From the outside, 3D printing and RC hobbies seem all about playing around with radio-controlled vehicles and conjuring plastic objects out of thin air. But in reality, most hobbyists spend more time assembling and disassembling their expensive toys instead. And this involves the tedious task of turning screws hundreds upon thousands of times per session.
One would assume most hobbyists would have switched over to electric screwdrivers by now, but the tiny machine screws involved are too delicate for the average power tool. Fortunately, specialized alternatives exist for this very purpose.
But how does one go about identifying cordless screwdrivers that can prevent wrist injuries, while also playing well with your expensive equipment? By reading through to find out what separates regular cordless screwdrivers from those suitable for 3D printing and RC hobbies of course!
The simple act of twisting your wrist to manipulate fasteners with a regular screwdriver might not seem much if your wrenching requirements are restricted to unscrewing the odd battery compartment. However, modding or servicing RC vehicles and 3D printers involves turning an awful lot of screws. Do it often enough and the repeated movement of the wrist is likely to manifest as RSI, or repetitive strain injury.
That is precisely why even assembly lines associated with the smallest consumer products, such as smartphones and laptops, are outfitted with electric screwdrivers tuned to deliver just the right amount of torque required for the job. This is quite effective at keeping occupational injuries and OSHA violations at bay.
You’re probably convinced that a regular screwdriver is good enough for your niche hobby. There’s no way you’re making thousands of turns per session, right? Unfortunately, you are wrong. And we will illustrate just that using good old-fashioned mathematics to figure out how many turns of the screwdriver it takes to assemble the diminutive Voron 0.1 3D printer. What's that, you ask? Read more about Voron 3D printers in our comprehensive guide.
The DIY CoreXY printer needs 390 screws, out of which 110 are of the M2 size and the rest of the M3 variety. Calculating the number of turns required to bottom out each screw is a simple matter of multiplying the screw length with the thread pitch. This comes out to an eye-watering 17,140 painful rotations in total. Let’s not forget that a full twist of your wrist can only achieve half a turn of the screwdriver.
So, even if you engage only a half of the total screw thread length, you’re still twisting your wrist more than 17,000 times while assembling one of the tiniest DIY 3D printers around. And it isn’t just about pain either. The fastest wrenchers will spend about five hours turning (not prepping or aligning, just turning) these screws. But even the slowest cordless screwdrivers can bring that down to just half an hour.
Traditional hand tools may be slow, but what they lack in speed is compensated tenfold in terms of precision. Screwdrivers are no different. Driving small M2, M3, and M4 machine screws into soft aluminum and fragile plastic parts of RC vehicles and 3D printers needs a gentle hand—something that’s only possible with a traditional screwdriver.
Unlike a human hand, the electric motor inside a power tool cannot relay the sensation of the screw being bottomed out to the operator. Try fastening an M2 or M3 screw with a cordless impact screwdriver, and you’ll either break the part being screwed-on or snap the screw head clean off the shaft. A regular powered screwdriver won’t fare much better either.
However, these power tools come with inbuilt clutch assemblies to get around this issue. Set the clutch dial to the desired torque setting, and the driver bit simply disengages beyond that point. This works well for larger screws and bolts fastened into sturdier materials such as hardwood and iron.
Unfortunately, even the lowest torque setting on the powered impact/screwdrivers will nevertheless damage delicate 3D printer and RC vehicle components and fasteners.
You ideally want to avoid an impact driver, and choose a cordless screwdriver with reduced torque output. That's a fairly simple affair, because the maximum torque applied by a cordless screwdriver is directly proportional to its voltage rating. An 18V screwdriver is overkill, but a 12V one isn’t ideal either. You’re better off with a cordless screwdriver in the 4 to 8V range.
The reduced torque output makes the minimum torque settings on the slipper clutch gentle enough for delicate fasteners and components. You might want to check out our Wowstick electric screwdriver review, if you seek a strictly low-torque alternative.
Being gentle with fasteners is only one part of the equation when working with 3D printers and RC vehicles. Granular speed control is also equally important. Adjusting screw tightness in quarter or half turn increments is the most common approach to fine-tuning components in these hobbies.
This renders cordless screwdrivers with dual-speed gearboxes inadequate for this task, given how their maximum speed usually ranges between 500 and 1000 rpm. Forget about quarter turn precision: you'd need a golden trigger finger to control screw rotation down to the single digit range.
Don't bother with constant speed screwdrivers with regular push-button triggers either. You want ones equipped with longer throw triggers capable of proportional speed control instead. Depress the trigger a little and the motor spins slowly, whereas pushing it further increases the rotation speed proportionally.
Although this is a definite improvement, the limited travel length of a traditional proportional trigger still cannot deliver the sort of granular control required to make quarter, or half-turn adjustments possible. So which power tool offers a significantly better proportional speed control?
The good ol’ motorcycle, of course. The granular speed control afforded by the traditional twistgrip throttle assembly is unrivaled due to its inherently superior range of motion. Wouldn’t it be perfect if a cordless screwdriver were to integrate the motorcycle twistgrip throttle assembly? It’s hard to think of a better way to achieve precise speed control. Fortunately, someone at DeWalt Tools already had this epiphany.
The DeWalt Gyroscopic Screwdriver employs a pair of solid-state gyroscopes to detect twisting motion and translate that into proportional speed control. This not only incorporates the superior range of motion of a motorcycle twistgrip throttle, but also allows you to change the direction of rotation without having to manipulate a button or lever.
We had more fun than we are willing to admit while chronicling all the wacky modifications to the Nintendo Wii motion controller back in the day, but who would've thought the WiiMote would grow up to be a power tool?!
Twist the gyroscopic screwdriver clockwise to tighten screws and counterclockwise to loosen them—elegantly capturing the intuitiveness of using a regular screwdriver. Having used plenty of trigger-activated cordless screwdrivers, the sheer degree of granular speed control provided by the DeWalt Gyroscopic Screwdriver just beggars belief.
Not surprisingly, this power tool has its own fan following in the RC hobby space, where proud owners swear by its uncanny capability to tap screws into plastic—a feat that is otherwise too delicate and precise to be carried out using traditional powered screwdrivers. The gyroscopically enhanced power tool's near-infinite speed control allows it to supplant the traditional screwdriver altogether.
Since DeWalt was granted a patent for its gyroscopic speed control implementation in 2020, no mainstream toolmaker has bothered to put the engineering effort required to incorporate a similarly intuitive speed control solution while working around the patent restrictions. Not surprisingly, Chinese niche electronics brand MiniWare is the only other manufacturer that offers something similar under various model names.
Unfortunately, none of these potentially IP-infringing alternatives have precise speed control or adequate torque. Poor QA and reliability makes it even harder to recommend these Chinese knockoffs. You may find plenty of alternatives in the 4 to 8V range from competing tool brands, such as Milwaukee, Bosch, and Makita, but none of those can match the DeWalt Gyroscopic Screwdriver’s control and precision.
The brands that make reliable tools also tend to respect patent laws, which makes it impossible to recommend a comparable cordless screwdriver for 3D printing and RC hobby wrenching needs. If you are allergic to DeWalt tools for some reason, that leaves you with the binary choice between:
At any rate, it seems you can't eat your proverbial cake and have it too, when it comes to the crazy world of power tools.
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About The Author
Nachiket Mhatre (25 Articles Published)
Nachiket has covered diverse technology beats ranging from video games and PC hardware to smartphones and DIY over a career spanning 15 years. Some say that his DIY articles serve as an excuse to pass off his 3D printer, custom keyboard, and RC addiction as “business expenses” to the wife.
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