One of the most useful tools in the DIYer’s and tradesman’s toolbox is the oscillating multi-tool or multi-cutter. The oscillating multi-tool is a relatively new type of power tool that was originally developed by the Fein corporation under a patent which expired in 2008. Since then, other power tool companies have also entered the market with their own versions of the oscillating multi-cutter. As its name suggests, the multi-tool is not a tool that is specialised for a single task but can be used in a range of different building jobs making it an extremely useful tool, so much so that it makes one wonder how we ever did without one in the past! In this review of oscillating multi-tools, we first take a look at the different uses of this multi-purpose power tool before examining what technical aspects of the multi-cutters are best to look for when buying one. We then end the review with a look at some of the popular oscillating multi-tool options that are available in the UK.
Uses of an oscillating multi-tool
So what can you use an oscillating multi-tool for? With the right blade or accessory, a multi-tool can be used for range of different tasks including, but not limited to, cutting straight lines in a variety of different materials, scraping off adhesives, paint and other coatings, detail sanding, levelling of masonry surfaces and more. More specifically, the oscillating multi-tool has been found to be particularly effective at the following tasks:
- removing grout around tiles.
- the removal of residual tile adhesive after broken tiles have been removed thereby levelling the surface in preparation for new tiles to be laid.
- trimming work where only a sliver of material needs removing, for instance sizing down workpieces that were initially cut slightly longer than anticipated.
- the trimming down of protruding structures so that they are level with the surface from which they protrude.
- the cutting of rectangular shapes, such as plasterboard openings to install electrical sockets and light switches or the cutouts for the installation of locks and other door furniture.
- detail sanding (although a specialised detail sanding power tool is recommended instead if a lot of detail sanding needs to be done).
- the scraping away of silicone sealant around baths and kitchen counters.
- the removal of glue and other adhesives from flat surfaces.
- the cutting of architrave and skirting boards especially when fitting flooring.
Clearly, the oscillating multi-tool is a very useful tool in a variety of different situations and is rapidly becoming one of the default tools that DIYers and tradesmen often have in their tool kits not unlike the humble power drill.
What to look for in an oscillating multi-tool
Of course, as with other popular power tools, there is a plethora of oscillating multi-tool brands to choose from, each with their own technical specifications and features, making the task of choosing the best oscillating multi-tool for one’s toolbox somewhat of a challenge. So what should one be looking for when buying an oscillating multi-tool? In today’s crop of multi-cutters, the following features are the key ones to pay attention to:
Corded vs Cordless: First and foremost, there is the question of what sort of power system should the power tool be beholden to. In the case of the multi-tool, it can be powered by either mains electricity or by a battery-powered system, so which is the better way to go? This is a question that comes up a lot for almost all power tools these days and very much depends on a number of different factors including personal preference, how the tool will be primarily used, access to a universal power tool battery charging system, and affordability. For more detailed analysis of which power system is likely to be the right one for you, see our general power tool page where we address the different power system types that power tools are designed for. In general, mains-powered tools are higher power, unlimited in their length of time of use, free from having to deal with the hassle of keeping batteries charged, and are cheaper overall, so from a personal point of view, we tend to prefer the corded variety.
Motor Power: It probably goes without saying that the greater the power of the electric motor, the greater the capabilities of the multi-tool in doing its various cutting, sanding or other tasks. Once again, mains-powered tools are generally higher-power than their battery-powered equivalents.
Blade/Accessory Interface System: In general, there are two types of accessory interface mechanisms in today’s crop of multi-cutters. These include the hex key-based mechanism where a separate hex key (Allen wrench) is required to unscrew the retaining bolt holding the accessory or blade, and a tool-free design which is usually facilitated by an integral lever on the multi-tool itself. Obviously, the preferred option is the tool-free mechanism as it makes the changing of the multi-tool blade or accessory a quick and painless process. Unfortunately, however, tool-free designs of oscillating multi-tool are more often found on the brand-named power tools such as those from Fein or DeWalt which tend to be more expensive than their less well-known counterparts.
Oscillations Per Minute (OPM) and Variable Speed: Being able to vary the speed of oscillation makes the multi-tool yet more versatile as some work, such as more delicate detail or profile sanding, requires slower oscillation speeds to give better control to the operator and to get better end results. Cutting jobs on the other hand generally perform better when the oscillation speed is higher.
Angle of Oscillation: This refers to the degree to which the blade or accessory travels relative to a fixed point during an oscillation cycle. Here, the higher the angle, the faster the actual cutting or sanding that the multi-tool can perform.
Weight: Perhaps an obvious one! In general, one wants the lightest possible oscillating multi-tool that fits one’s requirements as it makes using it less tiring on the arms especially when holding it for long periods. Weight is particularly important, when using the multi-tool above shoulder-height or within confined spaces.
Case: As with most power tools, the multi-cutter is a relatively large and heavy-weight affair, making the transporting of it a more delicate process. As a consequence, a carry case is always recommended for any oscillating multi-tool to protect it from damage during transportation and when not in use. A well-designed case will also have ample space to accommodate some of the many different blades and accessories that the multi-tool can use.
Dust Extraction Adapter: Since one of the functions of the oscillating multi-tool is the sanding or levelling of surfaces, which is often a messy business due to the amount of dust released into the immediate environment, many oscillating multi-tools have the ability to attach a vacuum system to them to help remove some of the unwanted debris. This usually takes the form of a long external adaptor that attaches to outside of the multi-tool, often interfacing directly with the multi-tool sanding accessory itself. This is yet another important aspect of a multi-tool to watch out for to ensure that it is part of the package or, at the very least, an optional accessory, as it can be highly effective if lots of dust and debris are expected.
Blade / Accessory Compatibility: The attachment mechanism for the blade or accessory on the oscillating multi-tool can be different for different companies (see below) which can mean that accessories from one multi-tool manufacturer will not fit a multi-tool produced by another company. Therefore, it would seem that this would be a important criteria on which to base one’s multi-tool choice, however, some of today’s multi-tool manufacturers and after-market accessory manufacturers have managed to create interface designs that allow their accessories to fit a wide range of brands. In addition, for any oscillating multi-tools that are still incompatible with these accessories, there is usually an adapter available that will make them fit. As a consequence, making sure that your multi-tool of choice is compatible with accessories and blades that are readily available and which do not lock one into a particular tool manufacturer and their usually more expensive branded accessories no longer holds as much importance as it once did. For more detailed information on the types of accessory attachment interfaces, as well as the different types of multi-tool accessories that available, see later sections on this page.
Popular oscillating multi-tools in the UK
Oscillating multi-tool interface types
Multi-tool blades and accessories can come with different attachment interface formats specialised for different brands of multi-tool. The common ones are shown below:
Oscillating Tool Interface System (OIS):
- an early attachment interface design used by Bosch pre-Starlock.
- it is still used by some companies eg. Makita.
- tends to be found on older multi-tools, blades, and accessories, but is no longer used in new tools from Bosch.
- Starlock blades (see below) are backwards-compatible and can be used with machines that have the OIS.
- Starlock was created through a collaboration between Bosch and Fein.
- The Starlock interface on Bosch-branded accessories looks a little different and cannot be angled at the 45 degree positions on the multi-tool unlike the Fein-based Starlock version. However, other than that they are essentially the same.
- Starlock-based accessories will fit most oscillating multi-tools with the exception of DeWalt machines which require an adaptor.
- Starlock blades are backwards-compatible with OIS (see above).
- Starlock also has two other formats, Starlock Plus and Starlock Max, which are designed for increasingly heavy-duty multi-cutters. Starlock Plus are natively compatible with Fein multi-tools and some Bosch machines, while Starlock Max accessories are natively compatible only with Starlock Max-specific tools. However, once again, adaptors are available that increases the compatibility of the interfaces with other brands of multi-tool.
DeWalt multi-tool accessories tend to require an adaptor if they are to be used on other brands of multi-cutters which is sometimes included with the multi-tool accessories themselves.
In addition, after-market accessory manufacturers usually provide ‘universal’ fitment interfaces that will fit many (but not all!) multi-tool brands.
Blade and accessory types
There are an assortment of different types of oscillating multi-tool blades and accessories, each best used for a specific type of job. Some of the more common ones are described below:
High-Strength Steel (HSS) Blade: this is primarily used to cut wood, however it is more susceptible to being damaged if it hits metal (eg. hidden nails).
Bi-Metal Blade: this multi-tool blade is used for wood and metal cutting. This is particularly useful if old wood is being recycled as any hidden nails remaining in the old wood will not damage the blade and will be cut through easily.
Scraper Blade: this is used for removing adhesives and other coatings from a flat surface. It can also be used to remove old silicone sealant from bathroom or kitchen tiles.
Carbide Segment Saw Blade: the edge of this blade can be used for removing grout from in-between tiles. It also can be used to cut through softer masonry such as plaster and porous concrete. This is a more economical version of the Diamond-Coated Saw blade (see next).
Diamond-Coated Segment Saw Blade: the edge of this blade is used for cutting harder masonry such as marble and cement.
Carbide Rasp: this blade is used to remove and level down old tile adhesive and other masonry.
Sanding Pad: This accessory is used for sanding. Sand paper is attached to this pad using hook-and-loop fastening.