Oscillating tools that make a carpenter’s life easier
For years, the only oscillating tools made my contractors, capable of cutting, sawing, grinding—a multitude of tasks per- formed by no other single tool—were the Fein Supercut and the Fein Multimaster. Rumors have circulated that the patents held by Fein on its well known Multimaster have expired and now the doors are wide open for other manufacturers to introduce their own versions. Whether the rumors are true or not, today there is a multitude of multitasking tools available for carpenters, among them, the Fein, Dremel, Sonicrafter, Bosch, and Chicago Tool’s model.
In this article, I take a look at each of these models, for their specific features and abilities. I also review the types of blades available and offer some tips on how to best use these tools with scalpel-like precision.
Chicago’s Multi-function Power Tool
www.harborfreight.com :: $45.99
Let’s start with the latest and least expensive entry to the field, Harbor Freight’s new Multi-Function Power Tool, which has 180W of power, and operates at a single speed of 11,000 oscillations per minute (OPM). It also comes with a set of the inexpensive blades that are available separately at Harbor Freight stores. The biggest drawback to the Multi- Function tool is its round mounting hole, which means the blade must be secured tightly or it slips, especially when making plunge cuts in hardwood. For that reason, Chicago designed the mounting shaft with flats for a wrench, so the operator can tighten the screw that holds the blade as hard as possible without damaging the tool. In addition, the screw that secures the blade is a hefty 5/16 in., all other brands use a 1/4-in. screw! Unfortunately, the #13 wrench is not included with the tool.
The Chicago’s Multi-Function model does not have variable speed control—it runs at only one speed. Speed control improves the longevity of the tool—running the tool at high speed for every task will wear out the motor prematurely. More on speed control later.
I’m not sure how long this tool will last and the tool comes with a short 90 day guarantee. But do us a favor: If you buy one of these tools, let us know if you have any problems with it, and if the tool meets your expectations. I tested the tool extensively, but only over a short period of time. For me this tool does everything the more expensive brands can do and at a fraction of the cost—but only when the blades are brand new.
One good thing about this tool is that you can use blades made by other manufacturers if they feature a .395-in. round hole or the Multimaster’s star hole—so you’re not limited to lower quality Chicago blades. You can also use Fein’s Adaptor on the Multi-Function Tool, if you enlarge the screw-mount hole on the adaptor from .254 in. to .310 in. or 5/16 in. to allow for the larger size of the mounting screw.
www.dremel.com :: $99.99
The price goes up a notch for Dremel’s Multi-Max, a small, light weight, but also a light-duty tool. The Dremel has 10 speeds, soft start, and uses an assortment of small size blades and accessories, too small for most professional contractors, who require wider and more durable blades for continuous or demanding work. Still, the Multi-Max would be a practical tool for anyone working with small objects that need to be cut, polished or sanded.
I’ve seen forum discussions about altering the Multi-Max to accept blades made for Fein’s Supercut tool. However, the Multi-Max doesn’t have the power of a Fein Supercut, so large blades should be used carefully on this light-duty tool.
Bosch’s Max Multi-X
www.boschtools.com :: $160.00
Bosch, which owns Dremel, recently introduced a cordless oscillating tool, the 12V Max Multi-X powered by Lithium-Ion battery. This smart tool comes with an adapter that permits the use of aftermarket blades or blades made by other tool manufacturers that fit a standard .395-in. mounting hole. Fein’s blades, with star shaped holes, also work on the Multi-X.
This tool has 6 speeds and a battery charge indicator that reliably reflects the charge remaining in the battery. I tested the battery duration by making repeated cuts on a piece of 3/4-in. x 5-in. Douglas Fir. I made approximately 24 cuts before the battery died, suddenly and without a warning. The tool ran at full power until the very end, without a perceptible decrease in OPM.
By doing a little math, I figure that the Multi-X could cut about 120 in. of 3/4-in. Douglas fir, or run for about 7 minutes on a single charge. That might not seem like much, but to me it means that you can accomplish a lot with this tool on a full charge. Not too long ago, when I specialized in hanging doors, I frequently replaced entry jambs and casing. The Multi-X would have been handy for cutting back baseboard on all those jobs. I found that I could extend the life of the battery and blade by applying just enough pressure to make a cut, no more.
www.sonicrafter.com :: $120.00 to $180.00 (depending on the model ordered)
With three models to chose from ranging from $120 for the single speed model, to $180 for the 6 speed model, Rockwell’s Sonicrafter tempts the appetite of every contractor hungry for a fancy tool that helps get the job done easier, faster and often with a lot less clean up.
The top model has a muscular 250W of power, 6 speeds and 12-ft. cord for added convenience. There is wide selection of blades and accessories available for this tool, for everything from sanding to sawing to cutting nails and even pipes!
Sonicrafter’s blades feature a double hexagon hole design, similar to the one used on the Fein’s Supercut, but the Sonicrafter pattern is much smaller and the blades are not interchangeable with Fein blades. However, by design or by accident, Sonicrafter’s blades fit perfectly on the Multimaster 250 and 250Q, but the Multimaster blades do not fit on the Sonicrafter. In fact, the Sonicrafter is the only oscillating tool that won’t accept blades made by competitors or aftermarket suppliers at this time.
One word of warning: Sonicrafter blades are finished with a black coating that rubs off on the workpiece, which can be a problem if you’re cutting pre-finished material.
Multimaster 250Q Select :: $310.00 (without case)
Multimaster 250Q Top :: $400 (full kit with accessories and case)
Supercut :: $700-$800
The Fein Multimaster, the first and foremost of the oscillating tools, is used by far more professional contractors than any other multi-tasking tool—at least so far. At $310 for the least expensive model, the Fein can be a budget buster, especially with today’s economy. But if you believe that top-quality tools are a long-term investment, this is probably the tool for you.
The new 250Q model has a unique quick release mechanism that allows tool-free blade replacement. The 250Q also has a powerful 250W motor, 6 speeds, and a 12-ft. cord. This tool is designed for dust collection, and comes with a dust-port attachment. Multi-masters also accept a wide variety of blades and accessories. Not only that, but an aftermarket adapter allows the 250Q to use blades intended for the Supercut, too, which substantially increases blade choice.
Blades, blades, and more blades
In this article, I’ve placed a lot of emphasis on blades for good reason: many of the oscillating tools I tested had a similar power range, most were capable of performing the tests equally. But a lot of what makes one brand more desirable than the other is the quality, diversity, and cost of their blades. Without doubt, when it comes to blade designs and accessories, Fein leads the industry. But their blades are also among the most expensive.
Blades for oscillating tools have a wide range of quality and expense. The least expensive is Chicago’s 3-blade set which goes for $5.99 with two scrapers. Blades increase with expense and quality just as the tools themselves with Fein’s 1 3/8-in. E-cut blades for wood coming in at $42.75 for a 3-pack. In addition, aftermarket blades are available from a variety of sources online with quantity prices ranging as low as $13.00 ea. for high-quality blades.
Like any tool, cutting quality is influenced by blade quality. Thin blades tend to wander more; higher quality blades cut straight lines almost effortlessly.
Some of you are probably wondering why I’ve spent so much time talking about blades. Well, as one carpenter said recently on a website forum: “I’ve been thinking about buying an oscillating tool, but the blades are so freakin’ expensive I’m not sure I could afford to buy them after I buy the tool!”
Part of the trick to finding affordable blades is knowing which blades your saw can use, or adapting your saw so it can use a wider variety of blades. Here’s a collection of standard blades from the five manufactures mentioned in this article:
Getting the most from your blades
Blades are expensive, so use them carefully. Here are a few tips to prolong blade and tool life:
- Use the appropriate speed for the tool and the job. If you run the tool too slowly, the blade vibrates and doesn’t cut smoothly. Run the tool too fast and you wear out the blades more quickly than necessary. And remember, the life of the blade may suffer if you always run the tool at the highest speed.
- Choose the appropriate blade for the job. Get the right tooth configuration for the material you’re cutting, and the right number of teeth for the cut you’re hoping for (fine or rough).
- Swivel or rock the tool like a reciprocating saw as you cut, changing the angle as you advance so the blade is cutting the least amount of material.
- Let the blade do the cutting by applying only light to moderate pressure. Do not twist the blade in the workpiece.
- When cutting nails, apply minimal pressure and use as many teeth as possible.
- Like all cutting tools, never use a dull blade. Excessive force could result in blade breakage and injury or damage to the tool.
What’s an oscillating tool good for?
I tested all five tools in this review the same way, to see how fast they cut. They all cut at similar speeds, some a little slower because of OPM or faster because of stroke length. But speed isn’t the only important feature on a multi-function tool. Control is critical, especially for the wide uses these tools have, including cutting out old grout. Fein manufactures three blades for that job, two are made from carbide: one thick and one thin, which is better for controlling the blade in thin joints without damaging the tile! Fein also has a top-of-the-line diamond blade that outlasts and outcuts carbide.
Outlet cutouts in drywall and cabinets. When it comes to making cutouts in drywall and cabinets, a multi-function tool work the best. Hands down. A high-quality model, with little vibration, is easy to control, cuts quickly and precisely, with little dust.
Trimming back baseboard for new casing Carpenters struggle with this task almost daily, using dovetail saws, chisels, and utility knives. A multi-function tool makes quick work of this frustrating task.
Trimming Stucco. Though it’s not something you’d want to do regularly, there are blades available that make it easy to cut stucco, too, especially for an outlet or fixture cutout.
Removing old grout. If you’ve ever used a grout knife, you’ll know what a pain in the forearm they are. A mult-function tool is the best method for cleaning out old grout.
Detail sanding. Don’t forget! These tools aren’t just for cutting! They’re great for sanding interior surfaces, like drawers.
I’m pickin’ up (not so good) vibrations . . .
Oscillating tools are handy, there’s no doubt about it. But be careful when you use them for extended periods of time. Users have complained about serious discomfort in their arms and hands after long-term use. Several manufacturers include warnings in their instructions about repeated or long-term exposure to the vibrations that these tools create.
A little common sense goes a long way here. If you feel any physical symptoms related to vibration (such as tingling, numbness and white or blue fingers), stop using the tool and seek medical help if the condition persists after you’ve stopped using the tool.
Prolonged exposure to vibrations can impair your ability to feel how tightly you’re holding the tool. So always grip the tool as firmly as necessary to keep safe control of it. Another big help is to always use vibration-absorbing gloves while operating these tools.
Whenever possible hold the tool with both hands and secure the material being worked on to a work table or in a vise. Holding the tool with both hands decreases the need to grip it too tightly and improves control of the tool.
Al Constan is a former precision sheet metal worker with 19 years experience in the trade. Since retiring in the mid-1990s, Al has been a licensed home maintenance contractor, a fencing contractor, and until recently, he has specialized in hanging doors. Al currently owns and operates Multi-blades, manufacturing aftermarket blades for oscillating tools. His website is www.multiblades.com