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Circular saw a versatile, handy tool

DEAR TIM: I’m brand new to the world of DIY. My husband and I just bought our first old home and have lots of projects to do. Believe it or not, I’ve never used any power tools, but now I want to. It seems the best tools to buy at first that have the most versatility are a powered circular saw, a drill and perhaps an impact driver. Can you tell me how to use a circular saw and what should I be aware of? How would you advise your own daughter or wife who’s never touched one? – Sally P., Portland, Maine

DEAR SALLY: Welcome to the world of great personal satisfaction! That’s what you’re going to feel as you start to complete projects successfully. I think it’s grand that you’re approaching this with a positive attitude. That’s 95 percent of what it takes to achieve success with tools and DIY projects.

You’ve picked three great power tools to start your collection. I have to say that a circular saw is one of my most-used power tools. It will be for you, too, especially if you plan to build a deck, make forms for concrete, build a shed, erect a wood fence or complete any number of other projects using dimensional lumber.

The first challenge is figuring out which brand of tool to buy. Believe me: They’re not all the same. As with many other products, there’s good, better and best. In many years of experience, I’ve learned that it really pays to purchase the highest quality tools you can afford. Great tools last longer, are almost always easier to use and produce better results.

When you’re shopping for a circular saw, pay attention to the orientation of the blade and motor, as well as the base plate of the saw. Most people are right-handed, and that’s the way most saws are made. Go to a store that stocks many different circular saws and pick a few up. Hold them. Pretend you’re about to cut a piece of wood. Look down and see if it’s easy to see the blade where it’s touching the wood.

Once you have your new saw home, don’t even think about using it until you take the time to read the entire owner’s manual from cover to cover. It’s critical that you know the dangers a circular saw presents; after all, the sharp blade is spinning fast and has lots of power.

Here’s the best advice I can give a beginner. Locate some scrap pieces of 1/2-inch plywood and a few two-by-fours. You’re going to practice cutting on these materials to give you a feel of what the saw can do.

First, a note of caution: A spinning saw blade is a piece of metal that doesn’t want to bend. If you start to cut a line that’s not straight, you begin to put stress on the blade, causing it to bind.

If a circular saw starts to bind while cutting, you’ll hear the sound of the saw start to change. If the blade starts to get in a tough bind, it can become dangerous. In the worst case, the saw can rapidly start to go backwards and jump up out of the wood. Stop cutting if you hear the pitch of the saw change or experience more resistance while cutting.

The first cuts you should make are on the thin plywood, preferably a piece measuring roughly 1 foot wide and 4 feet long. It’s hard for beginners to cut straight lines freehand with a circular saw, so set the blade so it is cutting 3/4 inch deep. This allows it to cut through the 1/2-inch plywood with 1/4 inch of the blade protruding through the bottom.

Mark parallel cut lines that are 1 inch apart so you’re cutting across the 1-foot width. You’re trying to cut off tiny strips of wood that are 1 inch wide by 1 foot long.

Place the piece of plywood on an old table or some other stable, flat surface and allow the marked end to hang out over the table by about 6 inches so there’s no chance the saw blade will touch the table as it cuts through the plywood. If you have clamps that can secure the plywood to the table, that would be great. Otherwise, have a helper hold the plywood securely so you can just concentrate on holding the saw.

Most great circular saws are made with a handhold on the top front of the saw. Pros rarely use this feature because they’ve discovered how to control the saw with one hand. I want you to use two hands. Read the owner’s manual again and pay attention to what it says about the hand grip.

It’s important for you to understand what side of a line to cut on. Rookies often cut things too short by 1/8 or 1/16 inch or so. That’s the width of the average circular saw blade. This happens because they cut on the wrong side of the pencil line they drew on the lumber.

The key to making professional cuts with a circular saw is practice, practice and more practice. Invest a few hours spread across a week to discover how the circular saw works and how it feels in your hands. Start cutting thin material and, as you become good, advance to thicker and thicker materials. Soon you’ll make perfect cuts every time!

Tim Carter’s columns are archived at Have a question? Just click the Ask Tim link on any page of the website.