Last Updated on May 22, 2020
If you need to put holes in concrete or masonry, you may have come across the rotary hammer and hammer drill. It can be hard to tell from product descriptions alone which is the right tool for your job, and which one would leave you wishing you had gone a different direction.
We know it can be hard to shop online, but we think that it doesn’t have to be that way. Our guides are designed to walk you through everything you need to know about each tool so that you can figure out which one is the one you need for your next job. That way, you can go into your shopping experience with full confidence and the knowledge you need to make a great buy.
Rotary hammers are the far more powerful of the two tools. If you need to drill holes larger than one-inch in diameter or want to clear a bathroom of tile on the walls or floor, then the rotary hammer could be your new best friend. It packs a ton of power that the hammer drill just can’t match up with. In addition to the spinning bit, the rotary hammer uses a large piston to produce large amounts of power.
While these tools can beat up to 6,000 times per minute, that’s a far cry from the 30,000 beats per minute that high-end hammer drills can put out. That ultimately means that the rotary hammer is the more comfortable tool to use. It puts out fewer vibrations, and its larger mass means that fewer of those make it to your hands and arms.
If you’re going to be working in construction, this is the tool that you’re going to want. Even hard concrete is no match for its clearing power, but it’s lighter than a jackhammer and can be used for demolition tasks, or for constructive ones, like putting large holes in a concrete wall to mount something.
The biggest downside to rotary hammers is that they’re bulkier and heavier relative to a hammer drill. That’s to be expected with a more powerful tool, but the disparity often isn’t close. The lightest rotary hammers weigh about 15 pounds, which is almost twice the weight of the heaviest hammer drills.
You generally won’t find battery-powered rotary hammers, as their increased power needs make batteries impractical. You need to be careful when shopping for these tools, as manufacturers will sometimes advertise more expensive, more powerful, portable hammer drills as rotary hammers, even though they don’t have enough power to qualify.
Rotary hammers also frequently use SDS chucks. This means the bit is screwed into the chuck, twice. First, you screw the bit into the chuck, and then you go through the opposite end and screw a left-threaded screw through the chuck into the bit. That gives you a rock-solid connection, but as you may have guessed, it limits the bits you can use to those that are SDS-compatible.
Modern models use SDS-Plus chucks, which allow for tool-free insertion of SDS-Plus bits, but there are more expensive than the former model. In some circumstances, the manufacturer will use a proprietary chuck, and you’ll be stuck using bits they make, and if you can find the type that you need, you’ll have to go without.
Of these two tools, the hammer drill is the one that you’re more likely to use around the house. It’s designed for light- to medium-duty use on concrete or masonry. It can make holes in softer concrete, masonry, or even brick. Generally speaking, you’ll be able to drill holes as small as 3/16” in diameter, up to about an inch.
The nice thing about hammer drills for home use is that they don’t weigh a lot. At their heaviest, you can expect them to weigh about eight pounds. At that end, you’d expect to get a powerful model. Less-powerful, battery-powered models fall somewhere in the middle, while the less powerful, but corded models tend to be the lightest.
Like rotary hammers, hammer drills rely on a back-and-forth action while spinning the drill. However, the striking mechanism is much smaller and can fire thousands of times per minute. That provides very even drilling power, though the speed at which it fires causes more problems than it does with a rotary hammer.
Since they’re smaller, the hammer drill is the superior choice for when you’ll be working in tight spaces. A stronger, more expensive hammer drill can replace a low-end rotary hammer in situations where the latter tool’s size would prevent it from working effectively.
Hammer drills use a mechanism that strikes thousands of times per minute. Consequently, they produce a ton of vibrations, and while some models take steps to limit the vibrations or limit how well you can feel them, the truth is that they’ll be very noticeable no matter which model you’re using. If you’re torn between a rotary hammer and a rotary drill, and one to get a model with fewer vibrations and shock, then the rotary hammer is the tool you’ll want to get.
If you have a large project or need to make large holes, then you’re going to waste a lot of time with a hammer drill. You have to be able to get a good speed going to drill holes, and as the bit grows larger, more power is required to hit that minimum speed. Even if your hammer drill can reach that low speed on a difficult project, you probably won’t be able to hit the sweet spot where you melt through the material with a bit larger than one-inch in diameter.
Getting a powerful hammer drill can be a bad choice in some situations. High-end hammer drills and low-end rotary drills can cost the same amount, but the rotary drills provide far more power on a per-dollar basis.
We hope that our guide has cleared up the major differences between rotary hammers and hammer drills.
If you’re still not sure which kind of tool is right for your situation, the most important thing to keep in mind is the size of the task that you’re going to be doing. If you need holes that are larger than one-inch in diameter, you need a rotary hammer. If the task is very large, or particularly difficult, you’ll get done faster with a hammer drill.
However, hammer drills are far more expensive than low- and medium-power hammer drills, so if you can use either tool and would rather spend more time and save some money, then you can score a deal on a cheaper hammer drill.
Overall, you’ll be happier with your buy if you focus on making sure that you get the type that will allow you to get the job done in a reasonable amount of time. If you get too little power, you could find that you’re taking far too much time getting the job done, or that you’re not able to do it at all, since your tool doesn’t have the required power.
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Hi there! My name is Adam and I write for HealthyHandyman. I have a great passion for writing about everything related to tools, home improvement, and DIY. In my spare time, I'm either fishing, playing the guitar, or spending quality time with my beloved wife. You'll also often find me in my workshop working on some new project!