There are four types of saws used to cut wood that work by using in a circular blade. This kind of blade has several teeth that cut into wood as they quickly rotate. Nevertheless, the cutting tools using a circular blade are also significantly different from each other in the way they are conceived and used.

These tools are:

The blades of these saws can have various numbers of teeth, like 24, 40, 50, or 80. The tip of these teeth is often made of tungsten carbide, which is a very hard metal that can keep an edge for a long time. The circular blades are either made for general applications or, in other cases, more specific tasks. Each of them has distinct characteristics, like their respective diameter or thickness.

Saws equipped with a circular blade are ubiquitous in the fields of carpentry and woodworking. They are used for the vast majority of the straight cuts made in lumber, with the exception of some tasks like resawing that can in many cases be delegated to the bandsaw.

A Skil circular saw (skilsaw)
A Skil circular saw (skilsaw)

Saws using a circular blade are popular for a reason. It is relatively easy to obtain good straight cuts with this type of saw, especially if we compare with the jigsaw, for example. They can also cut wood at a fairly fast pace. Still, it is primordial to not cut at a faster rate than the tool can handle since it could cause a kickback, a very dangerous reaction that we will study a little further in this article.

Some Words on Security

In fact, these saws are the most dangerous tools in the field of carpentry and woodworking. Even if the router has a bad reputation, it doesn’t cause as many serious injuries. Saws using a circular blade are responsible for the loss of many fingers, even among experienced and skilled workers.

As we touched on earlier, these saws can cause in some circumstances what is called a kickback, which is the violent projection forward or backward of the tool or of the workpiece. A kickback happens much too quickly for any user to be able to react and can in some cases pull the blade toward the hand, which could be gravely injured in a fraction of a second. Also, any inattention from the user of a saw with a circular blade can cause severe injuries since the tool has such a great cutting capacity.

It is therefore primordial to learn how to use these tools correctly and to never compromise on security. It is noteworthy that even in popular YouTube channels, the best work practices aren’t always observed. For example, we can sometimes see woodworkers push the workpiece on a table saw with their bare hand while having their fingers at hardly one centimetre from the blade. No one should ever do this in any circumstances. Many experienced workers were injured because of their overconfidence in the degree of control they have over their tools.

Personally, I try to always work in such a way that even a violent kickback would not harm me in any way, even in situations where the risk of such a kickback is close to zero. I learned piano at a young age…

However, I think it would be a shame to keep away from woodworking or to avoid using some tools because of the risks they pose. An adequate work practice that is strictly observed is enough to avoid any injuries except for the very few that are caused by situations that are beyond what the user can control, like passing out while working, for example. Then again, at this point it is probably much safer to practise woodworking than driving a car.

The Circular Saw (Skilsaw)

The circular saw is pretty simple tool. The blade aside, its main parts are the motor, the handle, the switch, the sole plate and the power cord or battery. The sole plate is the metallic part that makes contact with the surface being cut in order to stabilize the tool with respect to the workpiece. The sole plate glides on the surface of that workpiece while the cut is being made.

Scie circulaire sans fil Ryobi
A Ryobi cordless circular saw

Virtually all full-size circular saws allow for adjustment of the sole plate in order to set the depth of cut. That depth should be set in such a way that the blade barely sticks out from the bottom of the workpiece. Always keeping the saw set to the maximal depth of cut is a bad work practice. The sole plate can usually be adjusted to make cut at any angle between 45 and 90 degrees. Sometimes, it can have an even greater range of angled cuts. Both the depth adjustment and the angle adjustment mechanisms are overall pretty simple.

The circular saw is a versatile tool that allows for many types of cuts to be made. That being said, it excels at cutting large pieces of wood like four feet by eight feet panels. This kind of panel is often too cumbersome to be cut on a table saw, depending of how it is set up in the shop, and the circular saw is then a better option most of the time.

The Mitre Saw

The mitre saw is a tool conceived to make crosscuts, which are cuts that are made most of the time across the grain of the lumber. An example of a crosscut would be dividing a 2-inch x 4-inch x 8 ft piece of lumber into two pieces of 2-inch x 4-inch of almost 4 ft (the equivalent of the thickness of the blade is reduced to saw dust).

A King Canada mitre saw
A King Canada mitre saw. Note the absence of a blade guard, which makes the saw more dangerous to use.

The mitre saws can generally make several types of angle cuts since its blade can usually be inclined, rotated, or a combination of the two.

Some of these saws are said to be sliding mitre saw. That is to say that the blade can be moved during the cut, which increases its crosscut capacity (the width of lumber that can be cut).

This is a feature that can be very convenient in many cases, but it doesn’t come without a downside: it tends to reduce the rigidity of the saw. This means that the blade will have some amount of play, which translates into cuts that are less precise.

This is a common problem of mitre saws and they are often criticized for that weakness. Nevertheless, the mitre saw is a very useful tool in a workshop and personally, I wouldn’t do without it.

The Table Saw

The table saw is often the main tool of the modern woodworking shop. The table saw allows for making some cuts that would be very difficult to reproduce with a circular saw, for example.

Like its name suggests, the table saw is made in such a way that it looks like a circular saw attached under a table that as an opening so the blade can rise above it.

Incidentally, some tinkerers create their own table saw by mounting a handheld circular saw under a homemade table. However, I would advise against building a table saw this way, especially for beginner woodworkers, since it most probably won’t be as good of a tool as a store-bought table saw. Also, it could be more dangerous to use. That being said, some tools can be worth to be made from scratch, like belt grinders, for example.

The blade of the table saw can be adjusted so it sticks out more of the table up to a certain point, which determines the saw’s maximum depth of cut, and can be retracted all the way down so it doesn’t protrude from the table. Most of the time it can also be inclined in order to make cut from 90 (straight cut) to 45 degrees.

These saws are generally sold with a fence, which allows to make rip cuts (cut made along the grain) and a mitre gauge, which allows to make crosscuts (cut made across the grain).

These guides work in a pretty simple fashion. The fence is equipped with a mechanism that allows it to be immobilized at the wanted distance from the blade and parallel to that blade. The workpiece is glided on the table of the tool while being pushed against the fence, which results in a cut that leaves a piece of wood of a width equal to the distance between the fence and the blade, and another piece of wood of whatever width is left to the other side of the blade. Sometimes, it’s to obtain that leftover piece that the cut was made.

The mitre gauge has two main parts. One of them is a metallic or plastic bar that is meant to glide into a slot (called the mitre slot) made into the table that is parallel to the blade. Most table saws have two mitre slots, but some smaller table saws sometimes only have one. The other part of the mitre gauge looks like the half of a circle and is often made with plastic.

This half-circle rests higher than the table while the mitre gauge glides into one of the mitre slots. It can be rotated one way or another and then fixed to a given angle with respect to the bar and the mitre slot by turning a knob on the mitre gauge. To make a cut with this gauge, the piece of wood must be pressed against the straight part of the half-circle fixed to the desired angle, and then both the piece of wood and the mitre gauge are sled toward the blade.

Many jigs for the table saw can be bought or made in the workshop like jigs to make box joints or crosscut sleds. They allow for the table saw to have even more functionalities.

The Radial Arm Saw

The radial arm saw was wildly used some decades ago but has since came out of fashion. Woodworkers and handymen alike now often prefer to equip their workshop with a table saw and a mitre saw since these tools will together be able to do what a radial arm saw can do, and more.

The motor and the blade of the radial arm saw are mounted on a horizontal arm and can slide on it to make cuts. It is possible to set up this saw in many different ways in order to make angle cuts, dados or even rip cuts. As a result, the radial arm saw has often been praised for its versatility.

That being said, the radial arm saw excels at one task, which is to make long crosscuts, often up to 24 inches.

Scie radiale Craftsman
A Craftsman radial arm saw. Again, note the absence of a blade guard on the saw, which makes using it more dangerous.

This tool also has its weaknesses. It is less precise than a mitre saw and also less safe to use because its blade must be pulled toward the user while it is pushed away on a mitre saw.

In fact, it is precisely because of the creation of the mitre saws and the improvements made to it as the years went by that the radial arm saw has been put aside to a large extent. The mitre saw can’t make crosscuts as long as a radial arm saw, but it still advantageously replace it in many cases.

Today, most manufacturers have stopped producing radial arm saws. In the United States, only one company, the Original Saw Company, still makes them.

Scie radiale Craftsman ajustée pour coupe longitudinale à angle.
A Craftsman radial arm saw set up to make a rip cut

In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety. Psalm 4:8

Why this verse?