Chip Collection and Sight Lines. A metal chip in the eye is an automatic, immediate trip to the ER. Needless to say, eye protection is a full-time requirement for my framers, and the manufacturers have designed serious blade guards/chip collectors to make these tools as safe as possible.
The blade on each of the saws is totally shrouded, which directs the chips downward and away from the user or into an onboard collection bin. While all the cordless saws discharge the chips down toward the floor, only the Makita has a vacuum port. It's a nice idea, but impractical for our framing sites where we need to move around a lot. The cordless saws also have plastic blade housings that enable you to see the cut line, except the DeWalt, which has a small window in its mostly metal blade guard that provides a surprisingly good view. Makita's amber-colored plastic blade guard lets you see the blade, but seems to cut down on visibility; I wish it was clear.
Milwaukee's chip collector snaps off in one quick move for emptying.
Both corded saws catch chips in a collector/blade guard, which must be emptied periodically. Both collectors work; however, I like Milwaukee's best because it snaps off for emptying with one hand. Porter-Cable's works, too, but is held on with a nut and takes longer to remove. And, since these blades are completely shrouded, the blade guides (the notch in the shoe that tells you where the blade is) are critical. The good news is, they're accurate. If I need a very accurate cut and really want to see the cut line, I measure the distance from shoe edge to blade and mark a line for the shoe to follow (not the blade) on the work. However, I more often just mark the stud, line up the guide, then use a speed-square to guide the saw. Most wood cutters (myself included) are used to seeing the blade cut, but working with steel is a different story and requires you to trust the tool more.
Punch List: Guards, Blade Change, & Boxes
tooltest1b.jpgYou can't see the blade contact the work on the corded saws, but accurate blade guides make following the line easy.
Blade Guard. All the guards on these tools worked nicely and never snagged or got hung up. The corded Milwaukee's blade guard was so smooth it was almost undetectable rolling over the work. Also, each guard retracted nicely for plunge-cutting in sheet stock.
Blade Change. All the blade changes functioned as expected.
Toolboxes. All the boxes except Panasonic's were up to snuff. While the Panasonic's box wouldn't keep me from buying the tool, I can't understand why they went with an awkward two-piece design. Milwaukee omits a box altogether and provides an excellent carry bag. It's tough and flexible and has plenty of room for extra blades.
The Jet and Rojek tools also ship well-equipped. Jet's shaper arrived with two spindles: 1/2- and 3/4-inch. It also has 1/4- and 1/2-inch router collets plus adjustment tools and a miter gauge. Rojek ships with wrenches and a single-stepped spindle that takes 3/4- or 1-1/4-inch cutters–very nice. There's no groove in the table for a miter gauge, but they do offer a sliding table.
Milwaukee's tool bag is great for carrying the tool and extra blades. It's tough, too.
So which saw–or saws–would I buy? This is a tight race, because each unit is so different and works so well. For the cordless cutters, the Dewalt DW934K-2 and Milwaukee 6320-22 share the top spot and would see the most duty on my sites. Both feel great and have the deepest cut capacities. They also share clear sight lines to the blade and sail through most of the material we cut every day. Both the Makita 5046DWDE and Panasonic EY3530NQMKW are excellent tools, but their smaller cut capacities would make them more at home with my electrical and plumbing subs. While a little heavier than the Panasonic, the Makita is powerful. The Panasonic is light and easy to use. These two are great saws for fast, one-off cuts in smaller stock. As for the corded tools, which I'd set up as cut-station saws, I like the Milwaukee 6370-21. It has excellent ergonomics, plenty of power, and an impressive depth-of-cut. The Porter-Cable 440 comes next; it's a great saw, but has a limited cut depth for my work.
Normally when we test a cutting tool, we swap out the included blades for a "neutral" product. This levels the playing field in woodworking applications so our testers can focus on the tool's performance–and not that of the included blade's. For metal cutting, however, manufacturers say that the tools and the blades work best as a system, indicating that manufacturers dial-in the carbide recipes on their blades to match the exact output–power, speed, torque, and rpm–of their specific tool model. They say the result is that their tools operate at peak performance with their blades.
But, if the supply house doesn't have the exact blade your saw came with, you're not out of luck. Blade and tool manufacturers both say that you'll get excellent performance from blades not designed specifically for your specific saw. In this case, you should focus on buying a blade with the correct attributes for your work and saw. Choose the right diameter and arbor size. Then, generally speaking, pick higher tooth counts for thinner material and, conversely, lower tooth counts for thicker stuff. For general purpose work with a 7-1/4-inch blade, 36 to 50 teeth is a good number.
Finally, almost any metal-cutting blade cuts just about any material you find on site up to about 3/8 inch thick. This includes structural steel like C-channel, I-beams, black pipe, and angle. It also includes lighter gauge stock: studs, Chicago bar, sheet stock, aluminum, copper, and brass. While one manufacturer said that it is OK to cut rebar, other manufacturers say–and write on their blades–not to cut it because the rebar may have "hard spots" that can knock a tooth off the blade. They recommend using a different cutting method for this material, to be safe.
–Erik Elwell owns Thompson Construction in New York City and is a frequent contributor to Tools of the Trade.