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Attempting Aloha: Side-by-side Power Saw Comparison - Saw 101

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Side-by-side Power Saw Comparison - Saw 101


I LOVE a good side-by-side comparison, don't you?  Have you ever wondered, "What's the difference between a circular saw and a miter saw?" Yeah, it wasn't that long ago that I didn't know the difference, either. So I thought my first side-by-side would be about power saws!

This is just to give you a really basic visual of the tools and their names and how much they cost. The photos are all from Harbor Freight. They have the lowest prices on ALL these tools except the table saw. I recommend reading through all the reviews, though since many of their power tools need a tiny bit tweaking or adjusting. Some people don't want to deal with the hassle. For me, though, it's worth the huge savings on certain tools.  ((I am not being paid by Harbor Freight. This post is purely informational and based on my own experiences and shopping.))

So let's take a look at each of these tools and what they're used for.

I've ranked them by how useful I think they are and the order in which I think they should be purchased for simple woodworking projects.


The most popular brand of oscillating tools is the Dremel, so most people actually call their tools Dremels even if it's not the Dremel brand. Most of them come with many different attachments you can put on them like a sander or different kinds of blades to cut through different surfaces. They vibrate back and forth and kind of sound like a power sander, if you've ever used one of those. Relatively harmless on the "accidents" scale. You could still cut through a finger, but it would be pretty hard to accidentally lose a limb with one.

These little tools are great for small jobs, but they're not very deep, and they really only cut INTO things. You're not going to be able to cut up through a piece of plywood with it, for instance. I've used oscillating tools a few times, but I haven't purchased one yet because the need hasn't really been there. Ranking these 7 items in order from "purchase first" to "purchase last", this one gets the number 4 spot. 

JIG SAW - My #1

The jig saw is one of the two power saws that I use most frequently. If you're a beginning builder, I think this should be your first purchase. They're inexpensive, and they can be very multi-purpose if you're willing to take the time to change out the blade and build a rip fence (maybe we'll talk about rip fences another day?). 

The blades for jig saws are very thin, and you can't really tell from that picture, but it faces out. So you push the saw forward with one hand. Different blades have different rigidity, so some are meant to cut more straight, and some are meant to do very intricate swirls and circles. 

The jig saw can be a bit squirrely, though. You're not going to get a SUPER straight line like you will with a circular saw or a nice clean line like a miter saw. But it can get the job done in a pinch. 

They're more noisy than an oscillating tool, so plan for that, but they're much safer than many of the other tools. You could slice into your finger and end up with stitches, but it would take some effort to go through bone. Too graphic? Sorry...

I purchased my jig saw for $5 from a pawn shop. Best $5 I've ever spent. ;)  I build my doll beds using JUST a jig saw. 


The reciprocating saw is similar to the jig saw in that the blade moves in and out (up and down) vs. in circles or back and forth. But the blades and power of a reciprocating saw are MUCH MUCH stronger. These bad boys take two hands to hold, and they're quite dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. 

Sawzall is the most popular brand of reciprocating saws, so many people just call them that. We've used a cordless one to cut some small branches off trees and things like that, but mostly they won't be needed for the kind of building and woodworking I do. I have this saw ranked last and am pretty sure we won't be using one for a long time.


The circular saw is a champ when it comes to making straight cuts up through a piece of wood if you know how to use a rip fence. They're easily portable, and some are even cordless. If you plan to do any woodworking with plywood and don't want to mess around with having the Home Depot or Lowes guys cut them down to size, this is a great alternative. The table saw also works, but I'll explain why I don't prefer them later. Jig saws can also do the same function, but the lines will be a little wavy with a jig...and it will take MUCH longer. Circular saws are fast and powerful.

This is a dangerous tool! If you've never used one, I recommend having someone who knows what they're doing teach you first. You can learn a lot from the Internet, but don't mess around when safety is concerned. Not all saws are the same, so you need to know the safety functions and quirks of your own tool before just starting it up. 


Miter saws are also called chop saws. You lay your piece of wood on top of that surface and then bring the blade down into the wood. Chopping it...get it? Some of them slide back and forth couple inches to give you some range of motion and make cleaner edges. If you want one that can cut at an angle (like for trim and molding), you'll be looking for a compound miter saw. I recommend a 10" compound sliding miter saw if you're going out hunting. These can be VERY expensive. But Harbor Freight has theirs on sale online for $120 for the 10" compound slider, so they CAN be reasonable if you're considering building furniture for your family. WELL worth the investment. :)

I LOVE the miter saw! It's fabulous. For any woodworking projects that you'd like a really crisp, professional finish to, the miter saw is indispensable. In the example of the doll beds I built with the jig saw, because the blade is meant to curve, the cuts on the 4 legs/posts weren't perfectly straight. This makes the bed sit uneven. Not a big deal for a doll bed. But for the toddler bed, I HAD to have straight lines. A miter saw was pretty much a must for that project particularly since it wasn't for my own kids. Ha! The quality of my work can be compromised for my own family. lol

Again, this one is dangerous! Have someone show you how to use it before going to work. If your arm is in the way...it won't be forgiving. 

BAND SAW - My #5

The band saw is a tool I've never used or even seen used in person. I know a lot of people really like them, and they have their purpose in woodworking, but I think the other tools mentioned can get the job done and are much less expensive and cumbersome. The main unique feature of a band saw vs. a jig saw or a reciprocating saw is that the blade only goes in one direction. It loops up and around (in a band...get it?) and comes back around, so it's continuously cutting. No back and forth. But the width of the blade is much smaller than a circular saw or a table saw, so it can cut curves.

I'd still probably use this more than a table saw or a reciprocating saw for woodworking, but I'm not ready to fork out the kind of money needed for one when I can get everything done that I need to with my other tools. :)


The table saw is similar in function to the circular saw. They're designed to cut up through long pieces of wood/plywood. They're stationary, and you push the wood up into the saw. This is the most dangerous saw by far. Most power tool ER visits are table-saw-related. 

Table saws are very expensive, and they're bulky. They're dangerous, and a circular saw can mostly do anything a table saw can do. That's why it's so low on my list. Unless you're building a bunch of cabinets, you probably won't need to worry about purchasing this tool.  

And you've just completed Power Saws 101. ;) 

For more classes, you can visit my friend, Brittany at Pretty Handy Girl. She has more explanations of each of these saws as well as videos of them in use.

Was that helpful?  Or were you already a tool expert?



At March 9, 2012 at 8:29 AM , Anonymous Lesli @ Beautifully Coastal Design Blog said...

Hi Charlie, I found this VERY helpful! I was just looking at tools on Craigslist yesterday and was overwhelmed by the choices.

Thanks for the info.

Lesli @ BeautifullyCoastal.com

At March 10, 2012 at 11:42 AM , Blogger April said...

Great info! Thanks for sharing! I am wanting to build a few things for our house. Pinning this for reference! Also, I would love for you to stop by and link to my Sew Crafty Saturday Party!

At March 10, 2012 at 3:12 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, this is AWESOME! I have many wood working projects in my head, but I've been too intimidated to get started. I feel more comfortable and just need to run out get me a jig saw :)

At March 11, 2012 at 6:31 PM , Blogger Pamela said...

Love this! Thank you, my hubby and I are actually in the market for a table saw, you freaked me out a bit w/ your description of it but it's exactly what we need for precision of cutting through wood.
The rest of your descriptions are great so thanks!


At March 12, 2012 at 8:55 AM , Blogger Attempting Aloha said...

You're welcome! I haven't had much luck with CL and tools...boo! I know lots of people have scored some awesome deals there, though!


At March 12, 2012 at 8:59 AM , Blogger Attempting Aloha said...

Ha! It's always good to have a little fear of your power tools. It's when people get super comfortable and lazy that accidents happen. :) If you've been building for awhile and know a table saw is right for you and are ready for the investment, awesome! Ana White just bought one that I think is pretty awesome...it senses when something soft touches the blade, and it automatically retracts! It won't even cut through a hot dog! Pretty amazing! But also a pretty penny... ;)

Here's the link where she talks about it: http://ana-white.com/2011/12/momplex/tooling-kitchen-cabinets

Good luck in your search!


At March 12, 2012 at 3:11 PM , Blogger Lisa Nelsen-Woods said...

I've used a bandsaw. It's good if you do a lot (to justify the expense) of jigsaw type cuts on smaller pieces of wood. Like you said most people make do with a jig saw just as well.

At March 15, 2012 at 6:38 AM , Anonymous Lynn said...

I'm surprised that you ranked table saw so low. It is #2 only to the miter saw in my book. Have found mine necessary for almost every project I've completed (it's only not necessary if your are building dollhouse furnture. Most of mine however, require pieces larger than 10". However, most major hardware stores will rip wood for you if you plan a head and can give them exact measurements. Much cheaper that way!

At March 15, 2012 at 8:51 AM , Blogger Attempting Aloha said...

Hi, Lynn! I agree, a table saw is awesome and super useful...if you have one and know how to use it properly. But my post was meant for beginning builders who don't have any tools or who don't know what any of them even are. :) I don't want people to feel like they HAVE to spend thousands of dollars if they want to get started building. They're also bulky, and many beginning builders don't have a dedicated woodworking space. It IS possible to finish lots of amazing projects without a table saw, so I ranked it low for that crowd. I think with a jig saw, a miter saw, and a circular saw (about $150 for all three), almost all projects can be done. A table saw would make the projects much easier...but again, this is for the "newbie" crowd.

Also as I mentioned, they're rather dangerous, and this is for beginning building. I think people should work up to a table saw. :)

So for safety and financial reasons, I ranked it low for beginners.

Hope that makes sense!

At March 17, 2012 at 12:19 AM , Blogger Holly Lefevre said...

Honestly, saws scare me...but I use them and I love them. I like my fingers. I LOVE my saws for real...the jig saw is new to my arsenal and I am having FUN with it. I am totally comfortable with the miter saw (love) and my dremel...next up scroll saw (cuz my dad has one he does not want) and a circular saw - OK, I have one, just have to use it (remember I like my fingers!)

At March 19, 2012 at 11:48 PM , Blogger The Shabby Posy {formerly Bows 2 Match} said...

Thanks for this post! It's exactly the little nudge I needed to break out the compound miter saw I got for mothers day last year! I've used it many times, but always with the hubby's supervision, as he used to build custom furniture and is OCD about straight cuts ;) Not much has gotten done with him in afghanistan for a year so it's looking like it's time to fly solo! I'd love to see a tutorial on making different miter cuts, how to measure to accomodate angles, etc.... being mathematically challenged it'd be nice to have someone take some of the guess work out of it for me! LOL

At July 12, 2012 at 3:35 AM , Anonymous Pedro said...

Not sure about dremels, but I wown a Bosch oscillating saw. It has a blade that is some 250º round, and it can cut through stuff - I DIY a lighing position change through my (light) cement wall, making a pretty clean cut.
I found Dremel also has that accessory blade: http://www.acetoolonline.com/Dremel-MM450-3-Wood-Drywall-Saw-Blade-p/dre-mm450.htm

At July 12, 2012 at 3:44 AM , Anonymous Pedro said...

One could also puchase a table that attaches the circular saw to it, and have a multi-funcional table (I have one that I can use my jigsaw, circular saw and router... and it is foldable).
Mine (http://www.wolfcraft.de/jcatalog_generated/en/products/product_groups/14750_product.html) isn't available in the USA, but I'm sure there will be similar ones.


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I LOVE your comments! They're the reason I blog. If you've used one of my tutorials or found them helpful, I'd also love to see pics! You can post them on my FB page or send an email: attemptingaloha @ gmail . com

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