101DIY 101

DIY 101: building your toolbox – saws part I

by Kate Pruitt

For the second installment of DIY 101, we’re continuing to fill our toolbox with essentials. Your rad new drill will get through you a bunch of projects, but investing in a good saw or two will get you ready to tackle a whole lot more. Power saws might seem scary if you’ve never used them before, but if you follow proper safety precautions and practice a couple times, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them.

I’m going to cover a couple basic saw types and what to look for when choosing each one, as well as some basic tips for how to use them. Luckily we live in the age of web 2.0, and there are literally hundreds of helpful tutorials and video demonstrations available online. I’ll give you some of my favorites, but if you still feel a little unsure I highly recommend you seek out some more.

So, on to the saws!

CLICK HERE to learn about saws after the jump!

Circular saws are used for cutting wood and other materials, using a single metal blade with sharp teeth and a body that makes the blade spin at high speeds. There are many different types of circular saws, including a mitre saw which we’ll cover later. But the term “circular saw” is generally used to refer to the simple handheld style, which is the kind we’re concerned with here today. These saws can make clean, straight linear cuts, and are a great option for people looking to cut large sheets of plywood or make long linear cuts, and who do not have the budget or space for a table saw.

Choosing a Circular Saw:

There are right-handed and left-handed models of handheld circular saws, which come in both battery operated or corded versions. When choosing a circular saw, here are the things to consider:

  • Weight: It’s very important to feel you have control of the machine and be able to maneuver it easily. Handheld circular saws can range in weight from around 7 lbs. to over 15 lbs. Cordless versions with rechargeable batteries can add extra weight to the tool, so it’s definitely worth trying out the tool in the store to see how you feel. Most basic DIYers will be perfectly served by a corded 15 amp model, which many brands will offer for less than $100.
  • Blade Size: The blade size will determine your maximum depth of cut— the larger the blade size, the deeper depth of cut you can achieve with the saw. Saws with smaller blades are lighter and easier to control, but you should consider the depth of the wood you’ll need to be cutting when choosing your blade size.
  • Bevel Capacity: Most circular saws will have the ability to change the bevel, or angle, of the blade, in order to make angled cuts. The standard range is between 45 and 90 degrees. Some styles will have bevel guides that mark every 5 degrees, but if you’r looking for extremely customizable cuts you can find some models with guides that mark every degree.
  • Motor Position— Worm Saw vs. Sidewinder Saw: The motor position will also effect the way your saw performs. Worm saws, also known as inline saws, have the motor positioned in line with the blade, while the motor on sidewinder saws is positioned to the side of the blade. “Worm” refers to the type of gear that powers the saw, and worm saws usually have more torque (driving power) behind them due to the type of gear they use. These saws are more heavy duty and can be used to cut through heavy lumber, stone, even concrete. The drawbacks to worm saws are that they are usually heavier and more expensive than sidewinder models. Unless you plan to be cutting a large amount of heavy duty material, a sidewinder model should be sufficient for most DIY needs.
  • Extra Features: There are several added features to consider when shopping for circular saws, such as laser guides, dust bags, and safety lock features. You should definitely compare tools in person and feel them in your hands before buying; try pressing the trigger, gripping the handle, and adjusting the blade to check the ease of overall maneuverability. The right saw will feel comfortable and not too heavy, and it should be easy to grip and guide along the surface that you’re cutting.


The disc blades for circular saws are sold in different diameters, materials, and thicknesses. Be sure to purchase the correct diameter blade for you saw, and depending on what kind of material you plan to cut you will need different kinds of blades. Lowe’s has a helpful buying guide for circular saw blades, and if you need more info, you can check out this short video that explains the information found on blades and what they mean.  (He’s a bit of a slow talker, but it’s some good info).

Helpful Tips for Circular Saws:

1. Eye Protection!! Always wear eye protection when working with power tools and especially with saws.

2. Measure twice, cut once: It’s not easy to adjust a cut once you’ve begun, especially with a circular saw, so it’s always best to double check your measurements to make sure they are correct before beginning the cut. This will save you many hours and tons of wasted lengths of wood:)

3. Use a guide: I always like to have a raised guide clamped to my material to act a guide for the circular saw, so that when I am cutting I can just concentrate on guiding the saw along the fence and moving straight through the cut quickly and safely. A straight piece of wood clamped down on both ends that extends the full length of whatever you’re cutting works perfectly, but you can also purchase metal guides at most hardware stores.

Jigsaws are extremely useful tools for making custom designs and to cut curves out of various materials. The jigsaw has a removable toothed blade which moves rapidly up and down to slice the wood. The jigsaw is designed for cutting non-linear patterns, and they often have the ability to bevel and pivot quite easily. The features that allow jigsaws to make amazingly intricate cuts are also features that make this a less than ideal choice for trying to cut a straight line, which is why every DIY woodworker should have both a jigsaw and a circular saw.

Choosing a Jigsaw:

Jigsaws do not vary too much in their design, so the differences will mostly be in amp levels, battery operated versus corded, and added features. Here are a few things to look for when buying a jigsaw:

  • Variable Speed: Jigsaws with a variable speed option can run between around 500 and 3,000 strokes per minute. The speed is controlled wither with a knob adjustor or simply by trigger pressure. Having the option of a slower speed can be quite helpful for first time users and for maneuvering small intricate cuts. I prefer the trigger pressure models which allow you to change the speed during the cut without having to move your hands to adjust a knob.
  • Comfort: Because jigsaw blade only moves about 1″ up and down and the blade is quite small, jigsaws are generally very safe and simple to use.  However, since it is a moving blade in a machine controlled by hand, it’s very important for the user to feel they have complete control over the tool. To ensure safety, it’s best to choose a model that fits comfortably in your hands and easy to maneuver. Make sure you can reach the trigger easily and have no trouble depressing it, especially if it has trigger operated variable speed control. Another issue with jigsaws can be the vibration of the tool, so I highly suggest powering on the tool and testing the feel of it.
  • Guide System: Because jigsaw blades are designed to handle curves and intricate shapes, the blades themselves are quite malleable and fragile. Blade guides are extremely important in preventing the blade from veering off course, bending, or breaking. All jigsaws have a back blade guide, but for added protection some models will also provide guides on both sides of the blade to further support the cut and reduce any chance of the blade bending or breaking.
  • Power: When choosing how much power you need for your jigsaw, you should determine whether you need to be using the jigsaw for long extended periods or if you need to be making fast cuts versus intricate, slow cuts. In situations where you’re dealing with large scale patterns and many small intricate cuts or hairpin curves, the cord can be a bit of a hassle; however, corded jigsaws can give you more power and weight less than battery operated versions. Either way, a jigsaw with 3 or 4 amps should be perfectly sufficient for the standard home DIY project.


Jigsaw blades will vary in the size and shape of the teeth, the shape of the shank, and the material. Be sure to check your jigsaw’s manual to see what type of shank your saw requires, and if you plan to cut any materials besides wood, you will need different types of blades, such as cobalt steel for metal, or carbide tipped steel for masonry or stone. You can click here to read more information on the different types of blades.

Helpful Tips for Using the Jigsaw:

1. Always wear eye protection!! This rule is a given when using all saws, and should never ever be broken.

2. Mind the cord on your corded jigsaws, especially when making hairpin cuts or cutting out circles. Don’t allow the cord to get tangled within the material or double back on itself, and always keep the cord a safe distance away from the blade itself.

3. Cut in several passes: For intricate shapes, it can be quite difficult to guide the saw around the entire shape from one standpoint. Come into the cut from the most convenient angle and cut away several chunks from the shape instead of trying to make one long continuous cut.

4. Have a drill handy for cutting shapes out of the center: If you want to cut a shape from the middle of a piece of material, it’s helpful to have a drill handy with a bit that is a tiny bit larger than the width of your jigsaw blade. Simply drill a hole straight through the material in the center of the shape. This gives your jigsaw blade an entry point to the cut from inside the shape.

5. Clamp it Down: Since jigsaw blades cut in a rapid up and down motion, your material needs to be well secured to a stable surface in order to prevent major vibration or slippage. If your material is vibrating violently, not only will it make your cut messy but it is a safety hazard as well. Either have a second person around (also wearing eye protection!) to secure your material or use clamps to secure your material before cutting.

So, now that we’ve covered circular saws and jigsaws, there should be almost no cut you cannot achieve. These two types of saws can be acquired at relatively low cost and will crack the DIY possibilities wide open.

The next DIY 101 will cover more saws that can be handy additions to your tool collection, and will also provide some useful saw maintenance tips and links to saw tutorials.  If you’re looking to break in your awesome new saws, you should check some of the amazing DIY projects we’ve featured that utilize these useful tools:

Suggested For You


  • thank you for this and for doing it with no pink saws or “blinged-out” toolbelts. That’s why I love you guys!

  • I have a Makita cordless circular saw and a Makita cordless jigsaw, and I LOVE them! They are both lightweight and can be carried easily with one hand. I have had a hard time finding tools that fit comfortably in my smallish girl hands, but I could use these tools all day long and never get cramped up. The batteries for cordless tools can be a bit pricey, but I think they are sooo worth the expense because having a cord that gets tangled up and in the way is a hassle if not an extra hazard.

  • Thank you so much for this series! Being a single, independent gal I have been in need of some tools but have felt lost when it comes to making an educated purchse. This is sooooo helpful!!!

  • Thanks for a great article. I have a circular saw in the basement that I have looked at but never used. I was afraid of kickback. I feel more confident to try again, because of the instructions given in your article.

  • Oooh, this is wonderful! I don’t know how I missed the first DIY 101, but I went back and learned all about drills, too! :D

    I always thought, as an apartment dweller, I couldn’t have a saw because saw = big, honking table in my brain. So nice to know I’m wrong! A whole new section of projects just opened up in my imagination…

  • Our wedding registry had power tools on it. People thought they were buying them for my husband, we just laughed and laughed at that one. My Dad started my tool box the year I moved into my own place and I’ve never stopped adding new toys. The last one was a compound miter saw with a laser. But, my contractor grade drills get the most use! Next up, a proper nail gun. Not just a brad nailer!

  • Great explainations :) And I second the heartfelt thanks for not using pink saws!

    My daughter (16) wants a compound mter saw for Christmas. She’s been asking for one for 3 years… maybe this year, lol.

  • I’ve had a circular saw for years, but that entire time, I’ve always used my compound miter saw, which I paid about $100 for, about 100 times for every once on the circular. It gives me a perfect right angle cut every time, I don’t have to heave it’s weight, and, of course, it cuts angles perfectly. I’d suggest that you skip the circular saw and stick with the miter (unless you are cutting thick sheets of plywood).

  • Thanks everyone! Lots more great stuff to come, I promise!!

    Camille –
    So true— Makita cordless tools are great! So lightweight, and usually plenty of power for home projects. I love my Makita drill:)

    Zoe + Jynet –
    Stay tuned – The compound mitre saw is coming up in the next post. I have one and I use it ALL the time!!

  • That’s really useful, thank you! Makita tools are great, I’m looking forward for more tool reviews :-)
    I bought a Dremel some time ago – an older guy in the store commented that “my husband will be happy”. I was buying it for myself, chuckle, chuckle…

  • I think that women (well, all people really) should have a healthy dose of respect for power tools, but they should NOT be intimidated by them. Perhaps the most important thing is to choose tools that are not too heavy, bulky, or powerful for you to control easily. One of the things I like about my Makita cordless circular saw is that if I try to cut something that’s too thick and wildly grained, it will stall out instead of kicking back. Having general familiarity with your tool and its capabilities will allow you to avoid or lessen the risk of injuries.

    If you can use a hot-glue gun, you are capable of operating a jigsaw, though you’re probably more likely to burn/injure yourself with the hot-glue gun. Using one is almost self explanatory, but be sure to buy good blades because they will cut faster and more cleanly.

  • My husband said that the best tool he ever received was a cordless screwdriver – he uses it more than anything for od jobs and putting together flat packs!

  • Omg, I’m loving the power tool purchase stories. BF is the sensitive filmmaker artist type who’s *awesome*, but has trouble finding a file after he’s downloaded it to the computer… so it’s up to me to be the handy one! Luckily last BF was a Mr. Fix-It and I learned a lot from him. :D

    Camille, you’ve convinced me to run out and pick myself out a jigsaw. I’m mighty handy with a hot glue gun.

  • Awesome! This post is empowering and informative, and I can’t wait to go to Home Depot now. I’m sure I will feel less nervous about looking like a dumb girl in front of tools. Thanks!!!

  • I bought a jigsaw last year and never regretted it! Now I need a circular saw because, as you said, jigsaws are NOT good for cutting straight lines *sigh*

  • Mitre saws work best on very long pieces where you can support the ends and they work really well for chopping lumber for construction projects. Thanks for sharing the list!

  • Thanks for your information on this tool. I have some basic woodworking tools-wood router, table saw and handsaw… They are so useful and makes work so easy, convenient and creative. I love woodworking and I love these tools.