CIRCULAR SAWS: Tips on Choosing One You’ll Love

A long time ago my neighbour, Norm, needed help. The asphalt roof on his summer place just down the road from where I live was damaged by a storm and needed replacement right away. Some roof boards were rotten too, and he hadn’t brought his jigsaw up with him from the city to cut the wood required. Could I lend him a saw to rebuild the roof?

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I didn’t know at the time, but the last tool in the world that Norm wanted to use was a hand-held circular saw. He was 72 years old at the time, and circ saws have always been one power tool that scared him. But that was the tool I unknowingly handed the kind gentleman, and he took the lightweight cordless model I offered. Five days later, he was a confident circular sawyer with a weatherproof roof. Norm even graduated to using my great big worm-drive circular saw for other projects. It has a power cord as thick as your thumb and he loves it. That’s Norm below, on his roof with my big old Milwaukee saw.

My friend Norm in the late 1990s, having made friends with a circular saw for the first time.

The lesson here is that good experiences lead to confidence, and confidence leads to success. Hand-held circular saws open a wide range of home improvement possibilities. That’s why they’re a workhorse tool in the trade. The trick is to come to the right decision about tool choice as a homeowner. I believe that one of the reasons hand-held circular saws aren’t always well liked in do-it-yourself circles is that so many homeowners choose cheap, trouble-prone saws. If you think you need a circular saw, you need a good one. And this means more than just an economy model.

Cordless is Now Mature

The big advance in circular saw technology is the emergence of truly useful cordless technology. It was the lightweight and quiet performance of my cordless that got Norm interested in the first place. When cordless circular saws were introduced back in the mid-1990s they were cute but weak — definitely not great performers. But now, thanks to advances in batteries, chargers and brushless DC motors, you can finish a basement or frame an entire house at full speed with the best and largest cordless circular saws. They’re just as powerful as average corded models, and a lot more convenient.

This is one of my favourite cordless circular saws. The shape is similar to my Milwaukee worm driver, except without the hassles of a big, fat power cord.

The real question is whether or not you need cordless. They’re convenient and user-friendly, but you do pay a premium for these qualities. A good cordless model, typically costs $350 to $450, plus the price of a new battery every three to five years. And I don’t recommend you buy a bargain-priced cordless saw. You might as well use a good handsaw. By comparison, the least expensive contractor-grade plug-in saws start at about $180 and deliver more power than even the largest cordless model, with no need to replace batteries.

A worthwhile circular saw will last for years and generate enough power to meet all building challenges. Good plug-in models draw 12 to 15 amps of electricity (look at the motor nameplate you’ll find on every tool for these specs). They also spin a 7 1/4-inch diameter blade — that’s the industry standard, both for corded and cordless models. Some offer a blade location on either the left side of the machine (for right hand users) or the right side (for left hand users).

Choosing Brand & Voltage

I get to test tools from time to time, and this group of cordless saws was part of one of these tests I ran years ago.

You’ll find that name brand cordless circular saws are now good enough to completely replace a corded saw in almost every applicaion. The best of these also take full-size carbide blades, just like plug-in models. When you’re shopping, look for a package that comes with a diagnostic charger that displays information about battery condition and health. The best cordless tools on the market right now are powered by lithium-ion batteries.

Any name-brand circular saw will work well for you, and if you’ve already got a cordless tool battery platform in place, sticking with that brand makes the most sense. In no particular order, I’ve had great results with DEWALT, Milwaukee, Makita and Hitachi. Ryobi offers very excellent value for non-professionals looking for economical tools that also last a long time.

Regardless of the saw design you choose, the cost of the tool really is forgotten long after quality continues to be enjoyed. Wear safety glasses and hearing protection when using the saw, take your time with each cut and have someone else hold your workpiece on something solid while you gain skill with your first few cuts. That’s the approach Norm took,  and it got him a strong new roof and a lot more confidence, all after his 70th birthday.

Watch the video below for a detailed tutorial on choosing power saws for outdoor building projects. Hand-held circular saws are top of the list, but there are others here, too.

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– Steve Maxwell