I want to buy a hand-held circular saw for the upcoming building season, but I’m confused by all the choices. What do you recommend?
If you think a circular saw has a place in your life, then make the commitment to get a good one. Here’s the essentials you need to know.
Basic Saw Design
There are two basic circular saw designs in the world:
Figuring out which type suits you best is your first job. To see what they look like side-by-side, check out my circular saw video tour.
Blade Size and Quality
Most circular saws spin 7 1/4-inch diameter blades, and this is a good choice for serious homestead use. Many cordless saws often come with 6 1/2-inch blades which are fine for many jobs, though you will occasionally miss the extra depth of cut. Far more important than blade size, however, is blade quality. It’s a strange fact that many top-quality power tools come from the factory with second-rate blades. Circular saws are no exception. To get the most out of your saw you’ll need to upgrade to a carbide blade made to last. The word carbide refers to hard, visibly-distinct alloy inserts that form the teeth of the blade. Expect to pay $15 to $35 for a good 7 1/4-inch carbide blade. Today’s best carbide blades are even designed to slice through the odd nail without complaining. Where regular carbide saw blades might chip a tooth on an unseen nail, nail-friendly blades are a renovator’s best buddy.
Circular saws are often required to do heavy work, like cutting 1 1/2-inch thick framing lumber along the grain, or slicing 3/4-inch thick plywood. If you feel the need to own a circular saw, then be sure you get one that has the power to do all the usual construction site work. One measure of tool power on corded models is amperage draw, a figure you’ll find stamped on the nameplate of every power tool. If I were recommending a saw to a friend, I’d choose from machines that draw at least 10 amps of current, and preferably closer to 15. Anything weaker is only suited to light-duty specialty work. You might as well use a handsaw. As for corded saws, you’ll find 18-volt models are lightweight and deliver good service for light and medium-duty jobs. 24-, 28- and 36-volt cordless saws are able to handle most work that corded models can.
Electric motors used for circular saws have components called brushes. These deliver electricity to the rotating parts of the motor, and during the course of their function they eventually wear out. This is normal. If you discover a nearly worn out set of brushes and replace them before they go completely, you’ll get many hundreds more hours of use out of the tool. If, on the other hand, the brushes wear our completely before replacement, they can damage the motor irreparably. Good circular saws have external brush access ports that make it easy to inspect brushes periodically and change them when needed. These ports usually appear as pairs of circular depressions, often equipped with a screwdriver slot to untwist them. Saws without brush access ports make it difficult to do the regular maintenance that long tool life demands. Brush inspection on these saws requires major exploratory surgery.
Another nice feature to look for in a good circular saw is a shaft locking mechanism. This is usually a button near the blade shaft that locks rotation during blade changes. Saws without a shaft lock require you to fumble with a second wrench, or somehow hold the blade with your hand while removing and replacing the nut that holds the blade on.
A growing number of circular saws also include an electric brake that slows the rotation of the blade very quickly after the on/off trigger has been released. It’s a useful safety feature that reduces the chance of accidents after each cut.
Steve Maxwell, Canada's Handiest Man, has shared his DIY tips, how-to videos and product reviews since 1988. Visit him at www.SteveMaxwell.ca, Facebook or @Maxwells_Tips on Twitter.
Photos: Steve Maxwell