If you've never heard of a reciprocating saw or simply never used one, get ready for this handy tool to become your go-to for demolition, construction, and everything in between. Often referred to as a Sawzall, a brand-name-turned-household-name for the tool, a reciprocating saw is a valuable addition to any DIY enthusiast's tool kit.
What Is a Reciprocating Saw?
A reciprocating saw is a handheld power saw that features a handle with a trigger and a horizontal blade that protrudes from the end of the saw. The blade, designed to be easily swapped out for different tasks, moves back and forth to quickly cut through a variety of materials.
Perhaps more common than the tool's technical name of reciprocating saw is the name Sawzall. This common nickname is a result of the popularity of the first reciprocating saw invented by Milwaukee in 1951. While the names are different, the tools are the same.
From breaking down nail-filled pallets to cutting out old cast-iron plumbing, a reciprocating saw can tackle a variety of tasks and has a blade specifically designed for each and every one. Because of its unique design and immense power, a reciprocating saw is perfect for cuts in hard-to-reach places that would be impossible with any other saw.
Reciprocating Saw vs. Jigsaw
Though both a reciprocating saw and a jigsaw feature a reciprocating, interchangeable blade, these saws serve vastly different purposes. While there is some overlap to what the saws can achieve, jigsaws are typically reserved for more precise work than reciprocating saws. This is because the design of both the jigsaw and its blades offer more control, while the design of a reciprocating saw prioritizes power and maneuverability.
Horizontally positioned saw with a handle on one end and blade on the other
Variety of interchangeable blades perfect for rough cuts and demolition
Costs between $50 and $150
Blades can be positioned facing upward or downward to best suit the job
Cuts are fully manipulated by the operator
Vertically positioned saw with a handle on the top and a blade sticking out the bottom
Variety of interchangeable blades perfect for precise cuts
Costs between $30 and $150
Blades can only face forward
Contains features for cutting miters and bevels
Parts of a Reciprocating Saw
Reciprocating saws have many specific features that set them apart from other types of saws.
- When holding a reciprocating saw, the operator places the dominant hand on the handle and the other on the front grip. A firm grip is necessary to hold the powerful saw steady.
- On the handle is a variable speed trigger that allows for more control when cutting.
- Interchangeable blades slide into the end of the saw via a blade release. Some older models may feature a manual chuck, but most modern saws feature a quick-release mechanism.
- At the base of the blade is the shoe, which rides against the material being cut. This shoe can be adjusted to allow different parts of the blade to cut the material, allowing the operator to get more life out of each blade.
- Below the handle is the power supply. While corded reciprocating saws are still available, many saws are now cordless, which can offer supreme mobility without a drastic sacrifice of power.
- On some saws, there may also be a dial for orbital action, which controls how aggressively the blade attacks the material.
- Some newer saws feature a work light to illuminate the material being cut.
Increasing the orbital action of a blade is a great way to increase its effectiveness. However, orbital action is specifically intended for cutting wood and should be avoided when cutting other materials.
What Blade to Use
One of the most noteworthy features of a reciprocating saw is its ability to quickly change blades to complete a variety of tasks. There are blades for cutting metal, wood, plastic, and even pruning blades for tree branches, as well as many other specialty blades. Blades come in many lengths and thicknesses and feature different types of teeth. While features such as carbide tips can greatly enhance cutting power on certain materials, the most important feature to pay attention to is the number of teeth, which is measured in teeth per inch (TPI).
As a rule of thumb, more teeth equals cleaner cuts, while fewer teeth lead to quicker, but rougher cuts. This means a blade with a higher TPI will generally perform better when cutting metal or PVC pipes, while a blade with a lower TPI is perfect for wood and demolition. Thin, flexible blades allow cuts to be made in hard-to-reach places and make curved cuts easier, while stiffer blades will offer the most cutting power, but limit the saw's maneuverability. Demolition blades are very thick and extra strong, allowing the blade to tear through multiple types of material.
Most hardware stores sell blades in bulk variety packs, making it easy to always have the right blade for the job in your toolbox.
Due to their power and design, reciprocating saws are prone to kicking, which can lead to injury when not handled properly. This kicking is typically a result of the blade catching or hitting material, which, due to the blade's back-and-forth motion, abruptly throws the saw backward. For this reason, a firm, two-handed grip should be on the saw whenever possible. Additionally, loose clothing should be avoided, and safety gear such as eye protection and a dust mask should always be worn during operation. Lastly, the saw's power source should always be disabled when changing blades.
How to Use a Reciprocating Saw
Choose the Appropriate Blade
The first step in using a reciprocating saw is fitting it with the proper blade. Most brands label blades according to their use and material, making this an easy task. Choose a blade with a low TPI for fast, rough cuts and a blade with high TPI for cleaner cuts.
To determine the length of the blade that will best suit the job, always choose a blade that is at least two inches longer than the depth of the material you are cutting. However, avoid using a blade that is too long for the job, as this will increase the risk of kickback and likely make the job more difficult.
Install the Blade
To install the blade, disable the saw's power source, lift the blade release, and slide the blade into place. Blades can be positioned with teeth up or down to best suit the job. Once fitted, release the blade release, ensure the blade is firmly seated, and reconnect the power source.
Because a reciprocating saw's blade is fully exposed, it poses a significant safety risk. Pay special attention when operating a reciprocating saw and avoid bulky gloves and loose clothing.
Adjust the Shoe
Adjust the shoe to best accommodate the blade and the cut. If a blade is wearing in a certain spot, you can adjust the shoe to allow the material to ride on a fresh portion of teeth.
Adjust the Orbital Action
If cutting wood, you can increase the saw's orbital action for a quicker, more aggressive cut. This feature is not available on all reciprocating saws and is only intended for cutting wood.
Firmly Grasp the Saw
Regardless of what material you are cutting, it is important to firmly grasp the saw with both hands. Place your dominant hand on the handle and the other around the front grip. Avoid operating the saw with one hand whenever possible. If necessary, clamp down the material you are cutting to free up both hands.
Cut the Material
The trigger on most reciprocating saws acts more like a throttle than an on/off switch. This means you can control how quickly the blade moves, allowing you to better start cuts.
To start the cut, place the blade on the material with the shoe firmly pressed against the material. Slowly engage the trigger until the blade creates a groove in the material, then gradually ramp up the speed of the blade and firmly hold the saw against the material until the cut is complete.
Allow the blade to come to a complete stop before lifting away and setting the saw down.
Reciprocating saws are great for plunge cuts. To perform this type of cut, place the shoe on the material you intend to cut at a very low angle and lower the blade by tilting it forward until the tip touches the material. Keeping the saw in this position, slowly pull the trigger. As the blade begins to penetrate the material, further angle the blade until it cuts clean through.
Buying vs. Renting
Once you use a reciprocating saw once, chances are you're going to find a multitude of uses for it in the future. For this reason, buying is often a better option for most people than renting. On top of that, a quality reciprocating saw costs just more than $100 and will last for years if properly cared for. However, if you truly only need a saw once, rental options are available for around $20 per day.
Keeping a Reciprocating Saw in Good Condition
To keep a reciprocating saw in good working order, it's important to take good care of it. While today's reciprocating saws can take a beating, you should avoid unnecessary abuse. Keep saws in a hard toolbox when not in use, and when in use, take time to set your tool on the ground rather than tossing it to the side. This will ensure delicate internal components last as long as possible.
To further care for your reciprocating saw, do your best to clean your saw between uses. Most importantly, use an airgun to blow out the vents to prevent the electric motor from overheating.
When to Replace a Reciprocating Saw
Reciprocating saw blades will need to be replaced once dull or damaged, but this isn't the case for the saw itself. A quality reciprocating saw that has been taken care of should last for years on end, but it's important to inspect your saw and take note of any unsafe wear that is occurring.
A saw with a loose shoe or a blade release that isn't functioning properly can hinder your work and pose a safety risk. Once electrical components start to fail, you can enlist a professional tool repair shop, but replacing your saw may be the more economical route, especially for budget saws.