What kind of saw should I shop for?

girlndocsMay 7, 2010

I'd like to not have the guys at Lowes do most of my cutting anymore. This would be my first power saw (apart from an electric chainsaw I've used once or twice).

I want mainly to do some simple furniture building, bookshelves and the like. Maybe some angled cutting but not much. Not much heavier stock than a 2x4, not much bigger stock than 4x4 plywood.

Right now I have space and money for exactly one saw. I don't have a dedicated workshop and will have to put this thing away in my detached garage between jobs; I don't have space for a big workbench.

Table saw with stand? Compound miter? Good old fashioned circular? I'd like to have them all, but it's just not possible.


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It really depends upon what you want to do with it. Over the years, I've graduated through them all from hand saw, circular saw, jig saw, small table saw, Shopsmith, band saw to Unisaw.

Table saw:
- Excels at ripping
- Excels at joinery (rabbets, dados, grooves, bevels, tenons)
- Good job at cross cutting and miters with shop-built sliding tables
- Awkward for large sheet goods (better to take the saw to the work than the work to the saw).

Compound miter and miter saws:
- Good job at mitering and narrow cross cuts
- Dangerous with small pieces
- Can't do anything else
- I don't see a good reason for compound feature unless you need to bevel pieces too thick to stand on edge but narrow enough to fit in your saw lying flat. Cutting crown molding is much easier "upside down and backwards," than having to reset (correctly) two odd settings each time you change from Left-to-right or inside-to-outside.

Circular saw
- Best for cutting large sheet goods to size
- Works well with edge guide, purchased or shop-built
- OK for ripping and cross cutting, dadoes and grooves
- Dangerous with small pieces.

Jig saw
- Only one capable of easily cutting convex and concave curves.
- OK for rips and crosscuts, can't do much joinery
- Rough edges need cleaned up with a plane, spokeshave, etc.

Some people suggest a good bandsaw should be the center tool. I just don't see it.
- Works well for resawing
- Works well for some kinds of joinery
- OK for ripping relatively narrow stock
- Good for curved cutting
- Cross cuts limited by throat capacity
- Usually rough edges need planed.

I suggest a good quality circular saw, good blade, 50" edge guide, and a foldable set or two of sawhorses.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2010 at 7:41PM
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Ditto Bob's nephew.

A circular saw with a straightedge to guide it will allow you to cut sheet goods like plywood, etc, to make your simple furniture and bookshelves.

The circ saw will also cut through 2x stock, and when you flip the stock for a second cut, it'll get you through 4x stock.

    Bookmark   May 7, 2010 at 10:24PM
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OK, circular saw it is. Any recommendations for a DIYer on a budget?

    Bookmark   May 7, 2010 at 11:11PM
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Whatcha think of this one? I can probably get a factory reconditioned one for a good price.

Here is a link that might be useful: Skil 7 1/4

    Bookmark   May 7, 2010 at 11:35PM
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Too heavy for your use. That is a big saw---I have a Mag77 and it is way heavy.

Look at a DeWalt or Bosch worm drive.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2010 at 12:45AM
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Or this one? Apparently some people have issues with the shoe and bevel adjustments on the Skil SHD worm drives. I'm going to need all the help I can get making straight, square, precise cuts.

This DeWalt is about at the top of my comfortable budget range.

Here is a link that might be useful: DeWalt DW364K Heavy Duty

    Bookmark   May 8, 2010 at 12:46AM
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We must have been posting at the same time, handymac.

The thing is if I'm going to invest in a saw I'd like one that will still work for me when I'm more skilled and taking on bigger projects. Obviously, though, I don't want one that's too hard for me to control *now*. Hm.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2010 at 12:48AM
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I bought a Skil router several years ago and the router bit would not stay in the router. I called Skil and wrote several letters to them and they refused to refund my money, or replace the router with a functional one, or give me any credit. They said that they no longer made this particular router and could do nothing. I purchased a Skil chain saw made in Canada, cut down many trees in a period of about two years and wore out parts of the saw. When I tried to get parts to repair it they said they no longer made the saw and had no parts. To put things in perspective, I have a Craftsman table saw made in 1952. I can still get parts for it.
My advice to you would be to enroll in a local 2yr college furniture making class, use their tools and develope the skills necessary to do proper woodwork, then buy your saw.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2010 at 1:05AM
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Thanks for the input about Skil. A company that will stand behind its product is important to me.

My advice to you would be to enroll in a local 2yr college furniture making class, use their tools and develope the skills necessary to do proper woodwork, then buy your saw.

Not an option. Moving on.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2010 at 2:41AM
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article below on circular saws.

Here is a link that might be useful: circular saws

    Bookmark   May 8, 2010 at 7:59AM
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Look at the one below.

Worn drives will be over your budget(unless you get a recon)

The key to a safe experience with a circ. saw is to be able to handle it easily. The bigger the saw, the more difficult precision work is---like sizing plywood.

Here is a link that might be useful: PC saw

    Bookmark   May 8, 2010 at 10:01AM
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A tablesaw will cost many times more than a skilsaw, as would a sliding compound miter saw. What is your budget, really.
You could theoretically get a good tablesaw, like a bosch, a compound miter, and a top-line skilsaw, all new, for under a grand. But $1000 would still not buy you a top-line tablesaw; not even close.

The PC skilsaw linked to by the previous poster was my saw for over 10 years; it broke last year when the blade guard lever snapped from a falling 2x4. It was really not worth fixing, so I replaced it with the new model of Porter Cable, link below. It's a better saw in all respects.

Here is a link that might be useful: PC Mag-saw 423

    Bookmark   May 8, 2010 at 10:39AM
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The question here seems to be, how much do you want to spend? If you have $400 to $600 to spend, then you can get a tabletop table saw, with stand, that will do the job you want it to do plus more. Rigid makes a good one for about $450. If not, then the saw Casey recommends is very good. Whatever you do, you should get a book plus a DVD explaining how to use the type of tool you purchase. Everyone thinks they know how to use a power tool and don't need instruction, but these tools are dangerous and can do major damage to a body in the blink of an eye. Also, you will be shown how to make jigs that will, for example, insure you can make a straight cut with a circular saw across a piece of plywood. Be safe and smart.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2010 at 12:50PM
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That article was really illuminating and the PC is starting to look good. I never would have considered it without being suggested, would have stuck with the bigger names like Skil and DeWalt.

I think this weekend I'll go out and handle some saws at the hardware store -- hopefully I can look at right-hand and left-hand versions and see which feels more comfortable to me.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2010 at 1:04PM
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someone, thanks, don't worry -- I'm a cautious person by nature and I have a healthy respect for spinning blades. I'm going to hit the library and work Professor Google before I take any saw out of the box and plug it in. I have a pile of scrap ply and 2x4s to practice on too before I go near lumber I paid money for.

As far as budget: $175 would be pushing it. I'd prefer something in the $150 or lower range especially since I'll need a straightedge, decent blade(s) and better safety glasses than the ones I have now.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2010 at 1:39PM
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My personal is a Porter-Cable. It's a model they no longer make. I prefer a left drive saw. It makes it so I can see the blade without having to peer over the top of the saw. I've also used a Milwaukee a few times and found it a good saw.

The lower grade models -- Skil (excluding worm-drive), Black & Decker (Firestorm), Ryobi, and house brands meant for Weekend Joe will be much less quality than one of the contractor grade saws such as DeWalt, Milwaukee, Bosch, or Makita.

One problem is that many of the manufacturers have gone through merger and acquisition, and what was a good label a few years ago may be an entirely different quality than today, as the various nameplates get jockeyed around looking for their marketing niche.

Whether I buy from them or the local hardware store, I like to look at user reviews on Amazon.com for feedback, likes and dislikes. It also offers competitive offerings that are worth comparing against. There are some things that are universally advantages or disadvantages, and others are personal preference such as size of the handle for smaller or larger hands, dust collection ports (you may or may not ever use these, etc.)

    Bookmark   May 8, 2010 at 3:03PM
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The thing I'm most nervous about with a circular saw is getting clean straight cuts. I'm not going to be making fine cabinetry but I'd like to do as well as I can with my simple projects. Does it take a lot of practice? If most of my cutting will be board lumber do I really need the versatility of a circular saw vs. the precision of a miter saw? Hmmm.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2010 at 6:32PM
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Unless you can rewrite that last question as If most ALL of my cutting will be board lumber do I really need the versatility of a circular saw vs. the precision of a miter saw? you should forget the miter saw.

Working with only a circular saw will be, at best, like cooking with only one cast-iron skillet; limited and not ideal for everything, but you can make a decent variety of good food in that skillet. Trying to use a miter saw as your only power saw would be like using a pair of ice tongs as your only kitchen implement. I doubt that you stir soup, beat eggs, flip pancakes and spread barbecue sauce with ice tongs.

Stick with the circular saw. A miter saw won't work for you, and at your budget you won't find a tablesaw worth having outside of a garage sale (probably not even there).

You don't need to budget for a commercial straightedge; just use an offcut from a piece of plywood. But, do get a decent blade (the ones that come with the saw are often junk) and a couple of small bar clamps to hold that plywood straightedge in place on your workpiece. C-clamps would work for holding the straightedge, but wouldn't be useful for much else.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2010 at 7:49AM
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Some cutting techniques for the skilsaw:
To get a straight 90 cross-cut, use the saw along with a speed square as the guide. A good saw has the baseplate manufactured parallel to the blade so the square can be used as a guide. A speedsquare is a very useful basic tool. It's made in 6" and 12" sizes. 6" will get the job done as a guide up through 8" wide material.
For a laserlike rip, a guide gets clamped to the workpiece with the proper offset from the cut line to allow for the distance from the baseplate edge to the blade, plus or minus the kerf. A straightedge can be bought or improvised. A clean rip (factory edge) of 3/4" cabinet-grade plywood is good for a straightedge if you are cutting plywood. Cut off the first 6" rip free hand and use the factory edge as your guide. Or, you can buy various ripping guides that have ingenious built-in clamping systems in 4' to 8' lengths.

Here is a link that might be useful: Speed square

    Bookmark   May 9, 2010 at 11:12AM
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I have a couple of PCs, a Dewalt, and a couple of Milwaukee circ saws.

The Dewalt was probably the best balanced for my hand when new, but it's my stone saw now, so it's dying a slow death.

The PCs and Milwaukees are both well made, they handle well, track well freehand, but the PC has better chip/sawdust removal.

But yeah, I agree with Casey. For cutting 2-by stock use a speedsquare as your guide.

For cutting sheet goods, use a straight edge, or better yet, a shooting board for easier layout and less errors. A shooting board can be made from scrap wood.

Or if you really want control, get a tracked system. More expensive, but they'll give you excellent control as the saw rides in a track, so it can't slide left/right.

"E-Z Guide" is one that's reasonable in cost, but it'll still run you $125-$225 for a 50" to 100" setup. A 100" setup will let you rip 8' lengths of plywood.

But with a decent circular saw, a speedsquare, and a shooting board made from scrap wood, you can be in business for less than $200 easy for everything.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2010 at 2:58AM
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30 years ago Dh and I started out with our first saw - a craftsman circular saw. We did a lot with just that, but I can't imagine going back to having that as the main cutting tool LOL!! But more tools can come with time -

I would say we do the bulk of our cutting with the chop saw, but we've done a lot of framing and such, but you sure can't rip on one of them. And you can do both ripping and cross cutting with the circular saw.

We are on our fourth, current one is a bosch and it sure does cut nice. (wore out two skils in between) We bought clamps from Rocker and that makes cutting large stuff so easy.


We just cut up some 3/4" oak cabinet grade plywood, and got finish quality cuts using those clamps and the circular saw. The fence on our table saw goes to 29" max.

Sure beats using two C clamps and a 2x4 - but that works too.


    Bookmark   May 10, 2010 at 10:56AM
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You've got a lot of experts here who are giving good advice, but I think it is harder than they think to reduce themselves to the level of the amateur to give advice. Specifically, it's hard to think yourself out of your workshop and workbench, your measuring and guiding tools, and into the imperfect conditions of cutting on, shall we say, the fly, on a where-you-are, as-you-are, and where-did-I-leave-the-extension cord-this-time basis.

I'm another amateur. That is to say, no workshop. When I want to cut, I have two options. One is an old-fashioned non-compound mitre saw that is ON THE FLOOR of the basement, and the other is a circular saw that I take outside to either the front porch or the back yard where a variety of surfaces, whichever happens to be clear and seems to fit the need, serves as my cutting station.

We also have a table saw, but DH uses that, I can (took Grade 10 woodwork!) but just don't. I'm a bit freaked by the saw, plus it's in the spider-infested garage, and if I spotted a nearby spider while halfway through a cut, the outcome would be bloody.

Since you have to put the saw away every time, the circular saw is your default option. Easiest by far, also cheapest. For me though, I have trouble in my work conditions getting real accurate and straight cuts with the circular saw, to be frank in either sheet goods or board lumber - especially moulding, which doesn't give the saw a good place to sit. So the work I do with the circular saw is mostly rough - where cuts don't need to be too exact, or for cutting up garbage wood, like the old porch we took apart last summer.

Where accuracy matters, and I recently did a panelling project upstairs where it did matter, I use the mitre saw. Kneeling on the floor.
I get the lumberyard to cut most of the sheet goods I need, makes it way easier to transport anyway.

I would say the circular saw is your best bet for finish quality work only IF you can set up a couple of saw horses in a level spot, maybe with a board across them, for a work station. If you're cutting sheet goods or wide boards, another surface to catch your drop-off wouldn't hurt, avoids splintering in some case.

If you go with a mitre saw, you'd want it on a stand so you could wheel it into and out of the garage, and the reason ours isn't on a stand is that the floor is mighty convenient for long boards on either end - the weight of a long piece can seriously reduce your ability to hold it for an accurate cut if it isn't supported along its length.

So for me, the conditions you can create for doing the work will be important determinants of whatever saw is your best choice.


PS if you go used, you might be able to afford two saws. Check your local craigslist or equivalent.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2010 at 3:37PM
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As far as not being familiar with real-world conditions: I have built mortise & tenon doors outside at a jobsite using the tailgate of my truck as the workbench. It's not the venue that matters. Planning, measuring and marking skills are every bit as important as cutting skills.
I know older carpenters who never owned a chop-box (primitive version of the miter saw), but who could trim your house with a skilsaw and a speedsquare to guide it.
Maybe practise really does make (more) perfect.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2010 at 7:44PM
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While I have a full shop of tools, I did work my way up. These days, I do a in-home repairs and I'm just as likely to be cutting a piece of wood while kneeling on the living room floor as in my workshop.

When I think I might need it (once a month), I'll pop my miter saw in my van. I carry a jig saw, but it's been over a year since I've used it. Most of my cuts are done using a Japanese pull saw or hand miter saw.

Here is a link that might be useful: circular saw joinery

    Bookmark   May 10, 2010 at 11:00PM
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OK, I did a lot of thinking about the projects I want to do and my space situation. I realized that I don't have any projects involving plywood in my immediate future, but I DO have a handful of projects that would be a lot easier and turn out a lot better with quick, clean, straight cuts. And that I feel more comfortable cutting my teeth on a saw that's fixed down.

So I bought a compound miter saw. I found a factory recon for half price with absolutely glowing reviews and snapped it up. Talking with the guy at my local hardware was helpful too, he told me what he does with his miter saw is he bolted it to a square of heavy plywood and keeps two folding sawhorses. When he's done he puts away the miter saw plywood and all. I think I can manage that. (He's also the one who explained to me that I can cut 12" boards with a miter saw if I cut halfway across, flip it over and cut the other half.)

Eventually I'll want to do plywood projects. I'll start putting money aside for a circular to use on those. I'm pretty sure once I can build more storage around here I'll find space to hang a circular.

Thanks for all your help!

    Bookmark   May 10, 2010 at 11:42PM
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Didn't mean to offend, and glad you found your saw, Ms. Docs. You captured much better what I was trying to say which was, with which saw will it be easier and quicker to turn out clean, straight, cuts - especially when you may not be using your tools as often as a pro would, therefore less likely to get good results in imperfect conditions. It's not just the measuring and marking, Casey, but also just where you place your saw on the mark to get the cut right there, which is something only frequent use will make you really good at. Me, I'm grabbing a different pencil every time too, so the perfect placement of the saw blade is all the harder to achieve.

One thing a fixed saw is far better at than a hand-held, and a power way better than a manual tool, is correcting a cut that was made just off the mark (on the generous side, obviously) or slightly crooked. And correcting an imperfect first cut is something I bet amateurs do way more often than pros. I'd undertake to flip a board and match cuts on a fixed saw, but with a circular saw I'd be sure to just miss, and then mess up the correction to boot.

Have fun, and keep your fingers out of the way!


    Bookmark   May 11, 2010 at 4:41PM
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