Almost every project you can do involves cutting something - wood, metal, and hopefully not yourself. Choosing the right tool for the job makes things much simpler, but it's not always easy to know what tool is best used for a particular purpose. Here, we've put together some helpful introductory tips and pointers to keep in mind when planning - and building - your next project.
Keep in mind that different types of saws can often be used to accomplish the same task. Some are just better suited to certain tasks than others. In this article, we'll limit our discussion to certain types of powered saws, namely:
- band saws
- jig saws
- scroll saws
- table saws
- track saws
- circular saws
Band saws and jig saws
The WEN BA3959 9-inch band saw (left) and WEN 20670 brushless cordless jig saw (right). Not to scale.
Despite their names, neither saw is very good at playing music. Terrible jokes aside, there are some important differences and similarities between the two.
Similarities between band saws and jig saws
The most important thing these saws share is their general purpose. Both band saws and jig saws are great for cutting out curved shapes in workpieces, and are more than capable of handling straight cuts as well. But that's about where the similarities stop.
Differences between band saws and jig saws
Size: most band saws are benchtop or floor-standing machines, whereas jig saws are exclusively handheld. A band saw stays in one place in your workshop; a jig saw is portable and can be brought to wherever the workpiece is. Jig saws are often available in corded and cordless versions, whereas woodworking band saws are nearly always corded machines.
Materials cut: most band saws are designed to cut either wood or metal, and will perform poorly if used on a material for which they weren't designed. Jig saws, on the other hand, are all-purpose machines, and often come equipped with variable-speed controls, making them suitable for use on a variety of materials. When paired with the right blade, they can handle cuts in wood, as well as light-duty metal cutting.
Blade action: band saws use a long, thin, toothed metal band as the blade - this is where they get their name. The blade runs between two wheels and stays in one position relative to the rest of the saw. Jig saws, on the other hand, use a shorter, thicker blade held in a chuck. The saw moves the blade up and down, producing a cutting motion similar to the back-and-forth motion of a handheld saw.
Types of cuts: band saws can handle straight, mitered, beveled, compound, and all sorts of cuts in a wide variety of materials, and often in thicker workpieces. When cutting curves, their performance is limited by the width of the blade used (thinner blades can cut tighter curves), but with a sharp blade and when properly set up, they can often give good finishes. Band saws cannot make interior cuts, which are cuts on the inside of a workpiece that do not go to the outside (think of the hole in a cornhole board). Jig saws, on the other hand, are perfect for interior cuts, and excel at cutting very tight curves and complex shapes that would be difficult or impossible to cut with a band saw. They're especially good for use in thinner workpieces, such as plywood or dimensional lumber. However, even with a good blade, they tend to leave a relatively rough cut behind, and so aren't good for finishing materials.
What about scroll saws?
Good question. A scroll saw is a benchtop machine that is better for fine or extremely-fine detail work than a jig saw. Like a jig saw, it has a blade that moves up and down. However, scroll saw blades are very fine, and scroll saws are benchtop machines equipped with large tables for workpiece support. Unlike a band saw, a scroll saw is capable of making interior cuts. They are best suited for fine detail work, such as intarsia, inlay, marquetry, or fretwork. If you need to remove a lot of material, consider using a different saw to get the material cut down quickly - scroll saws aren't designed to do lots of rough cutting.
Detailed interior cuts are easy with the WEN LL2156 parallel arm scroll saw.
When to use what
Below are some general rules of thumb that may help you choose which saw to use for each project type. It's a good idea to practice on some scrap wood, similar or identical to what you plan to use for your project, to get the hang of the tool(s) you decide to use.
- Resawing lumber: band saw
- Furniture making: band saw
- Compound cuts: easier with a band saw, can be done with a jig saw
- Gentle curves in a workpiece: band saw or jig saw
- Tight curves in a workpiece: jig saw
- General cuts in dimensional lumber and plywood: jig saw
- Interior cuts: jig saw (fast cuts), scroll saw (fine detail work)
- Highly detailed or fine work: scroll saw
Also check out our helpful article on band saws for an in-depth discussion of the various types of band saws and their uses.
Table saws, circular saws, and track saws
The WEN TT1015 table saw and WEN TT1088 table saw stand are great for rip cuts, crosscuts, and more on the job site.
The WEN CT1065 6.5-inch track saw (left) and WEN 20625 cordless circular saw (right). Not to scale.
Like the band saw and jig saw, these three saw types share some similarities and differences.
Similarities between table saws, circular saws, and track saws
Again, all these saws share a similar purpose: they are excellent for long, straight rip cuts, especially in sheet goods like plywood. They can also be used for cross-cuts in other materials. Again, this is about where the similarities stop.
Differences between table saws, circular saws, and track saws
Size: table saws, while sometimes portable, are not always mobile. (Check out our handy guide to table saws for an in-depth discussion of the various types and features of a table saw). Circular saws and track saws are portable and can be brought wherever they're needed.
Support: table saws use a large table (hence the name) to support the workpiece; the operator moves it across the table and through the blade. Track saws and circular saws sit on top of the workpiece; the operator moves them through the workpiece. When using a track saw or circular saw, the workpiece requires additional supports, such as sawhorses.
Power: table saws, being larger machines, have the ability to power through long cuts in thick materials all day long. Circular saws or track saws may struggle in thick or dense workpieces.
Expense: while each type of saw has tiers of different options, ranging from introductory to high-performance models, generally speaking, circular saws are the least expensive option, track saws the middle-priced option, and table saws (being the largest and most powerful) the highest-priced option.
Precision: table saws, depending on their construction, can often be used for general cuts, as well as precise finishing cuts. Circular saws are generally used for rough general-purpose cuts, and track saws are often used where both high precision and portability is required.
Circular saws versus track saws
Again, circular saws and track saws are very similar. Both are portable saws, may be cordless or corded, and need an operator to push them through a workpiece. However, there are a few key differences:
Track: track saws can be run freehand, but they perform best when paired with a track (hence the name). This is a long, straight, flat track along which the saw glides during the cut, producing a perfectly straight edge. Circular saws are usually used freehand, and may or may not be compatible with track saw tracks.
Depth lock: usually, track saws have a hinged, spring-loaded plunge mechanism built into the saw housing; at the end of the cut, the saw blade moves upward into the housing. This helps make them safer than circular saws. Generally, a circular saw's blade depth is set, then locked in place by the operator.
Plunge cuts: because they run on tracks, and have an inbuilt plunge mechanism, track saws are excellent for plunge cuts (cuts that start in the middle of the workpiece, rather than at an edge). Plunge cuts can be made with a circular saw, but this requires experience, a steady hand, and attention to detail.
Track saws can be brought wherever they're needed. The tracks can be clamped to the workpiece, making them great for craftsmen who demand high precision and accuracy, but who may not have access to a table saw. They're often used for ripping sheet goods, especially in cabinetmaking, and for installing hardwood flooring.
The WEN CT1065 track saw is a great combination of precision and portability.
Circular saws are good all-around options, and are excellent for quick cross-cuts, though they're very capable of handling rip cuts as well. If you have a limited budget and can only pick one option, a circular saw works well in most situations.
The WEN 20625 cordless circular saw is compact and highly versatile.
When to use what
Below are some general rules of thumb that may help you choose which saw to use for each project type.
- Crosscuts (dimensional lumber): circular saw or table saw
- Rough rip cuts in sheet goods: circular saw or table saw
- Precise rip cuts in sheet goods: track saw or table saw
- Onsite hardwood flooring installation: track saw
- Plunge cuts: a track saw is best, but a circular saw can work too
Thanks for reading! We hope these tips help you feel more confident in choosing the right tool for the job. If you have any questions about any WEN saws, please give us a call at 1-847-429-9263 (M – F, 8 – 5 CST), or drop us a message here to talk to our friendly and knowledgeable technical support team. Go make some sawdust!