Corded circular saws are powerful tools that crosscut wood (cut across its grain) and rip it (cut with the grain). The entry-level tools that we examined do not exhibit much design variation. For example, the blades in each of these saws are 7¼ inches in diameter, positioned on the right side of the motor, and, when fully lowered, make cuts about 2¼ inches deep (or slightly deeper). However, when you increase price by $10 to $15 from the category’s basement, you go from a saw with a 12-amp motor to one that operates at 15 amps. This motor is better able to handle deep cuts, especially if the lumber is wet. If you need a saw to cut framing lumber, spend the extra money.
But let’s just say that you’re ambitious. Maybe you don’t want one of these goody-two-shoes homeowner saws; you want what the pros use. Contractor saws have the blade on the left or the right of the motor. Their motors draw 15 amps. The saw rides on a larger, more damaged-resistant shoe, and is equipped with a big, tough trigger switch, larger and tougher bearings, and a thick but highly flexible cord. These features promote durability but increase the saw’s weight. The average homeowner-duty saw weighs 8 to 9 pounds. Contractor saws start at 10½ pounds and go up from there.
Because it’s heavier and larger, a contractor-grade saw may not help you get the job done faster, believe it or not. While it’s true that pro saws cut faster compared to homeowner saws, their most important attribute is durability. A homeowner working with a pro saw may find it too heavy or clumsy to work with. As such, a homeowner may be unable to take advantage of the saw’s speed and power.
With manufacturers working so hard to develop cordless tools, you also may wonder if these are a better fit for you than an entry-level corded tool. Homeowner-grade cordless saws have enough power to cut 2 x 3 and 2 x 4 lumber, pine planks, and plywood. But if you expect to make more difficult cuts such as plunge through an interior floor, frame out your basement, or cut pressure-treated lumber, opt for a corded power tool.
Aside from the saw, you need a couple of carpenter’s pencils and a square to both mark the lumber and guide the saw for accurate crosscuts. You also need a heavy-duty, 15-amp extension cord, safety glasses, and some ear plugs.
Our test material was what you would expect: Douglas fir 2 x 4, 2 x 10, and 4 x 4. We used each saw to cut across and with the grain, the blade perpendicular to its shoe and at an angle to it. Those tests complete, we moved on to the same tests in some particularly nasty hem fir framing lumber practically dripping sap. The stink that stuff gave off was nauseating.
Next, we did some hairsplitting crosscuts guiding each saw along a square held across the workpiece. If the saw held true along the cut, that told us that its shoe edge and blade are parallel. If the saw moved off the square (and the cutline), we knew something was amiss. The most common cause is a saw motor and body that makes a slightly sloppy fit with the shoe on which it rides. Here’s how the five circular saws on our list fared during testing.
Skil has long experience with the circular saw, and it puts that institutional knowledge to good use with this inexpensive but capable tool, the best saw in this test. Among the homeowner saws we tested, this one is about as close to pro grade as you can get. And given what it costs and its price-performance ratio, it would be perfectly fitting for a contractor to keep this saw on the truck as a backup or a tool for the helper. It handles nicely, its depth of cut is easily adjusted, and it cuts accurately. The shoe is perfectly parallel with the blade. And we were pleasantly surprised by the torque provided by its 15-amp motor. Even with the blade fully submerged in lumber for rips and crosscuts, it powered through nicely.
The Ryobi is a good little saw that got off to an unfortunate start. At first it didn’t seem like it was going to cut the mustard, let alone lumber. We were mystified. We have enough experience with Ryobi power tools by now to know that a lack of performance would be reason for concern. The problem turned out to be the blade. The inexpensive blade that comes with the saw helps to hold down its price, but it holds back its performance. We swapped out that blade for an Irwin Weld Tec (about a $9 upgrade) and before you could say sawdust, we had a saw that cuts like a champ. The saw handles nicely, thanks to its light weight, comfortable grip, and the fact that it’s well-balanced. We have a design engineer somewhere to thank for those features.
The Craftsman renaissance is real. Since the company’s purchase by Stanley Black & Decker (owner of the famed DeWalt brand), Craftsman tools have been improving across the board, if you’ll excuse the unfortunate pun. We’ve always liked the brand, and we were very pleased to find this saw carrying on a capable tradition of high-quality power tools. It’s about a pound lighter than the Skil. That may not sound like much, but it can make a work day go a little bit easier, especially given that you’re probably also moving lumber and hammering nails at the same time. Yes, the Craftsman’s motor is a bit smaller than the Skil in terms of its amperage, but the cutting performance between the two tools is negligible. We’re not looking for anything to complain about, but the small difference in rank between this saw and the Skil is due to the fact that the edge of the Craftsman’s shoe is slightly out of parallel to the blade, creating minor inaccuracy when you run the saw along a square in crosscuts or use a long straight edge for rips. Fortunately, if you apply a little extra due diligence, you can keep the saw cutting true.
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The Chicago Electric is big and heavy, which gives it a feel of solidity. It has the least amperage of the group, but you’d never know it. It’s a smooth-cutting saw that plows right along. And if you’re the kind of user who likes to cut holding the saw with two hands and the workpiece clamped to sawhorses or a workbench, you’ll find the intentional two-handed design of this Harbor Freight and its wraparound handle a perfect fit. We do have a couple of small complaints. The saw’s blade guard is so large that it blocks the left-side view of the blade. I get safety, but you’ve got to be able to see the cut line. And the guard’s spring tension is so high that it requires a lot of force to retract the guard at the beginning of the cut. This creates a tendency of the saw to move away from the cut line. Yes, the saw has a laser. We’re not laser fans. But maybe you are because you spend a lot of time cutting in low light or you like a little extra visual guidance. If that’s the case, the laser line is there if you need some help pointing the saw along the cut line.
We wanted to throw a cordless saw into this mix just to see how it compares to its corded counterparts. Compared to the other saws here, the V20 wasn’t nearly as fast since it doesn’t have the power provided by a 15-amp motor. That isn’t to say it’s a slouch. It’s got enough power to get the job done and plenty of product integrity. It’s light and easy to use, and its well-shaped handles are a model of industrial design, forming a comfortable and intuitive grip. Somebody, somewhere, saw to the tool's quality control. At bevel settings, or with the blade 90 degrees to the shoe, it proved to be dead-on accurate. It helps that its shoe is flat, rigid, and perfectly parallel to the blade, making for highly accurate crosscuts and rips along a straight edge. Keep its battery charged, and you’ll find this saw perfect for all kinds of small projects, whether it’s crosscutting some shelves, trimming down a door, or helping a young woodworker build his or her first project.
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