I remember the first time I used a portable band saw as a young plumber's apprentice. We were working on a large commercial project and needed to hang our piping mains above a drop ceiling. When my boss told me to make 50 hangers out of steel stock and threaded rod, I thought I'd be stuck there forever. Luckily he set me up with a portable band saw that cut through the unistrut like butter and cut threaded rod five at a time. A short time later, we started slipping pipe through the completed hanger assemblies right on schedule.
Since then, portable band saws have been the kind of tool I can't do without. If you're in the field and have to cut any amount of metal stock on a regular basis, these tools will cut your production time and make cleaner and squarer cuts than a reciprocating saw or abrasive blades. And if you choose the right blade for the material you're cutting, you can get a spark-free, clean, and quiet cut–and more of them because band saw blades will outlast recip saw blades and cut-off wheels on chop saws.
I tested five portable band saws including four corded models–the DeWalt D28770K, Makita 2107FK, Milwaukee 6232-6, and Porter-Cable 97724–and one cordless saw, the 28-volt lithium-ion-powered Milwaukee 0729-21. I evaluated each tool in the field for four weeks, followed by a stint in the shop, looking at cutting power and speed, balance and ergonomics, switches, blade changes, and extra features.
What you Get
All five of the saws came in their "kit" form. That just means they come with plastic cases in addition to a standard blade, and the cordless saw gets a battery and charger. It also means that the model numbers listed above are different than those on the tools and manuals.
Power & Performance
Portable band saws are generally best suited for cutting metals like channel and angle iron; we use different tools to cut other materials, such as a snap-cutter for cast iron pipe and a chop saw for plastic. The beauty of using portable band saws is that there is almost no setup, you can move them easily around the site, and they cut so cleanly and squarely that my guys even used them to cut baseboard heating sections, fins and all. The band saw cuts came out smoother than using tin snips and saved tons of time.
For this test, we used the band saws to fabricate pipe and equipment hangers out of light metal stock. Most of the cutting was done at a freestanding tripod vise with the materials clamped solidly. During the four-week field test, we used the stock blades provided with each of the saws that proved suitable for most of our applications.
Like any bladed tool, however, blade selection will greatly affect how well a band saw will perform. The coarsest blades (less teeth per inch) will cut faster, but when cutting a thin material you need to switch to a fine-tooth blade because a coarse blade will tend to grab and tear up your work. Fine-tooth blades will generally give you a cleaner cut, as well.
All the corded tools run on 6-amp motors, except the Makita, which has 6.5 amps. The cordless Milwaukee V28 is powered by the company's 28-volt lithium-ion battery and performed right up there with its corded competition.
After concluding that each tool performed well in the field, I brought them all into my shop to run side-by-side tests cutting through 3-inch-by-1/4-inch angle iron with brand new, identical 14-teeth-per-inch bi-metal blades. They all tracked well and allowed for fairly square and accurate cuts. None of them bogged down or jumped around during cutting, but I did notice differences in cutting speed between the tools. While running each tool all-out, the DeWalt and corded Milwaukee seemed to have a slight edge on the Makita and the cordless Milwaukee, with the Porter-Cable bringing up the rear.
When you cut with a band saw, you let the weight of the saw do most of the work; if you try to force it, the saw just cuts more slowly or the blade snaps.
Being able to handle these tools comfortably and follow your cut line is critical. For the most part, the tools in this test were easy to use. The DeWalt band saw is light at 15.5 pounds and was very comfortable to use. Instead of a standard knob grip, it has a large D-handle in front that allows you to really get a good grip, even with gloves on. This front handle also doubles as a stand, allowing you to balance the saw on its back while changing the blade, or just keep the blade and saw motor out of the dirt. The soft grip material on the rear handle adds to its comfort level.
The Makita saw is the lightest at just 13.8 pounds. It features a curved rear handle that places your grip closer to the top of the tool–which was great when working directly over the piece being cut, like you would at a standup vise. The Makita also has a large, comfortable D-ring front handle. All-in-all I felt this was the most comfortable saw to use.
The Porter-Cable weighed in at 14 pounds, the corded Milwaukee at 17 pounds, and the cordless Milwaukee at 19.6 pounds.
The DeWalt, Makita, and both Milwaukee saws have rear handles parallel to the blade, which made them more comfortable to operate and provided a more accurate line-of-sight on the cut than the Porter-Cable. This saw was uncomfortable in my hands, and because the handle tilts to the left I could never get a good feel for blade position. In addition, the front handle is mounted toward the side of the saw (in relation to the cut), not on top like the other tools. Since I am left-handed, I found myself reaching over the top of the Porter-Cable in an awkward position or cutting with my non-dominant hand. A righty might have an easier time with this saw, though.
One of the limitations of a band saw is the capacity of the cut, which is limited by both the width and depth of the throat. Both Milwaukee models, the DeWalt, and the Makita max out at 4-3/4 inches in round or square stock. The Porter-Cable, while able to cut 4-3/4-inch round stock, is limited to a rectangular cut of 4-1/2 inches by 4-3/4 inches. For most work in the field, that is plenty big.
All five of these saws have a lever to release the blade tension before you slip the blade off the tires and out from the guides. They all worked fine and were ready to run without messing around after changing blades.
Porter-Cable has an extra feature: a blade-tracking adjustment screw. This adjustment might come in handy down the road if a blade stretches or the pulley bearings wear down, but during our test we didn't encounter any problems with blade tracking on any of the saws.
Switches & Speed Control
All of these portable band saws are variable-speed tools, with different blade speeds being used to optimize cutting in different hardnesses of materials and with various blades.
The cordless Milwaukee has a large two-finger switch, so it is easy to find even with gloves on, and it has a high/low button on the rear handle to change blade speed. The Porter-Cable, DeWalt, and Makita models all use a separate dial to adjust blade speed. The corded Milwaukee uses a variable-speed trigger with a stop adjustment on the trigger. I feel this is probably the handiest setup for adjusting blade speed.
It's really nice when you see that tool manufacturers have paid attention to how their tools are really used in the field, and I was pleased to find some innovations on these band saws. Three of the saws come with built-in work lights: The cordless Milwaukee uses an LED to light the cut area, and the Makita uses a small fluorescent bulb. DeWalt's work light is a very bright, easy-to-replace automotive bulb; in fact, if you ever get lost in a dark crawlspace you could probably use it to help find your way out. DeWalt and Makita protect their castings with rubber bumpers.
Another feature we were happy to see was the tool hook included on both the Makita and the DeWalt models. Having your band saw handy and keeping it clean by not setting it on the floor seems like a good idea to me. DeWalt's hook is on the rear handle, a natural location to hook the tool as you set it down. The Makita's hook is off the front of the tool, and as you set it down you have to release your primary hand to hook this tool, which is not quite as easy.
Choosing a winner out of this bunch of tools was not an easy task. The corded Milwaukee 6232-6, a descendent of the tool that has been around forever, is a solid saw and extremely well-made and powerful. The Milwaukee 0729-21 is also very powerful, and anytime you can lose the cord, you have increased your productivity; I never once missed the cord with this band saw.
Makita's 2107FK band saw incorporates great features such as the tool hook and work light. Its light weight and great ergonomics make it a pleasure to use.
But for me, the one saw that stood out just enough from the rest of the class is the DeWalt D28770K. This well-made saw was easy to use and includes welcome features like a well-placed tool hook and the extremely bright work light, a combination that could make a tough day at work just that much easier. Add to that its cutting power, light weight, and comfortable feel, and we've got ourselves a winner.
Unfortunately, the Porter-Cable 97724 was outclassed by the other four models in this test. It had less power and cut slower than the others, and it didn't handle as well during operation due to its awkward shape.
–John Myrtle owns JM Plumbing and Heating in Hotchkiss, Colo.
Sources of Supply
Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp.
Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp.
0729-21 (cordless): $429
Model 97724: $289–$299