The Do-It-All Saw

Whether you’re building or tearing down, today’s reciprocating saws handle both jobs — and more — with flair.

Tools can be used to create or destroy. (Perhaps deconstruct is the more appropriate term, considering that careful demolition is a vital part of remodeling.) Not many tools work both sides of this creative fence. Among power tools, few can match the reciprocating saw’s workhorse versatility in both arenas.

Because other power tools such as circular saws and drills are often perceived as more useful, a reciprocating saw typically isn’t the first tool a DIYer buys. But if you do any kind of home renovation, regularly break down lumber or have a lot of trees on your property, it’s definitely one to consider adding to your arsenal.

Reciprocating saws do just as good a job destroying as they do building, making them the tool of choice for remodelers and construction professionals.

The reciprocating saw debuted more than a half century ago when Milwaukee introduced the Sawzall, which was essentially a horizontal jigsaw. (“Reciprocating” simply means an alternating or back-and-forth movement.) To this day, some builders and remodelers refer to any reciprocating saw as a Sawzall, the trademark name for Milwaukee’s tool.

The original model was a low-power, single-speed machine with no frills and few blade choices. By comparison, today’s reciprocating saws are bursting with features. You can get as much power as you need, and variable speed is commonplace. Corded and cordless models are available. Tool-free blade changing is quick and easy, and there’s a blade to suit nearly every cutting task.

Prices for reciprocating saws range widely. You can find corded models for as little as $20, but they’re best avoided. A good midrange corded saw of 10 amps or less usually sells for $50 to $100; upping the power increases the price. Cordless models start at $80 to $100 (although a few, such as the little Black & Decker Handisaw, cost less than $50).

Reciprocating saws (such as the cordless Makita shown here) are among the few tools equally at home in the shop, at a job site and in the garden. Specialized pruning blades tackle landscaping chores much faster than a handsaw.

Because they’re linear tools that cut from the tip, reciprocating saws don’t need much room to operate. This makes them perfect for remodeling and renovation because they easily fit where other saws won’t: between joists, in crawlspaces and attics, under sinks, etc. And they do it more safely because all but the smallest reciprocating saws are designed to be used with two hands for optimum control.

Reciprocating saws can cut wood, drywall, plastic and metal (sheet, pipe and bar stock) or even a combination of these materials. That’s a boon when you need to cut through drywall fastened to 2x4s with nails and screws. A powerful saw with the correct blade will cut through all three materials with barely a hesitation. These tools are by far the best choice for making cutouts in walls to install windows or doors.

Reciprocating saws also excel at quickly cutting dimensional stock to more manageable sizes. Whenever I shop for lumber, I always bring a small cordless reciprocating saw to trim long pieces to fit my car’s 99-in. interior-space limit. This enables me to buy more economical 10-ft. lengths without having to wait for store personnel to cut them for me.

In addition to trimming boards, reciprocating saws are perfect for pruning trees. You’ll still need a chain saw for felling, but you can easily use a reciprocating saw to cut a single branch (even a thick one) without damaging others, something chain saws can’t always do. When a storm damaged one of my neighbor’s Bradford pear trees last year, my reciprocating saw enabled me to quickly sever the broken 5-in.-thick limb and cut it into more easily disposable pieces.

Don’t let this capacity for precision work make you underestimate reciprocating saws’ power. When it comes to completely tearing down an existing structure, they’re almost a one-tool wrecking crew.

Reciprocating saws can be called upon for tasks ranging from simple quick cuts to really tough, lengthy construction jobs. So it’s important to carefully assess your needs before you shop. You’ll also need to choose between corded and cordless models. For a look at typical saws of each kind, see the comparison photos above.

Extreme deconstruction tasks or frequent cutting chores that last for hours call for a beefy corded tool such as the Milwaukee 15-amp Super Sawzall. If you want a cordless alternative, start with an 18-volt tool as a minimum, and consider the 24- or 36-volt models (although high-voltage cordless tools are pricey). For the sake of ergonomics, keep in mind that with both corded and cordless saws, more power leads to more weight.

On the other end of the spectrum, for less demanding Porter-Cable’s new 12-volt Max Compact Lithium ClampSaw has a clamping shoe that can hold small-diameter objects to keep them from vibrating while cutting. The saw features a three-position pivoting handle to allow working in close quarters. chores you might consider a corded tool such as the Ridgid Fuego. At only 4 amps, it won’t demolish a house, but it’s plenty powerful for routine cutting. Cordless alternatives for light-duty use or for frequent detail cutting include the 12-volt Li-Ion models such as the Milwaukee Hackzall, the Hitachi CR10DL Micro and the Ryobi CR1201 Mini.

Unless you need the special cutting abilities of a larger or smaller saw, you’ll probably be happiest with a midlevel corded or cordless tool. On the other hand, if your tasks vary greatly, a powerful corded saw paired with a smaller cordless model may best cover all of your needs.

Porter-Cable’s new 12-volt Max Compact Lithium ClampSaw has a clamping shoe that can hold small-diameter objects to keep them from vibrating while cutting. The saw features a three-position pivoting handle to allow working in close quarters.

Reciprocating saw blades are made for a wide variety of cutting tasks and materials.

Right Blade, Right Job
In the beginning, reciprocating saw blades were little more than hacksaw blades adapted to the new tool. Today, blades are available for a wide range of applications, with tooth style and teeth-per-inch (tpi) counts optimized for the task. Blade lengths range from about 3-1/2 to 12 in. Blade width is typically about 3/4 in., but varying widths are available to suit specific kinds of cuts: Extremely narrow blades excel at curved and even scrolling cuts, whereas wider blades help in making straight cuts.

Although some job-specific blades (such as fire-rescue blades) are available, here is a typical assortment of blades that are useful for most DIY chores:

  • 14-tpi wood/plastic — This blade makes very clean cuts with a minimum of splintering, although the fine teeth are not aggressive enough for heavier tasks.
  • 4-tpi pruning — Cut and angled almost exactly like the teeth on a bucksaw or pruning saw, this blade cuts quickly through sappy green wood.
  • Carbide grit — This one has no teeth at all but is good for hard, abrasive materials such as brick, fiberglass and ceramic tile. It’s handy for cutting holes for electrical boxes in tile walls.
  • Narrow 18-tpi metal — This is the closest to a hacksaw blade and works well for general metal cutting.
  • Wide 18-tpi metal — The wider blade helps to make straight cuts, particularly in sheet metal.
  • 7-tpi wood — This blade cuts fast but can cause splintering. Good for deconstruction or “quick-and-dirty” cuts in wood.
  • 5/8-tpi wood with nails — This blade’s variable tooth count makes it excel at cutting wood with hidden nails. It’s excellent for deconstruction or for roughing out window and door openings.
  • 6-tpi wood — This blade makes fast, if not pretty, cuts in all woods. It’s good for quick lumber-cutoff chores.
  • 10-tpi scroll — This blade is excellent for curved or scroll cuts and for cutting out electrical boxes in drywall.

The first reciprocating saw from the early 1950s was pretty basic: one speed, an on/off switch and a blade that required a wrench to change. Today’s saws sport a variety of features, some unique to single models. Here are features to carefully consider:

  • Tool-free blade changing — Almost every reciprocating saw available today offers this feature. Some use a twist-lock collet: You twist the collet one way to release and the other way to lock. Older designs often have a lever on the side of the tool that releases and locks the blade in place. Both methods work well. Avoid any saw that requires a tool to change blades.
  • Blade orientation — Reciprocating saws are most often used with the blade oriented teeth-down. When you need to cut in an upward direction, most saws allow you to insert the blade teeth-up so you don’t have to flip the saw upside down. Some, such as the DeWalt DW304PK, even allow you to mount the blade with teeth facing left or right, which can facilitate cuts close to edges, as when cutting near the ceiling. Other saws have a pivoting business end that lets you rotate the front of the saw. Avoid saws with blades that install in only one direction.
  • Variable speeds — Nearly all of today’s reciprocating saws feature variable speeds, but how they accomplish this varies. Speed is typically controlled by the trigger or by a wheel mounted on the tool; some saws offer both. The type you choose is a matter of personal preference.
  • Orbital action — Like jigsaws, some reciprocating saws offer an orbital stroke pattern. Instead of merely moving the blade back and forth, orbital action forces the blade into the workpiece on the pull stroke for a very aggressive cut. Whether you need that aggressiveness depends on the materials you’re cutting and how quickly you need to work. The best choice is a tool with an optional orbital action; you can turn it on when you need it and off when you don’t.

  • When lumber is too long to fit in a car, a small reciprocating saw, such as the the Black & Decker Handisaw shown here, quickly trims it to size for easier transport.

    Any reciprocating saw can cut drywall, but for fine cutting, a compact saw such as the Milwaukee Hackzall offers better control and a less-tiring lighter weight.

  • Shoe design — A saw’s shoe is the extension at the front through which the blade moves. Pressing the shoe firmly against the workpiece controls the saw, helps to guide it and prevents the blade from catching. There are two types: pivoting and roll-cage.

    A pivoting shoe is flat and pivots to rest against the work surface. This type of shoe works best against flat surfaces, as when cutting drywall, but it easily conforms to irregularly shaped surfaces as well. A roll-cage-style shoe forms an angled housing around the blade; the front portion rides smoothly on flat surfaces, and the angled corners handle odd shapes. Like speed controls, the type you prefer is a personal choice.

    Many pivoting shoes can be adjusted to restrict the depth of cut: Sliding the shoe forward allows the blade to penetrate only so far into the work. This can extend blade life — if the blade gets dull in one spot, adjusting the shoe puts fresh teeth into the work — but the real value is that it can prevent you from accidentally hitting wall components such as pipes or wiring. Roll-cage shoes typically aren’t adjustable, so depth-of-cut is controlled by carefully choosing blades of the desired length (which you can do with any saw).

  • Stroke length — This is how far back and forth the blade moves. The standard for most reciprocating saws is 1-1/8 in., but stroke lengths range from 1/2 in. to 1-1/4 in., depending on the saw. If you’re destroying a house, go with the largest stroke you can get. For drywall or detail work, 1/2 in. is fine.

An adjustable shoe allows you to control the maximum depth of cut, which is useful when a shallow cut is preferred, such as to prevent damage to pipes or wiring in a wall.

Unique among reciprocating saws is the Ridgid Fuego. The corded and cordless versions are nearly identical in power, weight and size.

Saw Safely
In addition to normal power-tool safety procedures, take these precautions with reciprocating saws:

  • Always unplug the tool before changing or adjusting blades.
  • Even when the saw is unplugged, remember that the blade extends several inches from the saw. Mind the blade at all times.
  • Never carry the saw with a finger on or near the trigger.
  • Although some small saws are designed for singlehanded use, always use both hands on a full-size saw.
  • Press the shoe firmly against the workpiece at all times during use.
  • Be extremely careful when sawing overhead.

Other Features to Look For
Every saw has a speed rated in strokes per minute (spm). Saws with higher rates cut faster but vibrate more.

Front-mounted LEDs help illuminate the work, which is especially helpful under sinks or in crawlspaces.

Externally accessible brushes help make motor repairs far easier than opening the tool’s case.

And speaking of cases, reciprocating saws are among the most portable tools. A plastic hard case or canvas carrying bag is a real plus, no matter what type of job you’re planning.

Bonus Video: