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Attempting Aloha: Mar 7, 2012

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?