Tried and Tested: Taming the screw

Uncertain which way to turn in a DIY crisis? Our panel measures the mettle of cordless screwdrivers

SO YOU GAVE up woodwork when you were 12 and sworn never to engage in DIY again? No matter: in this age of flat-pack furniture and self-assembly toys, there are few of us who don't covet an electric screwdriver occasionally.

THE PANEL

Professional carpenter Ed Sullivan, life-long DIY enthusiasts Harry and Steve Jones, and novice tool-users Graham Sampson and Emma Bartlett tried out the screwdrivers in the comfort of their own homes. And despite the differences in their levels of experience, their conclusions were largely unanimous.

THE TEST

Like most power tools, cordless screwdrivers work on rechargeable batter- ies and are therefore only as good or as powerful as their power-pack. Their other main attributes are the accessories - the number and quality of bits supplied - and torque control. Sometimes referred to as the "clutch", this feature allows you to control the power with which you drive a screw, so safeguarding more delicate woods. We looked for all-round efficiency and power, while keeping an eye on the price.

**HILKA CORDLESS CONVERTIBLE SCREWDRIVER

pounds 9.99

The Hilka looks like a great bargain on paper. Its standard plastic carrying case contains six screwdriver bits plus one double-ended bit (that is, cross-cut at one end and straight at other), a 2.4V battery charger and bit holder. Impressively, the body of the screwdriver has a 120-degree joint: "So you can get it into tight spaces, like a kitchen drawer," said Steve Jones. "Pretty neat." It has a reverse facility (for removing screws), but there is no torque control. "You really need to know when to stop," Ed Sullivan pointed out, "or you'll split thin wood, or drive the screw in too hard and you'll ruin the hole." Indeed, Graham Sampson found this screwdriver "hard to control" and said that the bit adaptor fell out too easily on the job. But the panel's main complaint was that the Hilka simply isn't very powerful. "It achieves a certain tightness, then it dies on you. And you can't lock the head, so there's no way of using it manually as a last resort," complained Steve Jones. Ed Sullivan thought it may do for someone who wants to assemble one wardrobe and then leave the screwdriver in the garage, but Emma Bartlett disagreed: "It simply didn't do the job, so really it's a waste of money." Note that while the recharge time for this screwdriver is five to seven hours, on the first occasion, like most batteries, it needs to be conditioned by charging it for much longer.

***BLACK & DECKER POWERDRIVER CORDLESS SCREWDRIVER

pounds 15.50

Most of the panellists were well inclined towards the Black & Decker label, but at the same time wondered how the different models could vary so widely in price (see B & D's Super Powerdriver below). This basic screwdriver has a regular 2.4V battery, but can be charged continuously for immediate use. "It's perfect for people like us who would never remember to charge it the night before a job," Graham Sampson admitted. Emma Bartlett was disappointed that it came with only one bit (double-ended) and no carrying case, but admitted that "it did the screws that the Hilka couldn't cope with immediately. It was also very good for getting screws out when realise you've made a mistake." The seasoned DIY-ers approved of the auto-spindle lock, which allows you to drive the tool manually, and Ed Sullivan thought "it felt nice in the hand". It carries a two-year guar- antee, but as Harry Jones remarked: "Rechargeable screwdrivers only last a couple of years anyway, because by then the battery will probably have died and they usually can't be replaced." This model has no torque control, so you have to be extremely careful not to chew the thread up with over- enthusiastic use.

***BOSCH CORDLESS SCREWDRIVER

pounds 15.70

A great deal was expected of Bosch, a company known for its professional tool range, yet even the best manufacturers get it wrong. Our first sample of this model didn't charge at all and had to be returned. This drew attention to the fact that a charging light indicator (as featured on some of the cheaper makes) is a good idea. Still, as Emma Bartlett said: "The box and printed instructions are neat and clear, and the tool is smaller than most of them, so it's easier to hold and get into corners." The recharge time is six hours and it has a spindle lock for manual use, but you only get two (double-ended) bits. Steve Jones pointed out the usefulness of the bits being magnetised: "If you drop a screw you can easily pick it up, even if it falls somewhere awkward." The Bosch was also praised by Harry Jones, who called it "nice and light", and by Graham Sampson as being "strong and easy to use", but testers complained about the sliding mechanism needed to lock the screwdriver for manual use. One said he practically wore a hole in his thumb trying to release it: "As the work went on, it became more of an irritation than a help."

***POWER DEVIL CORDLESS SCREWDRIVER KIT

pounds 14.75

With a 3.6V battery, this distinctive red screwdriver promises a great deal more power than the Hilka - but it doesn't deliver. "There isn't much go in it,which is really surprising," said Ed Sullivan, "but at least you get all these bits and pieces with it." True, the Power Devil comes with a 23-piece accessory set of 13 screwdriver bits and eight sockets on a neat belt-clip which, Emma Bartlett said, "makes you feel like a proper workman". Harry Jones noted that "most of the sockets are too small to use on a car but are handy for, say, a bicycle or lawnmower". It has six torque control settings which Steve Jones called "not bad for a basic mod- el", but you can't use the screwdriver manually - it has no grip. This was a fault common to all but the Black & Decker samples; most handymen tighten the last turn of a screw by hand. The recharge time is five to seven hours.

*****RICHMOND CONVERTIBLE CORDLESS SCREWDRIVER KIT

pounds 19.99

The winner of our survey sits in the middle price range of the products we tested, proving that careful selection can yield excellent value. With a 120- degree joint in the tool (like the Hilka) for comfort and ease of access, a 3.6V battery which takes only four hours to recharge, adjustable torque control and 11 screwdriver bits, the Richmond manages to be almost all things to all users. Best of all, it has a removable battery - the only tool with this feature - which allows you to replace it (for pounds 11.99) instead of buying a new screwdriver when the battery wears out. Among the accessories is a 10mm chuck (for a drill bit) and a countersink, which means that you can have your screwheads flush with the surface. "For a DIY tool, this one is very powerful and has a good range of adjustment," said Ed Sullivan. The Joneses admired its high-quality accessories and Emma Bartlett liked the "great design". The only thing that let it down is the feel of the plastic moulding on the torque control; it's slightly sharp and hurts your fingers as you turn the ring. "This is definitely the best purchase for an occasional user," Graham Sampson summarised.

****BLACK & DECKER SUPER POWERDRIVER CORDLESS SCREWDRIVER KIT

pounds 34

The most expensive tool in our survey was the one our keen DIY-ers said they would buy, and indeed had done in the past. This plush Black & Decker model "has a nice weight, a good clutch mechanism and it's fairly short, so it's handy for difficult corners," said Steve Jones, adding "and you get loads of stuff with it." The Super Powerdriver has a 3.6V battery which you can charge continuously for immediate use, 23 torque settings, an automatic spindle lock for manual and automatic driving, nine insert bits, three reversible bits, a magnetic bit holder and a carrying case. What more could you want? "It's the nicest to use," said Graham Sampson, "and it does everything properly. Plus it only needs charging for a couple of hours - time for lunch, then back on the job." But neither he nor Emma Bartlett felt they would pay an extra pounds 15 for something that they'd use only once in a while. "It's for people who do DIY regularly and it would please a handyman," acknowledged Ed Sullivan.

STOCKISTS

All products available from stores nationwide and from the Argos catalogue (customer services, 0870 600 3030). !

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