If you’re in the market for a new torque wrench, ratchet kit, or mechanic’s tool set, you’ve got a few decisions to make. Performance, durability, and price are all important factors to consider, but all too often, the latter tends to take precedence. While we’re all tempted to save a few bucks occasionally, this thrifty approach isn’t always the best strategy. Your local discount hardware store can be a great resource when it comes to sourcing supplies or specialty tools that you might only need for a one-off project, but when quality counts, it’s time to reach for a trusted brand.
There are really two tiers when it comes to power tool brands: those geared at the DIY crowd and hobbyists and the professional-grade tools used by contractors, tradespeople, mechanics, and the like. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a nice, affordable drill, saw, or grinder from brands like Ryobi, Black & Decker, and Craftsman, but when it comes time for serious commercial work, three brands rise to the top. Milwaukee, Makita, and DeWalt are the names to beat when it comes to today’s power tool industry, but which is the best?
As a trailblazer in the world of battery-powered tools, Makita has its fair share of die-hards who prize the Japanese brand’s reputation for quality construction. DeWalt takes the cake when it comes to durability, which is unsurprising when you consider the brand’s American-made ethos. So, what’s Milwaukee’s niche? Cordless power tools. Makita might be known as a pioneer in the category, but Milwaukee has perfected the formula, rising through the ranks to become one of the industry’s most trusted names in portable power.
Today, Milwaukee has one of the most extensive lineups of cordless power tools on offer, but the brand hasn’t always been the household name it is today. So, how did Milwaukee come to dominate the cordless power tool segment, and what products should you keep an eye out for when building out your at-home mechanic’s shop? We’ll get into all that and learn how Milwaukee backs up its “Nothing But Heavy Duty” slogan as we take a closer look at the Wisconsin-based brand.
Early Automotive Success
While Milwaukee’s isn’t always the first name shoppers think of when they’re on the hunt for automotive tools, the brand has actually had a strong connection to the auto industry that stretches back to its earliest days. Electric Tool Corporation was formed in 1924, but it was a 1918 meeting with Henry Ford that sparked the lightning bolt brand’s growth. Following World War I, Ford was seeking a compact, lightweight 1/4-inch drill for his manufacturing operations. There was certainly no shortage of inventors and engineers eager to answer the call, but Ford was ultimately won over by the design of one A.H. Petersen.
The result was the Hole-Shooter drill, which, at five lbs, weighed significantly less than other contemporary offerings. Driven by a Westinghouse electric motor, the Hole-Shooter managed to strike a tricky balance that made it a favorite amongst Ford employees: the drill was light enough to operate with one hand but also packed enough power for even the most heavy-duty applications.
Landing a coveted contract with Ford is a strong start for any fledgling company, and that was especially true in the 1920s when more than half the vehicles on US roads bore the automaker’s name. Petersen teamed up with business partner Albert F. Siebert in 1922 to form A.H. Petersen Company, though the company’s namesake would depart the business in 1923 following a fire that destroyed its manufacturing facility. Siebert would purchase the company’s undamaged assets at auction and, in 1924, reestablish the business as the Milwaukee Electric Tool Corporation.
Siebert would continue to market the lightweight Hole-Shooter, but it was actually a side hustle in tool repair that kept the company afloat through the late 1920s. This niche created a unique opportunity for the young company. As Milwaukee gained experience diagnosing and repairing other brand’s tools, it gained valuable insight into the shortcomings of other power tools on the market.
The repair business allowed Milwaukee to avoid some of the common pitfalls experienced by other manufacturers while also identifying potential gaps in the power tool market. This experience led the company to build an even more powerful and long-lasting version of the Hole-Shooter, which quickly became the go-to choice for those in the automotive and metalworking sectors.
But Milwaukee wasn’t done perfecting the Hole-Shooter just yet. In a move that speaks to the brand’s ongoing commitment to quality and durable, heavy-duty construction, Milwaukee obtained an equipment specification rating for the drill from the US government in 1930. The company used this document to build all its drills, grinders, electric hammers, sanders, and polishers to the same standards used by the US Navy, creating some of the most durable products on the market in the process. Other early innovations would include a lightweight 3/4-inch hammer-drill that could be converted into a standard 3/4-inch drill, a high-performance sander/grinder that weighed just 15 lbs, and the world’s first 1/2-inch right-angle drill for making holes in hard-to-reach places.
The Introduction of the Sawzall
Other innovations aside, it was the Hole-Shooter that would continue to carry Milwaukee through its first two decades. The decision to build its tools to US government standards would continue to pay off with the dawn of World War II as Milwaukee landed a contract with the military to supply Hole-Shooters for the construction of boats, planes, and other vital military vehicles.
Milwaukee’s close relationship with the US government paid dividends for the up-and-coming brand. Not only did it allow Milwaukee to benefit from the sale of Hole-Shooter drills, but it also helped to establish strong brand recognition and loyalty amongst those service members who used Milwaukee products during their deployment. When these troops returned home and started making a life for themselves in post-war America, they increasingly turned to Milwaukee tools for all their industrial, commercial, and home improvement needs.
While the success of the Hole-Shooter certainly played a role in Milwaukee’s success, it was a later invention that would become the brand’s marquee product. The company identified a hole in the market and, in 1951, introduced the Sawzall reciprocating saw. Few products attain the status of a generic trademark, but that’s just what Milwaukee accomplished with the Sawzall. Much like aspirin, escalator, dumpster, and trampoline, which all morphed from a brand name to a generic term for a specific product, “Sawzall” has basically become shorthand for a portable hacksaw with a reciprocating mechanism.
With no competing products on the market, the Sawzall was an instant success, and Milwaukee quickly rolled out a full line of compatible blades for slicing through any number of materials. The company’s next hit would come in the 1970s when it designed the Hole Hawg, a first-of-its-kind drill for creating studs and joists, but Milwaukee wasn’t done yet. A new-and-improved Magnum Hole-Shooter would provide buyers with an innovative 1/2-inch professional pistol drill, and a 4-1/2-inch angle grinder would become the first such tool from an American manufacturer.
Milwaukee would improve upon the Sawzall in 1991 with the debut of the Super Sawzall, which added a built-in counterbalance and gear-protecting clutch to the bestselling saw. The rest of the 90s would see Milwaukee roll out a new line of miter saws, but it was the introduction of a line of powerful, work-ready 18-volt cordless tools that would set the stage for Milwaukee’s ongoing success. Portability has been an important part of the Milwaukee formula since the introduction of the original Hole-Shooter and with the advent of its 18-volt battery and charger technology, Milwaukee’s power tools were now more portable than ever.
Refocusing the Brand
While Milwaukee had earned a reputation for innovation and durability, the company started to spread itself a little thin around the early 2000s. Branching out into everything from hand tools and workwear to storage, lighting, and more, the brand began to lose focus. Milwaukee will be the first to admit that it had strayed from its core business, as evidenced by the company’s own website. “We were dabbling in many different areas, trying to be a brand for everyone, [so] we decided to go back to our roots and better focus on solving problems for those in the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) trades.”
The company was acquired by China-based Techtronic Industries Co. in 2005, giving Milwaukee the resources and leadership it needed to get back to doing what it did best. For many American-born brands, the Chinese affiliation can signal the beginning of the end in terms of quality and consistency, but that’s not the case with Milwaukee. Eager to maintain the company’s stellar reputation amongst trade pros, Techtronic has not allowed Milwaukee to slip in terms of quality. On the contrary, the Hong Kong-based conglomerate’s influence has been a major boon to Milwaukee, allowing it to perfect existing products while still focusing on the types of cutting-edge innovations that have made the company such a success for the last 100 years.
Take Milwaukee’s Ice Hardened strengthening technology, for example. One of the first projects to be tackled under Techtronic leadership is the novel hardening process using cryogenic technology to create some of the most durable saws and blades on the market. Milwaukee’s Ice Hardened process exposes these blades to sub-zero, resulting in rugged tools that can last up to 50 percent longer than the competition.
Recent innovations have been largely focused on improving Milwaukee’s battery technology. This effort started in earnest in 2008 when the company introduced its M18 lithium-ion batteries to the market. Prioritizing power, runtime, and charging speed, these batteries made Milwaukee’s portable power tools a better option than ever before. With a team of dedicated engineers and researchers on staff, Milwaukee immediately set out to improve the battery even further with a specific focus on developing the battery pack construction, the electronics within the battery pack, and the lithium-ion cells themselves.
The result was Milwaukee’s REDLITHIUM batteries, which are made to withstand even the harshest conditions one might experience on the job site. Battery performance tends to fall off a cliff when the thermometer drops, but REDLITHIUM batteries are built of sterner stuff and can operate in temperatures as low as -20°C. In high-temperature areas, REDLITHIUM is just as effective, operating 20 percent cooler than typical lithium-ion batteries with no power fade.
The latest addition to Milwaukee’s lineup is the company’s MX FUEL batteries. Operating at 72 volts, these batteries are much more powerful — yet not much larger — than Milwaukee’s traditional batteries. This level of power allows the MX FUEL batteries to drive some of the largest, most energy-sucking tools at the job site, from demolition hammers and tower lights to cut-off saws and more.
As far as automotive tools are concerned, Milwaukee has a wide range of products that should make your next repair, maintenance, or restoration project easier than ever. The star of the show would probably have to be the brand’s M18 Fuel 1/2-inch high torque impact wrench and 3/8-inch mid-torque impact wrench combo kit. Powered by brushless motors, this dynamic duo provides up to 1,100 lb-ft of torque, or as much as 1,500 ft-lbs when paired with an M18 REDLITHIUM XC5.0 battery.
Milwaukee’s Hole Dozer hole saws are great for punching through metal and use the company’s Ice Hardened process to boot. In addition to crowd favorites like the Sawzall, ratcheting wrench set, and 110-piece mechanic’s tool set, Milwaukee also offers some unique car-focused products such as an underhood light, three-ton chain hoist, low-speed tire buffer kit and a paint and detailing color match light. Designed with a built-in color rendering index, the light can mimic five different color temperatures to ensure drivers get the perfect paint match every time.
Over a Century of Building Some of the Best Tools On the Market
Milwaukee’s line of tools is widely regarded as one of the most durable products on the market, which is an important consideration for those who prioritize quality and consistent performance over time. They’re certainly not the cheapest option, but Milwuakee’s long-standing reputation for quality and longevity means that they might actually be more affordable than some entry-level options in the long run. For lighter, non-industrial, or non-commercial applications, a garden variety power tool might work just fine, but if you ask a construction, trade, or automotive professional for their take, Milwaukee is a name that’s sure to come up time and time again.
From the early Hole-Shooter, which revolutionized the drill segment with its powerful, lightweight design, to the household name that is the Sawzall and recent innovations like the REDLITHIUM battery platform and MX FUEL line, Milwaukee’s resume speaks for itself. If you’re searching for a rugged power tool that embodies the “Nothing But Heavy Duty” spirit, keep your eyes peeled for that red Milwaukee lightning bolt logo the next time you’re at your local home improvement store.