Reciprocating saws (often called “recip saws” for short) may be the least appreciated mainstream power tool in the world. Invented in 1951 by the Milwaukee tool company and dubbed the Sawzall, recip saws are cutting better than ever, thanks in part to advances in blade technology and batteries. Whether you’ve got an old house to renovate, a metalworking project to complete, an old vehicle to work on, or even some tree limbs to prune, recip saws can help you in ways that no other power tool can match.
They’re mainly sold as tools for gutting old spaces for renovation, but I know from my work testing tools and using them in the field that recip saws are now much more than just renovators’ tools.
Most recip saws are long and narrow in shape, with a blade that moves back and forth at one end. There’s a D-shaped handle at the other end of the tool and a trigger switch within that handle. Recip saws are useful because they combine power, manoeuvrability, and the ability to cut through a variety of materials such as pipes, nails, wood, drywall and old flooring. Until recently, blade quality was a limiting factor in their performance, but that has changed entirely.
1. They Now Have Better Blades
Without exception, old-school recip saw blades have always been surprisingly short-lived in my experience.
Compared with the ever-improving quality of blades for other power tools, recip saw blades have lagged behind, but not anymore. You can see this most clearly when it comes to cutting steel.
Standard recip saw blades for demolition are rated to cut through nail-embedded lumber, but hitting nails still shortens their life. Something called carbide-tooth recip saw blades changed everything. Like their circular saw counterparts, carbide-tooth recip saw blades have small teeth joined to the body of the saw blade. These teeth are exceptionally hard and long lasting because they’re made of a special metal called carbide. In tests I’ve run, the best carbide blades made dozens of cuts through 12-inch spikes. In fact, the teeth held up so well in these tests that I’m still using the very same blade for my work today, years later.
So when does the ability to cut metal pay off? Salvaging used lumber from existing projects is one place. If you’ve got a deck, dock, gazebo, interior partition wall or any other wooden structure that you want to take down, simply slip your metal-cutting recip saw blade in between adjoining pieces of wood, then slice the nails or screws, and salvage the wood without bashing, smashing, prying or destroying anything.
Got a metalworking project planned? I find that a recip saw fitted with a carbide blade is the fastest way to rough-cut steel of all kinds, including 1/4-inch-thick plate steel. Just use a slow speed on the saw and keep the cut line flooded with cutting oil. Keeping the blade cool and lubricated translates into long blade life.
2. They Have Different Types of Blades
The versatility of recip saws comes down to blade design, so the greater variety of blades you have on hand, the more valuable and versatile your recip saw will prove to be. I even know one fire department that uses
reciprocating saws with metal-cutting blades to cut into wrecked cars at accident sites. Here are a few of my favourite blades.
Pruning blade. This long, strong blade is made especially for trimming branches from trees and bushes. Quieter than a chainsaw and safer, too.
Hacksaw blade. This fine-toothed blade does not have carbide teeth, but it is made for cutting metal. Why a hacksaw blade rather than carbide tipped? Blade thickness. The one weakness of carbide recip saw blades is that they’re always thicker than their plain-metal counterparts, but thinness matters sometimes. Sawing the nails to salvage lumber is one application where a thinner blade makes it easier to sneak in and get the job
Duct blade. If you’ve got to cut into sheet-metal heating or ventilation ducts, there’s a blade for that. It’s small, short and has very fine teeth. A pointy tip on the end lets you punch a hole through the sheet metal to get the cut started.
3. Today’s Saws Have Better Batteries
If your opinion of cordless power tools was formed 10 years ago or more, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Thanks to advances in lithium-ion batteries, cordless tools today have a much longer run time, more power
and longer battery working life than any tools from back in the days of nickel-cadmium batteries. Lithium-ion batteries retain their charge on the shelf for many months without self-discharging and most come with
a multi-year warranty.
In most cases, when people ask me for tool-buying recommendations on a budget, I point them toward corded models unless they really need freedom from cords. Drills and recip saws are the exceptions. In both
cases, cordless is the way to go with these tools, no matter how modest your tool budget is. The value is simply that good, especially when lithium-ion batteries are combined with something called “brushless motor design.”
4. The Brushless Motors Make The Saws Better
Brushless motors are not yet universal on all cordless power tools, but they will be. Brushless is a mechanically simpler version of the traditional brush-style electric motors used in cordless tools for years, and it is a genuine advance. Instead of internal springs, brushes and wires delivering power to the rotating part of a tool motor, a brushless motor uses simple circuitry to accomplish the same thing with no moving parts. The bottom line is that more power is extracted from a given battery pack. If you have a choice between buying a brushless or brush-style recip saw, brushless is worth it, even if you have to pay a bit more.
Another advance in recip saw design has to do with tool shape. For many years, recip saws were fairly large tools made to be used with two hands. Designs like this are still around and ideal for general use where lots of room exists to work. But for situations where a full-size recip saw can’t get into tight quarters, tool companies have invented half-size and even miniature recip saws. Still packed with lots of power, these smaller models are most useful for automotive work or when cutting pipes and framing members in close quarters.
Owning and using a reciprocating saw is one small part of building skills to help yourself succeed independently, and this tool is worth looking at sooner rather than later. I use a recip saw almost each week, and I often think how much more difficult a particular job would be without one.
Steve Maxwell and his wife Mary live on a 90-acre modern homestead on Manitoulin Island, Ontario in a stone house they built with local materials beginning in 1985. Steve is Canada’s longest-running home improvement and how-to columnist and editor of Home and Property. He divides his time working on the land, building things large and small, and creating articles and how-to videos that teach sustainable, self-reliant, hands-on living skills.