A healthy fear of power tools isn’t a bad thing. They’re powerful tools, after all – capable making big holes in solid objects and ripping whole boards in half with one swift motion. That being said, power tools are also extremely useful, and once you’ve learned how to safely and effectively operate them, they open up a world of DIY possibilities. The best way to combat any reservations you have about operating power tools is to do your research. Arm yourself with knowledge and you’ll be a confident tool-user in no time. That’s where we come in. We’ve done the legwork and used the tools, and we’re here to share with you what we’ve learned. Today we’ll be exploring a must-have in the world of power tools: the circular saw.
Why the Circular Saw?
The awesomeness of the circular saw comes down to two things: versatility and portability.
A circular saw can both rip wood (cut with the grain to create a board’s width), and crosscut wood (cut across the grain to establish length). Plus, with a small adjustment you can make plunge cuts that don’t sever the wood into two pieces. The “circ saw” can cut wood of all sorts: dimensional construction lumber, solid hardwood stock, plywood, dense pressure-treated lumber for outdoor projects, engineered sheet goods like MDF and hardboard, and even small pieces of trim and millwork. With the right blade, it can also cut some metals, stone, brick, cement and masonry, and glass tile.
This saw can cut thick wood, like a beefy 2 x 12 board, or thin panels, only 1/8″ thick. The circular saw is a solid all-around power tool for making straight cuts in almost anything you can buy at the home center. Alongside a cordless drill, you’ve got a great entry-level tool kit for a variety of home improvement and creative woodworking projects.
The circular saw is also a portable tool, meaning you take the tool to the work, rather than resting the wood on the saw to make a cut. This range is extended even further with a cordless saw and a charged battery. You can make cuts quite literally anywhere. Imagine building a tree house and needing to climb down the ladder every time you need to cut something to length. No fun. A cordless circular can go anywhere you go.
Note: Be safe when making cuts; always find a stable, level surface to work on. And always wear your safety goggles!
Things To Know
Before we get into how to use the circular saw, let’s talk about its features, basic principles, and some rules-of-thumb.
The whole circular saw’s blade assembly, guard, and motor housing sits on an adjustable shoe or base plate. This allows you to make angled (or beveled) cuts, opening up lots of creative potential. You can adjust the angle of the cut with the plate tilt lever (shown above), located in front of the motor along a protractor-like scale, which can help you dial in your bevel angle.
This also means you need to check your blade angle when you first get your saw, and repeat that checking regularly. The scale on the saw is somewhat coarse, and 0° doesn’t necessarily mean square to the base plate. Thankfully, this only takes a few seconds to check and adjust.
The stock blade that comes with your saw is designed for coarse work, such as cutting 2×4 framing lumber to length. This is a cut that will live behind drywall, siding, etc., and no one will ever see it, so it can be rather ragged and splinter-y.
If you want to use your saw to make cuts you will see, an aftermarket blade is a wise upgrade. These only cost $7-20, and you can find them at home centers like The Home Depot. The blade is easy to switch out using the on-board wrench included with the saw and the rotation lock button.
Below, I made a cutting guide using plywood, so I purchased a fine-toothed finish blade to help me get the smoothest cuts possible. You can also buy blades for other kinds of cuts in wood, masonry and stone, and even metal. Just make sure you do the research so you know which materials are safe to cut.
Always Support the Cut on Motor Side
The direct drive (or “sidewinder” as it’s also known) positions the motor on the left side of the blade. So, you’ll want to support the wood on the motor side as well. This allows the off cut to fall away freely, getting out of the path of the blade as soon as possible. If you need to cut the opposite end, either flip the board or just turn around and approach the wood from the other side
In fact, you don’t want to support the wood on both sides, even if it’s possible to do so! This can cause the wood to bind around the blade, pinching it and perhaps making the saw kickback. This is unsafe, scary, and ruins the cut.
If you do need to make a long cut in a large item, say down the center of a sheet of plywood, you can use a saw horse on either side, but you’ll want to span the distance with sacrificial 2 x 4s. You’ll score into them, but not cut through, so they’ll continue to support the plywood even after the cut is finished.
Set the Right Blade Height
The circular saw can cut any depth from 0 to about 2 3/8″. This is awesome. But, to get the best quality cut and reduce the possibility of kickback, you’ll want to set the proper cut depth for your material.
The blade should only project about 1/4 -1/2″ below the bottom of the material. The easiest way to do this is the set the blade so the bottom of the gullet (the space in between the teeth), just clears the wood at six o’clock.
How to Get Straight Cuts with a Circular Saw
Because it’s a handheld power tool, the circular saw can cut a straight line at basically any angle on a board. This is great when you want to make an angled cut, but most of the time, you’ll want to cut straight, 90° lines.
For best results when make crosscuts, use a speed square as a fence. The square contains a lip that will butt up against the board’s length, and you can ride the base plate of the saw along the edge to make a nice, square cut.
If you want to make straight rip cuts, you can make a simple circular saw guide to help keep the saw on track. It’s super simple to do once you understand the concept. You’ll just need two pieces of plywood or MDF. Here’s how:
1. Begin by measuring 8 inches from one side of the plywood. It’s essential to use the factory edge here – the original side from the manufacturer. This is guaranteed to be straight and square, and you’ll use that edge to guide the saw. Make sure you mark this side so you can keep track. Draw or chalk a line across the wood at the 8″ mark.
2. Use your circular saw to cut along that line. This will be your fence.
3. Now, to make the base piece, place your saw blade along the open edge of the plywood, and butt your fence piece up to the base plate. Add 1/2 inch. This dimension – the inside of the saw plate + the fence piece + 1/2″ – will be the overall width of the guide. It’s likely around 13 inches.
4. Draw a line and cut the the guide’s base piece.
5. Now, line up the two sawn edges so they’re perfectly square. The factory edge will sit exposed on top of the base piece. Draw a pencil line down the factory edge onto the base. Take the fence off and spread wood glue on the bottom. Place it back in place, and clamp the whole thing together. Secure the fence and base together with countersunk screws.
6. Lastly, run the saw plate along the fence to cut off any excess (this is why we added that extra half inch). Take special care to really nail this cut and make sure it’s parallel to the fence.
Now, you can see how this works when you need to make a high-quality cut. You’ll mark the line on your workpiece, then line up the edge of the base with that line. Clamp everything together, and your saw rides along the fence, making a perfectly straight and square cut.
And, that’s it!
See? I told you the circ saw is awesome.
In addition to the saw, you’ll likely want the after-market blade mentioned above, the speed square for straight cuts, and few other safety accessories. Here’s our essential toolkit for the circular saw. Have fun, be safe, and go make something!
This post was sponsored by The Home Depot, but all opinions are mine alone. We love working with companies that support DIYers, and thank you for supporting the brands that help make Curbly possible! This post contains affiliate links; if you click on them and buy a product, we may get a commission from the sale.