After thoroughly vetting over 35 circular saws and testing four, we feel the best one for most people is the SKILSAW SPT67WM-22. It excels at every task a good circular saw should and has great features we didn’t see on the rest of the saws we tried.
In our tests, this saw had the power to cut through dense, wet pressure-treated wood and thick slabs of engineered lumber, but it also had enough precision to take on more delicate finish work. For added safety and control, the handle of the saw is set lower than on other models, putting the pushing force behind the saw rather than above it. One standout feature you see on top-quality saws like this one is a magnesium footplate and motor housing, which makes it durable and lightweight—it’s 9½ pounds, compared to the 10-plus pounds of some others. The depth of cut gauge is marked according to common lumber thicknesses, rather than a straight imperial scale like on the other saws, making accurate depth adjustments on this tool faster and simpler. Its easy-to-read bevel gauge can angle the blade to an extra-steep 56 degrees (others stop at 45), and accurate cut line indicators are at the front and back of the baseplate. It also has convenient on-board wrench storage for changing the blade.
If the SKILSAW isn’t available or you’re looking to make less of an investment, we also like the RIDGID Fuego 6½-in. Compact Framing Circular Saw. This was by far the lightest saw we tested and that, combined with the great handle design, made it an easy tool to hold and maneuver. It doesn’t have the overwhelming power or the innovative features of our main pick, but it cut everything we threw at it.
I’ve used circular saws on an almost daily basis for about 15 years. I spent ten years in the trades as a carpenter, foreman, and jobsite supervisor working on high-end renovations and custom homes in the Boston area. I’ve also written about and evaluated tools since 2007 with articles appearing at This Old House, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Fine Homebuilding (subscription required), Tools of the Trade, and the Journal of Light Construction.
For this guide, I also read many online reviews from respected sources. Chief among these were the round-ups by Popular Mechanics and Family Handyman. The Popular Mechanics piece is a little older and contains some outdated models, but many are still available. The Family Handyman guide is up to date with most current models as of early 2016.
A circular saw isn’t an entry-level tool, but if you’re getting into heavier DIY work, it’s essential. Projects like building a treehouse, adding on a deck, rehabbing the front steps, replacing windows, or even building shelving are much easier to handle with a circular saw in hand. For smaller tasks, or if you would rather not deal with the inherent danger of a circular saw, we also have a recommendation for a handsaw.
After reading everything we could on the topic of circular saws and tapping into my own knowledge, we feel that the best saw for most people is one that has a direct drive motor and a blade-right orientation. Most saws manufactured today follow this pattern, and we didn’t feel it necessary to deviate from these norms. For specific features within this framework, we looked for saws with either an aluminum or magnesium baseplate, a bevel that goes beyond 45 degrees, an easy-to-use depth-of-cut adjustment, and a relatively light weight, below 10 pounds.
Direct drive saws, commonly known as “Sidewinders,”2 are designed so that the blade is connected directly off the motor, which positions the two perpendicular to one another. This is the standard saw that most people use and are comfortable and familiar with. The other prominent style is called a worm drive (or hypoid drive). These larger saws are geared down, reducing blade speed in exchange for more torque.
The vast majority of direct drive saws have a blade-right orientation. This means that when looking at the saw from behind, the blade is set to the right side of both the handle and the motor. During a typical cut on sawhorses or off the end of a workbench, the blade-right design keeps the weight of the saw on the supported piece, rather than the cut-off piece, which makes a more accurate, cleaner cut. It’s also safer: While cutting with both hands on the tool, the blade is naturally set off to the outside of the body. This helps to keep you out of harm’s way if the saw blade binds up and kicks backward (very, very quickly). Some people argue that the saw body obscures your sight line if you’re holding the handle in your right hand, but I disagree. It’s largely a moot point for this type of saw anyway, as there are very few blade-left direct drive saws available. (Lefties prefer this style; if you need one, the Bosch CS5 is well regarded.)
Getting past these basics, we recommend a saw with either a magnesium or aluminum baseplate (also called the shoe). Both of these materials are more durable than the alternative, stamped steel. Steel baseplates are basically a thin piece of sheet metal curled up at the edges. If the saw takes a tumble (and all saws do at some point) these can bend very easily. The Family Handyman piece also raises the good point that the rolled edge of the steel makes it difficult to cut against a thin straight edge like a framing square. All of the less expensive saws have stamped steel baseplates, but we feel that the added durability of magnesium or aluminum is worth the cost.3 Two saw manufacturers confirmed to us that the durability of magnesium and aluminum is about the same, but magnesium is considered better due to its lighter weight. We found that the majority of high-end saws have magnesium shoes.
Another feature that we looked for is a bevel capacity of over 45 degrees. This gives more flexibility with cutting miters. If you’re installing baseboard at an outside corner on walls that aren’t perfectly perpendicular, just cutting two 45 degree miters will leave a gap. This added cutting ability can also help with more advanced roof framing. You may never need a bevel to go beyond 45 degrees, but you might as well look for that ability—saws that can do it tend to cost the same as ones that can’t.
Weight also played a big role in our selection process. Direct drive saws have a wide range of heft, with the majority in the 10-12 pound range and the minority in the 8-10 pound range. We read enough very positive reviews of saws in the under 10-pound range that we didn’t feel it necessary to go above that limit. This lighter weight is going to make a big difference in comfort, particularly with the part time DIYer who may not be used to handling circular saws.
Regarding blade sizes, the standard is 7¼ inch, which, with one exception, is what we considered. 7¼-inch saws have a manageable weight and they can cut all common dimensions of lumber without issue. Going smaller or larger than a 7¼-inch blade really gets into specialty saws with the larger ones designed for timber framers and the smaller ones for small amounts of trim work. The one oddball we tested has a 6½-inch blade, which is a unique model made by RIDGID. Even with the slightly smaller blade, the saw has similar power and cut capabilities as a 7¼-inch saw. It’s designed to compete with the 7¼-inch tools.
We found that the sweet spot for pricing is between $85-$130. In this range are saws from respected manufacturers that meet our criteria. The tools priced lower all have steel shoes; the ones priced above really get into contractor pricing. The reviews for the $130+ saws are generally very positive, but so are the reviews for the $85 to $130 crowd. Through our research, we were confident that we could find a saw that fit the needs of most in this range.
After using our criteria to narrow down the available tools, we tested four saws. The SKILSAW SPT67WM-22 and the DeWalt DWE575 are typically priced between $100 and $130 and the RIDGID 3204 Fuego Compact Framing Saw and Porter-Cable PC15TCSM are typically in the $80-$100 range. We quickly noticed significant differences between these two classes of saws, with the more expensive ones handling better and giving a higher overall sense of durability. So we evaluated them as two separate groups, knowing that our main pick would come from the upper tier and our runner-up/budget pick from the lower.
For testing, we outfitted each tool with an identical Freud Diablo 24-tooth framing blade (D0724R for the 7¼-inch saws and D0624R for the 6½-inch saw), and started cuttin’. Over the course of three days, we cut everything from dense pressure treated wood to 2x10s to delicate birch veneer plywood. While using the saws, we looked at ease of adjustments, sight lines, and the accuracy of the cut line indicators. We examined how easy each saw was to adjust and the sturdiness of the saw/baseplate connection. We knew that handling and ergonomics would be a big piece of the puzzle, so we kept a close eye on handle design, balance, and overall feel.
After researching over 35 saws and testing four, the best for most is the SKILSAW SPT67WM-22. This saw had noticeably better power than the competition and simply felt the best while in use. It has a unique handle design that increases stability and safety, and the depth of cut adjustment was the best on any saw we looked at. The SKILSAW also has all of the finer touches that should be on a high-quality saw, including a great line of sight to the cut, accurate kerf markers on the baseplate, and onboard wrench storage. It also has a magnesium motor housing and footplate, making it a nice and lightweight 9.5 pounds.
It all starts with power, and the SKILSAW has an abundance. While testing it against three other saws, it had an easier time plowing through dense knots or twisted wood grain. Where the other saws slowed for a moment, the SKILSAW kept on going. Even through dense pressure-treated wood and thick engineered lumber, it didn’t flinch one bit.
It’s difficult to tell if this feeling of power comes from the motor design or the unique positioning of the handle. Compared to the other saws, the grip of the SKILSAW is set lower, putting it directly behind the motor—a design common on more powerful worm drive saws. On the competitors’ saws in our test, the handle is higher up so the pushing force is in line more with the top of the motor and not the center of it. The SKILSAW’s lower hand positioning gives a solid feeling when sending it through lumber and it increases your control over the saw as well. In addition, I had a better sense of safety with this design. With my hand low and directly behind the saw, I felt there was less chance of any kickback.
Because I’m usually standing somewhat above a saw while using it, I was concerned that the SKILSAW handle would be too low and little awkward, but it really isn’t. In fact, as the depth of cut got more and more shallow and the motor raised higher and higher off the baseplate, the SKILSAW feels better than the rest. In those situations, it’s the other saws that start to feel awkward, because by that point, my hand was positioned completely above the saw.
The depth of cut gauge is another excellent feature of the SKILSAW. What’s unique is that the markings are all done according to common lumber thickness; there is a mark for 2x material (framing lumber), and ones for the common ¾-, ½-, and ¼-inch plywood thicknesses. The great thing about it, and why it is so successful, is that by locking the depth to a lumber dimension, it’s simple to set the blade right where you want it—slightly deeper than the thickness of the lumber. So for cutting a 2×4 (with a thickness of 1½ inch), the “2x” depth marking sets the blade to 1⅝-inch, so it’s all ready for a clean cut with the blade just a whisker deeper than the material.
All of the other saws have gauges marked in straight inch measurements, so they’re not only hard to read; they’re sort of useless. To adjust blade depth, what most carpenters do is set the saw against the edge of the wood, manually raise the blade guard out of the way, loosen the depth adjustment, drop the blade to where they want it (just a bit deeper than the material), and lock it in place. All of this is sidestepped with the easy-to-read and accurate system of the SKILSAW. Because it is so fast and simple to use, I found myself relying on it, which is interesting; with all of my circular saw experince, I haven’t referred to a depth gauge in years.
The saw bevel is another nice touch. After releasing the locking handle, the saw tilts to 45 degrees and comes to a hard stop. We tested the angle for accuracy and it was spot on. To go beyond 45, a spring loaded tab pulls back to allow the bevel to extend up to 56 degrees. This 56-degree bevel is a standout feature on the SKILSAW—other saws only go up to 45 degrees, which limits your cutting ability. Only the DeWalt exceeded the SKILSAW by going to 57 degrees (the RIDGID goes to 50 and the Porter-Cable 55). At first, I was a little concerned for the durability of that spring-loaded tab, but it’s tucked in a part of the saw that is unlikely to see any abuse.
Beyond these features, the SKILSAW has kerf markings at the front and back of the baseplate indicating the line of the blade at both 0 and 45 degrees. These are useful for longer cuts on plywood. The lines are accurate, like on all the saws, but the SKILSAW is the only one that has a 45-degree indicator at the rear of the blade. The DeWalt and Porter-Cable only have front indicator lines and the rear of the RIDGID only has the 0 degree line. Like the ability to bevel all the way to 56 degrees, the rear 45 kerf marker may never be used, but it’s a nice touch.
The SKILSAW also has onboard wrench storage for blade changing. This is important because most circular saws don’t come with cases and the wrenches can be easily lost or inconveniently tucked away somewhere when needed. For storage, the wrench slides into the back of the baseplate and locks in with a tensioned clip. Once secured, the end of it sticks out the back of the saw about 1½ inches. At first I thought it might catch on things, but in the time I’ve been testing the tool, it’s been fine. This is not the only saw to have onboard wrench storage, but it’s a nice touch.
The SKILSAW is typically priced slightly higher than we wanted when we first started researching saws, but we feel that the combination of power, handling, and overall features is worth the price. In addition, some of this cost is offset by the fact that the saw comes with a high-quality D0724A Freud Diablo Framing Saw Blade.4 The other saws come with their manufacturer blades, which are cheaper.
The SKILSAW SPT67WM-22 has received positive reviews from established tool reviewers. The editors of the The Family Handyman wrote, “This is a great saw that we highly recommend.” Mike Hurta of ProToolReviews refers to it as an “overall winner” and writes that, “There is nothing I don’t like about this tool.” In a video review of the saw, Dave Frane of Tools of the Trade states, “this is definitely a pro-grade tool. It’s a nice tool. It’s reasonably priced.”
Although the SKILSAW doesn’t show up in the saw rundown at Popular Mechanics, they do have a stand-alone review of it called, “Our New Favorite Tool Is This Sturdy Skil Circular Saw.” Roy Berendsohn, their resident tool guru (and one of our lawnmower experts), notes that the tool is a great combination of substance and style, calling it “solid, agile, and vibration free.”
We need to note that SKILSAW also manufactures the SKILSAW SPT67WL-01, which is very similar to our pick. The difference is that the SPT67WL-01 has a resin motor housing and not a magnesium one. It’s also slightly less expensive (about $10) and a whisker lighter (0.2 pounds). We spoke with Craig Hanba of Bosch, parent company of SKILSAW, and he informed us that the SPT67WL-01 is intended for those who have “specific applications or jobs where weight is the number-one concern.” He continued, “in applications where you don’t mind the additional 0.2 pounds of weight we feel you get a longer lasting saw [with the SPT67WM-22, our pick].” According to Hanba, the magnesium motor housing dissipates motor heat faster and the machining tolerances are tighter, leading to a higher degree of accuracy with motor placement within the housing.
The SKILSAW is backed by a 1-year limited warranty and a full no-questions-asked refund policy for the first 180 days. More information is here.
The SKILSAW isn’t perfect. There are a few small negatives that caught our attention, but none of them even come close to offsetting all that we like about the saw.
First, the depth of cut locking lever is inboard. This means it’s positioned between the handle and the blade, rather than the outside of the handle where it would be a little easier to use (both the RIDGID and Porter-Cable have outboard levers). On the good side, the lever is fairly large and because everything else about this adjustment is so easy (as outlined above), I didn’t mind the slight inconvenience of the inboard lever.
Secondly, the bevel action is tight, so the body of the saw really has to be pushed to the proper angle. No other review mentioned this, so it’s possibly only an issue with our test saw. Our best guess is that this will loosen over time. In fact, in the couple weeks that we’ve been using the saw, the action has become easier.
I also didn’t care for the fact that the lever for manually retracting the lower blade guard is small and not as easy to grab as on the other saws. Honestly, this is probably just as well. Messing with the manual retraction of the blade guard isn’t recommended. Any inconvenience here is more for the knuckleheaded 22 year-old kid on a framing crew who thinks it makes him more of a man if he pins the guard open with a bent coat hanger.5
In going through the customer feedback at various retailers, I saw a couple mentions that the saw-to-footplate connection is weak. I didn’t see any indication of this on our test saw. I even tried to flex the connection back and forth a little, but it was stable.
If the SKILSAW isn’t available or you’re looking for something a little less expensive, we like the RIDGID Fuego 6½-in. Compact Framing Circular Saw. It’s not a perfect saw, but when it comes to ergonomics and handling, the RIDGID is an outstanding tool. It was by far the lightest saw we tested and it’s difficult to imagine one with more comfortable handles. While it doesn’t have the overwhelming power of the SKILSAW and slowed a little during some cuts, it was able to make it through everything we threw at it.
The ergonomic design of the RIDGID is fantastic. The main handle is lightly textured and perfectly contoured to the hand. The front pommel handle was by far the most comfortable on any of the saws we tested. On the other saws, this secondary handle feels like a design afterthought, but on the RIDGID it’s evident that care was taken with its shape and it makes a difference while holding the tool.
The RIDGID takes a 6½-inch blade, which is smaller than the rest (the others take a 7¼-inch blade). The miniaturization of the blade is reflected in the rest of the design, leading to a small saw with a very light weight. The RIDGID only tips the scales at 8 pounds, 3 ounces and was over a pound less than the next lightest saw. Even with the smaller blade, the depth of cut is still 2⅛-inch, easily enough to handle standard lumber dimensions like 2x4s. Most of the 7¼-inch saws max out around 2 and 7/16 inches of blade depth, so there’s no much capability lost with the smaller blade of the RIDGID. Cutting a 4×4 will take two passes no matter which saw you’re using.
6½-inch blades are not as ubiquitous as 7¼-inch blades, but they’re still widely available.6 The RIDGID saw is sold exclusively at Home Depot, so they have a good supply, as do many retailers online. I’ve also noticed that most local hardware stores also have a selection. Most cordless circular saws use 6½-inch blades, which helps explain their easy availability.
In general the build quality of the RIDGID is decent, but nothing close to the SKILSAW. The magnesium baseplate is thinner than the rest and the depth of cut gauge is a sticker (on the others, it’s imprinted in the metal). Also, when our test sample arrived, the locking lever for the depth adjustment needed to be recalibrated, which required a T20 Torx driver bit. Also as a commenter at Home Depot wrote, you can feel a very slight movement in the motor housing if you press the arbor nut back and forth. This last one was a little curious to us, but after using the saw as much as we have, we don’t feel it affects the accuracy of the cut at all.
Still, for all of these flaws, the RIDGID does offer great comfort and usability. We feel that this, particularly with a saw priced at under $100, is a decent tradeoff. If you’ll be using your saw a lot, we’d strongly recommend stepping up to the SKILSAW. But if you’re going to be sticking to lighter tasks and won’t be punishing the tool, the RIDGID is a nice choice. Also, the light weight and easy handling are likely to benefit a first-time saw user.
Lastly, the RIDGID is backed by a limited 3-year warranty and a lifetime service agreement. Details on that are here.
If there ever was a tool that goes hand in hand with a circular saw, it’s the 7-inch rafter square, also known as a Swanson Speed Square.7 This triangular tool lets you easily mark any angle from 0 to 90 degrees, but more importantly, it can be used as a guide for making consistently straight 90-degree cuts (see this image) across the width of stock lumber like 2x4s. Norm Abram, of This Old House, goes into more detail on the some other common uses of this tool.
I’ve used quite a few rafter squares and I keep coming back to the original Swanson Speed Square. I like it for its durability and clear markings. On other ones, the finish chips off or they’re easily dented. The Swanson Speed Square is also very affordable, rarely selling for over $10. You may never need its full capabilities as a marking and layout tool, but even if your Speed Square only sees action as a safe and accurate circ saw guide for cross-cuts, it’s worth the investment.
Cordless circular saws are convenient, but for most, they’re not worth the added cost. If you already have a collection of cordless tools (and their batteries), getting a cordless saw may make sense, although even buying one without a battery comes at a cost premium. The best cordless saw I’ve used (and I tested eight for a piece in Fine Homebuilding) is about $400 with two batteries, but even as a bare tool, it still costs about $200. For that price, you could get our recommended corded saw and about 100 feet of high quality extension cords and still have money left over. Unless you really need the mobility and quick setup of a cordless, a quality corded tool will be a better fit. You won’t have to worry about battery life or the tool not being powerful enough for the task.
Still, if cordless is what you’re after, the Milwaukee linked to above is exceptional. The DeWalt DCS391 is also very good. Additionally, Milwaukee has a full-sized 7¼-inch cordless saw that has gotten great reviews. It’s expensive, though; a two-battery kit is about $430.
The other style of saw, aside from direct drives, are the worm drives, or hypoid saws. These larger saws are geared down to exchange blade speed for torque. Because of their unstoppable power, they’re popular among tradesmen, specifically framers who need the ability to make quick, repeated cuts through thick pieces of dense engineered lumber. For the casual user and even the heavy DIYer, a worm drive is simply too much saw. It’s unlikely that someone working in their driveway would need that additional power, yet they would certainly feel the added weight, as most worm drives are in the 13+ pound range.
Still, they do offer some benefits for the experienced user. Like we said, they’re extremely powerful and it takes a lot to stall them out. I’ve used the DeWalt DWS535 for years and have had no complaints. I’ve also used the SKILSAW SPT77WML-01, which many of my fellow carpenters liked a lot as well. The Makita saws are also highly regarded.
Blades make a big difference with a saw. Even the best saw in the world won’t perform well with a dull blade. For around the house weekend work, a good blade, taken care of, can last years.
Eventually, the blade will dull or a tooth will break. Often, they suffer from a buildup of gunk around the teeth, which can be cleaned. Cleaning is often a time consuming task, however, and at $10 for a decent Freud blade, preserving a blade may not be worth your time. Many local hardware stores also offer sharpening services for a few bucks a blade.
As for the specifics of buying blades, a part-time user can get by with a 24-tooth framing blade for rough work and a 60-tooth blade for fine finish work. The more teeth the blade has, the less likely there is to be blow-out at the cut, which is important for veneered surfaces like birch plywood.
We also tested the DeWalt DWE575, which is a very nice saw that cuts well and has solid “pro” feel to it. For pricing, it’s similar to the recommended SKILSAW, but since we preferred the handle orientation of the SKILSAW as well as the simplified depth of cut markings, we chose that tool over the DeWalt.
We also had our hands on the Porter-Cable PC15TCSM and, like the DeWalt, we thought that this was a really nice saw. In this case, the RIDGID edged it out due to the superior handling and much lighter weight, but we do have to note that the Porter-Cable has decent power and nice adjustments. One thing that I didn’t care for on this saw was that the balance felt a bit off. For some reason, it was always difficult to enter into a cut with the baseplate sitting flat on the wood. This stability is important and I found that I would keep rocking the saw back and forth in order to feel a solid wood to baseplate connection, but it was tough to find one.
We dismissed a number of other saws without testing, due to either features or weight.
In both the Popular Mechanics piece and the Family Handyman run-down, the Makita 5007MG took the top spot. According to both reviews, it’s an exceptional saw. It’s also an expensive saw, typically priced in the realm of “contractor pricing.” We have no doubts of the saw’s quality, but we feel that our pick fully covers all of the needs of the casual user at a lower cost. The Makita is also a heavier saw than our pick, tipping the scales at over 10 pounds.
Also in the “expensive and heavier” category is the highly-regarded Milwaukee 6390-21. This one sells from anywhere between $130 and $170 at the time of writing. At almost 10½-pounds, it’s at least a pound more than our pick which, again, we feel more than suits the needs of the casual user.
We also didn’t test the Bosch CS10. This saw falls within our pricing range, but at over 10 pounds it’s on the heavy side. Family Handyman liked it, but we also found a number of accounts of it having a weak “saw to shoe” connection which causes a significant amount of flex. Michael Springer in his review at Fine Homebuilding (subscription required) mentions this as well as other problems he had with the depth adjustment knob. A number of Amazon reviewers point out the weak connection point as well. We emailed Bosch about this issue and haven’t received a reply.
The Skil HD 5687M-01 has the same great worm drive handle and unique lumber-thickness-sized depth of cut markings as our main pick, but it’s 10 pounds (10.8, according to one reviewer) and is in a similar price range, so we opted for the lighter tool.
A number of saws from reputable manufacturers have the stamped steel shoe, which we don’t recommend for durability issues. Among these are the Black + Decker CS1014 and CS1015. The Porter-Cable PC15TCS also falls in the category as does the Porter-Cable PC13CSL, Craftsman 3282, Craftsman 3283, Hitachi C7ST, and Ryobi CSB143LZK.
We were also surprised at how many models don’t bevel beyond 45 degrees. Again, this may not be the most essential feature, but there are times when it could be necessary. When other saws at a similar price have it, why bother with a saw that doesn’t? This category of saw included saws with steel shoes, but also the Craftsman 27311 and four different Makita saws; HS7600, 5007F, 5007FA, and 5740NB.
According to the review in Family Handyman, both the Hitachi C7SB2 and the Kobat K15CS-06AB suffer from a “drop-in slot” to set the bevel past 45 degrees. They write that it’s easy for the saw to get engaged with the slot even when you’re trying to set it to a 45 degree cut. In two instances, they refer to the feature as “annoying.” They also note that the Hitachi doesn’t have a depth scale and on the Kobalt, the scale is difficult to read. These saws may cut well, but there are others that pay more attention to the finer points of the features.
(Photos by Doug Mahoney.)
Originally published: March 2, 2016