How to Use a Circular Saw

Last Updated:  July 1, 2021

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I jokingly call the circular saw the “Upside-down, Mobile Table Saw” because, on a basic level, that’s what it is. Obvious differing appearances aside, they both perform the same function just with a different technique. You push the blade through the wood when using a circular saw and push the wood through the blade when using a table saw.

Parts of the Circular Saw

Most circular saws have similar parts and functionality, but they may be laid out differently.

The safety and power switches are on the rear handle. There’s also a front grip for two-handed operation (FIG 1).

Underneath the main blade guard is a spring-loaded guard that rotates to allow the saw to push forward while still covering the portion of the blade that isn’t in the cut.

Most saws also have a depth adjustment and the ability to tilt up to 45 degrees to cut a bevel.

The bottom of the saw is called the shoe. This one is made of aluminum, but some newer ones are made of a stronger magnesium alloy.

Most saws have a button that will lock the arbor in place so you can remove the blade. My saw doesn’t have one, so I hold my thumb on the blade and loosen the screw. If it’s difficult to get the screw loose, strike the wrench in an almost upward/left angle so the arbor won’t just turn as you do it.

Circular Saw Blades

First, a bit about the two basic types of cuts. You can see that the grain of the wood runs left and right. If I make a cut across, or perpendicular to, the grain, that’s called a crosscut. If I make a cut with the grain, along its length, that’s called a rip cut.

Here in the US the most common circular saw blades are 5 1/2”, 6 1/2”, and 7 1/4”. There are smaller and larger sizes, but these are the most common. Everywhere else in the world many different metric sizes are available.

Blades are labeled according to that size (their diameter) and the number of teeth they have. I have a 6 1/2” 18T blade and a 7 1/4” 40T blade. The less teeth a blade has the better it is for making rip cuts. It will leave more tear out and therefore an uglier cut, but the fewer teeth create less friction and allow it to cut through denser woods better than a blade with more teeth.

The 40T blade leaves a much nicer crosscut because it has more teeth and cuts more often. More teeth cut the woodgrains swifter and cleaner. But, the more teeth cause more friction, so this type of blade has a tougher time ripping denser wood. A 40T blade is a good compromise between a nicer crosscut and still being able to rip without too much trouble. The 18T blade is mostly used for quick, rough cutting.

Types of Circular Saws

The most common two types of circular saws (the only two as far as I know) are “sidewinder”and “worm drive”. A sidewinder’s motor sits directly next to the blade. Since it’s directly turning the blade it’s also called a “direct drive”.

A worm drive’s motor sits a little further back from the blade and turns it with an extra worm gear. Worm drive saws spin slower, lower RPM, but have more torque, so they’re generally a little stronger than a sidewinder.

Circular Saws can be setup as blade left or blade right. The picture above is a blade right saw since the blade sits to the right of the motor. A blade right saw is meant to be held with the right hand as you stand off to the left. Your left hand goes on the front grip.

There is quite a bit of debate about how to handle a right vs left handed saw. Many people like to see the blade as they cut instead of watching the gauge in the front and so they hold the blade right saw with their left hand as they walk along the side. This is especially helpful if you’re cutting at the end of a wide piece and can’t reach all the way across with your right hand.

There are a couple of drawbacks to using a blade right saw with your left hand, however.

1) Most saws have the dust port situated to blow the dust to the blade side. You’ll get covered in dust walking along side – not the end of the world, but it’s a consideration.

2) You won’t be able to naturally use two hands on the saw. It’s extremely awkward to place your left hand on the grip, reach your right hand over to the front grip, and then crane your neck to see the blade. It’s also always good practice to avoid reaching your arm across a blade – even if it’s well over it. Miter saws, tables saws, band saws….you should never reach across any of these.

There are also drawbacks to using the saw as intended when cutting the end of a piece. My saw has a very thin strip of metal on the blade side of the saw base. Trying to balance on this part is precarious at best. You’ll either not have any support, as pictured, or, if the piece isn’t fully supported, as you make the cut the waste will begin to sag and lose its stability and support.

The solution is to always support the entire workpiece and to use the saw in the way that I think negates most of this debate:

Making a Cut With the Circular Saw

Before you pull the trigger make sure your setup is supported. A common mistake is to support the workpiece on two sides with none in the middle. As you make the cut the wood collapses and pinches the blade causing the saw to bind, or worse, kickback at you.

With your workpiece well-supported, I recommend building and using a track guide. This guide makes it easy to line up a cut and your only job is to keep the saw firmly pressed up against the fence. You can use either hand on the handle and it’s much easier to use the saw with one hand this way.

Lower the depth until at least one tooth on the blade is fully beneath the workpiece. If you’re using a track guide, put the edges on your marks. If you’re cutting free-hand, line it up with the gauge on the front of your saw. There should be a mark for a 90 degree cut and a 45 degree cut, so make sure you’re looking at the right one.

Get your body in the right position to move through the whole cut, pull the cord out of the way and any other obstructions in the path of the cut. Press the safety and trigger to get the blade up to speed and then push through the cut at a steady even pace. Don’t push too hard. If it feels like you need to force it, your blade is likely dull and needs replacing.

There are a variety of straight-edge guides you can use as an alternative to the track guide. A long level clamped to the surface, will work. There are also products that are self-clamping.

In a pinch you can also use a speed square for shorter crosscuts (FG 11).

A circular saw was one of the first tools I began using as a woodworker. Every woodworker should have one, whether you’re just starting out or have been doing it for decades, and it’ll be useful for as long as you build and create!


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