I'm a framer, and a circular saw is the most important power
tool I own. The crew I'm on frames about a dozen houses per
year. We're on the West Coast, so of course we use inline saws.
Carpenters usually refer to inline saws as wormdrives, though
some models are actually equipped with hypoid gears. Whatever
you call them, these saws are long, narrow, and geared to run
about a thousand rpm slower than the average sidewinder. This
makes for higher torque, less vibration, and less noise. It
also increases the life expectancy of the tool.
For this article I tested 7 1/4-inch inline saws from Bosch,
DeWalt, Makita, Milwaukee, and Skil. Some of these models have
been around forever; others are relatively new. Other sizes are
available, but we focused on 7 1/4-inch models because they're
by far the most common. I tested the saws by taking them to
work and sharing them with the other framers on the crew. We
used the saws for several months; gradually, it became obvious
which ones we liked the most. Ultimately, the ones we liked got
used every day and the rest stayed in the truck.
Power, Weight, and Balance
When it comes to cutting framing lumber, the more power, the
better. None of the saws was weak, but the 15-amp models were
definitely more powerful than the ones with 13-amp motors. This
was most noticeable when I made cheek cuts on hip and valley
jacks, which required me to cut compound miters in 2x12 stock.
Heavy-duty operations like gang-ripping plywood and beveling
the lower edges of LVL valley rafters also helped us
distinguish the saws. All of them had enough power for those
operations, but the DeWalt and the 15-amp Makita had an easier
time than the others.
Your arm gets tired lifting a heavy saw, especially when you
perform repetitive operations like cutting stair stringers or
cutting 40 rafters in a row. While all wormdrives are heavy,
some manufacturers have tried to produce lighter saws by
replacing heavy materials with lighter-weight aluminum,
magnesium, and plastic composites. We particularly liked
DeWalt's saw because it weighs only 13 pounds. Most other
inline saws are a pound or two heavier, and the Milwaukee
weighs close to 17 pounds.
Balance. Most wormdrives
feel nose-heavy because the grip is in back and the weight is
out front. DeWalt's saw is shorter than other inline models,
which makes it less nose-heavy and easier to handle. You would
expect Bosch's model 1678 to be the best-balanced tool of all,
because the grip is on top. It's definitely not nose-heavy, but
to West Coast carpenters the top handle feels so unnatural that
we preferred not to use the saw. On the other hand, it might
appeal to an East Coast carpenter who wants the power of a
wormdrive but the ergonomics of a sidewinder.
Controls and Other Features
Except for the trigger, the mechanisms for adjusting bevel and
depth of cut are the most frequently used controls on the saw.
The mechanisms should operate smoothly, and the scales should
be easy to read. Some of the older models bevel only 45
degrees, but it's worth holding out for a saw that tilts to 50
degrees for steep cuts on hip and valley jacks. The Bosch,
DeWalt, and Makita saws all cut 50-degree bevels; the Skil and
Milwaukee models don't.
Most depth control mechanisms work fine when the saw comes out
of the box. The real test is how smoothly they work after the
saw has been dropped a few times. Most of the saws we tested
were not affected by falls, but dropping the Skil and Bosch
models damaged their depth control mechanisms and made them
stick. Some of the saws we tested cut deeper than others, but
they all cut deep enough to go all the way through 2-by and 1
3/4-inch LVL material at their maximum bevel settings.
A well-designed blade guard is very important. The problem
with guards is that some of them tend to hang up on the work,
especially when you're cutting near the end of the piece. Some
carpenters solve this problem by disabling the guard. To me,
this is not a solution because it creates a terrible safety
hazard. You're better off buying a saw with a guard that works.
Except for Skil, all of the manufacturers have managed to equip
their saws with guards that don't get hung up on short trimming
A saw is less likely to take a fall if
it has a rafter hook. The Bosch and DeWalt saws are equipped
with fold-away hooks.
A built-in rafter hook is a great feature because we all
encounter situations where there's no convenient place to put
the saw down. A hook allows you to safely hang the saw from a
rafter, joist, or nail. The Bosch and DeWalt saws both come
with built-in hooks that fold out when you need to hang the
saw. Another nifty feature is a rubberized grip. It rains a lot
around here, and hard-plastic grips can get slippery. Both
Bosch models and the 15-amp Makita are equipped with rubberized
grips. This makes them more comfortable to grasp and easier to
hold on to when your hands are wet.
It was pretty easy to pick our favorite models because the
three carpenters on the crew were always fighting for same
three saws. First place goes to the DeWalt. It's powerful, well
balanced, and extremely light for an inline model. We also
liked Makita's 5277NB. It has superior power, a comfortable
rubber grip, and a smooth-running motor that seems to purr. Our
third choice would be Bosch's model 1677M. It has a built-in
rafter hook, a sturdy waffle-patterned base plate, and a
comfortable rubber grip.
Tim Uhleris a framer and exterior trim carpenter
for Pioneer Builders Inc. in Port Orchard, Wash.
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