ManMade Essential Toolbox: Why Every Workshop Needs a Really, Really Good Rotary Tool (and Which One to Buy)

Each week in 2015, ManMade is sharing our picks for the essential tools we think every creative guy and DIYer needs. We’ve selected useful, long-lasting tools to help you accomplish a variety of projects, solve problems, and live a hands-on lifestyle that allows you to interact with and make the things you use every day. 

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There comes that time in every project. The point where you know what needs to happen, but aren’t quite sure how to get there. When you’ve got the time and the energy to make it work, but that bolt or screw is just a little too long and the hardware store is closed. When you’re ready to shape it, cut it, sand it, but you just don’t know how to do it safely.    More often than not, the answer is: grab the rotary tool. 

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What’s It Do? 

The strength of the rotary tool, of course, is its versatility. Where other tools in the shop are set to perform one or two key tasks safely and efficiently, the rotary tools picks up the slack. They work particularly well with small parts, or when you’ve got all the woodworking tools in the world, but need to deal with metal (or vise versa). 

The tool is, essentially, a small, high RPM motor housed in a comfortable handle that spins a collet, into which you can place all kinds of bits. And its the bits that really make this thing shine. At any home center, you can find bits for cutting, grinding, polishing, sanding, honing, shaping, machining, milling, laping, routing, drilling, carving, engraving, sharpening…and I suspect at least a dozen more. 

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The sheer variety of bits and applications also allow you to work on all kinds of materials, from metals like aluminum, brass, copper, bronze, and soft steel to plastics, hard and softwoods, and household materials like drywall and fiberglass. Its small collet and light weight makes it the right tool for many small jobs, such as drilling with fine bits, cutting hardware that’s already been installed, and the like. 

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What to Look for in a Rotary Tool and Accessories?

There a few things to keep in mind when comparing options: 

  • Corded options will have stronger, more consistent power for a variety of tasks. This  will often make the work and cut time shorter.
  • Cordless options are, of course, easy to transport. They’re convenient and always ready to go (if you leave them on the charger).
  • It’s definitely worth spending a little more to get a model with a variable speed for versatility. This is especially true of corded models, which, when cared for, will last a long time. It’s nice to have the options when you need them.
  • The bits tend to be universal, but you might want to go with a more well-known manufacturer, such as Dremel or Rotozip, as they’ll continue to stay in the rotary tool game for a long time. Their accessories and bits are widely available.
  • Even the highest end tools cost around $100 or less. Don’t skimp on a cheaper, less powerful model unless you know it works well. Get the tool you want and think will last. 
  • Accessories are always cheaper in large kits. Don’t fritter away your money on $5-10 single packs. You can often get at least two of the thing you’re looking for, plus a bunch of other things that’ll be handy to have around, in an accessory kit. 

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Which Tool Should You Get? 

The two biggest names for this type of tool are Dremel and Rotozip. Rotozips are technically rotary saws, and are big, beefy tools designed for cutting work in drywall, floors, wood molding, etc. There common among contractors and finish carpenters. Dremels are true rotary tools, and can perform whatever the bit is intended for. They have the most variety of bits, and they continue to invent. I really like the newer EZ Lock technology for abrasive wheels and the like. There is, of course, a bit of a drawback, to the versatility… the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none,” applies here at times. 

It’s not a replacement for a router. Or a hacksaw. But, as long as you’re not trying to rip through 3/4″ plywood and keep the task to smaller projects that require small removal of material, like final sanding, smoothing, shaping, grinding, and light cuttings and engraving, you’ll use it again and again. A great tool to keep around for a variety of projects. 

Oh. And please, please, please: always wear safety glasses when using one. Always. 

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Note: Dremel and its parent company Robert Bosch Tool Corporation have been a previous sponsor on ManMade. That relationship had no impact on this post, nor did they provide tools for review.