View Full Version : Harbor Freight Drill Evaluation

02-16-2003, 10:53 PM
Now I've gone and done it. I actually took my shorts in my hand and ordered that $16.00 12V "Drill Master" cordless drill with keyless chuck from Harbor Freight. Am I the only person to ever do that? While I was at it, I ordered two extra batteries for ten bucks each - so I'd not have to deal with dead-battery syndrome in the middle of some critical project.

My drill arrived, after the expected delay (they ship USPS, and the delay is almost always exactly two weeks). I'd been planning to write up a tool evaluation, so now I've sat down to do just that... you're gettin' ready to read it. I've even gone so far as to make it a COMPARITIVE evaluation of sorts - so you'll have something to go on.

My primary scientific "control", or "comparison" drill, is a Black & Decker 9.6V cordless drill. I know, comparing a 12V drill against a 9.6V drill isn't quite playing on a level field - but valid comparisons CAN be drawn if I compensate intelligently for the difference in drill voltages. This ain't apples-to-oranges, it's more like oranges-to-tangerines. More accurately, it's blue-oranges-to-orange-tangerines.

The drill is BLUE. It's very, very blue. That's the immediate first impression one gets upon lifting this drill out of the box. The single next thing you notice is the label - instead of all fancified, it's plain black-text-on-flat-white, like a plain printer label. You can tell immediately that the drill is a no-frills drill, plain and simple. What you see is what you get. It's no surprise that the label proclaims proudly "Made in China". No doy, Ralph. The B&D's label also states "Made in China", but it's not quite so obtrusive.

A little looking around revealed a 16-position variable clutch - compared to the B&D's 6-position clutch. I don't use the clutch at all, so that didn't impress me much... but there sure are a lot of numbers going around the nose of that thing...

The keyless chuck is a Jacobs. It's not a Jacobs-TYPE, it's a real Jacobs "Hand-Tite" chuck. It's exactly the same make and model as the chuck on the B&D, except that the styling has changed slightly - there are more grip ribs, and it feels more comfortable to tighten and loosen. This chuck apparently has very fine internal threads, so it takes a LOT of twisting to go from full-open (10mm or just over 3/8") to full-closed (1mm or just about 1/32"). As I've learned with my B&D, this implies a very tight grip on the drill bit... if you're not using hex-shank screwdriver bits and such. This chuck grips far more tightly than the chuck on the DeWalt cordless drill I labored with last autumn - I don't remember what model that was, but I'm glad I'm not using it any more.

Oh, by the way - I did a little looking around. I can get that same drill chuck at any of several different low-budget suppliers for the tidy sum of $13.00. That means I bought a chuck for thirteen bucks and a drill motor, battery, and charger for ... three dollars. Sounds cheaper by the second, doesn't it?

The HF "Drill Master" comes with a handy-dandy little loop lanyard at the bottom of the grip. Something I'll be removing, I'm sure. It's plenty strong, but I can't seen tying a drill to my hand under any circumstances. I'm not THAT prone to dropping things.

Overall fit and finish on this drill is very good. It's slightly more streamlined than the B&D, and the battery is much larger (we'll see in a moment if this is misleading or not). The rubber palm grip around the back of the handle is soft and grippy, and is made of a single piece of rubbery material instead of two. The lack of a seam down the middle of my palm makes this drill more comfortable to me than the B&D. Overall, the "Drill Master" is more comfortable in my hand than the B&D.

Balance is quite reasonable. With a battery in place, the drill balances perfectly with one finger under the trigger. There are two conveniently-clamped Philips-and-straight driver bits in different sizes tucked into the shell where they're out of the way. I've never used the ones in my B&D, so I'll probably never use these either.

The battery release isn't quite intuitive. To release the battery, you squeeze the little buttons and slide the battery FORWARD instead of yanking it straight down like the magazine from an automatic pistol. This fact caused momentary confusion, and seems like a hazard - I wonder if I'll break it the next time I forget. Oh, by the bye - I discovered that the battery is REVERSIBLE. It can be rotated to get most of the bulk behind the handle if you get into a goofy situation. It's yet another feature I probably won't use, but it's there if I ever do.

The Forward / Reverse switch isn't quite intuitive, either. I really like my Milwaukee corded drill's reverse switch - a little slide at the top of the trigger. Left for forward, right for reverse. The B&D cordless has a larger button within the body of the drill itself but still above the trigger. Left for forward, right for reverse. This new "Drill Master" drill, by comparison, has a very similar button within the body of the drill... but its action is backward to my mind - right for forward, left for reverse. Since I'm a handy kinda' guy, I'll probably reverse the two contacts inside the drill's handle so the switch goes the way I want it to go.

The battery chargers are very different from each other - the B&D's battery fits partway into the handle, so its charger is necessarily rather tall... so the battery can fit into the charger. The Drill Master's charger, on the other hand, is a nifty little bimp that slips onto the flat-topped 12V battery like a... a little like a flat little ladybug. A black one, sure, but you get the idea. It's got two LEDs on the front that peek at you when it's charging. Oh, neither charger shuts off automatically, so you have to remember to pull the battery or you'll overcharge it.

Both drills are held together by six screws - three in the main body, three in the handle. Well, what are screws for? You know me - I got out a screwdriver. Let's take a peek inside...

The guts of the two drills are very similar. The switches are nearly identical, and the motors are likewise near siblings. The Drill Master's motor, being a 12V motor, is very slightly longer than the 9.6V B&D motor. Neither has any external cooling fan... well worth noting for later thought. It'd not be wise to run either drill continuously. I'm not likely to WANT to, but if I did I shouldn't. Each drill has a transistor of some sort (probably an FET for speed control) mounted on a heat sink behind the motor. The heat sink in the B&D is more meaty, made of cast aluminum, while that in the Drill Master is simply sliced from a finned extrusion. From my experience, that would mean that the B&D's transistor can take more sudden heating over a short time, while that in the Drill Master can take less heat, but dissipate it more readily over a longer time. The two gearboxes are so nearly identical that they surely are a stock item from a single manufacturer.

The weight of the two drills with batteries removed is very similar, with the B&D clocking in at 2.1 pounds and the Drill Master tipping the scales at 2.0 pounds. The batteries, as one might expect, weigh differently - the 9.6V B&D battery weighs 0.8 pounds, while the 12V Drill Master battery weighs one and a quarter pounds. Opening the batteries (same screwdriver) reveals that, as expected, the 9.6V battery contains eight NiCad "C" cells, while the 12V battery contains ten. Makes perfect sense, since a single NiCad cell delivers 1.2V. The cells are for all purposes identical, wrapped in cardboard. The Drill Master's specs say that their battery is a 1.3AH battery, so I'm very sure the B&D's battery is also a 1.3AH battery. That'd make the 12V battery capable of delivering 15.6WH while the 9.6V battery can give up 12.48WH. You get what you weigh for.

As to power - obviously, neither drill can deliver the raw power of a good tailed drill. There is simply no way that a 15.6WH cordless can do what my 600WH corded Milwaukee can do. Both deliver fairly respectable torque, though, considering their limitations.

For the side-by-side sheer-work competition (which I started out expecting the new Drill Master to win because of its larger battery), I prepared a single airdry 2x6 board in Eastern Hemlock. I also gathered several pounds of fresh-from-the-factory 1-5/8" drywall screws, none of which was deburred or lubricated. The screws were longer than the 2x4 was thick, so I made a little spacer - more on that in a moment. I fully charged one of the new 12V batteries and deep-discharged the 9.6V battery before fully charging it. It's not very old, and has no memory to speak of - but why take chances? I apologize for not having purchased a brand-new 9.6V battery for honest comparison purposes, but I'm not ready to spend $20 on another battery.

I originally intended to outfit each drill with a Vermont American drywall "dimpler" bit, the kind that stops driving automatically when the screw's head is sunk a prescribed distance below the surface. Handy tool, that - saved me from having to buy a dedicated drywall gun. Because there may be some slight variations between dimplers, though, I opted to use a single dimpler and move it from drill to drill.

The spacer - I made that from a little scrap of 1/4" plywood. Its purpose was to prevent the dimpler from driving the screws fully into the 2x6. If I were to drive the screws that deep, I'd run the risk of breaking quite a few screws and tainting my results. Further, it left each screw point just about 1/8" short of penetrating the back side of the 2x6.

Oh, one other (possibly important) thing to note. When the test began, the 12V battery pack was "dead cold", completely acclimated to my shop's 42F ambient temperature. The 9.6 pack, on the other hand, came straight from the charger - meaning that it was pretty warm. This may have altered my results, since a warm battery can deliver more power than a cold one.

The workplace was cleared for testing and the screwdriving commenced. Each drill was used to drive two dozen screws until the dimpler "popped", then allowed to "rest" while the other drill was used for two dozen. I'm not crazy, I'm not going to intentionally overheat my new drill by destructive testing. This way, I probably also got a few more screws driven with each drill. Each screw was driven at full speed with the clutch locked and the trigger released immediately when the dimpler popped.

I expected from the outset to get about 1.25 times as many screws driven with the 12V drill as with the 9.6V drill. That'd make sense, wouldn't it? Barring slight differences in brakes and such? It didn't take into account either the slightly older 9.6V battery or the batteries' temperature difference, though.

The results... were startling. Frankly, I didn't expect EITHER drill to drive so many screws. As of the end of the test, my 2x6 looked like a screw ranch - like a masochist's hairbrush.

I had to run the test in several stages, since my fingers got too cold after a number of screws and I had to go warm up before continuing. In the first phase, each drill drove 96 screws before my hands numbed up. When I came back, each drill drove 72 more screws, then on the third pass drove 72 more for a total of 240 screws each.

That's as far as the 12V Drill Master could go. Twenty dozen screws were the limit for that battery pack. It's possible I could have gotten more driven had I started with a different pack - there ARE differences between any two packs - and with a warmed pack. I refuse to repeat the test, however. Another thing that could have weighted the results was drill speed - the DM is rated for 500RPM max, while the B&D is rated for 700RPM max. It's possible that a higher motor speed could have taken better advantage of the NiCad battery's characteristics - I don't know the answer to that one.

The B&D continued on into a fourth phase, finally tapping out at 324 screws. Toward the end it developed an odor of hot metal... either the motor or the internal heat sink. After all, I DID work 'em pretty hard.

So - the totals once again were: DM12V = 240, BD9.6V = 324. Total screws driven = 564.

Not quite what I expected, but still not shoddy. I figure a single sheet of drywall takes about 36 screws if the studding is 16"oc, so I reckon that I could hang about 20 sheets of 'rock with the three 12V battery packs I bought. I'm not prepared to do that in one day, so there's not much chance of running out of battery over the course of a day if I'm using it to hang sheetrock. I'd probably do that with 1-1/4" screws, too, instead of the 1-5/8" screws.

The upshot? If you're in the market for a cordless drill for light or occasionally heavy use - like for screw-building cabinetry or hanging drywall (not professionally under high-production conditions) or for random homeowner tasks - I think this drill will suit you well. It's just not up to the task of building a large deck or hanging a whole house full of sheetrock in one day or other full-up industrial use, but it's capable of doing almost anything you or I would reasonably ask it to do. And the comparison? If I were to make a choice between the Drill Master drill (with one battery and a charger) for $16 or a similar Black & Decker drill (with one battery and a charger and a plastic carry case) for $50, there's no doubt in my mind that I'd buy the one in blue - the one that proudly proclaims the fact that it was built in China, the home of extremely efficient production but almost no innovation. If the choice fell between the Drill Master and, say, the Porter-Cable 12V (at $160.00), I think it's pretty clear that I'd go with the Drill Master... for the way I personally use a cordless drill.

I'd buy the Drill Master again - and I'd get two spare batteries again, too, bringing my total purchase to a whopping $36.

What would YOU do?

-- Tim --

Eschew obfuscation.

02-17-2003, 01:54 AM
A friend of mine just bought 6 of these drills.... It seems they make pretty good battlebot motors as well. He's tearing them apart simply for the gear boxes and motors for his next robot creation. He bought the 9.6v version and at $10 a pop there hard to beat.


02-17-2003, 09:03 AM
You sure make any reviews I ever did or read seem skimpy Tim! Wow!

I ordered the 9.6v version about a week ago.... couldn't resist for $10.99... like you stated, I'll be getting a REAL Jacobs chuck with it, so it's a no-brainer eh...

I really don't need another drill, but I could use a new chuck, and it certainly wont hurt having a drill in the house so I can avoid that long, long (12 steps }> ) walk to the shop....

Mark F
02-17-2003, 01:40 PM
Very nice review. If harbor freight reads that they might double the price.:)

02-17-2003, 09:09 PM
They can't read it - I haven't translated it to Chinese yet... :) :) :)

-- Tim --

Eschew obfuscation.

Tom D
02-19-2003, 02:13 PM
Great review ! I think alot of members are afraid to give a review to HF tools, it's good to see a refreshing outlook.

02-19-2003, 03:57 PM
Frankly, Tim, I was disappointed with the review. I mean, it's all done well and the points covered well enough. But there's one glaring omission: the odor. How could you not comment about the odor?

Seriously, good work. Amusing and informative...a dangerous combination.


02-19-2003, 05:12 PM
As an unpaid witness to this masochistic use of screws Professor Hofstetter is guilty of gross exageration or faulty thermometer calibration.
If his shop was above 20 degrees Farenheit my name is Nanook !!

Otherwise I vouch for everything he states...except I didn't stick around for the final go round with the Black and Decker ...too busy seeing how much skin I'd lost after my fingers stuck to a wrench that was laying on the floor which I foolishly picked up!!!

Great job Timmer !!!

Cheers Limey

PS (edited in) even poop refuses to smell when its at the temperature of Tim's workshop...you have to wait till at least August to discover where Harley the cat has been !!!

03-03-2003, 02:59 PM
>For the side-by-side sheer-work competition (which I started
>out expecting the new Drill Master to win because of its
>larger battery), I prepared a single airdry 2x6 board in
>Eastern Hemlock. I also gathered several pounds of
>fresh-from-the-factory 1-5/8" drywall screws, none of which
>was deburred or lubricated. The screws were longer than the
>2x4 was thick, so I made a little spacer - more on that in a
>moment. I fully charged one of the new 12V batteries and
>deep-discharged the 9.6V battery before fully charging it.
>It's not very old, and has no memory to speak of - but why
>take chances? I apologize for not having purchased a
>brand-new 9.6V battery for honest comparison purposes, but
>I'm not ready to spend $20 on another battery.

I was re-reading a Wood magazine from a few issues back where they tested cordless drills. They were saying the newer batteries take 3-5 full charge/discharge cycles to provide the full sustained power that is expected. That may be the why 9.6 beat the 12V

03-03-2003, 09:08 PM
Now THAT is an interesting note! I'll have to track the drill & see if it seems to get better. I refuse... to run... that test... again... though... :)

That's kinda' like what my board looked like.


-- Tim --

You can always take one more step against the wind.

03-04-2003, 08:26 AM

You don't want to run 570+ screws? :) Well you could just run the 12V again. That would only be 250+. :)