By Tod Maynard

Specs and Tester's Comments

I remodel houses in Boston and Nantucket, Mass., and build everything from finished basements to custom kitchens and baths. When it comes time to clean up, I need a vacuum that can gobble up the big stuff–sawdust loaded with nails and wire, hunks of ceramic tile, and chunks of dirt. I also need a vac that can get the fine stuff, like sanding dust left over from tuning a maple countertop or piles of drywall dust.

Test Criteria

I tested five wet/dry vacs from Craftsman, Fein, Love-Less Ash, Ridgid, and Shop-Vac. Each one cost less than $200. I evaluated their mobility, power, filter systems, wet and dry performance, and noise. First I took them in the field, where they met with everything from fine poplar and drywall dust to nail and wire-packed sawdust. Then I took them to my shop, where I turned them loose on piles of cherry shavings from my planer and jointer.

Transport and Storage

Space is tight in my truck, on the jobsite, and even in my shop, so it's important to have a tight unit that stores out of the way. The 6-gallon Fein vac packs up nicely. Its flexible hose wraps securely around its body and there's a deep channel around the motor housing to hold the cord. I also like the Fein vac's single top handle, which let me lift the entire tool and set it in place quickly. Still, there are loose accessories, which I usually had to carry in a separate bag.

The larger vacs–Craftsman, Love-Less Ash, Ridgid, and Shop-Vac–are significantly tougher to store, but not entirely because they're big. Stuff like wheel wells, accessories, and hoses stick out of them. It's nice that these tools' accessories store in on-board trays, but they also promise to catch on everything they come near. I had to coil stiff hoses like those on the Craftsman, Ridgid, and Shop-Vac models separately from the vac bodies. That made those three tools take up more of my limited space.

Performance

Ease of use. A kitchen remodel was the first testing ground. My poplar doors were mortised and hung and the figured maple countertop was set. Dust was everywhere and a final clean-up was all that remained. The Fein vac's compact size and stout stature quickly separated it from its big brothers in this setting–it's ideal to maneuver around confined spaces. The unit tugs easily by its locking hose and the single top handle allowed me to set the tool right where I wanted.

The Craftsman, Love-Less Ash, Ridgid, and Shop-Vac models have four wheels sticking out from their vac bodies. The Fein vac has five plastic casters mounted beneath the body, which give it more control and make it more stable than the other tools I tested. The Shop-Vac is taller than the other vacs and was the "tippiest." The others have wide wheelbases and roll easily, but their large size and exposed wheel wells threatened to catch on my millwork. Fein hides the wheels and installs a rubber bumper at the bottom of the canister that protects things like freshly hung cabinet doors and expensive millwork.