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I've been a remodeling carpenter for more than 25 years, and there haven't been many weeks during that time when I didn't pull out my recip saw. Recently, I had the opportunity to try out 13 pro-grade models. Some of them have been around for years, but others were so new I had to test prototypes. Some recip saw manufacturers make three, four, or five different models.

Testing

As a remodeling carpenter, I mostly cut wood. During demo, I might cut studs, beams, drywall, sheathing, and the occasional pipe. During framing, I'll do the kind of light cutting and notching that plumbers, electricians, and hvac guys have to do.

I had four months to test the tools, so every few weeks I put different saws in the back of my van. I used them myself and loaned them to other tradespeople to see what they thought. A friend of mine ran the saws through a timed cutting test. He put a new blade in each saw and timed how long it took to make three cuts through a 2x12. He avoided large knots and applied even cutting pressure by hanging a 15-pound weight from the nose of the saw. I wouldn't judge a saw by the specs alone, but the fact is the test results were in line with the way I thought the saws would perform.

The Mechanics of Fast Cutting

You want clean, accurate cuts from a miter saw, but with a recip saw it's all about speed. Actual cutting speed is determined by the number of strokes per minute (spm), length of cutting stroke, power of the motor, and whether the tool has orbital cutting action.

Strokes per minute is a measure of how quickly the blade goes back and forth. Two-thirds of the saws top out between 2,600 and 2,800 spm. At 3,200 spm, Milwaukee's Super Sawzall was the fastest. DeWalt's 2,400-spm DW303MK was the slowest. You might not notice if one saw is 100 or 200 spm faster than another, but you can definitely feel a difference of 300 or 400 spm.

Stroke

The stroke length — how far the blade goes into the work — is just as important as spm. At any given speed, the longer the stroke, the faster the saw will cut. A slightly longer stroke can make a big difference. For example, cutting with a 1 1/8-inch stroke saw at 2,600 spm for one minute would be the equivalent of pulling a 244-foot blade through the material. If you increase the stroke by 1/8 inch, you get an extra 27 feet, or 11% more cutting.

Every saw except one has a stroke between 1 1/8 inches and 1 1/4 inches in length. Milwaukee's 6509-22 has a 3/4-inch stroke, which explains why it cut slower than any other saw I tested.

Orbital Action

Six or seven years ago, orbital cutting action was the hot new feature on recip saws. Considering how popular it was back then, I'm surprised that more saws don't have it now — only four of those tested do. Saws cut more aggressively in orbital mode because the blade swings up and down at the same time it's moving back and forth.

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The orbital control switch on the Super Sawzall is recessed into the top of the saw, where it's both out of the way and easy to get at.

While cutting in orbital mode is definitely faster than cutting in straight mode, if you look at the speed test results (below), you'll see that it's not necessarily faster by much.

Speed Test

(Time required to make three crosscuts through a 2x12)

Brand

Model

Cutting Mode

*Time (in seconds)

Bosch

1634VSK

orbit

29

Porter-Cable

9747 Tiger Saw

orbit

29

Milwaukee

6521-21 Super Sawzall

orbit

30

DeWalt

DW307MK

straight

35

Hitachi

CR13VA

orbit

37

Porter-Cable

9741 Tiger Saw

straight

37

DeWalt

DW309K

straight

38

Milwaukee

6519-22 Sawzall Plus

straight

38

Porter-Cable

9750 Tiger Claw

straight

39

Porter-Cable

9746 Tiger Saw

straight

42

Makita

JR3020

straight

46

DeWalt

DW303MK

straight

58

Milwaukee

6509-22 Sawzall

straight

101

*Each saw had a new 5-inch Milwaukee 6-tpi bimetal blade (model 1012-61). Cutting pressure was applied by hanging a 15-pound weight off the nose of each saw. Large knots were avoided.

The feel of the orbital action is not the same on every saw. The orbits are very pronounced on Hitachi's CR13VA and Porter-Cable's 9747, while the action is much more subtle on Milwaukee's 6521-21.

Power. A long stroke and a high spm rating aren't much good if the saw bogs down while you're using it. There's no industry standard for rating horsepower, so most tradespeople look at amp ratings instead. However, an amp rating is just a measure of how much juice you can put into a tool without melting the motor. All things being equal, more amps should yield greater power, but in reality you won't notice a 1-amp difference when you're using a saw.

Ergonomics

There's no point carrying more weight than you have to, because many cuts don't require the kind of power you get from heavier tools. Bosch's 1634VSK is very powerful, but at 10.9 pounds it's a pound heavier than the next heaviest saw. I don't mind using it for heavy demolition, but there's no way I want to carry that much weight if all I'm doing is cutting holes through sheathing.

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Although the knurled ring makes it easy to operate the blade clamp on this Tiger Saw, you can't get at it if the blade stops on the in-stroke. The recessed lever to the right of the ring is used to adjust the shoe.

We all have our own ideas about feel and balance, so the only way to judge is to try different saws and see what you think. I've got average-size hands, but the grips on some of the saws feel like they're designed for guys with larger hands. I prefer the grips on the Milwaukee and DeWalt saws. Porter-Cable's grips feel big to me.

Recip saws used to be long and thin, but in recent years some models have gotten thicker around the middle. I prefer the thinner models because they feel better balanced and seem to have more grip room up front. The Bosch, Makita, and Milwaukee saws are all slender.

Blade Clamps

The keyless blade clamp is the best thing that ever happened to recip saws; these days, every pro-grade saw has one. Most clamps are operated by twisting a ring or flipping a mechanism on the end of the drive shaft. They all work, but I prefer the ones that are the easiest to get at. For example, the knurled rings on the Porter-Cable clamps are easy to grasp but aren't accessible if the blade stops on the in-stroke. The same is true of Hitachi's clamp. I prefer the clamps on the Milwaukee saws, because they're accessible for most of the stroke. I like DeWalt's clamps even more, because they're activated by flipping a lever on the side of the forward housing. The lever is easy to get at, and the clamp stays open till you flip the lever back down. This is the only clamp that's easy to operate with gloves on.

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DeWalt uses a lever-activated clamp to fasten blades. It's so easy to use that you can change blades without taking off your gloves.

All the saws I tested accept the thicker demo-style blades, and in every case blades can be installed with the teeth facing up or down.

Saw Foot

Most saws have an adjustable foot. Extending and retracting the foot allows you to use more of the teeth and to partially limit the depth of penetration. To be honest, I almost never adjust the foot.

If you regularly adjust the foot, be sure to get one that can be adjusted without tools. Milwaukee's Super Sawzall and Sawzall Plus use a contoured lever. The lever is easy to get at and blends into the front grip of the machine. Porter-Cable uses a similar mechanism on its 9746, 9747, and 9750 models. You need a hex key to adjust the foot on the 9741. Makita uses a lever, but it's big, clunky, and in the way. Most of the other saws use push-button mechanisms built into the bottom of the nose.

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It's easy to adjust the shoes on Milwaukee's Sawzall Plus and Super Sawzall because they're lever activated. The lever is shown in the disengaged position; it folds into the grip when you lock it.

Speed Control

All of the saws have variable speed. On some, the trigger alone controls the speed; on other models, the variable-speed trigger is coupled to a speed-control dial that limits the maximum speed of the saw. I like having a dial. I normally cut at top speed, but if I want to make a long, slow cut, it's easier to dial in a lower setting and then squeeze the trigger all the way.

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The Hitachi CR13VA is one of a few saws with an auxiliary speed dial that allows you to set an upper limit on the speed of the blade. It comes in handy for long low-speed cuts.

Tool Case

A case is a very important accessory, mainly because it allows you to keep a good supply of spare blades with the machine. I judge a case on how sturdy it is and whether the tool and cord fit easily inside.

I don't mind a case made of plastic as long as the clasps that hold it shut are metal. With some cases, stowing the cord can be a problem: You have to coil it just so, or the top won't close.

I liked the Milwaukee and DeWalt cases the best. They have metal clasps and plenty of room for the tool. I was disappointed in Porter-Cable's cases — the clasps are plastic, and you have to be careful about how you stow the cord. Bosch makes a roomy case, but it has plastic clasps.

Durability

The only way to find out if a particular saw is durable is to use it for a few years, something that's not possible for an article like this. The next best thing is to look at the overall quality of the tool: what it's made from, how it feels, and what it sounds like when it runs.

All of the saws I tested looked and felt well made, though there were some discernible differences. Two of the saws — Porter-Cable's Tiger Claw and the Hitachi — vibrated noticeably more than the others. I expected some extra vibration from the Tiger Claw, given that the nose of the tool is adjustable; there's no way you can add all those gears and not get some vibration. I'm less forgiving about the Hitachi saw, which vibrated a lot and sounded somewhat clacky when the orbital function was on. The smaller DeWalt saws, DW303MK and DW307MK, both emitted an annoying high-frequency whine. Fortunately, that sound is drowned out by the noise of cutting; you can only hear it when the blade is out of the cut.

I was curious to see if my perception of how loud the tools were matched up with reality, so I borrowed a friend's decibel meter and tested all the saws. It wasn't a fancy lab test, but I tested each saw the same way and at the same time. The absolute numbers are less important than the relative ranking of the tools. I measured sound output with the saw going full tilt, the blade out of the work, and the meter 30 inches away. Orbital models were tested two ways, orbit on and orbit off. As it turned out, the saws that sounded the loudest actually were the loudest (see spec table on next page).

Special Features

Tool-less blade clamps and orbital action used to be special features but are now common. I don't know if it's a sign of things to come, but two of the Porter-Cable saws have innovative features.

Porter-Cable's 9747 looks like a regular recip saw but is designed so you can rotate the rear grip in relation to the blade. This is a great innovation because it allows you to cut up, down, or sideways while grasping the saw in the normal horizontal position.

The model 9750 Tiger Claw has an adjustable gear housing that lets you change the angle at which the blade comes out of the machine. The mechanism is well designed and allowed me to cut from any and all angles. I talked to some plumbers who were familiar with this saw; one thought it was pretty cool but wished it was lighter. The other one said there wasn't a pipe he couldn't cut with a regular saw, and he didn't see the point of all those fancy gizmos.

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The Tiger Claw has a unique adjustable gear mechanism that lets you reorient the front of the saw. This allows you to access cuts that might be impossible with other saws.

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The 9747 Tiger Saw is equipped with a simple mechanism that allows you to rotate the rear grip in relation to the front end of the saw.

Favorites

My absolute favorite is Milwaukee's Super Sawzall (6521-21). I like everything about it: It's fast, powerful, light, and well balanced, and the controls are easy to use. I also like Porter-Cable's 9747 Tiger Saw: It's fast and powerful, and the adjustable rear grip is great to use. Another big saw that's worth looking at is DeWalt's DW309K. It's smooth-running and powerful and comes with a nice case. I prefer the heavier, more powerful saws, but if I wanted a smaller, lighter model, I would choose the Milwaukee Sawzall Plus (6519-22). It weighs only 7.4 pounds but feels as fast and powerful as some of the bigger saws.


Don Pascucciis a carpenter and remodeling contractor in Billerica, Mass.

See page two for Reviewer's Comments and tool specs.