4 best oscillating tools for remodelers

Sanding, cutting, scraping made easy

Paul Bianchina
Inman News™

Oscillating tools are interesting little guys, and you may have never seen one in action — or even thought you’d ever really have a reason to own one. But if you do much remodeling or repair work around your home, you might want to think again.

These tools are incredibly handy for a wide variety of tasks, some of which are difficult or almost impossible to accomplish effectively with any other tool. And with so many manufacturers now offering oscillating tools to meet the growing demand, prices have come down and features have come up, so you win both ways.

What is an oscillating tool?

Take a look at all the other power tools you own, and you’ll see that the oscillating tool is totally unique. Circular saws, disk sanders, screwdrivers and impact wrenches all spin in a circle, while tools like reciprocating and jigsaws move blades in an in-and-out motion.

But the oscillating tool moves its attachments back and forth through a narrow, 3-degree arc at speeds of up to 20,000 oscillations per minute. It’s that high-speed, narrow arc, combined with the proper attachment, that gets the work done with surprising ease.

The attachments are mounted to the bottom front of the tool. Most tools use a simple hex nut and washer attachment system, somewhat similar to the bolt that holds a blade onto a circular saw. To change the attachment, you need to completely remove the bolt and the washer. Some manufacturers allow accessory changing by just loosening the bolt without removing it, and some have gone a step further and made the change-out completely tool-less.

You’ll find a wide variety of attachments available for whatever task you need to perform. There are sanding pads, which are ideal for detail sanding jobs such as moldings, corners, spindles, and inside areas such as cabinets and drawers.

There are a variety of cutting blades designed for wood, drywall or metal. You can get carbide-covered blades that make short work of removing the grout between tiles. There are rigid scraper blades that are great for tasks such as scraping up old vinyl, and flexible scrapers for more delicate jobs.

During a recent bathroom remodel I got a better look at the versatility of these handy little tools. During the demo stage, I cut off several protruding nails in awkward spots; cut out drywall in clean lines down the center of the studs; then cut out perfect rectangles in the drywall for electrical cut-in boxes.

Later, I undercut two doorjambs to fit new ceramic tile, and cut out a damaged piece of baseboard in the middle of the wall — something that’s virtually impossible with any other type of tool.

The tile setter used his for trimming some travertine tile, and for cutting cement board. I saw the plumber using one to cut out copper pipe in a tight floor joist area, and for plunge-cutting a hole in the subfloor. Definitely a versatile tool!

Shopping for an oscillating tool

Oscillating tools are available in both corded and cordless varieties, and the trade-off here is pretty much the same as with any other type of tool: convenience versus extended runtime. Corded versions are your best choice if you expect to use them for extended periods of time, such as large sanding, scraping or grout removal jobs. For shorter jobs, you’ll still get plenty of power from the cordless versions, and as long as you have a second battery available the added convenience is tough to beat.

Initially, all the accessories were proprietary, meaning that those from a particular manufacturer only fit that manufacturer’s tool. Now, however, most manufacturers offer universal adapters so their tool can be used with any brand of accessory — a feature I’d definitely suggest looking for, since the accessories can be expensive and you want to be able to shop for the best deal.

Here are four models to consider:

  • Milwaukee 2426-20 (Cordless, $149): very comfortable and powerful, with a long run time. 12 speed settings (5,000 to 20,000 OPM, or orbits per minute), and an onboard fuel gauge to show remaining battery life. Weighs just 2.1 pounds, with a conveniently located on/off switch and an overmolded top. It includes an adaptor that accepts all popular accessories. The complete kit includes two 12-volt lithium ion batteries, 30-minute charger, an assortment of accessories, and a smallish soft-side carrying case.
  • Dremel 8300-01 (Cordless, $130): also very comfortable, with rubber overmolding at key points both top and bottom. Variable speeds from 3,000 to 21,000 OPM, and separate on/off and speed-control switches. It also has a soft-start feature and an on-board fuel gauge. Accessories can be changed without completely removing the bolt. This tool uses only Dremel accessories, but a universal adaptor is available separately. The complete kit includes two 12-volt lithium ion batteries, 1-hour charger, several accessories, and a roomy hard case.
  • Bosch MX25EC-21 (Corded, $140): a robust tool that’s designed to be a real workhorse. It features a 2.5-amp motor, and a variable speed dial (8,000 to 20,000 OPM) that’s separate from the on/off switch. Special electronic circuitry keeps the speed constant under load. It includes a universal adapter to fit all popular accessories; a well-designed soft case with internal straps to keep the tool in place; and an internal hard case for storing and organizing the included cutting and sanding accessories.
  • Porter-Cable PC250MTK (Corded, $120): a new entry from Porter-Cable, with the very unique feature of a tool-less blade change. It’s a clever system that requires only squeezing a spring-loaded handle to release tension on the washer to remove the blade. It has a 2.5-amp motor, a comfortable grip, and a separate variable speed dial (10,000 to 20,000 OPM). It includes a fitted hard case and a selection of sanding and cutting accessories.

Remodeling and repair questions? Email Paul at paulbianchina@inman.com. All product reviews are based on the author’s actual testing of free review samples provided by the manufacturers.

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Copyright 2011 Paul Bianchina