More than 10 years ago, I bought one of the first cordless recip saws, hoping it would perform like my corded model. I had shelved most of my corded drills in favor of their cordless cousins, and I had high hopes for recips–too high, as it turned out, for the first generation.
The saw was handy for quick occasional cuts but had a low stroke-per-minute (SPM) rate, a short stroke, and handled poorly. Worst of all was the runtime. The battery lived only about eight minutes before dying out. The two-hour recharge time meant that even with two batteries, I had more downtime than runtime each hour.
Today's cordless recips are a different story. They have faster, longer strokes, superior batteries, and better features. We tested 12 tools ranging from 18 to 36 volts, all but one with lithium-ion batteries. The odd one out uses a nickel metal hydride battery, several tools in the test can run on more than one battery chemistry, and one works with different voltage batteries.
My crew and I used the saws during framing for plunge-cutting wall sheathing for rough openings, subflooring for HVAC duct registers, roof sheathing for skylight openings, and cutting out door plates and trimming beams. On the remodeling side, we used the saws for demolition work, such as hacking apart nail-embedded studs, joists, and rafters; slicing through cast iron drain pipes and black iron gas pipes; and cutting up old floor and wall planking. Then came the messy stuff: old roof shingles, plaster and lath, and layers of old flooring.
Many of these saws could replace their corded counterparts for most of recip tasks I encounter. During the months I spent with these tools, I determined and rated the most important user attributes, such as cutting speed, vibration control, cutting sightline, base shoe stability, trigger control, and blade clamp tightness. To fairly quantify or grade these handling and performance aspects, I conducted side-by-side tests. I outfitted the saws equally with LENOX Wood and Metal blades for our cutting trials and during much of our field work. I also evaluated the tools' functions, like blade changes and base shoe adjustment, and features, like trigger lock-off switches and handle grip comfort.
Our power test was where the teeth really hit the wood–and steel. With freshly charged batteries for each cut and new 9-inch demolition blades, we set out to see who could cut slices the fastest through a knot-free 6x6 with nails embedded in the end. We timed several separate cuts for each saw and averaged the results.
The cut times for each saw varied by no more than six seconds, so I feel that we captured consistent enough results to be reliable. The results are interesting, with a surprise speed winner making the cut more than twice as fast as slower saws. (For battery runtime results, go to toolsofthetrade.net)
Vibration, or more accurately vibration control, is another important factor with recip saws. The smoother-running units greatly improve cutting control while providing comfort for the operator. I have carpal tunnel syndrome, so I appreciate the less brutal tools as they don't leave my hands and forearms numb.
The vibration control results were mainly rated "as felt" in use, but one interesting test for vibration was using the saws to vibrate insulated concrete forms during a pour. We found that the "fair" vibration-rated tools were great for this. Just by pressing the base shoe of a bladeless tool against the foam forms and pulling the trigger, the concrete flowed smoothly under window bucks and other obstructions.
Looking over all the ratings and results, the Hilti won top tool for four reasons: smoothest cutting control throughout its entire speed range; lowest felt vibration; top-level cutting speed; and unique top and rear hand position handle and trigger.
Milwaukee takes second place with very good vibration control, dual speed-range settings, and a great, solid feel when cutting.
Craftsman takes third place, just ahead of the rest with some surprising performance results. It is the flat-out fastest cutter because it is the only tool in the test with an orbital-cutting mode. But even with the orbital setting off, it is still faster than every tool except the winner.
In the middle of the pack, the Bosch, Hitachi, and Panasonic saws had better combined usability and vibration ratings overall than the rest: the DeWalts, Makita, and Metabo.
The Ryobi and Ridgid come in last: the slowest cutters by far and low in most of the ratings. And the Ridgid suffers very poor front-grip comfort.
-Mike Guertin is a Rhode Island contractor and a member of the JLC Live construction demonstration team.