A combihammer combined with a dust-extraction bit drills holes cleanly.
A combihammer combined with a dust-extraction bit drills holes cleanly.

When it comes to drilling or demolishing concrete, there seems to be an endless array of specialized tools claiming to be up to the task. However, the sheer number of tools designed to power through concrete can sometimes feel overwhelming.

The next time you’re faced with a concrete-related task, first stop and think about what exactly you need to accomplish. Will you be drilling through it or breaking it entirely? If you’re demolishing it, how big is the job, how accurate do you need to be, and what kind of concrete are you dealing with? If you’re drilling, how big and how many holes are you looking to make? With those questions in mind, here are options to consider:

Choosing the Right Hammer
There are four main types of masonry/concrete hammers that you need to consider before making a purchase: rotary hammer, demolition hammer, combination hammer, and breaker hammer. With each specializing in a different task, it’s important to choose the right hammer for the right job.

A cordless rotary hammer combined with a battery-powered dust collection system.
A cordless rotary hammer combined with a battery-powered dust collection system.

Before we get started, we should clarify one industry habit that will help us decide on the right tools. Many contractors working in the concrete industry refer to any tool that drills into concrete as a hammer drill. However, there is a distinction between a hammer drill and a rotary hammer. The hammer drill is a versatile, high-torque drill that can be used to drill into a variety of materials, such as dense or treated wood, metal, and for small diameter drilling in brick or block. These tools do not have a chiseling function and are meant for light drilling.

Conversely, a rotary hammer is a tool that employs an electro-pneumatic hammer piston to generate high impact energy, which allows it to drill or demolish concrete in all-day applications. Rotary hammers also feature a hammer-only mode for chiseling applications. Many of these tools can be found with SDS-plus and SDS-max bit holding systems. SDS-plus is the right choice for smaller diameter holes and lighter-duty applications; SDS-max is the ideal choice for larger diameter holes and bigger applications. Because of the heavy-duty nature of the job they are being asked to perform, all rotary hammers are designed to hold up under tough jobsite conditions.

This SDS-max rotary hammer is teamed with a dust collection system for drilling cores.
This SDS-max rotary hammer is teamed with a dust collection system for drilling cores.

A brother to the rotary hammer is the combination hammer. If the job requires increased demolition or bigger holes through tougher concrete, the best option is the combination hammer. While these tools typically don’t offer a rotation-only mode, they use larger, harder-hitting electro-pneumatics to generate impact. These tools offer rotary hammer and hammer-only modes and commonly use SDS-max and spline bits.

If the job doesn’t require drilling in concrete, demolition hammers are the right tool for the job. A demolition hammer can’t drill because there is no rotation of the bit, which allows the tool to focus on breaking, chipping, and chiseling concrete. Demo hammers hit hard, but are versatile enough to work on vertical surfaces and come in a variety of sizes. These are ideal for jobs like breaking up concrete or chiseling up old floor tile during a remodel.

Breaker or demolition hammers are the biggest hammers but are too heavy for vertical surfaces.
Bosch Breaker or demolition hammers are the biggest hammers but are too heavy for vertical surfaces.

The biggest hammer of all is the breaker hammer. Need to pack a real punch? The hardest of the hard hitters, breaker hammers are used for breaking up concrete and other demolition tasks. They make quick work of pulling up tile and are great for breaking up slabs of concrete. Due to their mass, though, they’re usually unwieldy when it comes to working on anything other than horizontal surfaces.

Interface Systems
You’ve chosen your tool and understand the different modes it can operate in, so it’s time to choose your bits. Interface systems refers to the type of accessories the tools can accept; concrete tools are available with a number of different interface systems.

The easiest bits to understand are the straight shank. These bits look similar to standard drill bits, with a smooth, cylindrical shaft. While these bits work well in softer materials like wood or steel, they are not recommended for drilling holes larger than ½-inch in concrete. Straight shank hammer drill accessories are not uncommon, but these bits typically can’t stand up to the added torque and impact generated by a more powerful tool. This interface is found on hammer drills.

Pros who need to make larger holes need bits that can withstand more power. In both the SDS-plus and the SDS-max systems, bits are designed to accommodate several detents. This allows tools to apply significantly more torque on bits than is transferred via a straight shank. SDS-max accessories are built for more punishing demo hammer tasks, while SDS-plus accessories are generally used with rotary hammers.

An SDS-max demolition hammer is used on jobs that don't require drilling.
An SDS-max demolition hammer is used on jobs that don't require drilling.

Rotary hammers incorporate both SDS-plus and SDS-max interfaces, depending on capacity (bit diameter). The larger hammers, with dedicated demolition and combination options, employ the more robust SDS-max accessories.

A legacy interface is spline. While capable of handling high amounts of rotational torque, accessories using the spline interface can’t transfer impact as efficiently as SDS-plus or SDS-max accessories. That’s why this interface has seen a steady decline in use.

Lastly, there are hex collar bits. Also known as “hammer steel,” hex collar accessories are big, heavy, and designed to take a beating while working with breaker hammers. These accessories—which include chisels, cutters, spades, points, and drivers—typically can only be mounted in a single direction and are normally held in place by redundant ball detent and retaining collar systems.

Know Your Operation Modes
The difference between drilling through concrete and merely chipping and plowing your way through is a big one. Depending on the task at hand, concrete and masonry drilling tools allow users to select different modes of operation.

Need to make a quick hole through concrete and don’t care about it looking rough around the edges? Choose the rotary hammer mode. This mode is optimal for drilling in concrete because the tool creates an impact that’s transferred through the drill bit to chip away concrete. This debris is then scooped up and removed from the hole by the spiral action of the drill bit’s rotating flutes.

Flip your tool’s setting over to rotation mode when there’s a need to drill an occasional hole in wood or metal. This setting allows your hammer to work as a drill. It also can be used on rotary hammers when nearing completion of a through-hole to minimize or prevent blowout.

Lastly, there’s the hammer-only mode. In heavier tools, this is a secondary option for breaking up concrete rather than drilling through it. In lighter tools, this mode can be pivotal for accelerated chiseling and chipping.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list of the wide array of concrete tools, it should help to address the basics when making your next concrete tool purchase. Keep in mind that according to OSHA, dust collection is also needed in all applications when using these tools in masonry or concrete. The new OSHA standard that goes into effect June 23, 2017, reduces the exposure limit for respirable crystalline silica to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air over an eight-hour period. Dust guards & shrouds, dust extractors, and respirators are available to help reduce the risk of injury and meet compliance.

Mike Iezzi is a Product Manager at Bosch Power Tools in North America. To learn more about Bosch, visit Boschtools.com.