By John Spier

Here in the Eastern half of the country, sidewinder circ saws are the workhorse tools of most construction jobs. We do our framing with them, and unlike our Western cousins with their wormdrive saws, we use our sidewinders for everything from form work to trim. As a result, during the past 30 years of building, I've probably run more kilowatts through circular saws than through all my other power tools combined.

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Credit: Photo: dotfordot.com

Several years ago, I tested circ saws and learned a lot, so I jumped at the chance to test the category again to see what had changed.

I tested 16 circ saws this time. Ten of them were standard 7-1/4-inch, blade-right professional models: the Bosch CS20, Craftsman 320.25817, DeWalt DW364K and DW369CSK, Hilti WSC167, Hitachi C7BMR, Makita 5007MGA, Milwaukee 6394-21, Porter-Cable 324MAG, and Ridgid 3200. Two more were blade-left versions of pro saws listed above: the Milwaukee 6391-21 and Porter-Cable 423MAG. Three were low-cost saws: the Black and Decker Firestorm FS1500CSL, Ryobi CSB141LZK, and Worx WT431K. And then there was a 6-1/2-inch saw, the Ridgid R3203 Fuego.

Many improvements have been made since my last test, but a few older models still held their own. The saws were tested on the job while framing a complex custom home and during complete residential and commercial condominium renovations. I rotated a different group of saws into the truck every day, and we gave them all a well-rounded workout in the field, as well as running some controlled tests. To level the field, we used 24-tooth Irwin Marathon framing blades on each saw.

Out of the Box

Most of the saws came in plastic cases, but the Bosch, blade-left Porter-Cable, and the Ridgid Fuego came with bags, and the Hilti and Hitachi models had no containers. Most builders don't use cases because they take up too much space in the truck. I didn't have an opinion on tool bags until I tried to use one–now I know that it takes three hands to get them zipped.

The Craftsman and both Ridgid saws have lighted plugs. The blade-right Milwaukee has a detachable cord, and the Bosch saw has no cord at all but can be connected directly to an extension cord.

Comparing Saws

We set up to test the saws for cutting speed by taking timed rips off of the long edge of a sheet of 3/4-inch plywood, but we soon realized that the difference between 3- and 4-second ripping times was too small to be important. The ergonomics and functionality of the saws' features would tell the real tale, along with their quality of manufacturing. Price should not. Saving a few hours' pay on a tool that you will rely on for years is not a compromise worth considering. Buy the best and enjoy it.

Comfort. Comfort and ergonomics can be subjective, but despite our differences, the crew all agreed on which saws were the most comfortable to use. The Milwaukee and Porter-Cable blade-right models, Makita, DeWalt 369, Hitachi, and Ridgid Fuego are superior. The handle openings are large enough for gloves, and the triggers are well positioned.

I've discovered that good feel can be roughly quantified. Because of the resistance on the blade when a saw is pushed forward, the closer the rear grip is to the blade, the easier it is to push without twisting. Better saws have no more than 3-inches laterally between the handle and the blade. Only the Firestorm and Worx saws are set too wide. Makita's saw is the tightest in this dimension, adding to its excellent comfort overall.

Construction Quality. Durability is hard to test in limited time, but experience has shown me the vulnerable aspects of these tools.

It is very important for the base to stay flat and aligned with the blade. Most of these new saws have cast magnesium or reinforced, composite plastic bases. Those made from flat aluminum plate or stamped steel have rolled edges to resist bending. The more 3D a stamped base, the stiffer it is. It also helps if the base cutouts have radiused corners; square corners are an invitation to fatigue and failure. For those skeptical of composite plastic bases, let me tell you that I was, too, when they first came out. After trying unsuccessfully to break a DeWalt base with a framing hammer, I became a believer. No other base type could stand up to that much abuse and still remain serviceable.

Saw adjustments need to be easy, smooth, and solid. We checked to see if the bases wobbled or flexed with the depth or bevel adjustments maxed out. The sturdiest were the Bosch, Hilti, Hitachi, Makita, Milwaukees, and the Porter-Cables. The saws with some flex were the DeWalts, Firestorm, Ridgid Fuego, and the Worx. The Craftsman, Ridgid R3200, and Ryobi were sloppy.

Adjustment levers are much more durable than plastic knobs, as well as being easier and faster to use, especially while wearing gloves. In my experience, plastic knobs break or vibrate loose on the jobsite, while captive levers stay put.

Blade Brakes. The value of electric brakes on saws is debatable. I don't like them because they wear out brushes and bearings faster, thereby diminishing performance over the life of the tool. I've learned to release the saw trigger before the end of a cut so the blade stops with the cut. Nearly half of the saws tested have brakes, including Craftsman, both DeWalts, Hilti, Hitachi, Makita, and the blade-right Milwaukee. A few of these are available without brakes, and Porter-Cable has like models with brakes.

Blade Changes. The ease of changing a saw's blade is very important. Some of the saws use hex wrenches, which I like because they don't strip bolts and because the bolt stays on the wrench, so you don't drop it as easily. It is especially nice when these wrenches have a home directly on the saw to keep them handy. I prefer a spindle lock button near the front of the saw body, so I can use my left hand to hold the saw, spindle lock, and blade guard all at the same time. This keeps my right hand free for handling the wrench, arbor bolt, and blade.

On a well-designed saw, blade changes take less than a minute. The most convenient were on the DeWalt 369, Hitachi, Makita, and the blade-right Milwaukee. The Craftsman put up a fight, and the tool-free gizmo on the Porter-Cable saws drove me nuts.

I often switch to abrasive blades for cutting metal. Only a few of the saws have enough shaft length to mount thicker blades securely: the DeWalts, Milwaukees, and the Porter-Cables.

Blade Guard. Easy guard operation is critical for both safety and hassle-free cuts. We tested guard retraction with a series of controlled cuts in 2-by stock: cutting square, angled from the left and right, beveled, and compound angle cuts. We also checked that we could easily retract the guards by hand, and that the saws could shave a 1/8-inch slice without hanging up. The guards all worked, but only some excelled at starting cuts in all directions: Bosch, both DeWalts, Hilti, Makita, and both Milwaukees, Porter-Cables, and Ridgids.