What is an Oscillating Tool?

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  • Written By: Matt Cunningham
  • Edited By: Lucy Oppenheimer
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2019
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One of the more recent additions to the power tool aisle in many hardware stores is the oscillating tool. These hand-held devices can cut, sand and grind like a number of other hand-held power tools. Unlike angle grinders, spiral saws or rotary tools, all of which spin their bits and blades at high speed, oscillating tools do their work with a back-and-forth, rather than rotating, motion. As a result, these tools often come with attachments that allow for cutting, grinding and sanding

Several manufacturers produce oscillating tools, but their designs share several basic features. First, the oscillating tool’s handle contains an electric motor. Some oscillating tools contain batteries and are cordless, while other models plug into standard electrical outlets. The motor drives the tool's head in a rapid back-and-forth, or oscillating, motion. More expensive oscillating tools can be adjusted to oscillate at variable speeds, while simpler models have a one speed and just a basic on/off control. The tool's head has a mount that can hold a variety of attachments, ranging from cutting blades to grinders and a nearly endless assortment of sanding tools.


Manufacturers of oscillating tools tend to promote their products on the basis of a few key features. The tools tend to be safer than rotary tools; an oscillating head does not have the directional "kick" of a high-speed rotating bit, so there is less chance of the tool jumping out of the user's hand. Likewise, manufacturers suggest oscillating tool heads are easier to control than rotary tools. This can be especially appealing to woodworkers who need to sand with a high degree of precision. The angular sanding attachments available for most of these tools allow the craftsperson to sand in areas where a slip could ruin an expensive finish. Finally, toolmakers claim the oscillating motion creates less dust than a rotary tool, making an oscillating tool a better choice for work in an area where excessive sawdust or paint dust might be a nuisance.

Choosing the right oscillating hand tool for a job is much like choosing any other hand-held power tool. Oscillating tools come with different-sized motors; a larger motor may allow the user to do more work faster, but may drain a battery faster and could cause the tool to weigh more than a smaller model. Some craftspeople prefer the freedom of cordless tools while others like the dependability and power of corded tools; oscillation tool shoppers have options in both forms. While every oscillating tool manufacturer offers a range of attachments for its tool, it is wise to research exactly which attachments are available for a given tool, to ensure it can do the types of work the user wishes to complete.


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