An oscillating multi-tool is a superbly flexible device that makes light work of all those cutting, sanding, trimming, and sawing jobs that would otherwise be awkward to do and hugely time consuming. They can lift old tiles, cut holes in drywall for electrical sockets, undercut doors when fitting carpet, and more. You name it, there's probably an accessory to help you do it, and our top pick shows that the best cordless tools are now more than a match for their corded rivals.
Considerations when choosing oscillating multi-tools
Corded vs. cordless
For starters, a corded tool delivers consistent power as long as there's electricity available. There's no battery to go flat -- which they seem to do at the most inconvenient moment. A spare battery solves the problem but could easily cost you $30. That's on top of the elevated price you pay. Corded oscillating tools with a variety of accessories run from $60 to $130. You pay around twice that for the equivalent cordless model.
For many people, particularly DIYers, the corded model is the sensible, economical choice.
In terms of actual power, corded tools are rated in amps: around two amps for a modest DIY tool, up to seven amps for the most powerful pro equipment (though four or five is sufficient for most).
Cordless tools are rated in volts, which makes direct comparison almost impossible. They start at 12V, which is fine for light tasks, though you need an 18V or 20V model to deliver the same kind of performance as corded tools.
Note: With a high-revving motor inside the main body, oscillating multi-tools can get quite hot. It's unlikely to affect operation, but they can get uncomfortably warm to the touch so it's a good idea to wear gloves.
Regardless of whether you choose corded or cordless, there are other aspects to consider.
All oscillating multi-tools have variable speed, usually given in Oscillations Per Minute (OPM). From 10,000 to 20,000 is common. Different materials cut easiest at different speeds, so the wider the range, the more flexible the tool. A few actually start from zero.
Most of these tools come in kits with a variety of accessories; anything from two or three to thirty or more. A pad for detail sanding -- popular for stripping old paint or varnish -- is one of the most used items, but sometimes a dozen small sandpaper sheets are counted individually. Always check exactly what you're getting.
Blades from different manufacturers are often interchangeable, but calling something "universal" doesn't always make it so. If you're buying additional accessories or consumables from a different brand, check compatibility.
You want the clamping action to be fast and simple so you can change blades quickly. Most blades do this without needing extra tools. It's not uncommon for users to complain about clamps coming loose. High-power clamps prevent this.
Physical size can vary considerably, often due to motor size. Most aren't heavy enough to be a problem but gripping larger models comfortably can be awkward. It's good to have alternate areas to hold and to be able to get two hands on there if necessary.
One of the big advantages with these compact tools is their ability to work in tight spaces, so an LED lamp is a useful addition to light your work area.
It's nice to have a bag or case to carry your multi-tool and accessories, but they are often not provided, even by some of the premium brands.
Sandpaper tip: Buying small replacement sanding pads can be expensive. You can get hook and loop or adhesive-backed sandpaper quite cheaply in long rolls and cut out your own.
Q. What's the difference between a rotary multi-tool and an oscillating multi-tool?
A. Although there are lots of different manufacturers, many people think of a rotary tool as a "Dremel," a compact device for drilling, polishing, engraving, and carving, and for detailed craft and hobby work. An oscillating tool is more for DIY tasks -- mostly cutting, sawing, and sanding.
Q. Which is better, a brush motor or a brushless?
A. Most corded multi-tools have brush motors. They're cheaper to make, and that's fine. They are used in some cordless models as well, but brushless motors make more efficient use of battery power, so that's our preference.
Oscillating multi-tools we recommend
Best of the best: DeWalt 20V XR Oscillating Multi-tool Kit
Our take: Superb, high-performance cordless tool for the discerning professional.
What we like: Excellent power and flexibility from the 20V brushless motor. Good run time and rapid recharge. Fast blade change. Takes numerous off-brand accessories. Nice bag and useful accessories box.
What we dislike: Expensive and only one battery. 28-piece accessory kit is mostly sandpaper.
Best bang for your buck: Rockwell 4.2A Sonicrafter with 10 Accessories
Our take: Powerful, reliable, fully-featured kit offers great value for the homeowner.
What we like: Competitive performance and speed range. Good cutter selection. Quick and strong clamping secures blades well. Takes a wide variety of accessories from other manufacturers.
What we dislike: Adjustable blade angle seems pointless. Case isn't great quality.
Choice 3: Dremel 2.3A Multi-Max with 6 Accessories
Our take: The affordable entry-level option you can add to later.
What we like: Undeniable quality, good power, a speed range of 10,000 to 21,000 OPM, and a versatile (if basic) set of sanding pads and cutting blades.
What we dislike: Very little. Occasional switch problems. You quickly run out of consumables.
Bob Beacham is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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