How to Choose the Right Saw for the Job

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Using a rip fence to guide a piece of lumber across a table saw makes a straight, accurate cut.

Choosing the best saw for a particular job involves several factors: the material you’re cutting, how precise the cut must be, whether you’re cutting a straight line or a curve, and how quickly you want to get the work done. Here’s a brief overview of some of the most common types of saws.


A crosscut saw
 (and a shorter version called a box saw) is the saw most people think of when they think of a handsaw. Its primary purpose is to cut wood across the grain. A rip saw looks similar but has larger teeth and is used for cutting with the grain (splitting a board length-wise, for example).

Coping saws are shaped like a “P” and used for cutting circles or irregular shapes in wood. The blades are quite thin and narrow so they don’t bind between the wood as the blade cuts a curved shape. Coping saws are often used to cut woodwork to fit together in the corners of a room. Because of the frame of the saw, cuts cannot be made more than about 6 inches from the edge of the wood.

If you need to make a precise, straight cut (such as those used for making a fine wooden joint), consider a back saw
 (or miter saw). Back saws have additional metal bracing on the top side to keep the blade straight. They’re often used with a miter gauge or box that guides the saw to make angled cuts, such as those used for making picture frames (45 degree angles).

Hack saws have small teeth so they don’t remove a great deal of material with each stroke. They’re particularly useful for cutting hard materials such as metal or pipe. The narrow blade of a hack saw is held taut by a metal frame with a handle that is perpendicular to the blade.

For a rough, quick cut (pruning a tree, cutting a fallen branch, etc.), a bow saw is an excellent choice. The large teeth of these D-shaped saws cut quickly through wood, but do not make precise cuts.

Key-hole saws are used for sawing small holes or curves in wood. They were originally used to cut small holes in doors so that a metal lock could be incorporated into the door. Today, people more frequently use them to cut holes for electrical boxes in drywall.

Power Saws

Circular saws have a round blade powered by an electric motor. They can be fitted with several types of blades, including a multipurpose blade for making crosscuts and ripping wood.

If you’re looking for an electric version of a coping saw for making cuts that are not straight, choose a jig saw
 (also called a saber saw). These saws rest on a flat metal foot and have a small, narrow blade that moves up and down quickly to cut through wood. You can also find specialty blades for other materials. Pressing the foot of a jigsaw against the material you’re cutting keeps the blade perpendicular. Because jig saws don’t have a frame like a coping saw, cuts can be made far from the edge of the wood.

The cutting action of a reciprocating saw is similar to a jig saw, but reciprocating saws have smaller feet and are generally more powerful. These saws make cuts in some fairly tight spaces and are quite versatile for rough building projects, such as framing a house.

For cutting small and precise curves, scroll saws combine a table with a small blade. Scroll saws are used for cutting wooden toys, elaborate decorations for shelves or cabinets and other “scroll work.”

Table saws are used for cutting straight lines and angled cuts for woodworking projects. Although multipurpose blades are available, you can buy blades specifically designed to rip or crosscut wood. When cutting along the length of a board, a rip fence is a guide used to keep wood a specific distance from the blade of a table saw. A miter gauge or guide is used to hold the wood at an angle or perpendicular to the blade. The saw blade can also be turned to cut at an angle as wood slides across the table. In addition, you can add dado blades (a thick series of blades) to cut wide grooves.

Miter saws are like a circular saw held by a metal arm. The blade can be tilted and turned to cut compound miters (cutting angles across two planes of a board) — a very useful feature for cutting crown molding or corners of more complex picture frames. Instead of moving wood across a table over a blade, when using a miter saw the wood is held stationary, and the saw moves. This same type of saw, when designed to cut metal, is usually called a chop saw.

The design of tile saws can be similar to a table saw or a miter saw, but the blade is designed to cut tile and is cooled by water.

The teeth of band saws are cut into a metal band that rotates on two wheels. You can rip boards or cut angles on a band saw. Because bands are usually narrower than blades, you waste somewhat less wood. Band saws are particularly useful for resawing lumber, for example cutting a 2-by-6 into two 1-by-6s.

Chain saws have teeth on each link of a narrow chain that runs on a metal bar with a rounded end. They can be powered by gas engines or electric motors. Chain saws make wide, rough cuts, so they’re primarily used for cutting down trees, making firewood and trimming large branches. Some chain saws can be attached to a special guide so they function as a small lumber mill.