Understanding the Difference in Different Types of Saws

If you need to cut something in your garage or workshop, most likely you’re going to have to grab some kind of saw to do it. Scissors and knives just don’t have enough umph to get through a lot of materials like wood, metal and tile. A saw operates under a different principle, making it possible to cut through even very hard materials.

All types of saws work by removing chips of the material being cut. The size of these chips depends upon the type of saw, the size of the blade and the cutting speed that is used. This leaves a slot in the material, referred to as the “saw kerf.” Saw kerfs can range from a mere 1/32” for a band saw to a hefty 1/2” for a chain saw.

Different types of saws are used for different types of cuts and for different types of materials. Fine, detailed work requires totally different things from a saw than “ripping” a board. Generally speaking, the harder the material is that is being cut, the slower the saw blade needs to move. At the same time, more accurate and detailed cuts require slow cutting as well. On the other hand, rough cutting of relatively soft materials can be done very quickly.

Types of Stationary Saws

Stationary saws can either be table mounted or have their own stand. Typically, the table mounted versions of these types of saws are smaller versions of the stand mounted ones. Many are at least somewhat portable, so that they can be moved to jobsites for use. However, they are not intended to be moved around a lot. On a jobsite, they are usually set in one place and the various workers bring their material to the saw to cut it.

Table Saws

Table saws are designed for ripping lumber and engineered lumber products. By definition, ripping is cutting wood with the grain. Since lumber mills cut wood with the grain running the long way through the piece, this means cutting along the length of the piece. For engineered lumber products, such as plywood and OSB (oriented strand board), the table saw’s fence allows more accurate cutting of straight lines than can be done with any other type of saw.

While all table saws come with miter gauges for crosscutting and can even be used for cutting compound angles, they really aren’t designed for this type of work. The accuracy of a miter cut on a table saw can’t compare to that which can be reached with a miter saw or radial arm saw.

Table saws are not used for cutting metal, although they can be used for cutting plastics, laminate for countertops and other soft materials. They come with a 10” or 12” circular blade. The larger blade size allows cutting through thicker materials.

Band Saws

Band saws are used for a variety of cutting tasks with both wood and metal. The blade is a thin metal band or loop, which is moved by large pulleys placed over and under the cutting table. The maximum adjustable distance between the table and the top guide is the “resaw capacity” and the distance between the blade going through the table and the back of the saw (the other side of the loop) is called the throat. Both of these dimensions affect what can be done with the saw.

Band saws are capable of cutting curves, although they can’t cut as tight a curve as a jigsaw or scroll saw can. When used for metalwork, they are most often used as cutoff saws, rough cutting bar stock or plate to a desired size. When used for woodworking they are most often used for resawing.

Resawing is the method used for taking standard 1” boards (3/4” finished thickness) and cutting them thinner, either to 3/8” of 1/4” thick. This is done by standing the board on edge and ripping it with the band saw. More than anything, a good fence and a lot of patience is needed for resawing.

Miter Saws

Miter saws, like the DeWalt DWS780 are designed for accurately miter cutting wood trim for cabinet work and finish carpentry work in homes. They are available with 10” and 12” circular blades, similar to those used on a table saw. However, these blades need more teeth in order to provide a smooth miter cut. If being used for installing crown molding, a 12” saw is recommended.

Although all called by the name “miter saws” there are several different types of saws in this category. Essentially, the difference is in what cuts the saw is capable of making. A basic miter saw can make miter or straight crosscuts in wood molding. A “compound miter saw” allows the cutting of compound angles; or cuts that are angled in two directions at the same time. A sliding miter saw has the saw mounted on rails, so that it can make a longer miter cut. This is used when cutting large trim pieces for elegant woodwork.

Miter saws are not used for steel, although it is possible to use them for cutting aluminum extrusions. To do so, it is recommended that the blade be changed out for one that is designed specifically for cutting aluminum.

Metal Cutoff Saws

Metal cutoff saws look a lot like miter saws. The major difference is that they aren’t designed for making miter cuts, but rather straight crosscuts of metal bars and tubing, specifically steel. They do have some limited ability for making angled cuts, but not accurate ones for miter joints.

The other major difference between this type of saw and a miter saw is the blade. Since it is used for cutting metal, it has a metal cutoff blade. This looks more like a thin grinding wheel, rather than a round blade with teeth. The blade chips off particles of metal which are about the size of grains of sand.

When using a metal cutoff saw, don’t try and cut quickly. Quick cutting creates excessive heat, removing any temper from the metal. It also causes the blades to wear out much more rapidly.

Tile & Stone Saws

A tile and stone saw is much like a radial arm saw, designed specifically for use in cutting ceramic tile. Since ceramic is essentially a stone, these are ideal for cutting stone as well. A tile saw, such as the Bosch TC10-07 has a water catch basin under the table and a pump to run a constant stream of water over the blade and cut, cooling and lubricating it.

With this type of saw, the table moves, rather than the saw blade. The tile is placed on the table, which also acts as a miter for the tile, and moved under the blade, with the blade piercing the table. As the tile passes the blade, it is cut. You have to cut slowly with these saws, for the same reasons as for the metal cutoff saws.


Types of Power Hand Saws

Hand saws are designed to be handheld, with the material stationary. Depending upon the type of saw, they might be designed for one-handed or two-handed operation. Even the one-handed versions of most of these types of saws often come with a secondary handle, allowing the operator to use two hands for better control or to support the weight of the saw.

Circular Saws

Circular saws are sometimes referred to as “skilsaws;” the name that was originally given to them by their inventor, Skil. Skil is still in business, making saws like the SHD77M. These portable saws use a circular blade, usually 7-14” in diameter, although there are also 6-1/2” and 3” circular saws on the market as well.

Circular saws are use mostly by carpenters for rough framing. They are not considered a highly accurate saw for finish work. However, they can cut through dimensional lumber and engineered sheet lumber quickly and easily.

There are two basic circular saw designs. The most common has the blade almost inline with the motor shaft. A pair of gears transfer the power from the motor shaft to the blade arbor. Milwaukee’s 6390-21 is an excellent example of this type. The second type, called “worm drive” has the motor tuned inline with the saw and a worm gear which transfers the power from the motor to the blade arbor. These are much heavier, more accurate, and more powerful than standard circular saws.


Jigsaws are the saw to use for detail cutting, especially of curves. The blade is 1/4” to 3/8” wide by 3” to 4” long. It protrudes through a foot, which in turn sits on the wood being cut. More often than not, this is plywood or some other engineered sheet wood product. The blade moves up and down, cutting on the upstroke.

A good jigsaw, such as the DW331K will have a built-in oscillating action, which is adjustable for the different types of wood that one is cutting. This action makes the saw cut faster, while helping to prevent chipping on the edge. Many newer jigsaws also have blade clamps which are tool-free for easy blade removal.

Jigsaws are not good for cutting fast or making a lot of cuts. The blades are fragile, and easily bent. Once a blade is bent, the accuracy of the saw’s cut is lost. However, one great advantage these saws have is the ability to make inside cuts, such as cutting out the hole for a window in a door. No other saw can do that as well.

Reciprocating Saws

Reciprocating saws are also known as “sawzalls” the trade name given them by their inventor, Milwaukee Tools. Today, many manufacturers build reciprocating saws, such as the Makita BJR182Z.

These saws are used more as demolition saws than anything else. They are not highly accurate saws, but can cut quickly through almost any material imaginable (except concrete and stone), as long as they have the right blade. There are some great video demonstrations of this on the Lenox saw blade website.



Portable Band Saws

Portable band saws are the portable version of the band saws we already talked about. They are used for cutting metal pipe, tubing and rod in a variety of industries. Carpenters and plumbers use band saws, like the Bosch BSH180B. Welders and metalworkers use them when working on jobsites as well.

The portable band saw works just like its larger cousin, albeit smaller. Most are designed with a 3” to 4” capacity, as that is typically the maximum size pipe or tubing that needs to be cut. The band is supported at the cut point to provide added rigidity and accuracy. There is also a small fence which can be placed against the edge of the material being cut.


Final Words of Wisdom

With so many types of power tools on the market, selecting the right saw to best meet your needs can be a challenge. Not only do you have to contend with the different types of saws out there, but also with the many manufacturers for each type of tool. That’s why we provide you with power tool reviews; so that we can provide you with better information about the various brands and models that are out there. Keep reading and get the best for your money.

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