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Circular saws

Circular saw buying guide

Last updated: June 2013
Getting started

Getting started

Consider the kind of work you'll be doing. Even the wimpiest saw may suffice for building the occasional birdhouse, but more ambitious construction projects require more power.

Plug-in or battery

A cordless saw leaves you unfettered by a power cord. Some of the latest perform far better than earlier models--at least until the battery runs down. But some are far less powerful and cut far more slowly. A weak saw can bog down on tough jobs such as thick hardwood. And a slow-cutting saw is frustrating when you have lots of wood to cut. Speed also affects safety. You're more likely to push a slow saw, dulling the blade quickly and overheating the motor, or making the saw jam or kick back.

That's why we think most serious do-it-yourselfers would be happier with a corded saw or even both corded and cordless versions. Expect to pay anywhere from about $100 to $150 for the best homeowner models.

Try before you buy

Look for design points that make a saw easy to live with. These include good balance, a comfortable handle, a clearly visible blade and cutting guide, easy blade adjustment for depth and angle, and a handy on/off switch. Quality of construction can be harder to evaluate at the store, but it contributes to long, trouble-free performance. Look for a saw with durable roller or ball bearings, motor brushes that are accessible for servicing or replacement, and heavy-duty hardware.

Safety counts

All the saws are loud enough when cutting to warrant hearing protection. And all kick up a lot of chips and dust, so wear safety glasses or goggles. Also, a circular saw blade can't tell wood from fingers.

Types

There's no need to spend a lot of money on a circular saw for occasional light cutting. But you'll need a saw with plenty of power for heavy use or for cutting hard, thick wood. Here are the types of circular saws to consider.

Corded circular saws


These are best choice for most people. Their electric motors range from 10 to 15 amps--typically, the more amps, the better. Most are designed with the motor perpendicular to the blade. Those we tested were as much as seven times as powerful and speedy as cordless models.

High-torque circular saws


Also known as worm-drive or sidewinder saws, these corded models are popular with professional carpenters. These heavy-duty models use a gear drive to mount their motor parallel to the blade, making them longer and narrower. These saws tend to produce more twisting power, or torque, so the blade is less likely to bind in dense or thick wood. Indeed, you can feel the high-torque motor jump to life as soon as you press the on/off switch. But they're heavy and pricey, and their reduced blade speed makes sawing slower.

Battery-powered circular saws


Cordless models typically range from 18 to 36 volts and are the only option where electric outlets aren't available. They're lighter and smaller than corded models, making them handy in confined areas. But while fine for occasional light work, they aren't for tough jobs. They usually have a smaller blade. And the harder they work, the faster they discharge; those we tested ran only 5 to 15 minutes on a full charge when we hooked them up to a dynamometer. Battery-powered models are also relatively expensive.

Features


The features that count most make a saw safer and easier to use. Here are the circular saw features to look for.

Carbide-tipped blade

Most saws now come with a carbide-tipped blade, which cuts faster and lasts longer than a plain steel blade. Fortunately, you can replace steel blades with carbide-tipped versions. Be sure to match the number of teeth to the material you cut: A blade with two dozen large teeth cuts quickly, but it can splinter the wood, while one with 40 or more fine teeth gives a slower but cleaner cut. The thinner the blade--referred to as its kerf--the faster the cut and the less wasted wood.

Blade brake

This feature stops the blade quickly when you release the trigger, providing an extra margin of safety.

Visible blade

For right-handed users, a blade mounted to the left of the motor helps you to see the blade and your cutting mark without leaning over the saw. (Lefties may want to look for a saw with the opposite configuration.) A notch in the upper blade guard also helps you to see the blade; a wide notch is less likely to clog with sawdust.

Rugged base plate

A thick reinforced-steel or composite base is better than one made of thin, stamped steel.

Long power cord

A 9- or 10-foot cord may make an extension cord unnecessary. Even if you need an extension cord, the extra length of the saw cord helps keep the cord junction away from your work.

Easy blade changing

On some models, pressing a spindle lock button keeps the blade from turning, making it easier to change the blade. Without a blade lock, you have to hold the blade with a piece of wood or a gloved hand. Some models let you change blades without a wrench.

Safety interlock

The safety interlock prevents accidental start-ups by requiring you to press a second switch to turn on the motor. Most corded saws and some cordless models have this interlock.

Laser guide

Some corded and cordless saws project a laser line to highlight where you want to cut. Though manufacturers tout this feature, it's only marginally useful. You still have to draw a line and keep a steady hand. And lasers are useless outdoors in bright sunlight.

Safety tips

Circular saws are a great tool for all kinds of home projects. But when you don't use one properly, this workshop essential can be dangerous. Circular saws accounted for more than 14,000 serious injuries in 2007, according to the U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Use these commonsense tips to make sure you use your circular saw safely:

Follow the basics

Always use safety goggles and hearing protection, and don't wear loose clothes and jewelry. Depending on what you're cutting, you may also need a respirator or dust mask. And, remember, a circular saw is not a substitute for a chain saw, and as with any saw, you need to install the proper blade for your specific cutting task.

Use the right blade

The general rule is to install a ripping blade for cutting with the wood grain and a crosscut blade for cutting against the grain in dimensional lumber. Additional wood-cutting-blade designs address unique tasks like clean cuts in finish trim or simply cutting plywood. There are also specialized blades to cut materials like concrete, metal, and tile. The next time you need to shop for a replacement blade, note the diameter of your current blade and its arbor shape. If you're unsure which blade to get for a particular job, ask for help at the store or check the manufacturer's Web site.

Whichever blade you buy, keep it clean and sharp. And the blade should be flat with no bent or broken teeth. A dull blade and bent teeth are potential causes of kickback, a jerking of the saw from your grip that can result when the material you're cutting binds the blade. Kickback can also send the wood flying towards you.

Adjust the saw

Whatever you're cutting, adjust the saw beforehand so that no more than about the height of a saw tooth protrudes beneath about 1/8 of an inch. Use only as much blade you need to clear the material being cut, reducing the likelihood of kickback. Should you need to hold back the guard to begin a cut, keep yourself balanced, hold the guard open by hand (never secure it open), and release it as soon as you're past the point at which the guard would have interfered.

Cut it straight

A cut can easily go awry if you're trying to compensate for going off the cutting mark. Clamp down a straightedge like an aluminum carpenter's level and leave enough offset for the kerf of the blade--its thickness counting the extra clearance the teeth will need.

Be careful with the power

Keep the power cord away from the path of the saw. Any extension cord you use in should be rated for the amperage of the saw. And if you're working in your garage, outdoors, in a damp or wet place, or near any source of moisture, plug the saw into a GFCI-protected receptacle.

Support what you cut

Never cut anything that isn't supported beneath. Better still, having two supports on either side of the blade's path--more if the lumber is long and thin, such as 2x4s or molding--helps ensure that the wood won't pinch the blade in the middle of a cut and cause kickback. Clamp down anything that might shift in the middle of a cut. Not having both hands on the saw is taking unnecessary risks.

Don't force a cut

Should the blade begin to bind or slow down, don't force it even if you're near the end. (You might hear a screech of warning.) Stop cutting at once, but wait until the blade stops spinning to pull the saw away. Adjust the material you're cutting or its supports to relieve the imbalance, and try again.

Be patient

Wait for the blade to stop spinning completely before you set down the saw.

   

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