Dealing With Dust. Dust and chips generated by cutting tend to pile up right where the blade meets the cut line, and I spent lots of time with my old saws leaning over and blowing the dust away to stay on target. That gets old. To help eliminate this, the Hitachi, Metabo, and Ridgid tools include vacuum attachment ports and clear plastic blade shrouds that snap into place. These setups are optional on the Bosch, Makita, and Milwaukee units.
Using a vacuum kept my sight line clear, which is good, but enough dust escaped through the bottom of the cuts and got under the dust shrouds. The dust shrouds also can get dirty, especially when cutting an oily material like teak. This obscured my sight line through the plastic enough that it made dust extraction on these tools much less helpful than I'd hoped.
Many of us don't use a vacuum attachment anyway, especially on site, but since we obviously still need to see the line, a strong dust blower is essential. At higher speeds, all the saws did a good job blowing dust off the cut line, except the DeWalt. This saw blows dust an inch or so in front of the blade rather than at the cut point, which sort of misses the point. At medium speeds, the Bosch's blower proved marginally effective and DeWalt's was ineffective. Results were generally poor at lower speeds for all the tools except the Craftsman; its gale-force blower kept the cut line clear at all motor speeds. The Bosch and Craftsman have on/off switches for the blower, too, which is nice. While I leave the blower on all the time for cuts in wood, it's nice to shut it off for metal cutting.
Power, Blade Speed
Cutting Speed and Orbital Action. All the tools offer orbital action that increases cutting speed in wood and other soft materials by moving the blade fore and aft as it moves up and down, and all the units have switches to control the degree of orbital action. Most units have three orbital positions, which seem to be plenty. I like to dial-back the orbital action on super-accurate cuts and splinter-prone materials. The Metabo and Ridgid have four settings. On all the saws, the orbital action also can be turned off for cutting hard plastic or metal, or to reduce splintering.
Bosch's innovative "precision control" supports the blade in tough stock and nearly eliminates swayout.
Blade Speed. All the saws have variable speeds that top out at around 3,000 strokes per minute (spm) -- fast enough for any job. But on the low end, the Bosch, Craftsman, DeWalt, and Milwaukee bottom out at 500 spm, slower than I needed. The Metabo's and Ridgid's 1,000-spm minimum was too fast for one guy in my shop, but I liked it. The Makita slows to 800 spm and the Hitachi to 850 strokes, which both proved about perfect in my tests.
The Craftsman and DeWalt saws have variable-speed triggers -- the further the trigger is depressed, the faster the saws run. Working in conjunction with their speed dial settings, it's more accurate to call the dials "speed limiters" because they allow you to hold the trigger full on as you cut, or ease back if necessary. The rest of the saws run only at the speed set on the dial.
Fit & Finish
DeWalt's overshoe clicks on nicely to protect finished work.
Changing Blades. The days of using a screwdriver or Allen wrench to change jigsaw blades are, thankfully, over. Six of the saws tested have blade-release levers: Pull the lever and the blade pops out; stick in a new blade and release the lever to lock it in place. It couldn't be simpler or faster. And unlike one of my old saws that requires retightening the blade retention screw every few minutes, these mechanisms hold the blades tightly.
Bosch, Hitachi, Makita, and Milwaukee locate the lever right on the front of the saw, which is very convenient. The Metabo and the almost identical Ridgid have small metal levers right on the plunger; they look crude but work well. Though it's easy to change blades on all the saws, the Bosch and Makita are particularly smooth.
Only two of the saws, the Craftsman and the DeWalt, use the older knob-on-top-type blade-release system, which is slower and less intuitive. The Craftsman's system requires inserting the blade, then twisting it 90 degrees; its knob could be sturdier -- I accidentally pulled it right off. DeWalt's blade goes straight in and its knob seemed sturdier.
Hitachi's comfortable handle has a speed dial on top that is easy to reach and turn.
Tilting the Base. I don't tilt the base often of my jigsaw, but when I do I prefer a cam mechanism to fumbling with an Allen wrench. Only three of the saws have tool-free base adjustment: the Bosch, DeWalt, and Milwaukee. Of these, the Milwaukee is the smoothest and easiest to use with a large well-placed lever at the back of the base. The Bosch mechanism has the advantage of a dial, rather then a screwdriver, to adjust the cam's tension, which I like. The DeWalt's mechanism worked adequately, but felt like it could be smoother.
The bases on all the tools also slide back for use in tight places and for easier plunge-cutting -- which I do for anything not super-hard or over an inch thick. All the base adjustments worked fine.