- Best Impact Driver Overall
- Best Heavy Duty Cordless Impact Driver
- Best Light Duty Cordless Impact Driver
- Best Pneumatic Impact Driver
Best Impact Driver
Impact drivers trace their roots to the impact wrenches used by mechanics. Even so, they’ve changed a lot, turning into tools that are useful for a variety of purposes besides just tightening and loosening lug nuts on cars.
Some have said that the name “impact driver” was only a marketing gambit, created to try and differentiate these tools from the pneumatic impact wrenches used by mechanics. However, there are more differences between the two than you might think. While the larger, pneumatic ones are essentially the same, there’s no way you can call a light-duty cordless impact driver an impact wrench. Not only is it not as powerful, it’s designed to be used differently.
To see the differences and understand how to select the impact driver that will best meet your needs, check out our buyer's guide provided below.
Best Impact Driver Overall:
There really aren't all that many corded impact drivers on the market. That’s mostly because the vast majority of them are cordless. At the same time that the need for electric impact drivers was realized by tool manufacturers, cordless tool designs were becoming powerful enough to compete head to head with corded tools; especially in the all-important category of torque.
Essentially, the difference between an impact driver and an impact wrench is its purpose. Impact wrenches are used by mechanics and for industrial equipment applications. Impact drivers were brought onto the market for a more general use, to provide a tool that provided more driving power than a drill/driver, without having to go to a full-blown impact wrench. That makes these tools especially useful for driving longer screws into decks and other projects, instead of fighting with them binding, trying to drive them with a drill/driver.
The great difference between these tools and a regular drill or drill/driver is the impact action. That’s what overcomes the screw’s resistance to penetrating wood. At the same time, the impact action helps with tightening or loosening a variety of bolts, nuts and other hardware, in all types of applications.
These tools come with two types of anvils for attachment of bits. Some are designed with a square drive, for attaching sockets of various types, while others are designed with a hex socket drive for screwdriver and nutdriver bits. Of course, adapters have been around for a long time, which make it possible to use screwdriver bits on the square drive ones and sockets on the hex drive ones. So the type of drive is a matter of personal preference, more than anything else.
Being corded tools, these are best used in the workshop, rather than running around from place to place. They are also excellent for those who only use the tool occasionally; preventing them from having to wait for the battery to charge.
Overall, the cost of corded tools are also lower than cordless ones, because there isn't the cost of the batteries and charger. So, that just gives one more reason why someone who only needs an impact driver occasionally should buy a corded one, rather than a cordless one.
Besides the type of drive (square or hex) the other major issue to look at when selecting a corded driver is the amount of torque that it provides. Some of the larger ones provide enough torque so that they can be used for automotive repair, while the smaller ones are really only useful for driving screws into decks and other projects. So, the intended use of the driver makes a lot of difference in what type of impact driver to select.
Besides torque, the other thing that affects how well these tools drive or loosen is the number of beats per minute that the impact action offers. Essentially, the higher number of impacts per minute, the more drive power the impact provides.
Plenty of power makes this corded driver from DeWalt our number one pick. It provides 345 foot-pounds of torque, along with 2,700 impact beats per minute. Read Full Review
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Milwaukee comes in a close second with their corded impact driver. AT 300 foot-pounds of torque, this variable speed unit has plenty of power to do lots of work for you. Read Full Review
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If you're looking for a good price, check out this unit from Great Neck. It's 7 amp motor produces 240 foot-pounds of torque, along with 2,700 impacts per minute. Read Full Review
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In the smaller impact drivers, Porter Cable offers a lot of driver for a reasonable price. The 1,450 inch-pounds of torque this 1/4-inch hex unit provides is perfect for driving screws in that new deck. Read Full Review
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Best Heavy Duty Cordless Impact Driver:
Cordless impact drivers were first created to provide more power than a drill/driver for building decks and other projects. The design of these products has improved over the last few years, giving them much more power. Although cordless, these impact drivers have enough power for much heavier tasks, including automotive repair.
What makes these impact drivers more powerful is Lithium-Ion battery technology which provides more power and faster recharging times than Ni-Cad batteries. The voltage of these battery packs has also increased, making it possible to use higher voltage motor designs; all of the drivers shown here have batteries ranging from 18 volts up to 28 volts.
Impact drivers come in two basic designs with some having a square drive anvil for use with sockets and others having a hex socket for use with screwdriver bits. In many cases, the manufacturer offers essentially the same tool with both types of attachment. Adapters are also offered by a number of manufacturers, allowing sockets to be used with hex sockets and screwdriver bits on units that have a square drive.
As with any impact tool, the key element is the maximum torque provided. The more torque, the easier it is for these impact drivers to remove stubborn bolts and drive long screws. However, the torque must be considered along with the number of impacts that the driver provides, which is measured in beats per minute (BPM). Since it is the impact beats that actually do the driving rather than the raw torque, a driver with a high rate of BPM is going to drive better than one with a low BPM.
Some of these manufacturers have made their tools with brushless motors. Like any rotary tool, the first thing to wear out is the brushes. By creating a brushless design, the manufacturers have reduced the need for maintenance, ensuring longer tool life with fewer problems.
Additionally, several of these drivers are compact units. They are designed to be shorter from front to back than a normal drill/driver, even though they have the impact unit installed in them. That makes one of these tools easier to fit into tight spaces such as automotive repair work.
If you're looking for raw power, Milwaukee won't let you down. This impact will provide you with 3250 ft/lbs of torque and 2450 BPM; more than enough to remove even stubborn bolts. Read Full Review
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Besides the Milwaukee, DeWalt produces the most powerful compact impact driver. At only 5-1/4" long and 3.0 pounds, it's also the smallest and lightest, just what you need for tight spots. Read Full Review
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Makita's compact impact driver features brushless motor technology for low maintenance and longer battery life. Coupled with the fastest recharge time in the industry, you'll be able to keep working continuously with this tool. Read Full Review
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Porter-Cable comes in with an impact driver very similar to both the Makita and the DeWalt. It's a bit bigger and a bit heavier as well. Read Full Review
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Best Light Duty Cordless Impact Driver:
Cordless impact drivers started with this category, as a companion to the cordless drill/driver. The intent was to provide a tool that had more driving capability, for those times when a cordless drill/driver just couldn’t sink the screw. With long screws this is a common problem, especially when using those long screws on pressure-treated or green wood.
These are very compact drivers, as opposed to the high power ones, which are only compact from front to back. You could easily stick any of these in a pocket, with the battery hanging out, and expect it to stay put. The flip side of that coin is that in most cases, the battery used in these drivers is not part of the manufacturer’s standard battery system that is used in the rest of their cordless power tools. However, I did find two of them that use the standard battery packs. While that makes the tool slightly larger, it’s worth it to have the compatibility.
It is easy to identify the difference between these light-duty cordless impacts and the heavy-duty ones. These all run off of 12 volt battery systems, while the heavy-duty ones run off of 18 and 20 volt batteries. However, they are all using Lithium-Ion batteries, which provide faster recharge time, a greater amount of charge capacity and full power right up until the battery dies. While some people have trouble getting used to that (being accustomed to the Ni-Cad batteries which die slowly) it works out much better for an impact driver.
All of these tools deliver a minimum of 808 in/lbs of torque. To put that in perspective, that’s 66.67 ft/lbs. A 1/2-13 plain grade 2 bolt, requires 49 ft/lbs of torque to torque it down properly; a 1/2-13 galvanized grade 2 bolt requires 61 ft/lbs. So, all of these drivers will provide enough torque for those bolts. They can even handle a 7/16-18 grade 5 bolt.
While a heavy-duty cordless impact driver will provide more torque than that, that’s actually enough for most automotive applications. With that in mind, these drivers should provide plenty of torque for any deck or other home project you want to build.
As with any impact, the true power of these units doesn’t come from the torque, but rather the number of impacts per minute that is provided. The higher the number of impacts, the faster it will be able to drive screws and bolts when there is resistance (such as with pressure treated wood). So, the two specs to really look at are the torque and the beats per minute (BPM) of impact power.
Besides those two specifications, I always look at a tool’s usability and the battery packs I mentioned earlier fall into this category. So do things like, LED headlights, belt clips and battery gauges. Operator comfort is also important since the most powerful tool is almost worthless if it’s hard to work with.
All of these tools have a 1/4” hex chuck for accepting standard 1/4” screwdriver tips. They can also be used with sockets, by the simple expedient of adding an adapter. While most companies produce their heavy-duty cordless impact drivers in models that have square drive or hex chucks, they don’t for the low-power units.
Hitachi's lifetime Li-Ion tool warranty says a lot for the quality built into this tool. This upgraded design is the most powerful in this class, providing 955 in/lbs of torque. Read Full Review
DeWalt makes the most powerful tool in this category, delivering 950 in/lbs of torque and 3,400 BPM. Besides that, the tool is a true joy to work with. I especially like the three LED work lights which work together to eliminate shadows. Read Full Review
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Like the DeWalt, this unit has a 3 LED headlight ring, eliminating shadows. It is a very compact unit with an in-the-handle battery pack Read Full Review
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This is one of the few tools in this category which comes with a LED fuel gauge. As with all of Milwaukee's tools, this is a workhorse power tool which is built to last. Read Full Review
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If you're looking for a bargain, take a good look at this tool from Makita. I was amazed to find a Makita tool running this cheap online. Note that this is the tool only price, but if you already have batteries, it's a steal. Read Full Review
Best Pneumatic Impact Driver:
While people have found all sorts of new and interesting applications for electric and cordless impact drivers, the pneumatic impact driver is still the mechanic’s strong right arm. I say that both in a figurative and a literal sense because without it, a mechanic would need a gorillas arms to break some bolts loose, especially rusted ones.
The terms impact driver and impact wrench are pretty much interchangeable. Usually, impact drivers are the lightweight tools used for driving screws into decks, while the heavy duty models are usually referred to as impact wrenches.
Impact drivers don’t work so effectively because they’re stronger, but because they have an internal “hammer” that hits every revolution. That makes it like having a breaker bar on the bolt and hitting it with a hammer; eventually, something has to let go. The more times an impact driver hits or the more “beats per second” the more efficient it is. Some impact drivers are “dual hammer”, meaning they hit twice per revolution instead of just once. Once again, this increases the efficiency of the impact.
In addition to the beats per minute, the other major specification for impact drivers is the maximum reverse torque. This is the torque maintained between beats and keeps pressure on the bolt head or nut. An impact driver needs both a good max torque and a good beat rate to be effective.
The torque comes from the size of the motor, specifically the size of the vanes in the motor. Impact drivers with smaller physical cases generally have a lower torque rating than the ones with larger cases. While working with a “compact” impact can be nice, it’s not so nice when the wrench can’t loosen a stubborn bolt.
Traditionally, these tools were made with all metal cases for the sake of durability. A mechanic’s shop is no place for plastic tools that break easily. However, metal cases tend to be heavier, so some manufacturers are starting to produce impact drivers in a variety of composite cases. These aren’t simple plastic but usually fiber reinforced plastics for high impact resistance. In other words, dropping them on the floor shouldn’t break the case.
Pneumatic impact drivers come in sizes from 1/4” square drive all the way up to 1” square drive. For this list, I’ve limited myself to 1/2” square drive, as that is the most common size. In many cases, the manufacturers produce a similar model in 3/8” square drive, but the smaller impact has a lot less power.
Most of these manufacturers produce several models of impact drivers, with at least a few that are 1/2” square drive. I picked these as their best for a combination of factors, including power and comfort of use.
Always use impact sockets and extensions with an impact driver. They are made of a softer metal and have thicker walls to keep them from breaking. Standard sockets and extensions will break in an impact driver. The chrome plating will also chip off of them. Standard sockets and extensions are just not designed for the hard duty that impact sockets need to endure.
This impact driver offers the most powerful 1/2" impact on the market, delivering up to 1295 ft-lbs of torque. The Kevlar case may not be bullet proof but it's definitely drop proof, even on a hard concrete floor. Read Full Review
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CP's impact driver comes in with a little lower total breakaway torque than the NitroCat, but it has more beats per minute of hammer action. So, in overall functionality, it will probably work just about as good. Read Full Review
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Ingersoll-Rand advertises this impact driver as having the best weight-to-power ratio of any impact driver on the market. Part of that is it's incredibly light, at only 3.95 pounds. Read Full Review
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If you're looking for the best, a lot of mechanics look to Snap-on. Their quality tools are guaranteed for life, showing you just how much confidence the company has in them. Read Full Review
If you're looking for value for your money, this impact driver has it. For less than $100, it provides 450 ft-lbs of torque. For the guy who only needs an impact driver from from time-to-time, that's perfect. Read Full Review
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Impact Driver Buyer's Guide
Impact drivers are multi-purpose tools, which can be used in a wide variety of disciplines. To a large part, they were developed for woodworking projects where a cordless drill/driver wasn't enough. Some larger units generate enough torque where they’re applicable for mechanics work and general equipment repair. As multi-purpose tools, the important part is how you need to use them.
For many handymen and do-it-yourselfers, the impact driver has replaced the "driver" portion of their drill driver, allowing them to use it as only a drill. The impact driver is much more efficient as a driver, especially when driving screws into resilient material such as pressure treated timber.
Categorizing Impact Drivers
There are a couple of different ways that we can look at impact drivers, in order to narrow down the field and only be looking at those which will provide the features we need.
Probably the most important single specification on any impact driver is the tool's torque. Some of the heavier duty impact drivers will provide as much as 300 ft/lbs of torque. That's great for removing a flat tire or tightening the bolts on your starter motor, but a bit too much for driving screws into a deck. You'd probably end up driving the screws right through the deck.
We can break these tools down into three different groups, where torque is concerned. The heavy-duty ones are best suited for mechanics work and general equipment repair. Medium duty units are ideal for building decks and other woodworking projects where a drill/driver doesn't have enough torque to drive the screws in. Light duty units (of which there are few) are best used for small projects.
Heavy-duty impact drivers tend to be powered by 120 volt AC house current. This is mostly because of their high power drain. If these units were to be powered by batteries, even Li-Ion batteries, they would drain the battery very quickly.
Most impact drivers today are cordless, running off of Li-Ion batteries. This makes them much more convenient to work with. For those who already have a collection of cordless power tools, it can save money as well. By buying the same brand, the same batteries can be used for a number of tools.
The exception to this is with some of the light duty units which use batteries designed specifically for the unit. So, even if you have other cordless tools from the same company, the batteries won't be compatible.
Pneumatic impact drivers like those used for mechanics work, are still available. In a shop situation, they can be better for working with than corded electric ones. The pneumatic motor is smaller than an electric one, making the overall tool size smaller. They’re also safer in that there is no electric power cord to get cut, causing an electrocution hazard. Finally, they offer more torque than even the heaviest duty corded models.
You can buy impact drivers with two different types of end connections; 1/4” hex drive collets for use with screwdriver bits and square drive for use with sockets. In addition, the square drive units range from 1/4” square drive all the way up to 1/2” square drive. In most of the mid-range sizes, the same unit can be bought in a hex chuck or square drive version.
Since power is the major reason for buying an impact driver, torque is obviously the first thing to look at. Additionally, the type of chuck end provided may make a difference to you, as you will want it to be compatible with the types of tips you’re intending to use. Buying a tool with a square drive is guaranteed to provide you with a lot of frustration to go with your work when your main task is driving deck screws
The number of beats per minute a tool provides will make a difference in its efficiency as well. The way these units work is they start driving like a drill/driver. Once a point is reached where the tool's native torque isn't enough to drive the fastener quickly enough, the impact mechanism kicks in, adding torque to each blow. You can actually hear this when it happens. The more blows per minute the tool provides, the faster it will drive the fastener.
Electrical power draw for cordless models can be pretty high, especially if you are driving a lot of screws or bolts. So you want to make sure you have extra battery packs handy. Most units come with two battery packs, which will be sufficient for most applications. It’s rare that you’ll be driving screws so fast the spare battery won’t have a chance to recharge.
Some units provide extras which make them more convenient to work with. Belt clips, tool holders, and LED work lights are common features, all of which are useful. However, they are of minor concern, when compared to the need for raw power
The other concern when you shop for these units is the overall size and comfort to use. Many are designed as compact units in order to be able to fit into tight places. If you are doing anything requiring working in tight places, be sure you look at the unit’s size. Comfort is an issue because the impact action can easily create operator fatigue.