark spots between joists or inside a cabinet.

The Craftsman, Milwaukee, and Sioux have fully exposed chucks. These make hand-chucking easier, which is nice for getting a bit started without the key.

Controls and Grip. Designs vary widely in this category, so the controls and grips are unique to each drill. Milwaukee's small head and large body make it the "ugly duckling" of the bunch, but it's remarkably well-balanced and easy to use, even for driving screws. The tool's bulbous lower-half is much larger than any other drill in the group, but the neck is small and forms a comfortable grip location just beneath the 55-degree offset chuck. Its variable-speed trigger is a wide paddle that makes it easy to adjust speed. The reversing switch is on the back near the bottom and is easy to reach. This drill works equally well driving or drilling. Its small offset head also allowed me to work best in tight finished spaces like cabinets and medicine chests.

The Craftsman and Sioux look and feel about the same. Both are set up like larger T-grip drills with the handle offset just a few degrees from 90. They're comfortable to use and have a sensible attack angle, so you can easily get some pressure behind the bit. The triggers are good, with a nice reverse switch right above. The grip angle and high trigger position especially helped when driving screws.

Makita has a great variable-speed bar trigger with a speed-limiting knob so you can set the rpm, which is handy for drilling different materials or using bits with recommended cutting speeds. The body is easy to grip and is tapped for use with the included extension handle. Makita engineers recognized that we use these tools in dark spaces and added a bright LED light, which works great. I found this tool best for drilling and boring applications.

I also like Hitachi's trigger bar. It's the only model with a lock-on trigger, which is good for boring large, tough holes. You also can adjust speed with a thumbwheel, and the tool has a good gripping diameter. This one is another good driller, and I like its included side handle.

Bosch's trigger bar is similar to Hitachi's, but doesn't lock. There's a speed control wheel at the base and reversing switch on the back of the barrel that are easy to access and engage. The body diameter is just at the limit for good gripping. This tool is best suited for drilling only.

DeWalt's paddle switch has wings wrapping around one-third of the tool body both top and bottom so you can operate it from any grip position. It works, but tends to get in the way. The large body diameter makes it hard for small and even medium hands to grip. The drill is limited to single speed and has no reverse. Again, I found this tool best suited for drilling.