In the realm of professional power tools, there are common ones that you see everywhere: drills, impact drivers, circular saws, table saws, etc. There are also some products that seem pretty specialized but are very common on the job site. One of those that you’ll see in nearly every home improvement and hardware store is the oscillating multi-tool. So what is an oscillating tool exactly? Better yet, what do you use it for and what should you look for?
What is an Oscillating Tool?
The official name of today’s muse is the oscillating multi-tool. It often goes by oscillating tool, multi-tool, or simply OMT. Some brands have proprietary names for their models. For example, Ridgid has the Job Max and Festool’s is the Vecturo.
Most oscillating tools are built around what looks like a grinder body with varying diameters. There are a few that stray from the norm. Ridgid, Ryobi, and DeWalt all go for a thinner design, but it still looks like a grinder – just more of a rat tail design.
The major difference is at the head. In some form, a mechanism will clamp the attachment to the head for use. There are several different ways to make this happen from a bolt that requires a hex wrench to Bosch’s and Fein’s hands-free Starlock system with plenty of options in between.
What gives the oscillating tool its name is the fact that it oscillates back and forth thousands of times per minute. It’s not unusual for Pro models to have an oscillation rate of 18,000 – 20,000 OPM (oscillations per minute) at the top end.
What are Oscillating Tools Used For?
Oscillating multi-tools also have “multi-tool” in the name for a reason. The majority of Pro will use some form of blade for cutting wood, metal, PVC or other material. You can also get blades specifically for scraping out grout, silicon, or a variety of other adhesives.
It’s not all about the blade, though. Every oscillating tool also comes with a sanding head in the shape of a triangle along with several sanding pads. Fein’s MultiMaster can even use a 4″ round sanding pad.
While the oscillating multi-tool can cut, scrape, and sand, it’s not really the best tool for any of those applications. Reciprocating saws will cut much faster, grinders will remove grout more effectively, and a delta pad finish sander will be a better bet for sanding corners.
Where the oscillating tool makes its living is in spaces where those primary tools can’t fit or are tough to use. They’re phenomenal for undercutting baseboards that are flush to the floor or cutting a pipe where there’s not much room under a sink. They’ll give you better control around finished tile and fixtures when you’re removing adhesives.
What’s questionable is whether or not you really need the sanding pad if you already have a delta pad sander. Realistically, if you’re already a Pro using round, rectangular, and delta pad finish sanders, an oscillating tool is probably the last sanding option you’ll turn to. But for those of you that aren’t carpenters and may only have a round random orbit sander, the oscillating multi-tool takes care of corners and small areas well enough.
What to Look for on an Oscillating Tool
Oscillating multi-tools are pretty basic when it comes to feature sets, but there are some things to look out for.
- Accessory Change: Changing the accessory can be very simple or overly complex. Our Pro team won’t even bother with a model that requires a tool to change the blade and we prefer Starlock for its ease of use.
- Accessory Type: Check what style of accessory the multi-tool needs. Starlock models won’t work with regular blades and Festool has a separate propriety system.
- Oscillation Rate: The higher the top speed, the faster the tool will cut. Look for at least 18,000 OPM.
- Oscillation Angle: The higher the oscillation angle, the more aggressive it will cut. This means more speed but also more vibration and noise. 3.6°/3.7° (1.8° to either side) is a pretty good balance.
- Vibration: The more vibration the tool has, the more uncomfortable it is to use. Fein is the top of the line in this category, nearly eliminating vibration in their newest MultiMaster.
- Noise Level: In our shootout, we measured cutting noise levels from 92 dB(A) to 104 dB(A). We’re all for using the top performers, so this is a matter of what you’re comfortable with on the hearing protection side of things.
- Variable Speed Dial/Trigger: Our team prefers oscillating tools with an on/off switch and variable speed dial. However, there are a handful of paddle trigger styles our there as well. If you’re going that route, look for one with a lock on switch, especially if you’ll be sanding or scraping.
Taking the Oscillating Tool up a Notch
While most oscillating multi-tools are primarily for the big three applications (cutting, scraping, and sanding), Ridgid and Ryobi go a bit farther. Their Job Max and Job Plus oscillating tools have replaceable heads that offer a variety of other options to extend the number of uses.
Corded Vs Cordless Oscillating Tools
For oscillating tools, corded models still rule the roost. The best cordless model we tested ranked 6th overall in our shootout. If you’re an occasional user or one that is willing to trade off some performance for the convenience of battery power (not to mention the extra expense), cordless might work for you. But if you want the best combination of performance, vibration control, and price, there are plenty of corded models to look at first.