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Circular Saws under $80

Circular Saws under $80

(Note: This tool review was published in ShopNotes No. 19, January 1995.)

A pile of sawdust and cutoffs. That's all that was left of the truckload of plywood and 2x10's that we cut up to test eleven circular saws. But when the dust finally settled, what we had to show for it was definitely worth the effort: the best (and worst) circular saws for the money.

TEAM. To get a wide variety of viewpoints when testing the saws, we deliberately rounded up a team of people with different woodworking interests and experience. The team included Ken, a professional carpenter and cabinetmaker; Steve, an advanced woodworker; Cary, a beginning woodworker; Doug, an experienced woodworker who has remodeled his home. Of course, one of the problems with this is you're likely to end up with more than one best saw. But that's not necessarily bad. Each person picked the saw that was best for him based on the type of work he does most frequently. Which is just the kind of information I'd want when buying a saw.

PROCEDURE. The testing procedures for each saw were identical. We started out by buying all the saws we could find (eleven in all) that fell in a medium-price range ($39-$80). These included:

Saw Price
Black & Decker 300 $59.00
Black & Decker 200 $49.99
Black & Decker 100 $39.99
Quantum 3100 $67.00
Ryobi W660 $79.95
Sears 10825 $79.95
Sears 10224 $59.99
Sears 10223 $49.99
Skil 5350 $66.99
Skil 5250 $53.03
Skil 5150 $44.71

Of these saws, the Ryobi, and the top end Sears and Skil saws were the only ones to come with carbide-tipped blades -- something to consider when comparing the prices of the saws. So to keep things on an equal footing, we put a new carbide-tipped blade on each saw.

With saws in hand, the testing began. To provide a reliable comparison, each team member made the exact type of cut over and over using a different saw each time. Some of the cuts (ripping eight-foot 2 x10's for example) tested the power and performance of the saw. While others (like crosscutting plywood and making plunge cuts) gave us a good feel for the overall balance of the saw. At the end of the day, we all got together to compare notes about what they liked (and just as important) what they didn't like about each saw.

Q: First things first. How easy was it to change blades?

Ken: Since I cut a lot of different materials, I'm always changing blades. So that makes the spindle lock on the Quantum, and top end Sears, Ryobi, and Black & Decker (B&D) saws a real plus.

Steve: Even on the saws we tested that had spindle locks, the ones on the Quantum and B&D were handier to use than those on the Sears and Ryobi.

Cary: I usually stick with the same blade when breaking down plywood. So I can take or leave a spindle lock.

Steve: When it comes to changing blades, another thing I like is the try square wrenches that come with the top end B&D and Quantum saws. The long handles give me plenty of leverage. And they don't dig into my hands like the short wrenches on the other saws.

Q: What about the operation of the blade guards on the saws?

Doug: That's where I noticed a big difference. Especially since I make a lot of plunge cuts and have to manually retract the guard. To make a controlled cut, I want a saw that's compact enough so you can draw the lever on the blade guard all the way forward and grasp the front handle at the same time like the Skil saws. The short lever on the Ryobi required such a long stretch, I almost had to let go of the handle. And the Sears saws were just too bulky to hold comfortably.

Ken: One curious thing was the top-end Skil saw tried to eliminate this stretch altogether by adding a remote lift. But I couldn't even use this lever without letting go of the front handle of the saw and this seemed dangerous to me.

Adjustments & Controls
Q: The adjustments and controls are also something to consider when buying a saw. For example, what about something as simple as turning on the saw?

Doug: It can't get any easier than with the Quantum and B&D;saws. Since they don't have a safety lock, all I have to do is pull the trigger and I'm in business.

Cary: But a saw without a safety lock gives me the jitters. If you have kids around like I do (or grab the saw without thinking), it's an accident waiting to happen. That's why I liked the safety lock on the Skil saws. It's on the side of the handle. So even though I can't accidentally turn the saw on, all I have to do is push the lock with my thumb and squeeze the handle.

Ken: It's not that easy with the Sears and Ryobi saws. Since the lock is on top of the handle, I had to stretch my thumb way up over the handle. How about the adjustments to make a bevel cut or set the depth of cut?

Steve: I make a lot of bevel cuts. But one saw just about makes that impossible the lowest priced Skil. No matter how much pressure I applied to the wing nut that locks in the adjustment, the base still slipped when making a cut. But the plastic knobs on the Quantum, Ryobi, and the top end B&D;saws locked down tight. And they're more comfortable to grab onto than the cast metal wing nuts on the lower priced B&D saws.

Ken: Anything is better than the lever that adjusts the depth of cut on the Skil saws. It's tucked between the blade guard and the back handle. Not only is it hard to get at, but the lever also sticks. It's a real knuckle buster.

One of the keys to making a controlled cut is the weight and balance of a saw. How would you rate the overall feel of the saws?

Cary: Using the Skil saws was as comfortable as slipping my hand into a well-worn baseball glove. They're compact, lightweight, and have good balance.

Steve: I liked the balance of the Skil saws too. But I'd say that the Quantum and two upper end B&D saws nudged them out. Sure, they're a bit heavier. But with their large bases and comfortable handles, these saws have a nice solid feel.

Ken: One thing I noticed was I didn't get as tired using the Skil, B&D, and Quantum saws. Probably because when I grab the back handle, my hand is at a fairly low angle. So it's easy to push the saw straight through the cut. But when I grab the handles of the Sears and Ryobi saws, my hand is at a steeper angle. So it feels like I'm hunched up when making a cut, almost like I'm working against the saw.

Q: Just as important as weight and balance is the quality of cut. Does the saw run smooth? And does the saw have enough power so it won't bog down?

Cary: Even when I was ripping two-by stock, the two top end Skil saws ran like a well-tuned car with plenty of power. What surprised me is that the lower priced Skil saw didn't follow suit. This saw seemed badly underpowered. And it rattled like ice in a blender.

Steve: Talk about a rattle problem. I could feel the vibration of the Sears and Ryobi saws through the handles, the board I was cutting, and the sawhorse. Probably a good sign there's some unnecessary wear going on in the gears and bearings.

Doug: But even with the vibration, I felt that the Sears and Ryobi saws ran strong. In fact, if all I wanted was brute power, I'd go with the Ryobi in a heartbeat. But I'm looking for a saw that has plenty of power to do the job, yet runs smooth enough so it won't wear me out after several hours of cutting. I thought the Quantum and the two top end B&D saws were just the ticket.

Q: There's one other thing that figures into the performance of a saw accuracy. How accurately could you cut to a layout line?

Steve: Most of the saws have some type of fixed notch to help you track the blade along the layout line. Since I change blades quite often (and they vary in thickness), this means I have to position a different part of the notch on the layout line depending on the blade I'm using. That's why I liked the adjustable indicators on the Quantum and the top end B&D saws. To compensate for different blade thicknesses, I just loosen the screw and adjust the indicator.

Q: Okay, lets sort things out. Based on the type of work you do, which saw would you buy?

Ken: If I could just slap on a better height adjustment, the middle of the line Skil would be an easy pick. But, as it is, changing the depth of cut would drive me nuts. So I chose the Quantum 3100. It's a strong running saw. And when you add on the spindle lock and the fact that it has a dust collection hook-up for a shop vacuum, it's a lot of saw for the money.

Steve: Except for the fact it doesn't have a safety lock, I like the Quantum 3100, too. It will take care of just about any job I can think of in the shop. And with its wide base and comfortable handles, I'm sold on its rock solid cut.

Doug: I can see myself getting a lot of remodeling done with the Black & Decker 300. It's similar to the Quantum in the way it looks, feels, and performs. But it costs less. All in all, a tough saw to beat.

Cary: There's no question about the saw I'd choose the Skil 5350. It's compact and lightweight. Just right for those long reaches when I'm crosscutting a full sheet of plywood. And it's the smoothest running saw of the lot.

Ken - Quantum Skil 5250 B&D 100
Steve - Quantum B&D 300 Skil 5150
Cary - B&D 300 Quantum Skil 5150
Doug - Skil 5350 Ryobi B&D 100

(c) 2002, August Home Publishing Company. All Rights Reserved.

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