Last Updated on April 12, 2023 by Barry Gray
There are few feelings as satisfying as opening the box of your new power tool and holding your shiny new companion for the first time. But, unfortunately, it’s also an awful feeling when you see your bank account depleted because of your tool-buying habits. And now your latest craving is an oscillating tool, but you can’t decide if it’s worth it.
An oscillating tool, also called a “multitool,” is a highly versatile hand tool. Several bits, or attachments, allow you to use the tool to scrape, chisel, cut, grind, and sand. It is especially good for doing tasks in tight spaces where you cannot fit a conventional tool.
In the world of power tools, an oscillating tool occupies the same space as the impact driver: Most owners agree that they never realized how useful they were before purchasing one, and now they can never go back. But what makes them so valuable?
The Seemingly Endless Uses Of The Oscillating Tool
All owners of an oscillating tool agree that its use seems to expand the more they use it. When you start getting to know your multitool, you start discovering new and creative uses for it.
The Oscillating Tool As A Cutter
For most people, the biggest reason they choose to purchase an oscillating tool is its versatile use as a cutter. But are multitools the best cutters? In some specific cases, yes, but in most cases, the answer is a decided “no.”
I mean to say that if you have to make a rip cut through a sheet of plywood, you aren’t going to replace your track saw with an oscillating tool, but that should be pretty obvious. Similarly, if you need to cut out larger shapes, you may still be better off with a jigsaw.
Cutting In Tight Spaces
What makes an oscillating tool so popular has a lot to do with the fact that it can cut in challenging, tight spaces.
Imagine needing to cut through a one-inch pipe that runs down a corner inside the wall cavity. You can’t use your pipe sheers or jigsaw because the tool itself is in the way. Likewise, you can’t use your hand saw because there is no room to thrust the saw. Sure, you could try a chisel, but that won’t work if you are dealing with a copper pipe.
Enter the oscillating tool. Slap on the right blade for the material you need to cut, and effortlessly zip through the pipe.
And it is in these tight spaces that the oscillating tool shines. So even if you need to cut through a piece of framing 2×4 and don’t have enough space to squeeze in your reciprocating saw, the oscillating tool will be up to the task.
Another instance where an oscillating tool runs the playground is when it comes to cutting door jams. Or, to be more precise, cutting under door jams.
If you want to lay a new floor finish such as vinyl or tiles, you may be left needing to make a little more room underneath your door jam to squeeze it in. This can be an irritating cut to make, but not if you own an oscillating tool.
Making Fine And Neat Cuts
I recently remodeled my daughter’s room, and it didn’t take me long during the demolition phase to wish I had a multitool.
After using a hammer and small crowbar to rip off the wall skirting/trim gracefully, I was left with large gaping holes in the plaster where rusty screws had clung for dear life. I was also left with broken trim boards, which need to be replaced.
I could have neatly cut through the caulk, paste, and even nails holding the trim to the wall if I had an oscillating tool. It would have spared me the effort to replaster those large holes and saved me the money needed to buy new trim.
I also noticed a few areas on the ceiling cornices where the previous owners had messed up the job. An oscillating tool would have given me the ability to cut out cornice pieces and replace those sections neatly. Without it, I had to decide to either leave it as is or rip off the lot. I chose the former.
When it comes to cutting holes in drywall, while you can use your jigsaw, you may find yourself reaching for your oscillating tool to do that as well.
Because an oscillating tool is essentially a plunge cutter, it doesn’t require a drilled hole to start the cut. In addition, the tool’s thinner blade with finer teeth ensures that cut lines are lighter and often neater, provided you use the tool correctly.
The Oscillating Tool As A Chisel And Scraper
There aren’t many tasks I dislike as much as scraping old adhesive off of a surface. I find it incredibly painstaking. An oscillating tool is a perfect companion to ease the burden on the scarping journey.
It’s true that if you need to scrape tile adhesive off of large areas, for example, you may be better off using a grinder, but on the edges, corners, and in tight spaces, you will be highly thankful for your oscillating tool.
Similarly, it makes for a handy chisel. For example, after finishing up a joint, you can easily lob off the protruding dowels with an oscillating tool.
The Oscillating Tool As A Sander
Sanding, and even light grinding, are again areas where the oscillating tool is not the best tool at most jobs.
However, it is the best tool for those tight corners and weird shapes where you don’t have enough room for your conventional sander or in an area where you need super precision.
Admittedly, after getting enough practice with an orbital sander, I can’t imagine many circumstances where I would personally opt for an oscillating tool. However, the option to use is still there, should the need arise.
The Limitation Of An Oscillating Tool
One of the most significant issues with an oscillating tool is that it is a Jack-of-all-trades and truly a master of none. While you can cut, scrape and sand with it, it is not the best cutter, scraper, or sander.
In other words, an oscillating tool isn’t going to replace a circular-, table– or jigsaw any time soon. It certainly isn’t going to replace a sander or grinder. So, while it is extremely useful at doing all those jobs in tight spaces, as soon as space isn’t an issue, it simply cannot compete with tools made specifically for those jobs.
This means that its usefulness and its limitation have got to do with the size of the job. It’s perfect for small awkward jobs but not great at doing bigger tasks, such as large cuts.
The Final Considerations
A final consideration over and above the uses and limitations of the oscillating tool is perhaps to consider whether it is safe to use or not. For example, chainsaws are great tools for cutting down trees, but they are also great at cutting off limbs, making them tools that average-joe probably doesn’t want to own.
Fortunately for Joe, oscillating tools are not chainsaws.
Interestingly enough, they were first designed in the mid-nineties as surgical/medical tools used to safely and quickly remove plaster from broken limbs. Because of their reciprocating action, they are horrible at cutting through the skin, which moves with the blade, making them one of the safer tools to own.
That doesn’t mean you can act irresponsibly with it. One mentor used to tell me that, with enough effort, you can break your finger-off in your nose, and I imagine the same applies to the oscillating tool.
An oscillating tool is a kind of like the Leatherman or Swiss Army Knife of powered tools. Its reciprocating motion, coupled with the near-endless amount of bits and attachments, means that it can do just about anything from cutting, chiseling, and scarping to grinding and sanding.
It is especially good at these tasks when you don’t have enough room to use a conventional tool. However, keep in mind that while the oscillating tool can do most jobs, it isn’t always the best tool at any of them. Nevertheless, it is, in my opinion, still worth owning and is a purchase you won’t regret.