Circular Saws Guide for New Woodworkers

By the end of this article you’ll know everything you need to know when shopping for a circular saw!

The circular saw is one of the most versatile and useful tools for a any DIY minded person and woodworkers. Specifically, I’m referring to a hand-held circular saw… just to be precise. This is the tool that we’ll look at in depth in this article.

As I mentioned, this is a very handy tool to have. You may hear this called a “Skilsaw” because the Skil brand was the first to widely release a saw like this, but the correct name is circular saw. (Skil makes much more than just hand-held circular saws.)

There are two main designs, and they differ in how the motor is connected to and transfers power to the cutting blade.

Indirect drive saws (Hypoid and Worm-Drive)

Direct drive (sometimes called a sidewinder)

The Indirect Circular Saw:

These come as Worm-Drive and Hypoid saws. Don’t let the “indirect” descriptor here be misleading… these are powerful saws. “Worm” and “Hypoid” are just the terms used to describe the gears used in these. This is a specialized circular saw for heavy duty cutting. It’s generally used in framing, roofing, and carpentry. Usually, these saws are heavier, larger, and provide more torque to help cut through denser woods and handle the tough demands of a work site.

The Direct Drive Circular Saw:

This is a more compact circular saw than the typical worm-drive saw. As the name suggests, the cutting blade is directly attached to the motor. These can be very powerful, but this is also the type of design used in some underpowered and cheaply manufactured saws.

Let’s look at the key differences between these two designs:

– Line of Sight:

Looking at these two categories of saws, one of the first differences is the side of the saw that holds the blade. The hypoid and worm-drive saws have the blade on the left side of the saw, which for many people means improved line of sight to the cutting blade during use.

Most direct-drive hand held circular saws have the blade on the right side. People accustomed to this design may prefer it. Visibility to the cutting blade can still be good with a little change in posture and stance, but this may not feel natural to some. There are direct-drive versions with the blade on the left side of the saw. These are not as common in hardware stores, or even online, but they do have a growing fan base.

– The “waste” side of the saw:

This is the side opposite of the weight of the motor. This means the waste side is the side with the blade, usually. When making a cut with a circular saw, the part of the material (board, panel, lumber) that isn’t needed is called the waste. The waste end of a board is often not supported, and falls to the ground.

– Cutting speed:

How fast a saw cuts depends on several factors. One is the speed at which the blade turns. Another is the sharpness and quality of the blade itself. Yet another factor is power of the saw. A direct-drive saw usually has less torque than the other designs, so it is more likely to slow down during aggressive and demanding cuts. However, some hypoid and worm drive designs may not spin their cutting blades at as high of speeds as a direct drive.

In practical, non-construction uses, the differences in cutting speeds don’t really matter much. The quality of the blade, and using the correct blade for the material being cut, is a much bigger factor for cutting speed and cutting quality. With this being said, there are differences among all styles, and within the same designs of circular saws, that make a difference. The overall quality of a saw is always a factor.

Circular Saw Features to Know About:

– Power & Amps:

Most circular saws will advertise their power in amps. The most common rating is 15 amps. Some are rated at 14, amps, 13 amps, 12, amps, 10 amps, and lower. However, more isn’t always better. The amount of power the motor of the saw uses doesn’t always translate to more power at the actual cutting blade. The design of the motor’s inner-workings plays a role. Also, there are times when having a saw that pulls 15 amps may not be desirable. If you’re using a long extension cord and/or a smaller power generator, a saw that pulls 10 amps might be a better choice.

– Oh, and what about cordless circular saws?

The size and power of the battery is the thing to consider for these. You’ll see these rated in volts, with 18 volt and 20 volt saws (saws designed to work with 20 volt batteries) being very common in budget and mid-level saws. The volt rating is something that can be used as part of comparing different saws, but shouldn’t be the only aspect considered. Keep in mind that the convenience of a cordless saw can mean a compromise on cutting power.

– Weight:

There’s so much variety in circular saw designs and engineering that no category of hand held circular saw can claim to be the heaviest or lightest. While generally speaking, direct drive circular saws are lighter than hypoid and worm drive saws, there are certainly direct-drive saws that are heavier. Most budget saws will use a somewhat heavier formed steel base plate/shoe and blade guards. Lighter saws use cast aluminum or magnesium alloys for their base plate and blade guards. The weight of motors can vary based on design. Lighter saws are generally preferred due to less user fatigue, but there times with a little extra weight is useful.

– Light and Laser guide:

These have the potential to be useful, but are often found on budget circular saws and may not be accurate. If the laser can be adjusted, it may be made more accurate. What many people find more useful than a laser cutting guide is an on board light.

– Depth and Cutting Angle Adjustment:

Some saws can cut thicker materials than others. Also, some can cut at greater angles than others. Among circular saws that use the most common sized blades (7 1/4″), the depth of cut limit doesn’t vary greatly. However, even an additional 1/8″ cutting depth can make a big difference in some applications.

Cutting angle quality depends on the design of the angle adjustment mechanism of the saw. Rivet spots and mechanism components must be well manufactured and of sufficient strength to maximize both accuracy and ease of adjustment.

Some saws use smaller blades that have a more shallow depth of cut. This is often true in cordless saws marketed to the average DIY’er or homeowner. Cordless saw can be found that use blade sizes: 3 3/8″, 5 1/2″, 5 3/8″, 6 1/2″, 7 1/2″, and a few other less common sizes. Bigger blades usually mean greater cutting depth. There are corded circular saws with 10″ blades that can be used in construction and woodworking. These are usually worm-drive saws because the larger blades need the extra cutting power that a worm-drive or hypoid saw can provide.

– Anti-Snag Lower Blade Guard:

All common hand held circular saws will have a lower blade guard that moves during cuts, but some may snag on the edge of materials being cut. An anti-snag lower guard is becoming the standard, but some saws may still have trouble with snagging during beveled cuts. A lower guard that snags on the edge of a board can be dangerous. It can increase the chance of damage to the wood or blade, but most importantly, it can lead to serious injuries for people just learning to use a circular saw.

– Motor Brake:

This is exactly what it sounds like. Once you release the power trigger, a brake engages that stops the motor from turning in about 2 seconds. It increases the safety of a saw, though all circular saws have a lower guard that also helps protect a person and work surfaces from the spinning blade when the saw is not actually being used to make cuts. One additional advantage of a motor brake, though, is that it can allow you to make repetitive cuts quickly by reducing the time you wait for the blade to stop spinning from previous cuts.

– Blower:

A built-in blower is a nice feature. It allows a user to keep the line of cut clear by blowing sawdust out of the way during cutting. The blower can also be used when not actually making cuts by simply squeezing the trigger and holding the saw toward an area covered in saw dust.

Believe it or not, there is even more variety among circular saws than what I’ve already presented above. For example; there are small corded saws that use smaller blades, such as the Rockwell compact circular saw with a 4 1/2″ blade, and the Rockwell VersaCut with a 3 3/8″ blade. These saws are good for smaller jobs and cutting sheet goods, such as OSB, plywood, MDF, or panels. Their depth of cut isn’t anything to brag about, but the smaller blades are also thinner, meaning less material is wasted during cuts.

Alright, so what’s the best circular saw for you?

A 7 ΒΌ inch corded direct-drive saw with solid depth and angle adjustments and an aluminum base plate/shoe is a very good option for the beginning woodworker. This would be a mid level circular saw.

A beginning woodworker may rely on a circular saw for a wide variety of cuts. For this reason, if you’re shopping for one, I’d encourage you to stick with a reputable brand that offers the key features that will be most helpful for you within your desired price range. A built-in LED light, a blower, and a brake are features worth considering.

Do you feel like an expert in circular saws now? You certainly know more than most, and you now know enough to make a solid decision when/if you shop for one.

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