A big part of a plumber's or electrician's job is making holes. Through studs, plates, floors, joists, and even roofs, before you can start to run any pipe or pull any wire, you need countless large holes, and you want them fast and with as little effort as possible. So when you're looking to pick the right tool, you need a drill that is powerful, comfortable to use, compact, and built to last.

As a plumber, the right-angle drill is the tool for the job when it comes down to serious wood chompin' time. Because the chuck is at a right angle to the body (hence the name), it is able to get into much smaller spaces, such as tight stud and joist bays, than a standard heavy-duty straight-line drill. And the two- or three-speed gearing can provide incredible torque for the largest holes or the speed to chew through lumber like your profits depend on it.

Front handles with generous hand clearance, like on this Makita, are preferred. To reduce the profile height, such handles can be rotated forward.
Photo: dotfordot.com Front handles with generous hand clearance, like on this Makita, are preferred. To reduce the profile height, such handles can be rotated forward.

Test Criteria

For this test, I compared eight right-angle drills. Four of the drills are decidedly heavy-duty: the DeWalt DW124K, Makita DA4031, Milwaukee 1680-21 Super-Hawg, and Ridgid R7130. The four D-handled drills are comparatively medium-duty tools: the DeWalt DW120K, Makita DA4000LR, Milwaukee 3107-6, and the Milwaukee 0721-21 V28 28-volt lithium-ion cordless.

The best place to test tools is on the job, so we brought these drills out to our projects and put them to the test in everyday plumber's tasks. There we compared them for weight and balance, overall feel, and ease of use, and we evaluated their switches and other features. Then we brought them to the shop where I performance-tested them side by side.

Out of the Box

These are hardworking, single-purpose tools, so they come with just the basics. Except for the Ridgid, all of the drills come with a plastic storage case. All the cases are well built with sturdy handles and clasps. Most of them have plenty of room for bits and extensions, though the cordless Milwaukee's case is a bit tight. The cases for the cordless and heavy-duty Milwaukee drills allow the tools to be stored with pretty good?sized bits left in their chucks, as do both giant Makita cases. There is even room for the heavy-duty Makita to be stowed with its front handle adjusted to most of its positions.

Every drill in the group comes with a side handle. Use it whenever you can! As with any power tool, when using right-angle drills, safety should not be overlooked. A slow-moving drill bit doesn't look very dangerous, but when your bit binds up, all that torque is transferred back to you in the direction opposite its rotation. Getting yanked off a ladder or smashing your knuckles isn't much fun, trust me on that. Whenever possible, I brace the handle or body (knowing which way the drill will react), against something solid before I pull the trigger. Remember to change your bracing direction when reversing to free a bound-up bit; it may take a moment to manually reposition the tool, but the peace of mind is worth it.

Pipe-thread side handles like on this DeWalt allow for easy field replacement or extending.
Photo: dotfordot.com Pipe-thread side handles like on this DeWalt allow for easy field replacement or extending.

The DeWalt, Makita, and Ridgid heavy-duty models use a 3/4-inch NPT (pipe-thread) handle and the heavy-duty Milwaukee uses an SAE (bolt-thread) handle. I prefer the pipe-thread style because I regularly use a short piece of pipe and a coupler to make an extra-long brace handle. This is very handy when drilling a monster 5-inch hole for a WC flange where the center of the hole is 12 inches off the wall and the stock handle can't reach. The extended handle can now be braced against a stud in the wall for safer operation.

The medium-duty drills all come with side handles that can either fit extended out of the side of the tool body or attach closer in to the angle-drive head itself. The handle mounted near the head allows the user to apply the pressure needed to feed the bit more easily, but the side position is more suitable for bracing. All of these medium-duty drills except for the cordless Milwaukee came with the necessary tools for adjusting their right-angle attachments.

The Milwaukee cordless drill comes with one V28 lithium-ion battery pack and a charger. A great feature of this battery is the indicator lights that tell you how much charge you have left, which is nice to know before you climb up on the roof. I certainly recommend reading the instruction book that comes with the charger and battery so you get the best performance possible from your battery.

Performance Test

When you get on the job, it's all about production; the faster you can drill a line of holes, the quicker you're running pipe or wire through it. So I usually bore holes up to 2-9/16 inch on a drill's high-speed setting. If the drill is powerful enough to perform, the accumulated time savings is there. When testing the drills in high speed, some of my averaged test times were as fast as 6 seconds compared to times as long as 26 seconds in low. Twenty seconds doesn't sound like a big deal, but think about it this way: you're cutting your drilling time by 75 percent. The bottom line here is to deliver enough power to the bit at the fastest speed possible to do the job more efficiently. In this test, power equals speed, speed equals time, and we all know what time equals.

Because of the different grades of lumber, knots, moisture content, and drilling positions, boring times can vary with every hole you drill on the job. For the shop performance testing, I tried to eliminate as many variables as possible. Using a new 2-9/16-inch self-feeding bit on each tool, I drilled multiple holes with each drill at each of its speed settings through doubled-up 2-by lumber to closely simulate everyday work requirements. I had a helper time me to get an accurate comparison of speed and power in completing this task.

Changing drilling speed ranges on the medium-duty models requires some disassembly. Keyed drive attachments like on this Makita proved easier and quicker than threaded models.
Photo: dotfordot.com Changing drilling speed ranges on the medium-duty models requires some disassembly. Keyed drive attachments like on this Makita proved easier and quicker than threaded models.

The heavy-duty tools really showed their stuff here: The Milwaukee earned its name as the Super-Hawg; rated at 13 amps and turning at 450 and 1,750 rpm, it shredded holes in 13 seconds in low speed and only 6 seconds in high. This tool has the fastest rpm of any and the power to back up working at the increased speeds. The DeWalt, rated at 11.5 amps and at 300 and 1,200 rpm, blasted through my test with an average 18 seconds and 8 seconds, respectively?a solid performance for the oldest design in the group. The 10-amp Makita, also at 300 and 1,200 rpm, cranked out times of 19 seconds and 9 seconds?very impressive for the lightest and smallest drill. The Ridgid has three speeds (300, 600, and 1,200 rpm), and its more modest 8-amp motor turned in the slowest times of the heavy-duties at 21, 13, and 12 seconds. The mid-range speed should be the highest used for a bit of this size, according to Ridgid; their high-speed capacity is only 1-3/8 inch, compared to 2-9/16 inch for the others.

The medium-duty group had mixed results. The Makita's 7.5-amp motor, at 400 and 900 rpm, was able to bore the test holes in 21 seconds and 15 seconds. The Milwaukee has a 7-amp motor, but its geared-down speeds of 335 and 750 rpm resulted in the slowest times of 26 seconds and 19 seconds?plenty of power but at the cost of some speed.

The 7-amp DeWalt effortlessly bored test holes at 400 rpm in 15 seconds, but could not perform the test at 900 rpm. The cordless Milwaukee did about the same: At 400 rpm it steadily chomped away until I had a hole at 16 seconds, but it was not quite powerful enough to finish a hole at 1,000 rpm. Both of these drills are rated for a maximum bit size of -29/16 inch. The first two are rated at a maximum of 4-5/8 inch?the same as the heavy-duty class.

Milwaukee's cordless drill is pretty impressive. To be able to keep up with corded tools in such a high-output application is quite a feat of battery-powered strength. I started these tests only after fully breaking-in the battery, as the owner's manual instructed, and always started with it fully charged. I also tested this drill to see how much work you could expect out of a charge. I was able to complete 16 2-9/16-inch holes through the double 2-by before I got the blinking recharge light, and I never noticed any decrease in performance, even through the last hole. During these trials, the bit bound up once and I received quite a smack to the leg; don't underestimate the power of this cordless drill.

Grip & Feel

How a tool "feels" can be one of the most important features of any tool, making or breaking a pleasant experience for the user over a long workday, but it can be difficult to actually express what makes a tool feel good. Here's what I found through my intensive experience with each of these tools.

Of the heavy-duty drills, the Makita was the most comfortable to use. It's more compact than the others, and the grip seemed the most natural. Its large, adjustable front handle gave me a confident grip while attacking monster holes, even in awkward positions. The DeWalt's long length gave it much-appreciated leverage when operating. I liked its big, adjustable front handle, which afforded me a very comfortable and secure grip, but I wish it had the rear rubber grip included on the others. The Milwaukee Super-Hawg's long length also provided great leverage, but its small front T-handle didn't seem to fit my hand and left me with an unsure grip. This compromised grip was accentuated by the tool's weight (it's the heaviest in the class). The Ridgid is the shortest of the heavy-duty drills and took the most effort to use. Its small front handle is adjustable, but in its most practical position did not leave enough room to comfortably fit my hand, making it impractical to use.

The reversing lever on the cordless Milwaukee has a handy lock-off setting and nice graphics.
Photo: dotfordot.com The reversing lever on the cordless Milwaukee has a handy lock-off setting and nice graphics.

The medium-duty drills are nearly identical in size, shape, and feel. The Milwaukee cordless tool's battery does make it the heaviest of these four, but its excellent balance keeps the weight from affecting the feel of this drill?plus, it's cordless! This tool and the Makita have rubber-cushioned D-handles for a very nice feel and grip.

Reversing Switches

I use reverse quite often. Whenever I find a hidden nail or my bit binds up, I have to back out of the hole. It's helpful if this switch is easy to find and use without having to remove my hand from the rear grip and fumble around, especially when wearing gloves.

The heavy-duty Makita has a push-button switch in front of the trigger that was easy to reach and was not in the way. The Ridgid has a slide switch in the handle; it has a raised tab and slides easily into position. Milwaukee's Super-Hawg reverses with a rocker switch on top of the drill by the handle. It was easy to operate with my thumb, but I found it hard to feel if it was engaged, especially with its rubber moisture seal. The heavy-duty DeWalt has a sliding reverse switch in the handle below the trigger. It is fairly flat to the handle and was harder to operate, especially with gloves on.

The heavy-duty Makita was one of two drills with a 180-degree rotating trigger handle that locks in three positions: facing right, center, and left.
Photo: dotfordot.com The heavy-duty Makita was one of two drills with a 180-degree rotating trigger handle that locks in three positions: facing right, center, and left.

The medium-duty DeWalt and Makita tools each have an easy-to-use toggle above the trigger. The cordless Milwaukee's reverse switch is a small lever on top of the handle; it was easy to reach with my thumb and has a cool graphic indicator of direction as well as a third lock-off position, which was very handy. The other Milwaukee drill has a tiny slide switch in the side of the handle that I could not reach without re-gripping the tool.

Changing Gears

Just like the reverse switch, a drill's speed selector should be easy to use. When you're up on a ladder and find out you need to lower the speed of your heavy-duty drill, easy matters.

I liked the Milwaukee Super-Hawg's selector the best; its large dial was easy to grip and turn, even with gloves on. DeWalt's speed selector?a small knob in a recessed channel on the underside of the drill that has to be lifted up and slid forward?was tricky to use. For the selector to engage, the chuck usually had to be wiggled while I was doing this to line up the action. The Makita and Ridgid feature smaller rotating knobs that were easy enough to use.

All of the medium-duty drills are variable-speed, but changing the speed range is a fairly involved process. First the chuck has to be removed from the angle-drive head by backing out the bolt that attaches the chuck to the drive. At this point the DeWalt and Makita chucks will now slip off the drive shafts of the angled heads. (Makita's keyed drive is quite a bit beefier than DeWalt's roll-pin drive.) The Milwaukee chucks, however, are threaded to the drive shaft, and a hammer and some pounding were required to separate them. I found them to be very tight after use, requiring quite an effort to loosen. The next step for all four is to loosen the drive-head locking collar and then remove and reverse the angle drive. The collar can then be tightened back up and the chuck gets reattached. Although changing speed ranges this way is cumbersome, the small angle-drive can fit into incredibly tight spaces and can be rotated to any position for reaching those awkward holes.

The angle-drive head also can be removed and the chuck installed directly onto the drills for straight-on drilling at a speed and torque somewhere in the middle of the low and high right-angle ratings.

The heavy-duty Milwaukee has the easiest-to-use speed selector and the lowest-profile head.
Photo: dotfordot.com The heavy-duty Milwaukee has the easiest-to-use speed selector and the lowest-profile head.

Clutches

The heavy-duty drills are all designed with clutches for low-speed operation, a welcome feature that has become the norm since the last time Tools tested these drills. It's an important safety factor and will prolong the life of your drill, and possibly you. During our site testing, these clutches worked flawlessly, that is to say, they never disengaged during normal use. During my shop testing, I purposely tried to bind up a large 3-5/8-inch bit to see if I felt any differences between clutches. I have a lot of respect for these drills and it was a little scary pushing them to the limit, but suffice it to say, I found that the clutches disengaged only when they needed to.

Extra Features

Sometimes it's the details that make a tool stand out from the others. The heavy-duty Makita and Milwaukee were designed to allow their entire trigger handle to be rotated 90 degrees left or right for easier trigger access in all positions. This is a nice feature to have when you really need it.

The Ridgid comes with a long 12-foot cord with a power indicator light on the plug end and an affixed Velcro strap to bundle up the cord. The medium-duty Milwaukee is supplied with the company's "Quik-Lok" cord, which is removable for easy storage and replacement when it gets damaged. Their cord is interchangeable with other Milwaukee tools, and replacements are available in 8- and 25-foot lengths.

Extensions

I also got to test two extension attachments for the Makita and Milwaukee medium-duty drills. These 30-inch extensions, the Makita 193317-9 and Milwaukee 48-06-2860, place the chuck at a 33-degree angle from the drill. With the extensions attached, we were able to bore holes through overhead floor joists without a ladder. An 8-foot ceiling was about the highest I could drill above comfortably. You still have to apply pressure to the bit, and the smaller supply line?size bits were easier to handle than the large bits. Both the Makita and Milwaukee extensions performed the same, and I found it considerably safer and a lot quicker to work on the floor rather than on a ladder. The added mobility of the cordless Milwaukee made this work especially freeing. For me, installing a staple-up radiant floor system or running water lines this way is a real time-saver, and I would think these would be must-have tools for electricians.

Using an angled extension, like on this Makita, allows for safe joist boring with both feet on the ground.
Photo: dotfordot.com Using an angled extension, like on this Makita, allows for safe joist boring with both feet on the ground.

As with all attachments, the amount of trouble it takes to actually attach them relates to how much they get used. Both the Makita and the Milwaukee extensions are easy to install, but it does take several minutes. The time-consuming part of this change-out is the chuck removal and reassembly, just like when changing speeds. Makita's easier chuck removal is again an advantage over the Milwaukee. For more efficient use, I would purchase an extra chuck assembly to keep on the extension and leave the original chuck on the right-angle drive head. This would eliminate the hassle and time factor of changing them out on the job.

Winners

Without a doubt, my favorites were among the big boys in the heavy-duty class. We bore big holes, lots of them, and that is what these drills do best.

The tool that stood out above the others overall was the Makita DA4031. The lightest and most compact, it was the most comfortable to use?the weight and balance seemed to fit me perfectly. Add to that its impressive power and great features, and this drill is a complete winning package.

The power and speed of the Milwaukee 1680-21 Super-Hawg was the best there was; it was easily the most powerful of all the drills. It also is the largest and heaviest?truly heavy-duty and another favorite in the category.

The classic DeWalt DW124K is a very powerful drill and I liked its leverage, but some of its features are becoming a bit dated. The Ridgid R7130 seems to be a well-built drill, but it was generally outclassed by the others in the test.

My favorite of the medium-duty drills was a little harder to determine, but by a nose, it was the well-built Makita DA4000LR. Because of its higher capacities, a very quiet and smooth-running motor, and its easier-to-change keyed chuck, it just edges out the Milwaukee 0721-21 V28 cordless drill. The Milwaukee V28 is an amazing tool that has plenty of power, and anytime you can lose the cord and not miss it, you have a winner.

DeWalt's DW120K was the least powerful of the corded drills I tested, and it felt unbalanced. The Milwaukee 3107-6 is a very solid drill with plenty of power, but it was the slowest in the test. Its reverse switch was not very handy, and the extra effort required to remove the chuck kept this drill from the front of the pack.

–John Myrtle owns JM Plumbing and Heating in Hotchkiss, Colo.