If you're just starting out in woodworking, it's easy to get overwhelmed by tools and terminology. Saws can be especially confusing, as each is designed for specific types of projects. This simple yet extensive guide will help you make your first saw purchase with confidence. (And when you're ready to buy, make sure to check out our current tool deals!)
Disclaimer: Saws Are Dangerous
Before we go over the different types of saws, there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, like any tool, saws carry inherent risk. Always wear protective equipment, and learn to use your tools before you dive into big projects. Read your manual before you pick up a saw. And if you don't understand something, don't guess! Call an experienced friend or recheck the manual.
You'll need to support your workpieces, so buy some sawhorses and two-by-fours to stabilize them. And finally, don't expect to do something perfectly the first time you pick up a tool. You'll need practice before you make cuts you're happy with. Buy extra materials for practicing!
Power Tools vs. Hand Tools
Power tools have been getting progressively better and cheaper, and they promise a convenience that hand tools don't. But before you sink money into power tools, make sure you actually need them.
Hand tools are significantly cheaper and less dangerous. While you're not guaranteed to make better cuts with hand saws, mistakes happen much faster with power tools.
If you just need to cut a couple of two-by-fours down to size, saw through some pipes, or cut down tree branches, you're better off with a hand tool. Starting a large project? Power tools will likely save you time and energy.
The Basic Hand Saw
If you just need to cut something, consider a hand saw. You can pick one up for $10 to $20 at any hardware store. Be sure to look down the blade to see it's not kinked or bent. Different manufacturers make different grips; find one that fits your hand.
A pruning saw is useful for homeowners and renters alike. If you have trees or bushes growing around your property, a pruning saw lets you take care of them safely and efficiently.
If you need to cut branches that are high off the ground, you can buy fiberglass poles that accept a pruning saw blade. The poles can be pricey — around $50 to $100 — but that's still cheaper than a trip to the emergency room trip after you fall out of a tree.
TIP: Don't cut branches flush with the tree; it's harder for the tree to heal. Instead, make a series of cuts, ending at the branch collar.
Hacksaws are incredibly versatile. You can use them to cut through wood, harder plastics, and metals (although harder metals will take a while).
When picking out a hacksaw, focus on the frame. Many come in multiple pieces — avoid these in favor of solid, single-piece frames.
If you're aching from hand saw use, it might be time to upgrade to a circular saw. While cordless tools get better every year, corded circular saws are still much cheaper, just as effective, and don't require batteries or chargers.
Whether you go corded or cordless, know that the blade that comes with your circular saw isn't ideal, and you should immediately buy a new one. Most circular saws come with 24-tooth framing blades, which are a compromise between heavy-duty, 14-tooth demolition blades and more refined blades. If you want clean cuts — or you're cutting soft material — you'll need more teeth.
As a rule of thumb, more blades means a slower, cleaner cut. If you're primarily cutting plywood, consider a 40-tooth blade. If you're cutting medium-density fiberboard (MDF), you need 80 to 120 teeth for a clean cut.
If you foresee DIY home repair in your future, consider a miter saw. It's useful for cutting molding, trim pieces, picture frames, door frames, and anything else that needs an angled cut (also known as a miter joint — thus the name of the saw).
Just like the circular saw, the factory blade is likely a bad compromise. Consider immediately replacing your blade to match the material you'll be cutting.
If you're trying to figure out whether you need a jigsaw, you probably don't need a jigsaw. They're especially handy for installing cabinetwork, or cutting holes to make pathways for pipes or wires — those are not generally beginner tasks.
To be sure, jigsaws excel at things no other saws can do, like cutting curved paths through a variety of materials. But if you're starting out, you can safely ignore the jigsaw until you need it.
Table Saws (and Why You Shouldn't Buy One)
Table saws allow you to make long cuts through large workpieces. They're also one of the most dangerous tools in the shop, and are not recommended for beginning woodworkers.
Introductory-level table saws start around $150 to $200, and you should avoid them like the plague. Cheaper table saws often have rickety frames. If the table saw moves unexpectedly, it can spit your workpiece back at you at astounding speeds — turning a happy Saturday in the shop into an ambulance trip.
If you're tempted to buy a table saw, make sure you can't do the job with a circular saw and a fence clamped to your workpiece. If you still want a table saw, find an experienced friend or a local shop class, and learn how to use this tool before you go out on your own.
Note: This article would not have been possible without the invaluable advice and assistance of Andrew De Lisle, a craftsman with more than a decade of experience in preservation carpentry and carriage-making.
Readers, what are your best saw-buying tips? Let us know in the comments!