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The Many Uses for Oscillating Tools

6/12/23

An oscillating multi-tool is a versatile piece of equipment designed to reach into tight spots. With the right attachments, it can cut, sand and polish areas that would be impossible to reach with a traditional rotary tool. 

Instead of turning a rotating bit or blade, an oscillating tool moves an attached blade, sander or scraper back and forth rapidly. The tool head traces a small arc of about 3 degrees, or 1/100th of a full rotation. At top speed, an oscillating tool can move at about 20,000 oscillations per minute, generating high speeds along the cutting or sanding face. 

Since an oscillating tool doesn’t rotate, it can use flat, pointed or hooked blades, sanders and scrapers. These narrow tool attachments can reach into crevices and corners that a rotary saw or an orbital sander cannot.   

The multi-tool’s blade attachment is slightly offset from the tool’s body, which allows the blade or scraper to be pressed flush directly against a wall or floor. With no guard on the opposite side of the attachment, the tool is able to make truly flush cuts. The tool can reach behind trim work or beneath door jambs without cutting into the drywall or flooring beneath. 

Oscillating tools can be battery powered or plugged in. If you’re going to be using the tool for a big job in one spot, like grinding grout from a tile floor, a plug-in model can run several hours without needing to recharge. A battery-powered model is more convenient if you only need it to clean up a few detailed cuts on a larger job.   

Useful Oscillating Tool Applications   

Cutting: An oscillating tool’s cutting action is similar to a small circular saw. But in the place of a large-diameter round blade, an oscillating tool can be fitted with a narrow, toothed wedge that saws back and forth. A narrow blade allows you to make cuts that would be impossible with a larger circular saw, such as: 

  • Plunge Cuts: An oscillating tool can easily cut deep, narrow notches in wood and drywall. This is especially useful for jobs like installing new electrical outlets or light switches.   
  • Undercuts: Since the oscillating blade is offset from the tool’s body, it can be placed flush against the floor. This allows easy undercutting of a room’s baseboard and doorframes when installing new flooring. 
  • Flush Cuts: The offset blade also makes it possible to cut off protruding nails, bolts or pipes flush with a wall or floor. 

Some flexible materials like carpet and vinyl flooring are more easily cut with a hooked (rather than toothed) blade. A hooked blade would be impossible to use on a circular saw, but the oscillating tool’s back-and-forth motion can keep the hook in contact with the material you’re cutting.

Sanding and Polishing: An oscillating tool with a sanding attachment can reach into crevices that an orbital or belt sander can’t. Since the oscillating tool doesn’t rotate, it can be mounted with a tapered sanding attachment whose pointed tip will fit into grooves and tight corners. The oscillating tool is especially useful for refinishing furniture or trim work with embellishments like scrollwork. 

Oscillating tools can also be fitted with polishing attachments that use a soft cloth to clean and shine surfaces. Many polishing attachments also have a tapered tip to reach into tight spaces.

Grout Removal: The oscillating tool’s precision and agility makes it well suited to removing grout from between tiles. Grout removal blades come in a variety of shapes, but all are suited to reaching into the spaces between tiles and grinding out old grout. 

Scraping: The oscillating tool’s back-and-forth motion makes for a powerful scraper. Since the attachment can be pressed flush against the material you’re scraping, the tool can apply considerable force to the old paint without gouging the wood underneath.  

Scraper attachments can be rigid or flexible, depending on the material you’re removing, and the scraping edge can be flat, pointed, or rounded to reach into crevices. An oscillating tool is especially useful for removing dried adhesives and caulking, which can be difficult to break free by hand. 

Sealant Removal: Removing caulk, adhesives, and spray foam from crevices is a cinch with an oscillating tool fitted with a hooked sealant removal blade. The sharpened hook can reach deep into the gap around an old window or door frame and scrape out dried caulking. Since the attachment is offset from the oscillating tool’s body, a hooked scraping tip can reach beneath the lip of an old sink, removing the silicone sealant holding it to the countertop. 

An oscillating multi-tool can take on jobs that would be impossible with traditional power saws and sanders. You'll reach for it time and again to knock out the tricky details. For more tips and uses for tools and equipment, visit the Grainger KnowHow.

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The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.