How to Use a Circular Saw for Woodworking

How to Use a Circular Saw

There’s certainly a lot to be said about mastering the use of a handheld saw to cut wood, and all beginners should strive for this. But after a hundred or so rip cuts by hand, you might be considering a quicker method. This is where power saws come in.

Power tools were once far too expensive for the hobbyist woodworker. But, as prices have dropped and the tech has improved, it’s easier than ever to get your hands on a great circular saw, miter saw, or jigsaw. Armed with these gadgets, your woodworking projects can really take off.

Power tools and saws enable you to make straight cuts quicker and often more accurately. At least, once you’ve learned a few tips and tricks. With that in mind, in this handy chapter, we’ll quickly go over the most common power saws and how to use them, before taking an in-depth look at circular saws.

What Power Saws Do Beginner Woodworkers Need?

If you’re just starting out with woodwork, it can be difficult to know exactly what power tools you’ll need to buy. We touched upon this briefly in Chapter 4, so if you haven’t read it already, be sure to check it out. In short, the answer to this question really does depend on what type of projects you’ll be working on.

For example, a circular saw is a great investment if you anticipate making a lot of rough cuts, cross cuts, and rip cuts in lumber while working on larger projects like constructing a shed. However, it’s not so useful if you’re planning to work on smaller projects like joinery or carving.

Below, we’ll list three power saws you’re most likely to come across and their main uses.

1) Circular saw

Ideal for working on lumber planks and boards, circular saws can be used to crosscut wood, rip cut, and when used with a fence, make perfectly straight cuts. In this way, a circular saw can take the place of a table saw. They’re also used for cutting larger joints, and with features that allow for adjustable depth and beveled cuts, they’re extremely versatile.

2) Jigsaw

You can use a jigsaw for everything from cutting holes in the middle of boards for sinks and other features, to creating decorative curves. They’re great for cutting notches and irregular lines in boards and can be invaluable if you’re laying flooring.

3) Miter saw

You can use a miter saw to cut perfectly straight cross cuts, accurate miters, and even rebates and tongue and groove joints. From making picture frames to chopping floorboards to length, learning how a miter saw works can improve your efficiency ten-fold.

What Is a Circular Saw and How Does It Work?

Circular saws are often confused with the table saw. While the latter is a larger, stationary machine, mostly used for ripping logs, planks, and boards to width, a circular saw is a portable power tool that may or may not be cordless.

Having said that, most circular saws are capable of performing many of the same tasks as table saws and far more besides.

What Can You Use a Circular Saw For?

Essentially, a circular saw is for cutting in a straight line. But, depending on the features of the specific model, most circular saws can carry out various types of straight cuts:

  1. Rip cut: along the grain of the wood to cut to width
  2. Crosscut: across the grain of the wood to cut to length
  3. Miter cut: an angled cut on the face of the work surface, typically 45 degrees but can be adjusted
  4. Bevel cut: an angled cut on the edge of the board
  5. Compound miter cut: an angled cut on both the face and edge of the board
  6. Plunge cut: a cut in the middle of a board rather than starting from the edge

Most circular saw models offer an adjustable blade depth. This enables you to make dado cuts and grooves.

A dado cut is a shallow cut that goes across the grain but doesn’t cut all the way through. Grooves are similar but are cut along the grain. In this way, you can create a range of lap joints, rabbets, and even basic tongue and groove joints.

What Material Can You Cut With a Circular Saw?

This extremely versatile tool can be used on various different materials depending on the circular saw blade you have fitted. For example, cutting plywood with a circular saw is possible with a universal blade, but is best with a specific plywood one. Here are some other things you can cut with a circular saw.

  • Lumber (4 x 2)
  • Hardwood and softwood
  • Plywood
  • MDF
  • Chip and blockboard
  • Metal
  • Plastic
  • Concrete
  • Ceramic tiles

The type of material you can cut with your circular saw mostly depends on the type of blade you have fitted.

Circular Saw Blades

The size of the circular saw you buy will determine which size blade can be fitted. You can’t put a smaller or larger blade in a saw designed for a 7-1/4 inches (184.15 mm) for example.

When looking at blade sizes, it’s important not to confuse the cutting depth. As an example, a 5 inch (130 mm) saw blade has a cutting depth of one and a half inches (40 mm). The standard size for circular saw blades is 7-1/4 inches (184.15 mm), which has a cutting depth of 2 and a half inches (63.5 mm). This is ideal for cutting 4 x 2 lumber. Bear in mind, that if you’re cutting bevels, the depth is reduced slightly.

If you anticipate only cutting thinner boards, you can normally use a smaller 5 inch (130 mm) blade. Either way, the blade depth can be adjusted on most models, so you can cut thinner pieces safely even with a larger blade.

For most people, a standard 7-1/4 inches (184.15 mm) is more than enough.

Saw Blades Circular Saw

Circular Saw Blade Teeth and Material

The type of material your blade is made from, as well as the number and size of the teeth it has, will determine what it is best used for. Generally speaking, the higher the tooth count, the finer the cut. More teeth normally means smaller teeth, resulting in a cleaner kerf, but typically a slower cutting speed.

For most beginner woodworkers, carbide-tipped universal blades are ideal for crosscutting and rip sawing wood, plywood, and other manufactured boards. Look out for blades with a non-stick coating, which reduces friction and prolongs the life of the blade and the saw’s motor.

You can buy blades that are specifically designed for a particular job, for example, ripsaw blades have a small number of large teeth compared to other blades. However, these special saw blades tend to be better suited to professionals or more advanced hobbyists.

Top Features To Look For in a Circular Saw

Besides the saw blade, there are several other things to consider when choosing a circular saw:

  • Right or left-handed: Both models are available, with the difference being which side the blade is mounted in relation to the motor.
  • Corded or cordless: Cordless models tend to be smaller and less powerful than corded saws. However, they’re typically easier to control as they’re lighter.
  • Power: For corded tools, power is measured in amps, while cordless saws are measured in volts. The higher the number, the more power. These days, 15 amp models are standard and will cope with most tasks. Cordless models generally range from 12 to 20 volts.
  • RPM: Again, the higher the RPM, the quicker you can cut. Corded saws generally range from 5,200 to 6,200 rpm, while cordless models go from 3,500 to 5,800 rpm.

Apart from these basics, it’s worth keeping an eye open for the following features. Many of these come as standard, but there are also some optional extras.

  • Blade guard: A key safety feature that will save your fingers while preventing debris from flying out behind the saw. The blade guard pivots to move back and out of the way as you cut, and swings back into place once the blade is exposed. There’s normally a small guard lever that allows you to manually move the blade guard out of the way if needs be.
  • Adjustable blade depth: This feature enables you to make dado, groove, and rabbet cuts in your work, and ensures you cut safely.
  • Bevel adjustment: This aids in cutting angles with circular saw blades, allowing angled cuts on the edge of the work surface. Different models allow for a wider range of angles.
  • Sawdust exhaust port: A small port that you can hook up a vacuum cleaner to in order to prevent dust in the air.
  • Electric brakes: When the trigger is released, the electrical current is reversed, allowing the blade to stop spinning within about two seconds. Without brakes, the blade can continue to spin for around 15 seconds.
  • Laser guidance: While all models tend to offer a cut-line sight on the base plate, this can often be difficult to see. With this system, a laser projects onto the work surface, allowing for more accurate cutting.
  • Side fence: This adjustable fence ensures straight cutting. Some have a scale that allows you to accurately measure the width.

How To Use a Circular Saw – For Beginners

Before we start sawing with this impressive tool, it’s worth taking a quick look at the basic components.

Circular Saw Parts Illustrated

As you can see, the saw blade is generally mounted in line with the motor, which is encased in an insulated plastic body. This helps form the primary handle, on which the trigger is located, with the secondary handle, or guide knob, in front providing stability.

A safety switch will prevent you from pulling the trigger by accident. It’s normally a small button located on the handle, that you can press with your thumb. The upper guard is a permanent cover preventing contact with the top of the blade.

The base plate, or shoe, is normally made from metal and sits on top of your workpiece, further improving stability. It will help guide your work, with a notched sight-line that shows you where the saw will cut. On most models, you’ll be able to attach a side fence onto the base plate.

Making Your First Cut With a Circular Saw

Always refer to your user manual before starting up any power tools for exact guidance. Having said that, the following steps are more or less universal with this tool.

  1. Safety first, with the tool unplugged, check that you’re using the correct blade for the job and that the blade guard is moving freely. Ensure the blade is in good condition and is securely fitted. If in doubt, ask someone with more experience to double-check for you.
  2. Mark your wood and use clamps or a vice to clamp it down securely. Make sure there’s nothing obstructing the path of the blade.
  3. Set the cutting depth and make sure that the blade extends no more than about an eighth of an inch (2 mm) beneath the surface of the material you’re cutting. This improves safety by preventing the blade from catching on anything that might be below your workpiece.
  4. Plug in the tool, press the safety switch, and pull the trigger. Start away from the edge and make sure your saw blade isn’t touching the workpiece as you power up your saw. Allow it to reach full speed before sawing into the wood. This way, you’ll avoid kickback and lengthen the lifespan of your tools.
  5. The blade guard should pivot out of the way of its own accord on most cuts. Plunge cuts are are the main exception, and you can use the guard lever to manually spin it out of the way safely.
  6. Use the cut-line sight located at the front of the base plate, in front of the blade, to follow your cutting line the easy way.
  7. Allow the saw to do the work. Don’t push too hard, instead gently guide it forward to the end of the cut.
  8. Continue straight through to the end, allow the scrap to drop away. Then, release the trigger and wait for the blade to stop spinning before lifting it up.

It’s worth practicing with scrap pieces first of all, just to get a feel for how the tool works. When you’re comfortable, you can start a proper project.

Using a Circular Saw

Circular Saw Tips and Tricks

Now that you know the basics, let’s take a look at some of our other top tips:

  • Cut face side down: Circular saw blades move forward and up when cutting. Therefore, any tearing of the grain will appear on the top of your workpiece. So, for best results, cut with the good face down.
  • Cut to the side of your line: Take into account the thickness of the blade when cutting – typically 1/8th of an inch (2 mm). Instead of cutting directly on your line, leave it visible and cut into the waste edge. Just be sure to consider this when you make your mark.
  • Support your work: You should never try to use your circular saw with just one hand. Therefore, be sure to support your work by clamping it to the workbench or trestles. Set it up so that the scrap wood falls easily, and the thicker side of the sole plate remains on the wood.
  • Use the side fence: When ripping, the side fence can help ensure your cutting in a perfectly straight line.

Circular Saw Safety Tips

This power tool runs at high speeds and can cause a lot of damage if not used correctly. It demands respect, and a moment of negligence can be all it takes to injure yourself or someone else.

  • Never remove the blade guard: This top tip can save your finger and much more besides. While the blade guard can sometimes be a bit awkward, it should never be removed or taped so that it’s out of the way.
  • Wear safety equipment: Ear defenders, goggles, gloves, and a dust mask.
  • Never use a cracked or bent blade: Be sure to replace any blades that aren’t in top condition.
  • Don’t force the saw: If the going is slow, it means your blade is probably blunt. This can often be verified by scorch marks once the cut is made. Always let the blade do the work and set the pace.
  • Always use sharp blades: This results in faster, safer cutting.
  • Check the wood: Before you start sawing, check that your lumber is free from nails, screws, or anything else that could blunt the teeth, or worse, break them off. Also, check for loose knots that might fly up dangerously if dislodged.
  • Don’t support both sides: You should always leave the scrap wood free to fall. Supporting both sides and cutting down the middle will cause the kerf to close up and bind. Normally, this will trap the blade, resulting in kickback.
  • Allow the blade to stop spinning: Don’t pull the saw from your workpiece until the blade has come to a full stop.
  • Unplug when changing the blade: Also unplug the machine whenever it’s not in use, even if it’s just for ten minutes or so.

Circular Saw vs. Jigsaw

Now that you’ve mastered the circular saw, you may be wondering if you need any other power saws. In the next chapter (Coming soon!), we’ll see how to use a jigsaw and what makes it so useful for woodworkers.

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