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Choose the Right Saw for Your DIY Projects

Cutting Construction Materials and Wood Using Hand and Power Tools

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DeWalt Track Saw
A DeWalt track saw

This article was updated on 06/18/20.

Choose the correct saw for the job, whether You’re framing a basement, miter cutting baseboard, or hand cutting tight dovetail joints. There’s a tool for any carpentry task, from simple hand saws to track saws.

When you consider a saw for a particular DIY project, chances are you think of your circular saw (generically referred to as a Skil saw, although that is a brand name), or a crosscut hand saw. But the fact of the matter is that there exists a wide range of saws, each developed for a specific kind of job task.

Of course, many of these saws are interchangeable to some extent. While you have to balance how often you will use a saw to how much the purchase will cost you, the right tool for the job is the best bet. For example, in some situations you just have to have a flush-cut saw with a flexible blade such as the one below.

When You Use any Saw, Follow Wood Shop Safety Rules

Recall the basic safety and housekeeping rules you learned in your high school wood shop or metal shop class:

  • Keep jewelry to a minimum and nothing that dangles.
  • Always wear goggles or safety glasses. Side guards are available for prescription glasses.
  • Tie back your hair if it’s long.
  • Don’t wear a tie or loose clothing.
  • Use a dust mask when cutting or sanding wood.
  • If you are going to be working with a lot of wood, consider installing a wood shop dust collector.

Let’s Begin with the Basics: Hand Saws

Long before power saws became so widespread, the most common ones were hand saws. Not that their time is past; in many situations they are the wisest choice. Here’s a few that all woodworkers should have in the wood shop:

  • The Hand Saw: Also called a panel saw, this was the work horse in the early days of carpentry and residential construction. The two basic models are the rip saw (which is used to cut with the grain), and the crosscut saw (used for cutting against the grain). Interestingly, sawyers of yesteryear also used this hand saw as a music instrument; they called it a musical or singing saw.

  • The Hack Saw: This one is used for cutting both metal and plastic PVC pipe, although it actually comes in handy for a lot of other purposes. Most electricians use their hack saws to cut rigid metallic conduit.

  • The Back Saw: Usually used in conjunction with a miter box to cut miters in window casings and door trim. It may also be used for cutting baseboard.

  • The Coping Saw: This one looks a bit like a short hack saw having a very small blade, just about 1/8” from the tip of the teeth to the ridge. It’s very useful for cutting in tight places and cutting curves. It’s also used when cutting and installing baseboard.

  • The Dovetail Saw: Used for hand-cutting dovetail joints. It has a metal cap spine on the back to keep it rigid. For tighter, faster joints, use a dovetail jig with your plunge router.

  • Authentic Japanese flush-cut trim saw. The Japanese are incredible woodworkers with hand tools and there is a vast range of saws for any given application. A flush-cut saw with a flexible blade is indispensable for jobs like undercutting door jambs when installing laminate flooring.

Table Saws

Table saws are just large circular saws (usually 10” blades) mounted to a metal table with some embellishments. They allow you to make very precise cuts on both thin and thick lumber as well as plywood.

These may or might not be big-ticket items depending on size and manufacturer. When you make that purchase, it’s important to do business with a merchant that has a track record of building a client list of loyal woodworkers.

To control your cutting precision, these saws employ both a rip fence and a miter gauge (or crosscut fence). There are three common types of table saws that you are likely to encoounter:

  • The Benchtop Table Saw: This saw is the smallest of all three. It’s been engineered that way to allow portability. This lets building contractors to easily deliver precision cutting to the job site. It’s also ideal for small home shops. When working with large stock, you can use a combination of rollers, table extensions, and outriggers. Very handy.

  • The Contractor Table Saw: The contractor table saw has a bigger table surface and is heavier than the benchtop model so it’s not practical to move around much, unless your particular model is out-fitted with wheels. However, the weight lends it stability. It incorporates a sturdy base.

  • The Cabinet Table Saw: This one is a bit more sophisticated, expensive, and stable than your contractor table saw. Additionally, it’s more powerful, so it requires a 220V dedicated electrical circuit. Most feature an anti-kickback device. Cabinet shops generally use these for production work.

Portable Power Saws

Portable power saws are used for their convenience and special purposes. Here are a few to keep handy:

  • The Compound Miter Saw: The miter saw, also called a chop saw, comes in handy for job site production work because of the precise miter cuts they make. These tasks are likely likely to be installing baseboard, crown molding, and window and door trim.

  • The Circular Saw: The circular saw (Skil saw) has largely replaced your hand saw for residential wood framing. Think of it as a quick and dirty table saw with a handle. If you are going to be using it on a daily basis, you are looking for a real work horse with durability; get a worm-drive model. You'll pay more but it will likely outlive you.

  • The Track Saw: This one is in a class of it’s own. DeWalt, Makita, and Festool seem to be the most popular. But it’s not a new concept; Festool has had one out for many years. The basic drawback is the price. Expensive. But for building contractors, journeyman carpenters, and small remodeling companies, it will pay for itself. What is it? It’s basically a high end circular saw with a rail. This allows you to make accurate cuts on the job site that would otherwise necessitate taking the material back to the shop.

  • The Jigsaw: The jigsaw has a blade that goes up and down rather than in a circular motion. It’s the best choice for cutting arcs or other shapes, which makes it popular with arts and crafts folks. Did the saw get the name from the puzzle or did the puzzle get the name from the saw?

  • The RotoZip or similar tool: Not technically a saw, it offers sawing performance in special circumstances. It’s referred to a rotary tool, and it’s basically a Dremel tool on steroids. As time goes on, more and more bits and accessories are being introduced to the marketplace. This is definitely one to keep on your workbench.

  • The Oscillating Tool: This is more of a recent tool to join the line-up. It’s hand-held and has a small blade that oscillates back and forth. The main advantage that it brings to the table is being able to cut things in close quarters. All the leading manufacturer’s models, the Rockwell SoniCrafter, the Dremel Multi-Max, and the Fein MultiMaster are available with kits that allow them to be used as scrapers, sanders, and grout removers.

I hope you enjoyed this article on choosing the right saw and found it helpful in deciding which options will benefit you the most. If so, please share the link with friends and social media. And if you have some related ideas please share them with our readers in the comment section below. Thanks for visiting!

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About the Webmaster:

Photo of Kelly R. SmithKelly R. Smith was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation and financial and energy trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.

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