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 cuts.
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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