Circular saws are a workshop essential
Circular saws are useful for cutting lumber, plywood, posts, or even metal. They are versatile, as well. With a circular saw you can make beveled cuts as you could with a compound miter saw, and with the addition of guide rails, it's possible to make long straight cuts that would otherwise require a table saw. (ConsumerSearch has separate reports on miter saws and table saws.)
Most circular saws are "sidewinder" models, which have the motor mounted perpendicular to the blade. This design places the motor and handle assembly to one side of the blade – usually the right side, but some saws have it on the left. In-line saws, by contrast, place the motor and handle in line with the blade. They're often known as worm-drive saws, because they typically use worm gears – toothed wheels worked by a short, threaded cylinder, or "worm" -- to drive the blade. However, some in-line circular saws are driven by hypoid gears, a complex type of spiral bevel gear, and are known as hypoid saws.
Each type of circular saw has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Sidewinder circular saws are more compact than worm-drive saws, and they're also lighter, ranging from 9 to 11.5 pounds. Many users, including This Old House master carpenter Norm Abram, find them better balanced and more maneuverable. And they're generally less expensive, usually costing between $100 and $180.
Worm-drive saws, by contrast, are typically heavier – between 13.5 and 15 pounds – and pack more power. Professional framer Tim Uhler, writing for the Journal of Light Construction, says he prefers this type of saw because it's "more durable and less likely to bog down in heavy cutting." Worm-drive saws are also a bit more expensive, ranging from $160 to $200. Which type is better for you depends on your strength, your work style, and how much heavy-duty cutting you need to do.
If you buy a sidewinder saw, you have the option of choosing a cordless model. Because it's not tethered to a power outlet, this type of circular saw is more versatile, allowing you to take the tool to the job instead of the other way around. For example, trimming the deck of a tree house with a cordless circular saw is a far easier job than trying to drag an extension cord up the tree. Even at ground level, cordless circular saws are lighter than corded saws of the same size -- usually between 8 and 9 pounds – and you don't have to worry about cutting the cord.
Cordless circular saws have improved dramatically in the last several years. They've grown both larger and more powerful, and lightweight and long-running lithium-ion batteries have mostly taken the place of the heavier nickel-cadmium type. However, cordless circular saws still can't match the power of their corded cousins, and although battery life has improved, they still have limited run times. A cordless circular saw can also cost more than a corded saw because you have to invest in the battery and charger, which adds anywhere from $100 to $250 to the price of the tool. However, if you already own a cordless tool from the same manufacturer, you can purchase the "bare tool" for use with your existing batteries and charger at about the same price as you'd pay for a corded circular saw.
To find the best circular saws, we consulted professional comparison tests in tool-centric publications such as Fine Homebuilding, the Journal of Light Construction, Family Handyman, and Popular Mechanics. These tests evaluate circular saws' cutting power, accuracy, features, and ease of use, as well as battery life for cordless models. Owner reviews from retail sites like Amazon.com and HomeDepot.com help fill in the blanks as to how typical users view their saws, sometimes after months -- or more -- of use, addressing things that sometimes crop up only after the kind of extended use that's beyond the scope of most expert evaluations. Based on these sources, we've named our top picks for corded and cordless sidewinder circular saws and worm-drive saws, with recommendations for any type of user, job, and budget.
Best corded circular saws
Most corded circular saws are "right-bladed" sidewinder types, meaning that the motor is mounted to the left of the blade. This keeps the handle and heavy motor on the supported part of the board, but it also partially obstructs your view of the cutting line. "Left-bladed" circular saws usually give a clearer sightline (and are better for left-handed users), but they can be more awkward to handle, since there's nothing to support the heavier part of the saw on the cutoff side of the piece. They also expose a right-handed user to sawdust thrown off by the spinning blade.
In both professional comparison tests and user reviews, the Makita 5007MG (Est. $150) consistently receives high marks. This 10.6-pound, right-bladed saw has a 7.25-inch blade and a 15-amp motor that whips through wood at 5,800 rpm. In a test run by Popular Mechanics, it chewed through a 1.75-inch thick piece of laminated veneer lumber (LVL) header in 2.1 seconds, beating out nearly every other saw in the test.
However, what reviewers really love about this saw is its construction. Its magnesium base plate slides smoothly, and its large, rubber-coated handles and levers are comfortable to use. Testers at Family Handyman rave about its clear, easy-to-see cutting-depth gauge and its "ingenious" bevel stop setting, which lets you set a positive stop by rotating the knob to either 22.5 or 45 degrees but can also override to as much as 56 degrees.
User reviews of the Makita 5007MG.com are overwhelmingly positive; it earns a rating of 4.7 stars out of 5 at Amazon.com, and 4.8 stars at HomeDepot.com. Users say the saw is powerful, lightweight, sturdy, and well balanced, and it cuts accurately and smoothly without binding up. They particularly like its ergonomic grips and the LED worklight that illuminates the blade. The main negative that users note is that the lower-than-average blade guard has a slight tendency to stick, particularly when making angled cuts. Also, the Popular Mechanics reviewer thinks the trigger opening is too small, particularly for users wearing gloves.
The Makita 5007MGA (Est. $175) is basically the same saw as the 5007MG, with the addition of an electric brake to bring the saw blade to a nearly instantaneous stop. The 5007MGA isn't featured in as many reviews as the 5007MG, but it generally gets similar comments. Michael Springer of Fine Homebuilding likes its comfortable, rubber-coated grips, the dual LED headlight, and the flat, stable base plate, but he also complains that the blade guard tends to stick. And while reviewers at Family Handyman called the bevel detents on the 5007MG "perfect," Springer says the stops on the 5007MGA have a little too much "slop" for his taste. Users at Amazon.com give the 5007MGA similar overall ratings to the 5007MG, praising its electric brake and rugged, lightweight construction.
The Milwaukee 6394 (Est. $240) also does well in professional tests tests. It's the only saw that beats the Makita 5007MG in Popular Mechanics' header test, slicing through the hefty board in just 2.01 seconds and leading reviewers to declare it the best choice for "readers who value power above all else." Its weight, blade size, and power all match those of the Makita saws, and it has one very useful feature they lack: a tilt-adjustable handle that can be rotated into eight different positions, so you can adjust your grip to get better leverage when making shallow cuts. Both professional testers and users at Amazon.com find this feature a major benefit.
One drawback of the Milwaukee 6394 is that its bevel setting has a maximum of 50 degrees, a setting that Springer declares "too limiting" for those who do a lot of roofing work. Also, unlike the Makita saws, the Milwaukee has no preset bevel stops. On the plus side, the bevel scale is accurate and clearly marked with engraved numbers at each degree.
Users at Amazon.com aren't quite as enthusiastic about the Milwaukee as they are about the Makita saws, giving it only 4.3 stars overall. Although users find it powerful and well-balanced, this saw has several complaints about durability, mostly involving malfunctions of the electric blade brake.