It's hard to imagine building or remodeling without reciprocating saws. In 1952, Milwaukee Electric Tool Co., introduced the first Sawzall and forever changed the way we work. Since then, manufacturers have greatly improved these tools with tool-less blade changing, orbital action, better balance, variable speed, and speed dials. On the surface, the differences among today's saws may seem slight, but they make a big difference in the field--where the little things really add up.

I've been a remodeler and custom home builder in New Jersey for 21 years. My carpenters and I run recip saws daily. From cutting in skylights, to bulk demolition, to controlled cuts in stringers or rafters, we turn to our recip saws all the time. Once we got our hands on the six wood-eaters in this test, we looked for powerful, aggressive tools that ate up the tough stuff and also allowed some precision.

Test Criteria

We tested the Bosch 1634VSK, DeWalt DW309K, Hitachi CR13VA, Makita JR3030T, Milwaukee Sawzall 6521-21, and Porter-Cable Tiger Saw 9737 in the field and in the shop. In the field, we used the saws on a whole-house remodel involving serious demo, new skylights, and an addition. Then, we gutted an existing finished basement before installing new features. As you can imagine, both jobs gave us plenty of drywall, plywood sheathing, framing, nail-embedded wood, and shingles to power through. We checked the models' weight, balance, and feel. We also evaluated their storage cases, blade-change features, shoe adjustments, and cutting options for various applications.

Back at the shop, we dropped the saws through double 2x4s with the blade teeth down. Then, we up-cut through the same stack with the blade reversed, looking for pure speed each time. We also tested each tool's ability to cut squarely. And finally, we put the group through a plunge-cutting test, checking for vibration and cutting ease.

Field Operations

Case. A recip case should allow you to store the tool with a standard 6-inch blade on it. It should provide room for additional blade storage, too. We liked Milwaukee's steel box the best. The tool fit inside every time with the blade on and its detachable cord made it even easier to store. There's plenty of room for extra blade storage. And a steel case with all-metal clasps will last, even if your heaviest guy uses it for a step stool or lunch seat. We also liked Makita's box. It has pockets for extra blade storage, which keeps things from banging around. The Bosch and Hitachi boxes were a pain; we had to remove the blades to store the tools and the plastic felt like it wouldn't last very long.

Blade change. A tool-less blade-change device is useful only if it's easier and less frustrating to use than an Allen wrench. Thankfully, the days of trying to find a wrench and make it work on a stripped nut are ending, but we're not all the way there yet. The Hitachi, Milwaukee, and Porter-Cable saws all have excellent blade-change mechanisms. You simply rotate their blade collars, slide the blades in, and release the collars to lock the blades in place. The collars are easy to hold and twist. The Bosch "Clic" blade change gave us some difficulty. The thicker demo blades were really tough to install and it was hard to get our fingers in there, especially while wearing gloves. DeWalt's blade release lever is questionable; it's made of plastic and doesn't seem very tough. Makita's setup requires pushing and pulling in too many directions at the same time.

Shoe adjustment. Adjustable depth control gets more life out of your blades and, to some degree, lets you gauge how far they enter the work. The best shoes let you see the blade and line while cutting. Milwaukee's shoe is rugged and adjusts solidly into six positions. Out of the box however, it was virtually impossible to move the release lever by hand--we ended up prying it open with a screwdriver. It quickly loosened up, though, and wasn't a problem any longer.

Bosch's and Hitachi's saws feature three-position shoes. Bosch's arrangement allows good cut visibility. We liked its tool-less adjustment, but the button under the rubber bonnet is a little awkward. The Hitachi shoe pivots well and rides over rough work like shingles nicely, but make sure you have the instructions handy the first time you try to adjust it. Once you know the trick, however, it's a snap. Makita has a good shoe with open sight lines and multiple, easy-to-adjust settings.

The DeWalt and Porter-Cable setups could use some work. We liked the way DeWalt's shoe recesses all the way back to the tool body, but it has too much side-to-side wobble and was hard to keep on the line. Porter-Cable's shoe moves over the work well, but requires an Allen wrench for adjustment. It's also hard to see the cut line with this tool.

In orbit. My carpenters and I prefer saws with orbital action and speed dials over tools with straight reciprocating functions and trigger-controlled speed. Orbital-action saws cut faster if you have the blade in the teeth-down position. Without a speed dial, variable-speed control is only as consistent as your ability to depress the trigger half-way while the tool bites into the hole you're cutting.

The big news in orbital cutting is Hitachi's "swing action." Standard recip orbit resembles a locomotive arm's path as it turns a wheel. Swing action mimics an old-fashioned, two-man timber saw swinging up and down over a log. This feature lets the saw cut effectively with the blade teeth either up or down. Our shop tests confirm that.

Milwaukee and Porter-Cable's orbital action makes them aggressive wood-cutters, too. However, when we turned the blades upside down, the orbital action worked against them and they cut slower. The Sawzall has a good speed dial; Porter-Cable's speed is trigger-controlled.

Feel. We define this as a combination of balance, weight, and vibration. The perfect reciprocating saw is well-balanced, feels light, and cuts smoothly. Well-balanced saws end up feeling lighter than what they actually weigh. The Sawzall and the Tiger saw both feel good. The compact, rather bulbous Hitachi wasn't the heaviest tool we tested, but it felt that way.

It's tough to plunge into walls, roofs, and anything else you usually throw a recip saw at. It's tougher still with an unruly, vibrating tool. The smooth operators take this all in stride. The Makita vibrated the most, probably because it was the lightest saw in the test. The orbital-action saws vibrated a little less than the swing-action Hitachi. With straight recip action, the DeWalt saw had the smoothest operation.

Shop Tests

Down-cut. We ran four controlled tests using the same operator and the same 50-foot, 12-gauge extension cord. We put a new blade on each saw for every task. First, we down-cut through double 2x4s clamped in our bench vise. As expected the heavy, high-amp saws with orbital action cut well, with Bosch leading the pack.

Up-cut. Next, we flipped the blade over and up-cut through the wood. I see blades turned teeth-up on the job all the time, so these test results were enlightening. It might be easier to start a plunge cut this way or to remove a sole plate from a door opening, but the orbital action actually works against you with the blade in this position. All the orbital-action saws cut slower here. Hitachi's swing-action saw scored the same on both cuts; its up-cut was the fastest of the bunch.

Square-cut. Recip saws aren't usually known for their accuracy, but that feature's important to us. We use recips to clean out cuts in stair stringers, rafter tails, and thicker materials like glulams and oversized beams. To our surprise, most of the tools we tested cut quite squarely. The Milwaukee was right on the money and the rest were just a hair off.

Plunge-cut. We mocked up a roof with two layers of shingles over 1/2-inch ply, loaded it with plenty of nails, and tested which models dove in and towed the line and which ones bucked the system. All the saws completed this task, but the Porter-Cable Tiger saw turned out to be our favorite plunge-cutter. It got right after the cut, made a perfect circle, and finished the job quickly. We weren't as happy with the DeWalt and Makita tools. The DeWalt saw's shoe moved around a lot and the Makita saw jumped out of the cut. Neither saw stayed on the line and both left oblong holes.

Favorites

When all the dust had settled and the floor was littered with bent, disfigured blades, we chose the Milwaukee Sawzall as our favorite. It's well engineered and clearly built to last. We liked its straight reciprocating and orbital-cut options. The variable-speed trigger and speed dial give the operator a setting for every occasion. And the case is built to last.

Second place goes to the Porter-Cable Tiger saw. We liked its easy-to-use blade-change mechanism and aggressive field performance. It really dove into the mocked-up roof and did great demolition cutting.

The Hitachi caused a lot of excitement. The company's made a strong effort to design a tool based on field needs and its swing-action feature is really nice. The problems we found (like the case) are easily fixable. The jury's still out on the tool's long-term reliability, but I expect good things in the future. The rest of the saws finished like this: Bosch, DeWalt, and Makita.

R. Craig Lord is a custom builder and remodeler in Moorestown, N.J.

Tools of the Trade has arranged with the companies in this test to donate their tools to Habitat for Humanity.

Thanks to L.S. Starrett Co. for supplying the recip saw blades for this test.