A circular saw is a must-have tool for anyone from professional contractors to DIY enthusiasts. Available in multiple sizes, with corded or cordless power, and as a sidewinder or worm drive, it can be hard to narrow down which circular saw is best for you. To help you decide, we've broken down the ins and outs of each type of circular saw and what you can expect from your purchase.
What Is a Circular Saw?
A circular saw is a handheld power saw with a motor that drives a circular blade protruding from the bottom of the saw.
Before Replacing Your Circular Saw
Say you already have a circular saw, but you're simply unsure if it's the best saw for you and your applications. Because circular saws are so widely used and available in different models suited for a variety of specific applications (with some overlap), replacing an existing circular saw can be overwhelming. Unless your saw is outright broken, it can be hard to determine if a new or additional circular saw will truly benefit you.
While it's likely that you'll be able to find a saw that covers most of your uses sufficiently, some users will find that they're better off owning two saws with vastly different abilities. For example, a house framer would benefit from having a powerful corded saw for heavy-duty use as well as a cordless saw for quick cuts in hard-to-access areas. While many cordless saws won't likely keep up with the demands of day-to-day house framing, they absolutely have their place on the job site.
Buying Considerations for a Circular Saw
There are a few specifications to consider when purchasing a circular saw. This breakdown will help you determine the best saw for your needs, ensuring you get the most bang for your buck.
Circular saws come in a range of sizes. The main size specifications you should be concerned with are the blade size (diameter) and the motor's output. The most common and most popular blade size amongst professionals and DIYers alike is 7-1/4 inches. This is because it's a versatile size with a cutting depth that covers a wide variety of tasks. However, there are saws with blade sizes that are intended for more specific uses, such as beam saws with blades larger than 16 inches in diameter to mini circular saws with blades around 4 inches.
For corded circular saws, the power rating is generally expressed in amperage. Today, 15-amp saws are the standard; 10- or 12-amp saws are appropriate only for infrequent use. The price difference just isn't that significant for a purchase you can expect to use for many years. The higher the amperage, the more cutting power the saw will have.
Cordless, battery-powered circulars are typically rated by the voltage of their batteries. Virtually all cordless saws now use lithium-ion battery systems. There are many 18-volt saws available, but there are also more powerful 20-volt and even 60-volt cordless saws offered. As well as voltage, an amp-hour rating will also be listed, which indicates how long you can use the saw before the battery dies. The amp-hour ratings generally range from about 5 hours to 9 hours.
Corded vs. Cordless
As previously mentioned, corded saws are typically better suited for jobs that require non-stop use with major power demands, such as framing a house. This is because, in an application where power is readily available and you're working primarily on sawhorses, the pros of a cordless saw do not outweigh the cons. This is exaggerated once you start performing rip cuts (cutting down the length of a board), as this requires an immense amount of cutting power.
However, cordless saws absolutely have their place—even in a professional setting. They're extremely versatile, perfect for cutting in hard-to-reach areas, and can perform regardless of if there is power available at your job site. For DIYers, a high-quality cordless saw is likely the best bang for your buck. With a sharp blade, it will rise to nearly any DIY task. Plus, should there come a time where you absolutely have to use a corded saw, renting one is always a viable option.
Generally speaking, most circular saws with sufficient power and a sharp, high-quality blade will suffice for all users. But for long-term satisfaction, you may want to look for these features:
- Saw foot made from cast magnesium rather than pressed steel
- Power brake to stop the blade quickly
- Preset bevel stops on the saw foot (22 1/2 and 45 degrees are most useful)
- A spindle lock to simplify changing blades
- Built-in work lights to illuminate the workpiece
- Laser guide line to aid in keeping the saw on the cut line
A good carbide-tipped blade might be the only blade you ever need, but there are many other types of blades available for special purposes. You can buy blades for cutting wood, metal, tile, and concrete. If you plan to do a lot of work requiring clean cuts, consider buying a blade with a higher TPI (teeth per inch). On most saws, changing blades takes just a few moments.
Types of Circular Saws
Circular saws have long been available in two styles: sidewinders and worm-drive. Sidewinders are the most recognizable style to most of us. The handle is set higher over the blade, and the blade has traditionally been located on the right side of the D-shaped handle, although left-handed saws are increasingly available. They are lighter and less expensive than worm drives, and the blade, which is driven directly by the motor spindle, spins faster than on worm-drive saws. A good sidewinder is the best choice for the home workshop since it is light and maneuverable.
Worm-drive saws are short and long, with the handle positioned behind the blade. The blade is located on the left, making it visible to right-handed users. They tend to be heavier, since they require a gear system to convert the motor action into blade spin, and they have more torque than sidewinders. Worm-drives are preferred by some construction pros for heavy-duty work.
Mini Circular Saw
A fairly recent innovation, mini (or compact) circular saws are elongated saws with a small blade and handle positioned at opposing ends. The unique shape and size of these saws make them perfect for ripping OSB and plywood. However, the small blade size does severely limit their cutting depth.
Corded saws are more than just the older, outdated sibling of cordless saws. In fact, these saws may be your best best for sustained high-power performance. You don't have to worry about dying batteries, buying extra batteries that can be extremely expensive, or power loss during difficult rip cuts. Generally speaking, corded saws will perform at a high level time and time again.
Since their introduction, cordless power saws have had an obvious pro: no cord. This makes them incredibly versatile, maneuverable, and useful in spots where power is nowhere to be found. However, this obvious pro has come with an unfortunate con: lack of power. Cordless saws have simply not been able to keep up with the power output of a corded saw. That is, until recent years, since new innovations in battery technology have reduced the performance gap between corded and cordless models. Nowadays, cordless saws can compete with corded in many tasks and are a serious contender.
As far as power tools are concerned, you can get your hands on a circular saw for a surprisingly reasonable price.
Corded Saw Pricing
For pricing sake, let's consider you're buying a 15-amp corded saw with a 7-1/4-inch blade, as this is a fairly standard choice. You can expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $200. This price range is wide because there are quite a few factors at play that affect the price. A better, reputable brand, special features, and the inclusion of a hard case are obviously going to drive the price of the saw up, but there is a less obvious factor to consider.
While every circular saw will likely come with a new blade, the quality and type of blade are worth noting. If the saw comes equipped with a simple high-speed stainless steel blade, its low price might not be such a bargain, as you'll probably want to replace it with a more expensive carbide-tipped blade almost immediately. This new blade can run anywhere from $15 to $30.
Cordless Saw Pricing
On average, cordless saws are much more expensive than corded saws, especially when you consider purchasing batteries. For pricing, let's use an 18-volt cordless saw with a 7-1/4-inch blade from a reputable brand. This saw will cost you around $180 to $250, and this price doesn't include a battery, which will be an additional cost of around $150.
The good news is, if you're reading this article, you more than likely already own cordless power tools. Nearly every major brand utilizes the same battery across their line of cordless tools, so adding a cordless circular saw to your toolbox won't require you to buy additional batteries.
How to Choose a Circular Saw
Ultimately, deciding which circular saw to purchase should solely be based on how you'll be using it. While cost is a factor, as your budget may be limited, you shouldn't be afraid of spending more money on a better saw if you can afford to. A good, high-quality saw from a reputable brand will last for years on end if taken care of. Here are a few things to consider.
If the majority of materials you'll be cutting are less than 1-1/2 inches thick, a 7-1/4-inch blade may be overkill. While it won't negatively affect you, saws with smaller blades are generally lighter and less expensive. If you regularly cut thin material, you may even consider a mini circular saw.
Corded vs. Cordless
Deciding between these two options comes down to two factors: cost and versatility. If you need the versatility of a cordless saw and can't justify buying both corded and cordless, opt for a cordless saw with at least an 18- to 20-volt battery. However, if you need sustained power for long periods of time, a cordless saw may better serve you.
Should you decide on the corded route, you're still faced with the decision of sidewinder or worm-drive. For nearly everyone, a sidewinder will do everything needed. However, for immense power needs, a worm drive will deliver but at a higher price point.
Where to Shop
These days, there are plenty of places to buy a circular saw. From specialty tool shops to online retailers to your local hardware store, it's easy to find what you're looking for.
The perk of buying in-store is the ability to get up close and personal with multiple different saws. This will allow you to compare their differences and better assess which is best for you. From a distance, every sidewinder circular saw looks pretty much the same, except for the color. Up close, though, they can feel much different in the hand. The only way to experience that difference is to head to your local tool supplier and test them for yourself. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the handle fit your hand?
- Does the saw feel well balanced and the right weight for you?
- Are you comfortable with the visibility of the blade and the adjustment components?
A well-shaped handle and good balance can go a long way toward making a saw more comfortable and efficient to use, so don't overlook these features when choosing a circular saw.
Nowadays, anything can be purchased online—even power saws. The two main perks of shopping online is the ability to compare prices from a multitude of retailers as well as the availability of many different saws that you may not find in stores. However, keep in mind that buying a saw that is readily available in stores may increase the likelihood of parts and repair services being available when needed.
Where to Buy a Circular Saw
Once you've narrowed down which circular saw is the best for you, it's time to buy. With comparable pricing between retailers, there's no wrong place to buy a circular saw. Simply buy from the retailer that is most convenient for you.
When is the best time to buy a circular saw?
The best time to buy a circular saw is whenever you need one. However, if you can wait until the the holidays, hardware stores and online retailers often have great sales on tools.
What is the difference between a circular saw and a track saw?
A track saw is very similar to a circular saw as far as looks and use. The main difference is that a track saw is designed to ride on a track for perfectly straight cuts, whereas a circular saw would need a cutting guide.
When should I replace my circular saw?
If at any point your circular saw malfunctions in a way that poses a risk to your safety or the safety of others, it is worth replacing or repairing. This includes but is not limited to electrical and mechanical malfunctions.