It's been awhile since I switched from a Yankee screwdriver to a cordless drill, but I still remember how it revolutionized the way I installed door hardware. Like a lot of other carpenters, my first cordless tool was a Makita 9.6-volt pistol grip. About ten years ago, I went cordless with a second tool, a 14.4-volt DeWalt 5 3/8-inch circular saw. Although it looked a little like a toy when I first saw it, it turned out to be a sturdy and productive tool that changed the way our finish carpentry crew did business. As we continued to add cordless tools, we noticed we were accumulating many different kinds of chargers and batteries. The different voltages and manufacturers meant a lot of redundancy and additional expense, so we ultimately standardized by going to DeWalt's 18-volt cordless tools. Although most of DeWalt's cordless tools have performed well over the years, the jigsaw's reliability has been disappointing, so I recently went looking for a new cordless jigsaw, despite our commitment to a single 18-volt platform.

We tested 18-volt saws from Bosch, DeWalt, and Makita, along with a 19.2-volt Porter-Cable saw and a 12-volt Milwaukee saw. We put the saws out in the field for more than four months. Although our needs are fairly simple (tasks like notching window stools and cutting curves in wall caps for bull-nosed corners), the tools got a daily workout. I also did some side-by-side testing in the shop.

Bosch 52318, 18-volt

At just under 7 pounds, this top-handle saw is relatively light and small for an 18-volt model. It features a smooth-operating variable-speed trigger and a sliding safety lock that you can turn off. The handle has indentations for your thumb and index finger, so you can slide your hand forward and pull the trigger with your middle or ring finger. That combined with padding on top makes for a very comfortable handle. The blade changing system is the best of the bunch. When you push the lever, the blade is ejected and falls into your hand — especially fun when the blade is hot.

The shoe has one positive stop at 90 degrees. Unfortunately, it doesn't slide back for close-in cutting, and for adjustments you need a hex wrench, which isn't carried on board. The four-position orbital adjustment lever is easily accessible and operates smoothly. The air blower adjuster is small and hard to reach, but it works. Although this saw exhibits a moderate amount of vibration, I give it high marks because everything else is very good.

DeWalt DW933, 18-volt

This saw weighs in at 7 1/2 pounds. It has a nice top-handle design that's easy to use because it has a well-designed safety that you can turn off, similar to Bosch's design. Padding enhances the handle's comfortable shape, and the variable-speed trigger operates smoothly. Although blade changing isn't as fast as on other models, using the top-mounted lever is fairly straightforward.

Both orbit and blower selectors have three positions and are easily accessed and operated. The shoe doesn't slide back for close-in cutting, but tilting is easily accomplished by moving a lever under the shoe. You can adjust how firmly it holds the shoe.

Because we've used the DeWalt 18-volt battery platform for many years, this jigsaw has been our standard issue, receiving a lot of use. We went looking for another saw because we've had repeated failure of the orbital action, occasional failure of the blade-holding system, and an occasional misaligned reciprocating shaft on new saws. Comparing its reliability to the other saws is somewhat unfair, because its weaknesses have been revealed over time, and the other saws haven't been tested for an equal duration. Its strong points are the nice handle and trigger.

Makita 4334D, 18-volt

This top-handle saw has a trigger underneath and a safety button on top. It weighs just over 7 1/2 pounds. You have to depress the safety to start the saw, but once it's running, you can change hand positions without holding it. This is the only saw we tested with a speed control dial, and it's located close to the trigger. The Makita accepts both types of jigsaw blades. Blade changing is not fast but works well enough. The shoe slides back to allow close-in cutting, and it includes a removable protective cover. The blade tilt works easily via a lever, but there's only one positive stop, at 90 degrees. The four- position orbital selector is a little stiff to operate, but it's easily accessible. This saw automatically blows air to clear sawdust, but it can't be regulated.

Overall this is a powerful, sturdy, and low-vibration saw. Weak points include the blade change system and the safety you have to engage every time you start the motor.

Milwaukee 6267-20, 12-volt

At 5 pounds 10 ounces, this barrel-grip model is the lightest, longest, and lowest of the group. This tool uses T-shank blades, and changes are easy. You lift a large lever on the front of the saw, insert a blade, and release the lever. Although this tool has no blower to clear the cut line, it does have a vacuum attachment under the grip. With the hose attached, your hand positions are limited, and, although the removable, transparent blade guard helps with vacuum efficiency, it also restricts the view of the cut.

The shoe tilts from 0 to 45 degrees with positive stops at 15, 30, and 45 degrees. The hex wrench that's needed for adjustments is carried on board. The shoe slides back for close- quarters pocket cuts and includes a protective sub base.

The motor switch, which is mounted on the left side, requires more effort than a trigger. As a right-hander, I had no trouble using it, but a left-handed crew member had difficulty sliding the switch with his index finger. A four-position selector controls orbital action. This saw operates smoothly, but at 12 volts it lacks power compared with the other saws.

Porter-Cable 643, 19.2-volt

At over 8 pounds, and with a sizable housing, this saw is the biggest and most powerful of the bunch. The top- handle design features a safety lock that you can leave off, so it allows a lot of freedom in hand position during operation. Grip-enhancing padding on the side of the handle makes it comfortable to use. The trigger has very smooth variable-speed action, but the tool vibrates more than the others. Changing blades took a little practice. Although it's a tool-less procedure, it requires the use of two small levers, plus the blade has to be at the bottom of its stroke. In addition, it takes some fiddling and turning to free the blade.

The shoe tilts easily by means of a slide-out lever. Positive detents at 15, 30, and 45 degrees help with common angles. But you need a screwdriver to slide the shoe back for close-in cuts. The four-position orbit selector operates smoothly, but the blower selector is small and difficult to operate. It blows just enough air to be useful, however.

My Picks

My overall favorite is the Bosch because of the combination of features in a relatively light and small package. The blade change feature is especially nice, as is the handle. The 19.2-volt Porter-Cable is also a good tool with plenty of power, but it's bigger than the others, and changing blades takes some getting used to.

Ross Welsh is a finish carpentry subcontractor in Sacramento, Calif.

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