Talking Tools: Saw Types & Uses

    This is a long article, because it covers a lot of ground. Feel free to get a snack, or a drink, and skim the headings to find what you want. (I won't mind, I promise). You ready? Let's begin....

    There are so many saws!

    It's amazing to me, how wood working has been around for thousands of years, but it has never changed so much as the last century.  The hammer and nail, as iconic as it once was, has indeed been largely replaced with screws and glue these days. The saw on the other hand, has never had so much variety, applications, and ease of use as those available today. In fact, I own 9 differing hand saws, two circular saws, two jig saws, a reciprocating saw, two Dremels with multiple cutting attachments, a band saw, a table saw, a mitre saw, an oscillating multi tool with numerous saw attachments, and several saws for pruning my precious fruit trees.

    Sounds like overkill, doesn't it? Well... yes... and no. Because I do a LOT of cutting, and having the right tool for the job saves time. Now, I'm not saying that to scare you off. You can of course, buy the ones you need. But there's a wide range of saws and they each serve a purpose. I want to outline some basic types here so you've got a pretty good idea of the options out there.


    Wood working can usually be broken down into three main activities.

    1. Shaping wood pieces,
    2. Assembling those pieces, and
    3. Finishing the surfaces.

    Note:  These activities are not always done in that order. In fact, it's often useful to sand the surfaces of pieces before assembly so you don't have to reach into deep crevices, corners, or do vertical/up-side-down work.

    That said, the humble saw is perhaps the first tool of choice when shaping pieces. Whether that's cutting the tree down, milling it into lumber, cutting lumber to size, creating fancy joints, or cutting joined pieces apart. Most people will already know what a saw does. However, just how many types are there? I'll look into a few hand driven saws, then start comparing and contrasting the powered models.

    Types of cuts....

    Before we talk about the saws themselves, we need to talk about the kinds of cuts that are out there.

    Depending on how the wood is cut, it's possible for grain to go along the length of boards, across boards, or at some diagonal angle. Around knots, it's entirely possible for the grain to change direction. However, look at the grain pattern here. Cuts along the grain are rip cuts, while cross cuts go (unsurprisingly) across the grain.

     

    Wood fibres look like straws because they're the way the tree moved water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves. However, different species will have different structures, and the straws aren't always parallel to the edges of your board. Knots, burls, and other "features" or "defects" can change the direction of the grain significantly from one part of the board to another. Really twisted, gnarled trees are much harder to cut because the fibres twist together like wool/twine, making it considerably stronger.

    Fibre direction, cut direction, and choosing a blade based on these factors....

    If you think of wood as a bunch of parallel fibres (which under a microscope look like straws) you'll realise that to rip the fibres apart from one another by chipping out a few strategically placed fibres, is faster than cutting through each and every fibre. Blades tailored to this type of cut often have larger (and fewer) teeth with bigger gaps in between (called gullets) to assist clearing out the sawdust generated with the faster cutting style. Conversely, cutting across the grain is called a "cross" cut. Blades tailored to this style of cut often have smaller teeth, often packed closer together to limit the cutting speed. This results in a slower, but much smoother cut. Of course, you can cut cross cuts on rip blade, and vice versa. However, the results might get very ugly, if you use a rip blade on a cross cut. Conversely, performance on your rip cuts will be slowed as well if you use a cross cutting blade. This can lead to friction burns on the wood, (meaning more sanding later in your project) as well as putting more strain on your tools... which shortens it's life expectancy.

    Different blades suit different purposes. "Teeth per inch" (TPI) and "peaks per inch" (PPI) for hand saw and band saw blades are the two most common measurements of whether a blade is good for cross or rip cuts. When it comes to circular saw blades, the diameter of the blade and the total number of teeth around the circumference will tell you whether it's a rip blade or cross cutting blade. For example, a 10" (254mm diameter circular saw blade) might have 20-30 teeth. With a 78cm/30" (approximate circumference) each tooth and gullet would be 25.4mm/1" or so. That's a big tooth for wood working, so would be considered a "rip" blade. 60 teeth and above (maximum size of  each tooth 12mm/0.5" ) would probably be considered a cross cutting blade. However, it is possible to buy "hybrid" or "compromise" blades between these two extremes. Usually with 35-55 teeth. Not ideal for either extreme, but can do both with a reasonably clean cut.

    We've covered cuts that are parallel and perpendicular to the grain, but what if you want to cut things at an angle? Let's get that terminology right:

    Many saws enable you to cut wood at various angles. However, some might only do mitre cuts, some might do mitre and bevel cuts. Note the angle of the cut in the edge of the board. Mitres are still perpendicular to the top face of the board, whereas a bevel cut is not. Another name for a perpendicular cross cut is a "straight" cut. You don't have to choose just one. If you are cutting both a bevel and a mitre at the same time, the cut is called a "compound angle cut" or just "compound cut". Which is useful for complex geometries, joinery, and commonly used when making saw horses, or fancy designer furniture.

     

     

    So now we know the blade type needs to be different, depending on the type of cuts we're doing, we can get back to the various saw types.

     

    Back to the saws....

     

    Hand Saws: A tale of two worlds...

    Hand saws are the ones that run on "elbow grease" (which is a way to say, powered with all the might of at least one human arm). Some have a fixed blade that you'll need to eventually sharpen, whereas others have replaceable blades. Some are designed for quick and rough cutting, while others cut more slowly and smoothly. Since you have all the freedom to move in any angle your arm can do, the handsaw should not be considered in any way inferior to the powered saw models. In fact, hand saws are often better suited to doing smaller or more detailed work, and can often get a variety of one-off cuts done as quickly (if not more so) than powered saws.

    Hand saws don't just cut straight lines either. Some saws, like hack saws, especially those with very fine blades (like "coping" and "keyhole" saws) can cut very tight curves, even though the finished result may not be perfectly smooth. However, most saws are geared to cutting straight cuts to a greater or lesser extent. Some blades are designed for cutting very straight to do joinery like dovetails, tenons, and box joints. In this case, the blade often has a reinforced spine, and a particularly high number of small teeth to maximise the straightness, the smoothness and the precise dimensions of the joints, all to ensure they're as close-fitting and strong as possible.

    Other blades are designed to cut straight with bent blades. What?! I hear you ask? Well there are "flush cut" blades where you have a flexible blade that bends against a surface to cut any dowels or other protruding attachments off flush, hopefully without cutting into your surrounding surfaces.

    Enter the western saws:

    Interestingly, saws commonly used in the "Western" world such as Europe, America, and the associated colonies, cut most efficiently by pushing the blade forward and down through the wood. Often held parallel to the forearm, the natural position western saws take when cutting timber means the blade angles forward and down when the wood is below shoulder height. This means you cut from the top back corner, to the bottom front. Because they cut on the push stroke, the blades have to be thicker in order to reduce the odds of the blade from bending inappropriately under the compressive force. The thicker blades means more material is removed to make the cut, by grinding out more material, the amount of effort to make that cut goes up as well. Anyone who uses western saws a lot, will often get very tired and sweaty quickly... and those who continue to use it a lot end up with muscles without the gym membership costs.

    A typical western style saw. Please note that this saw has lasted over 17 years, despite being very cheap. It has definitely seen better days, but it'll still cut reasonably well. Yes, I'm aware it needs the rust to be removed... a little WD40 and some 1000 grit sandpaper got that off after this photo was taken.

    There are some western saw blades called a "backsaw" that don't so much have a thicker blade, but are reinforced with "spines" (thicker metal on the trailing edge). They're not meant to cut pieces deeper than their blade, (the spine would hit wood, and wouldn't fit in the cut slot) and are often used for doing shorter, more precise cuts used in joinery such as hand cutting dovetails, tenons, and box joints. Oddly, I haven't seen anyone use these in a long time, and they are specialist tools.

    The brass-spined saws in the foreground of the pic above are typical of your average "backsaw"

    Just to show you how far the rabbit hole goes, have a look at the specifications for the saws above. PPI stands for "Peaks per inch" which is a wacky way Americans differ from the more common "teeth per inch" (TPI) that the British and other "right thinking" cultures do it. Teeth per inch measure the entire tooth, gullet to gullet, whereas peaks per inch will start on the peak, so PPI will often be 1 higher. In essence, 5 TPI = 6 PPI. Also note that the saws are often tailored to either rip cuts or cross cuts.

    Similar in concept to the backsaw, but different in design, the common hacksaw (sometimes called a "bow" saw) has a surprising range of versatility, and if you want to cut metal and other hard objects, then using a suitable blade on a hacksaw is the best choice. You can also get wood blades for them, and they work well for a lot of things, but the frame of the saw will limit the depth of cut in some situations.

    A typical hack saw. This one has a metal cutting blade (think cross cutting blade on steroids with even finer teeth) on it. Note that it's quite common to use the centre of the blade the most. As you can see by the wear marks. I put white tape on the bow years ago to indicate that it's configured for a metal blade. My wood one has black tape on it because my blades are actually the same colour... and I've destroyed wood blades by trying to cut metal bolts with it.

    Hacksaws are my favourite western saw, and I have two standard 300mm models (one with a wood blade, the other has a metal blade), and a small coping saw, seen here:

    A typical coping saw. This blade is only a few millimetres wide, and this is what enables me to cut really tight corners. However, the blade is only 200mm long, and the bow limits this saw to small pieces. If you want to progress doing detailed, tightly curved cuts.. from the coping saw, the next logical step is likely either a very small band saw, or more likely, a scroll saw.

    I also have a standard western style timber saw (seen above), but I rarely use that now that I have Japanese saws... so without further ado...

    Enter the Japanese saws:

    Conversely,  Japanese saws work on completely different design. Japanese hand saws cut on the pull stroke, and are made of a thin piece of flexible but surprisingly springy steel. Japanese saws have a sword or knife-like handle and can be held in numerous ways that range from almost perpendicular to almost parallel to your forearm. The range of movement means you can cut at whatever angle is most comfortable to you. Cutting on the pull stroke means that the blade can be much thinner than western saws, which reduces the amount of removed material and significantly reduces the amount of effort needed to make the cut. The down side is that they are very easy to bend if you get jammed. This is common when western saw users are used to powering through on the push stroke, rather than lightly drawing and pushing the blade through the wood like the Japanese do. The good news is, I have yet to find a Japanese saw that doesn't have a replaceable blade, and I've even bent the blade back into shape with a bit of careful straightening.

    Moral to the story, Japanese saws don't require as much effort, and you're punished if you try to use a heavy hand.

    Many western wood workers are starting to adopt Japanese blades into their tool boxes. They're easier to use, they cut with less material lost (less dust, and less lost wood) and when using the correct blade, cut amazingly smoothly. I haven't seen a Japanese blade that works to cut metal or other harder materials, but that's where my western hacksaw comes in. Despite this, Japanese saws come in a range of types, and I'll briefly explain the differences:

     

    A Ryoba saw. If there is one Japanese style saw to start with, I'd honestly say this is it! Note the finer "cross" cutting teeth on the bottom edge, the larger "rip" cutting teeth on the top edge, and the removable handle.

    • Japanese Saws:
      • Ryoba: "Ryouba/Ryoba" means "double edged or double blade". This is effectively two saws for the price of one. One side (big teeth) is for rip cuts, and the other (small teeth) for cross cuts.
      • Dozuki. "Dozuki" roughly translates to "shoulder cut". It is the Japanese equivalent of a "back saw", and is used for where accuracy and smoothness matters. It's usually used to cut fancier cuts.
      • Kataba Yokobiki. “Kataba” translates as “cutting on one side;” “yokobiki” is Japanese for “crosscut.” It's a single edged cross cutting saw.
      • Azebiki: A smaller version of a Ryoba, but the main difference is that it has curved saw edges so you can cut from surfaces, instead of edges.
      • Mawashibiki: Translated into "Turning cut" this saw features a single edged, extremely narrow blade is designed to cut curves from a edges and pre-made holes. It's the Japanese equivalent of a western keyhole saw.

     

    Side note, Kerf, and compound kerf:

    Like many credit cards with numerous fees and other charges, each individually too small to worry about, but over time, those charges, like kerf add up, literally.

    Regardless of the type of saw, or thickness of the blade, the thickness of that cut is obviously going to be the same width as the blade. The groove that has been removed is called the "kerf". Many newbie woodworkers (including yours truly) who start to cut numerous pieces from a single board or sheet fail to consider the loss a saw's kerf can make. For example, if I have a standard 2400mm x 1200mm sheet of ply wood. (Roughly 8' x 4' for those in imperial-driven lands) and I decide to make a bunch of 50mm high drawers for my wood screws, nails, washers, etc. I need to cut four 50mm high pieces of wood for the front, back and sides for each drawer. So I start ripping the 2400mm length into 50mm wide strips. How many would I get from the 2400mm? Basic maths (2400 divided by 50) says I should get 48 strips but that hasn't allowed for the kerf of my saw blade. Now if I am using your average western saw, I'll probably lose 1.5mm to 2mm each strip, and that's assuming I'm cutting perfectly straight and parallel each time. So all of a sudden each strip needs 52mm of wood, (allowing for the 2mm kerf) which means I get 46 strips. I've just lost 92mm of wood by making 2mm cuts 46 times. Actually, because I have 46.15 strips worth of wood, I lose a further 2mm on a 47th to make sure the 46th strip is the right 50mm size. Total loss of wood, 94mm that has been not-so-magically turned into sawdust... and that's only if they are perfectly parallel and straight. This is why people like table saws... but we'll get to that a bit later.

     Moral to this story, cutting wood involves a "Kerf tax". Make sure you budget your wood appropriately, and try to reduce the number of cuts to get what you need. It saves time, money, prevents dust-related health risks, makes for a cleaner workshop and saves wear and tear on your tools.

    Powered Saws:

    There are over 10 powered saw types, that fit into two broad categories, hand held, and stationary.

    • Hand held powered saws:
      • Circular Saw
      • Track Saw
      • Jig Saw
      • Reciprocating Saw/"Sawsall"
      • Multi tool/Oscillating tool
      • Rotary tools with cutting attachment (Dremel)
      • Chainsaw
    • Stationary powered saws:
      • Table saw/Cabinet saw
      • Band Saw
      • Scroll Saw
      • Mitre Saw
      • Radial Arm Saw
      • Panel Saw
      • Cut-off saw
      • Mill

    The circular saw:

    Circular saw

    Arguably the most common of the powered saws, and one of the oldest types. These saws feature a spinning circular blade and a motor, attached to a base, and a retractable guard to protect you from the obvious dangers a powered spinning blade can pose. Circular saws cut straight lines pretty well, but over longer distances the cuts can curve a bit. Most circular saws have a depth and angle adjustment, so you can make beveled cuts. If rough cutting your timber for garden beds, and anywhere the wood is too heavy to move, but not so thick you need a chainsaw, this is a good choice.

    Circular saws aren't precise tools, and most have do not dust extraction whatsoever, so expect to make a mess wherever you use these, and protect eyes, ears, and lungs. The cuts can be a bit rough, especially if pushing the saw too quickly for the blade to eject the dust effectively. In the past, most circular saws were corded power tools. These days, high capacity Lithium batteries make cordless models possible. However, the battery power ones are not going to be as powerful as corded models, and the batteries make the tool more cumbersome to use.

    The track saw:

    In short, it's a circular saw, that runs on a track to ensure that the cuts are straight. These often feature the same depth and angled cut capabilities of the circular saw, but often with a finer blade which cuts far more cleanly. More expensive models also include dust extraction ports for a cleaner and less hazardous experience. However, they're often far from cheap. With typical circular saws ranging from $59-$289, track saws can come in at $500+ and some go over $1000!

    You can buy third-party tracks, or make your own to adapt a typical run of the mill circular saw into a track saw. If that's too much effort, you can do what I do. I cut my larger plywood sheets or timber slabs by using a 1.8m spirit level clamped to the board, and run my saw along the side of the level. I then cut the more manageable pieces on the table saw to more precise dimensions. Unless you cut a lot of sheets, a track saw is not the first saw I'd choose to buy. In fact, it's entirely possible to build a DIY panel saw that will be faster and easier to use than the cost of a high end track saw. You can see more about that below.

    Why so negative on the track saw?

    Tracks often come in pieces, that range from 700-1200mm long. Obviously they're broken down for storage... and so they have to be assembled, then clamped to the board, the cut is then made, then the whole unit has to be moved again and clamped to make another cut. In short, the track saw is a bulky item to store and carry, as well as a cumbersome, and time consuming tool to use if many cuts are needed. However, the advantage is the complete freedom to cut a sheet of wood at any angle. You're not limited to parallel and perpendicular cuts to the edges... like a panel saw discussed below.

    The next evolution of the circular saw family is either the mitre saw (for easy angled cuts), the table saw (for easy parallel, repeatable cuts of specific widths and depths). Or perhaps, most similar, is the panel saw. See below for more details.

    The jig saw:

    This is what happens when you combine a keyhole saw with a sewing machine.This is the cheapest power tool that will allow you to make curved cuts.

    jig saw

    Featuring a narrow blade that moves up and down, you can cut some amazing curves with this device. With replaceable blades up to 100mm long, you can cut metal (albeit slowly) some plastics (at slow speeds to avoid melting) or wood. One key piece of warning, the depth of the cut must not exceed the blade's depth at it's highest (shallowest) point. Otherwise the blade will hit the bottom of the hole and bend the blade. If your jig saw suddenly starts bucking, or bouncing around, either the blade has jammed on the sides, or you've hit the bottom while cutting timber that's too thick.

    Jig saws are not renowned for clean cuts, it's often best to cut a little wide, and either sand or cut the excess off with a more precise device to the the exact dimensions.

    The curve-cutting wood worker has a few options to upgrade to from the jigsaw, the reciprocating saw (also known as a "sawzall", coming next), or for stationary workshop tools, there's the trusty band saw, and the scroll saw, which I'll mention below.

    The reciprocating saw (a.k.a: "Sawsall/sawzall"):

    reciprocating saw

    This tool is definitely built with the same principles as a jig saw, but with demolition and dismantling in mind. This is an amazingly versatile tool for cutting rough holes in gyprock ("plaster" or "sheet rock" in other countries) for installing power outlets, switches, and of course, cutting damaged parts out for replacement. The reciprocating saw features blades up to 150mm long and can cut wood, nails, screws with ease. I originally got mine for easy disassembly of pallets, I'd just tap the boards so there was a 2mm gap, then I'd just stick the reciprocating blade in the gap and cut the nails. I've also used it to remove the falling ceiling in our garage, and it very easily cut through the gyprock, the metal battens, electrical wires, and even a light socket in the space of a few seconds.. so make sure you don't have any dangerous wires, communications lines, gas pipes, etc when cutting into walls and ceilings.

    This, like the jigsaw, is not a clean cutter. Make sure you can either smooth the cuts down, or hide it behind a panel. Wear full safety equipment, goggles, ear protection, and dust mask because this can kick up a lot of dust.

    The rotary tool (a.k.a: "Dremel"):

    Dremel with metal cutting wheel attached.

    The rotary tool is a fantastic addition to the tool kit for people working on small projects. It can be turned into a small scale router, drill press, sander, grinder, engraver, and of course, a small power saw. When the cutting blades are only a little over 1" in diameter, you can't expect this to cut large boards, but it can definitely cut wood, nails, screws with the right attachments. It's quite ironic that the corded Dremel models are roughly the same diameter as (or wider than) the saw blades, so it can be impossible to use in some situations "out of the box". So either get the flexible extension, or the right-angle adaptor to make cutting easier in these situations. I'd also recommend that you buy your accessories in the kits as they are significantly better value. Oh, and ditch the collet system and get yourself a chuck. It just makes your life so much easier.

    The oscillating tool/multi tool:

    Where the Dremel operates on small projects, the oscillating/multi tool is also considered to be at the smaller end, but as a saw, it works in places that no other powered saw can. The oscillating tool is a relatively recent invention, and surprisingly safe. You see, the vibrations of the blade are great cutting wood, or even tiles because they are rigid materials, but they are not good at cutting fingers as the flesh just wobbles with the blade. Fair warning though, finger nails, jewellery, etc... are an entirely different story.

    Able to sand, grind, cut, and carve, the oscillating tool isn't a dedicated saw per se, but the cutting attachments can be surprisingly effective in tight spaces.

    The chainsaw:

    The chainsaw is a very powerful saw, with perhaps one of the highest injury/fatality rates of any saw. Notice the complete lack of safety guards. This isn't the sort of saw you just "pick up and chop trees down with it". Seriously, get some training with one from someone qualified, or at least, experienced. I've seen people do all sorts of stupid things with these things. Like cutting the branch they're sitting on.... or cut the tree down, only to have it land on their vehicle. Warning labels like "do not stop moving chain with hands" are common, and you NEVER stick the idling chainsaw between your legs to "hold it for a moment".

    Chainsaws, are renowned for being the tool of choice for felling trees and branches. They're also used to reduce logs into manageable pieces like firewood, or in some conditions, mill logs into lumber (with the right rig). Interestingly, this rough & ready device has also found its way into the "power carver" scene. Artisans carve sculptures very quickly with chain saws at first to get a rough shape, then can use smaller tools to add fine detail.

    This milling attachment (an "Alaska styled mill) allows the chainsaw to cut logs into evenly spaced slabs. Obviously, a larger, more powerful saw will allow you to cut wider logs down. However, a setup like this can save you thousands by obtaining wood through harvesting fallen logs, or helping friends to clear some land. It's not uncommon for nicer slabs to sell for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars each, but remember, you must allow your wood to dry in a protected, properly stacked way for quite some time before it's ready for further milling/use.
    Chainsaw being used to carve wood. However, this is usually done with smaller chainsaws for greater control. In stark contrast to the larger saws needed for effective milling in the last image.

    At the end of the day, the chainsaw is a capable but often dangerous tool to use. Spinning chain and tree falling risks aside... the most subtle yet disaster-prone risk occurs because you often use them in remote locations away from the convenience and safety of other people. I strongly urge you to have a buddy to help (or get help) when using one.

    Here's a video showing basic safety tips:

     

    Workshop (Stationary) Saws:

    In this last section, I'll outline some of the bigger saws. The kind where you bring the wood to the tool, rather than the tool to the wood as you've seen so far. Now this is beyond beginner level, but I received a few questions from people who have access to workshops, or inherited tools from friends and family, or thinking about taking the "next step" in their workshop endeavours.

    A quick warning:

    Adding bigger tools to any workshop will bring more capability, but remember that these tools need to be used, stored, (and often times) moved safely. Cluttered workshops are a dangerous place to be. Some of these tools will need a lot of room just to fit, and even more space around them to be used both safely and effectively. So before you go out to buy, "pickup" or accept larger equipment from willing donors who generously move the tools for you, ask yourself:

    1. "Do I realistically have room to store, keep, and use this device?" (Translation: Do you need to completely rearrange your workshop for this tool?)
    2. "Would I use this device often enough to warrant the space needed to store it?". (Translation: Will your wife/husband/significant other ever be able to park their car in the garage again?" They might have strong views on that)
    3. "Is this the most appropriate big device for my existing activities?" (Translation: "Is there a smaller/cheaper/more appropriate saw type?").
    4. "How do I manage the dust created by this device?" (Bigger tools generate more... sometimes much more dust than smaller tools).
    5. "Do I have the appropriate power supply to drive this tool?" Consumer grade stationary tools might well run on typical household power, which in Australia is 240V at 10 Amps), but many larger, older models may need a 15A circuit, or even three phase power. So keep this in mind when buying gear. Don't forget the dust extractor, lights, and other devices will needs power too if you want it to be safe.

    Haven't scared you off? Let's go.. or keep reading for general interest purposes, and consider renting a workspace somewhere. :-)

    Just because stationary saws are bigger than the ones mentioned previously, doesn't mean that each category doesn't come in a range of sizes, features, power, etc. The prime example of this is...

    The Table Saw:

    The bench top table saw is just the smallest of the table saw family. While they usually get used while sitting on some sort of table top, sometimes they're sold with fold up stands/trolleys. Despite being smaller, many workshops and DIYers run happily with these saws. They typically pack down to a very small space when not in use, and often times, the accessories clip to the device somewhere inside the saw for efficient storage.

    Why start the stationary saw section with the table saw?

    If I had to recommend just one of the stationary saws, a table saw would be it. My bench top table saw can rip up to 825mm wide, (a lot for the smallest class of table saw) and then be put away under my bench when not in use. However, I'm working out of a 2 car garage. If you have the room (and need) to cut larger pieces of wood, then larger models are available.

    Why do I like the table saw so much?

    A table saw cuts straight lines. It does not cut curves well at all.... so for basic shapes with straight edges, (90% of most wood working) the table saw is a good choice. However, what makes the table saw so useful, is the fence. You can set the fence (say 150mm from the blade) and push your wood through it, and it will happily keep cutting 150mm wide pieces of wood, over, and over again. So if you are making 50 drawers where there are a lot of identical parts to be cut, that ease of repetition will quickly save you time, effort, and ultimately, money.

    The table saw can do all sorts of useful things..

    • Cut really long parallel cuts... as long as the wood is straight.... (providing the motor can handle it, and you can move whole slabs, and the slabs aren't too thick). There is no track to run out of, the fence just keeps the blade the same distance from the edge, no matter how much wood has passed before it.
    • Cutting dadoes (slots) into the wood.
    • Cutting rebates (Americans seem to call them "Rabbets")
    • Do fancy joinery:
      • Make tenons... and with a little creativity, even the mortises to match.
      • Box joints
      • Tongue and Groove joints (although a router table is usually more convenient for this).
      • Half lap joints... and more.
    • Bevel edges by tilting the blade, or cut mitre angles with a mitre guide. You can even do both simultaneously to do compound angles. However, the best tool for this (at least for short cuts) is funnily enough, the compound mitre saw. For really long compound angles, a track saw (see above) might be better in some cases.

    If you use rough-sawn wood (not straight, flat, square, as it would ideally be) the table saw is the third machine in the holy trinity of thickness planer, jointer, and mitre saw. (The order you use them in is important). This can save you an absolute fortune by freeing you from buying expensive pre-surfaced and dimensional timbers. So if you have the room for even small models of each... the cost of tools may be offset by savings later.

    Between my band saw, mitre saw, and table saw, the table saw is my "go to" stationary saw and it forms the beating heart of my workshop.

     

    This is the "job site" style of table saw. Usually they aren't all that different to the benchtop models except a little larger, and might include a portable trolley or fold up stand. These have really improved in recent years, so many are taking the place of the contractor style (see next type) that was more popular in years gone by. However, there is still a loyal contractor saw following in hobbyist wood workers, and they are still available new and used. Back to the job site saws, many are being built into DIY-built work benches for the the huge support area, (side support, in feed and out feed surface support) and some even extend the fence rails (and measurement indicators) to go beyond the usual ripping width. In this way, you can get a contractor style saw without the price tag.

     

    A contractor style table saw is a little bigger again, often sacrificing a little portability for additional capability. You'll be able to handle thicker wood, but more importantly, wider cuts.
    The largest of the table saws is a cabinet saw. (I think it's because they are used a lot by people who make cabinetry for a living, and they cut large sheets of wood most days of the week. Cabinet saws are usually permanently installed, and often run on industrial power. However, the one in this image is one of the smallest in this category, and can run on a 15A circuit. (A lot less than 3 phase). Naturally cabinet saws go up in size from there. Usually they will have extended tables sticking out on one (or both) sides and back of the top for supporting moving huge sheets/slabs of wood. Some will have large dust extraction ports above and below the table, so if you've got the cash, space, need for a big table saw with a decent degree of precision... then this might be a worthy consideration.

    Here's a video on table saw basics: 

     

    Table saw safety:

    The video above has some essential tips. However, dust, eye, and hearing protection (you should use all three) really is important with this sort of tool. Use push sticks or push blocks (described in video) to avoid putting your hands anywhere near the blade. If you can attach a shop vac or dust extractor to devices like a table saw, your shop will stay cleaner, be safer, and more enjoyable to use.

     

     The Mitre Saw:

    This is a pretty fancy "gliding" mitre saw. It has the advantage that it doesn't have the slides that most modern saws have, which means it can be placed on a bench right up against a wall. Whether this space saving feature is worth hundreds of dollars over the more common slide function, or simple "non-sliding" mitre saw, depends on your funds and space efficiency preferences.

    Why would you need a mitre saw?

    Where the table saw excels at repeated parallel "rip" (along the grain) cuts with some nice capabilities doing cross cuts and some mitred angles. The mitre saw excels at cross cuts and mitred angles, with a small capacity of doing rip cuts for short distances... (in a pinch). In short, it complements the table saw very well, especially if you cut a lot of long, thin boards, (such as floor boards, picture frames, cornices, table legs, etc).

    Typically, (depending on blade diameter) the mitre saw can cut deeper (or thicker) woods than most table saws, and are geared for repeatable angles, rather than repeatable widths like the table saw. With a stop block, the mitre saw can be setup to cut repeatable lengths. However, this usually requires some sort of stand or permanent base.

    DIY mitre saw stand
    This DIY bench is designed to extend and support long, thin work pieces to either side.
    You can see the blue metallic track on top of the fence with adjustable stop blocks,
    allowing for easy repeatable cuts to specific lengths and angles.

     

    Here is a good introductory video by Steve Ramsay:

     

    For a no-nonsense... well... very little nonsense approach to take the mitre saw a little further, here's an Aussie video with a few tips:

     

     

    Should I buy a mitre saw, a compound mitre saw, a sliding compound mitre saw, or a gliding compound mitre saw?

    The basic mitre saw (sometimes called the "drop saw" in the U.S.) :

    A mitre saw turns the blade left and/or right so you can cut angles anywhere from perpendicular (90o) from the fence to 45o in one (or both) directions... depending on the model.  Since the blade does not move (except up and down) the widest boards they can cut has to be less than the diameter of the blade. The blades in most mitre saws here in Australia are usually 10" (254mm) or 12" (305mm). The larger blade will be more useful, and make  the saw more capable of cutting thicker, wider boards.... but larger blades are also significantly more expensive. Since a mitre saw typically does rip-styled cuts, a higher number of teeth is generally preferred. It's not uncommon to see 60, 80, or even higher teeth counts for ultra smooth cuts.

    The compound mitre (or drop) saw:

    Just like the mitre saw, the compound saw can turn the head left or right to do mitre cuts, but can also tilt the the head left or right to add bevel cuts. If you do both simultaneously, these are usually called (you guessed it) "compound angles". While this is a more adaptable model, the length of the cut is still limited by the size of the blade.

    The sliding compound mitre saw:

    Instead of just pivoting the head left/right for mitre cuts, and possibly tilting left or right for beveled cuts, the sliding compound overcomes the limitation of the blade size by moving back and forth. Instead of using a bigger blade, which needs a bigger motor, which needs a bigger blade guard, and all the extra expenses these things would need. You simply add two linear sliding rails to the compound mitre saw, so you can set both angles, then slide the blade in a straight line across boards that would normally be too wide for a simpler mitre saw to cut.

    The big down side of the sliding mechanism, is that cheaper models need a surprising amount of room in the back, meaning you can't put the saw up against a wall. As you push the entire saw toward the fence, the rails move with the saw out the back. If there isn't enough gap, they'd hit the wall, and you'd be unable to complete your cut. However, if there are no walls near your tool, and you don't need the space, the rails aren't an issue... and they offer an affordable, and capable option.

    Moving the slides to make room:

    Newer (and more expensive) models have put their rails to the side/front so you can put the saw against the wall. However, these can be very expensive, and often come at the expense of the compound function. Here is one example:

    Here they've moved the rail to the front. This particular model does NOT do bevel cuts, so this is just a "sliding mitre saw". However, there are models that are sliding compound mitre saws, that can do everything.

     

    What the heck is a "gliding" mitre saw?

    First there was "sliding" and now there's "gliding". (See first mitre saw image for a "gliding" example). This is where the sliding rails have been entirely replaced by an arm that moves like a slide, but doesn't have the wasted space out the back. These are pretty much at the bleeding edge of mitre saw development. However it might surprise you that while it has amazing potential, as one of the most expensive, non-industrial mitre saws out there, that it doesn't have all of the features that many cheaper saws do. Most saws (at the time of writing) of this type have neither the laser indicator nor the drop shadow of much cheaper and older saws... a feature I believe is crazy not to have.

    Weird references to a "radial arm saw"... please explain?

    The radial arm saw is a much bigger compound sliding mitre saw. (Although not all of them were compound capable). Popular between 1920-1970, these have been largely replaced by mitre saws in smaller workshops.

    Before the 70s, (specifically, the 1920s to 1970s) mitre saws didn't really exist, and the radial arm saw was pretty much the closest (albeit industrial) equivalent. These days, they're still around in more industrial/commercial workshops. However, with second hand models often exceeding $3000 (Australian) suddenly the top of the line mitre saws at $1200-1500 don't seem so bad. For the average home DIY wood worker, a mitre saw has all the capability that most would ever need.

    So what does this wayward Ham use?

    Personally, I own a very basic Makita 10" compound sliding mitre saw, that cost me $400. You can go cheaper, or much, more expensive, but I've yet to find something this saw can't do. I've cut wood, MDF, ply, polycarbonate, PVC pipe, and even softer metals like aluminium on it (I would never cut Aluminium on a table saw). In that time, I've used it as a table top unit, mounted it onto a job site trolley, built my own trolley for it, but now that space is so tight, I've sold off the trolleys and just stick it on top of my DIY tool chest.

    This was my very first stationary workshop saw. As far as stationary equipment is concerned it's one of the smallest saws you can buy. At the time I was buying mine, I just wanted to cut simple cross cuts and mitred angles, and I wasn't sure if I would have a lot of space for other machinery. Fortunately a perfectly decent mitre saw is generally cheaper than any table saw, or band saw of similar capability. So while the table saw is perhaps the most heavily used stationary saw, the mitre saw is a very compact, and comparatively affordable choice.

    Guide features that some mitre saws might have:

    The guide features in most mitre saws are the laser guide, and more recently, the "drop shadow". Lasers have been around for a long time, even my cheaper end saw has one. It simply projects a red line where the blade will cut. Very handy when lining cuts up with marked lines on your work piece. However, the laser can drift away from the blade, and while you usually line the laser up with the edge of the blade, there are times when you need to measure from the other direction, which means that you need to account for the kerf (blade width) to ensure an accurate cut. Over time, it's also possible for the laser to move and will need recalibration to restore precision.

    The "drop shadow" is created by putting a bright LED light near the top of the blade (attached to the blade guard) and it uses the shadow created by the blade itself to indicate where the cut will be. Obviously, this is never out of alignment, and shows you both edges of the kerf, so directional measurements are no more complex regardless of what side you approach it from.

    The down sides of a Mitre Saw:

    Some mitre saws need to be calibrated from time to time. If there are problems, refer to the manual on how to calibrate it, or if that's not an option, take it back to the shop and get them to repair/replace it under warranty.

    Precision completely lost if knocked around....

    As many of you with small workshops will know, that putting the mitre saw away after use is required in order to maintain a functional work space. Unfortunately, this constant moving around, putting it on a shelf, or setting it onto a bench means there's a lot of opportunity to knock or worse yet, drop it if it is awkwardly placed at either end. One of the most common results from a dropped mitre saw is that the fence cracks, and everything that references from that fence is no longer correctly angled. I had a cracked fence, and had it repaired.. but you have to remember sudden knocks can reduce the precision of this type of saw. Even if it's not cracked.

    Dust control:

    The biggest issue with mitre saws is their almost pitiful attempts to control dust. To put it bluntly, to expect the little dust bag to collect much of the dust is unrealistic. Even putting a shop vac onto the port might only see a small improvement. There are many ways people improve this, by:

    • Sawing outside where the dust doesn't matter.
    • Attaching dust tents/other fabric accessories to guide and capture more dust... usually attached to a shop vacuum.
    • Building an entire dust enclosure out the back, complete with adjustable windows for differing mitre/bevel angles. Usually attached to a dust extractor.
    • Some people build dust housings right up to the blade, and attach a vacuum/dust extractor to it.

    There are plenty of Youtube videos on how to do that, but each model of saw may need things to be done a little differently.

    At the very least, a dust mask, eye protection and hearing protection should be employed when using ANY type of powered saw.

    The Band Saw:

    These are all "vertical" band saws, popular with butchers and wood workers alike. Size, power, speed, and cost are all major considerations before getting one. The two on the left are "bench top" models, but with their own stands. These usually suit smaller, finer detailed work, as well as being a space saving option for smaller workshops. Larger jobs requiring more power, usually centre on the floor standing models like the two on the right.

    So far, we've seen a lot of  powered "circular blade" styled saws.The circular blades, usually 254mm (10") in diameter or more are great for efficient, clean, straight cuts. However, what happens when you want to cut a curve? We're not just talking about circular table tops, but also cabriole legs, and even wood sculpting. All of a sudden, you need something very different.

    A bandsaw blade is almost always shipped in a coiled state like this. Note how the blade's cutting edge isn't far from the smooth back edge, this means the blade can cut some fairly tight curves, but the teeth per inch (TPI) is much too low to cut metal. This is most likely wood cutting blade.

    The band saw takes an entirely different approach by using a blade made from loop of flexible metal ribbon... usually anywhere between 2-30mm wide (front to back edge), and maybe 0.5-3mm thick (although specific saws may only handle blades with specific width ranges. Smaller saws may only handle blades of 1-6mm width, and others, 6-25mm).

    Differing blade widths will determine the tightness of the curve it can safely cut. Thinner blades are great for detailed work, with tight corners, whereas larger width blades are best at cutting gentler curves, or even straight lines. Once you get to 25mm wide or more (like on the right) you can assume you're cutting straight lines again, and cutting through really thick boards. This would suit milling wood from whole tree trunks.

    Width is important, but so is blade length...

    These blades have the ends welded together, so they are not adjustable, and need to be sized for your particular saw. Common loop circumferences (or blade lengths) can be anywhere from 60cm (2 feet) on smaller models to metres/yards in circumference for milling machines. It's important that you get the right length for your saw. Close enough is not always good enough. Too small, and you won't get the blade around the two big wheels it runs on, too loose, and the tension is dangerously inadequate, and can pop off at any time.

    Like the hack saw, you can change blades out for different purposes, like cutting wood, or steel, or soft metals like aluminium, or even plastic. However, swapping a blade, and tuning it up can be quite time consuming. It might be worth having a dedicated wood saw, and a dedicated metal saw, if you have the space and budget. 

    Speed limits apply here too...

    Most band saws have only one or two speeds. That's ok if you're just cutting meat in a butcher shop, or just cutting wood, or just cutting metal. If you plan to hop from one material to another, they each have an ideal speed to cut at.... and, you're going to need a variable speed saw. However, buying one of these can be more expensive than buying two smaller, fixed speed models, so just keep that in mind. That said... if you have limited space, and don't switch materials very frequently, then one saw to do it all makes a lot of sense.

    Now while the band saw is definitely capable of cutting curves, with a jig or fence, you can also cut straight...ish lines, (although the cut will be fairly rough). When you do cut material with a band saws, it's best to leave a little extra material on the outside and then sand it down afterwards.

    The most underrated feature of a band saw....

    However, unlike the circular bladed saws, the band saw can cut deep. You're not limited to 50, 75, or 100mm (2" - 4")  like most saws, you can (with a large enough band saw) slice whole huge logs down the middle.  Which can help with milling your own logs into lumber. Although 100mm to 300mm (4"-12") is achievable on most consumer grade saws. This makes the band saw a really versatile tool.

     

      PROS CONS

    BAND SAW

    - Ability to cut varying materials (depending on the blade).

    - Capable of cutting curves. Thinner blades will do tighter curves, wider blades, cut through thicker material more straightly.

    - Really deep cutting capability. Good for re-sawing, cutting veneers, milling timber.

    - Blade draws down into the table, no chance of "kick back". However, holes in wood or other reductions in material density can suddenly and significantly speed cuts up unexpectedly, use push blocks rather than fingers.

    - Setting up and switching between blades requires some skill and time.

    - A variety of blades will be needed, depending on the task at hand. These are custom, and unlikely to be locally available.

    - Deep cutting can require powerful motors, and lead to jamming if feed speed isn't slow enough.

    - Requires regular tuning and adjustment, alignment, tension, and guide blocks, and dust removal from wheels is required.

    - Variable speed is incredibly helpful, but most saws do not have this.

    If you'd like an introductory video on band saws, this one is pretty good:

     

    If you hear of the "Snodgrass Method" for setting up a band saw, they're referring to a guy named Alex Snodgrass. Many wood workers swear by his approach. Although most people will have their own way of doing things, I find his to be particularly thorough and reliable. Here is a video showing this method:

     

     

    If you're looking at milling your own logs into lumber on your average (larger and more powerful) bandsaw, Mattias Wandel has some interesting videos on that:

     

    The Panel Saw:

    The panel saw is probably one of two saws found in the "Cut shop" section of your local Bunnings or hardware store. While commercial options like this are often beyond the price (and space) limits of ordinary wood working mortals, DIY options are actually quite affordable and useful.

    When it comes to breaking down large sheet stock, (especially into precise perpendicular rip and cross cuts) the panel saw is the "go to" saw of choice. Some operate on rails for up/down (vertical cuts) and left right movement (horizonta cuts). This means you do use less space for all cuts, since your sheet is cut while leaning in one stationary place.... but it makes the tool more expensive to buy or make.

    Cheaper DIY kits have rails for vertical cuts, and you turn the saw 90o to cut horizontally, lock the height in place, and you push the sheet sideways for horizontal cuts. However, this needs a considerable amount of space on either side to move the sheet through the saw horizontally... it's also hard work when you have really heavy slabs or sheets. To address this, some people put bearings and "rollers" on the lower edge support to make moving the wood sideways easier.. but this can lead to trouble with drifting cuts if it's not designed and implemented well.

    This is a DIY panel saw that offers the saw guide rails and mount as a kit, then you can build the rest as you see fit. As always, the wood behind your cut piece will be marred and damaged over time, so have an additional sacrificial layer for rear support. This model requires the blue sheet to be moved sideways for horizontal cuts.

    You can turn any circular saw, track saw or jig saw (in a pinch) to a panel saw by mounting one to the guided rail system. However, I'd also strongly recommend that you consider a counter-weighted pully system for the vertical cuts, just for ease of use... preferably not using the power cable to support the weight. :-)

    There are some great designs out there, one I really like is this one:

     

    However, there are mostly-wood alternatives like this, that also include wood storage:

     

    There are all sorts of variations, completely DIY designs, kit-augmented designs, fully built models. Some are all wood, some are all metal, some use cheap steel rails, while others use more expensive aluminium T slot extrusions. Some of images and videos here are just a small sample. Build one as large (or small) as you like. Vertical models are good at saving space, but ones that fold down from the rafters are even better. If you're unsure what you need, have a look around on the internet and see what you can find for inspiration.

     

    The Scroll Saw:

     

    The scroll saw is an often-overlooked saw, and while it is certainly not as popular as other saw types, it has capabilities that no other saw can match.

    When it comes to cutting really tight curves and fine detail, the scroll saw is the tool of choice. In a lot of ways, it's a motorized coping saw, moving like a jig saw in an up and down manner, but with the table of a bandsaw. So in some ways, it's a hybrid of all three.

    Because the blade is short, straight, and easily removable, you can drill holes in your work piece, thread the blade through the hole, install the blade into the saw, and cut fancy holes without having to cut through from the outside edge as you would with a bandsaw. This can do some really nice internal work that few tools can match.

    I could outline the capabilities here, but it's easier to show you in a video. Here's George Vondriska (one of my "go to" guys) showing you what a scroll saw can do:

     

    Like the coping saw and jigsaw, your work pieces are limited by the depth of the blade, and the distance between the blade and the back of the arm. Obviously, a larger model is usually more capable (and more expensive), but the smaller ones can be very cheap (less than $160 new)... and there isn't a huge size difference between entry level and pro. That said, while the size difference may not be huge, the cost can be sometimes upward of $1000 more than entry level machines. Like all saws, sizes and feature, differ. Some scroll saws are designed to be sat on a table top, while larger models may have their own stand or trolley. Some have a foot pedal to control the speed (like a car or sewing machine) while others do not... or offer it as a separately sold accessory.

    Honestly, I don't use a scroll saw much, as I'm mostly interested in larger projects. But they are very useful for crafty folks who like to work on small and detailed projects.

     

    You made it to the end... wow that was a lot of words for us both.

    I hope I managed to share something new with you, or that you now walk away with a greater appreciation of how many different saws are out there. I've also outlined where one type of blade is best suited over another, and the types of cuts each saw can do. You don't need all of these saws, but you should be able to make a more informed choice when considering getting one.

    Stay safe and happy sawing!

    Ham.

     

    P.S. You deserve a tasty snack to reward yourself for getting this far!


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