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There are a few variables to think about when deciding which tool to use when you need to cut a piece of wood. First, figure out what you own that’s capable of making the cut. Sometimes that limits the options to one tool, and that’s what you should go with. But when multiple tools will do the job, you’ll have to do a little more calculus.
Don’t worry, I’m not talking about actual calculus. You will, however, have to run some mental calculations that weigh your comfort using the qualified tools against the difficulty of what you’re doing. For complex or new cuts, I like to use the tool I’m most comfortable with. Simpler cuts, meanwhile, might give me an opportunity to practice with a tool I don’t use often. Finally, because I work in a small shop, I always consider a tool’s accessibility. A saw that’s already out and plugged in is far more attractive than a tool I have to dig out from the back of a cabinet.
If you’re new to woodworking, or just looking for more insight on the choices you have to make in the shop, here’s a primer on the types of saws you’re likely to have access to, and the cuts they’re best at.
Table saw: good for long cuts
Table saws are built to make rip cuts, which means slicing long boards in the same direction as the grain. If you’re trying to trim a 2-by-6 down to 4 inches wide, a table saw is the best tool you can use, hands down.
Most table saws are built with slots on either side of the blade, called miter slots. These allow jigs to slide over the tabletop to help you make different types of cuts. One example is a miter gauge, which probably came with your saw. This jig can hold boards at different orientations to the blade, allowing you to cut a wide range of angles. You can also make larger sleds, called miter or crosscut sleds to cut a variety of non-rip cuts.
[Related: How to tune up a table saw]
Another jig category rides along the table saw’s fence instead of in a miter slot. A jointer sled or tapering jig, for instance, uses the fence as a reference point to make perfectly straight or tapered cuts, depending on how it’s set up. Other fence-referencing jigs can stand boards on end. A tenoning jig, for example, allows you to clamp a board vertically to cut tenons into the ends of the board, a job that would be quite dangerous without the stability the jig provides.
Where a table saw falls short
There are a few limitations to table saws. The first is that they aren’t versatile unless you build (or buy) the right jig, which can take hours and shrink your bank account. Not to mention the storage space those jigs take up—it might not be worth spending time or money on one if you’re only going to use it one or two times. Of course, if you can’t figure out a safe or effective way to make a cut without a jig, go ahead and add one to your collection. Table saws can also only cut straight, so they’re useless if you need a nice curve.
Finally, most table saws that a homeowner or hobbyist would own can only cut boards as large as the user can lift and maneuver. Cutting full sheets of plywood on my table, for example, is almost impossible, especially by myself. Likewise, the blade on my saw can only be raised to about 3.5 inches. Even if I flip the board over and cut twice, I can’t cut anything thicker than 7 inches on the table saw alone. So, versatile as it is, this can’t be the only saw in your shop.
Miter saw: good for angled cuts
If you’re only looking to cut boards to length, or add angles to the ends, a good miter saw might be your best bet. All you’ll need to do is place the board on the flat surface beneath the blade, pull the trigger, and lower the saw to make the cut. If you pair a miter saw with a good stop block system, it’s easy to make repeated cuts of uniform length.
The entire blade assembly can turn to make angled cuts on the face of the board, tilt to angle the end of the board, or tilt and turn to angle both the face and the end. This dual angling capacity makes these great saws for the complex cuts needed for crown molding. However, achieving the precision required for that kind of finish work requires you to really set up and fine-tune your machine.
A miter saw’s limitations
Like a table saw, a miter saw has de facto size limits. For one, miter saws have a maximum board width they can cut through, though you can flip the board over to extend that. Perhaps more importantly, miter saws are limited by how large a board you can lift, because this is another type of saw you have to bring the wood to.
Track saw: good for boards you can’t move around
If you’ve got a board too big to realistically or safely cut on a table saw or miter saw, a track saw should be your next choice. These are basically circular saws that lock into and follow a straight edge that you clamp to your board. A track saw is the perfect tool to break down large sheets of plywood into usable sizes, or to trim up the edges of a table or countertop that’s simply too long to feed into a table saw. They can also tilt to cut at an angle, so they’re perfect for chamfering the underside of a table without the risk of tearout that you might get from a large router bit.
Unlike table saws, track saws don’t require a reference edge to cut. So if you want to cut a straight edge on a live-edge slab, for example, you can align the track where you need it, and make the cut.
When not to use a track saw
While they’re one of the best homeowner-accessible tools for cutting large sheet goods or live-edge slabs, track saws are quite a bit slower than table saws because of the increased measuring and setup time. They also don’t have the same ability to accept jigs, so they lack some of the versatility of a table saw.
Band saw: good for weird, curved cuts
Band saws can make most of the same cuts miter and table saws can, but I’ve found they don’t do them quite as well. There are, however, two types of cuts where a good band saw stands alone.
First is strangely shaped cuts. Band saws are great for cutting curved pieces or somewhat intricate shapes out of a board. The band saw is limited to staying on the outside of the shapes—you can’t cut a circle in the center of another board, for instance, but you can cut a board into a circle.
The second area is resawing, or sawing a thick board in half. Technically, a table saw can do this too, but a band saw can do it without you having to flip the board over and make two passes. Larger band saws, like a 14-inch one, can cut much taller pieces than a table saw can even with flipping.
Where band saws fall short
Band saws do require a bit more practice and experience to both maintain and use well than either a table saw or miter saw do. The blade has to be properly tensioned, the fence and guide bearings have to be set up properly, and you need to have the right blade for your job. It’s also easy for a band saw blade to get stuck in the project, and potentially snap, which can ruin your workpiece, or worse, injure you.
Jigsaw: good for curved cuts on larger pieces of wood
If you need to make a weird-shaped cut and your workpiece is too large and awkward for a band saw, consider a jigsaw. This tool is a handheld saw with a thin, vertical blade sticking out of the bottom that moves up and down to make cuts. Jigsaws can cut curves and corners alike, and have a tight turning radius to make detailed work easier. There are also numerous available blades for different kinds of cuts. Some are best for rough, fast cuts, some are thin for getting into tight spaces, and others have lots of teeth for finer finish work. Jigsaws can also cut shapes on interior sections of a board, provided that you can drill a hole large enough to fit the blade.
A jigsaw’s limitations
Unless you have a lot of practice and a high-end machine, a jigsaw will serve you best as a rough cutting option. You’ll want to cut your shape a bit oversized and then sand it down to finished dimensions. Jigsaws are also a bit harder to control than a band saw, so it’s easy for the blade to wander. And blades might bend and flex inside the wood, so the cut on the bottom of the board might not be perfectly in line with the cut on the top. Finally, jigsaws require you to figure out how to clamp your workpiece into place with open air below it, because the blade penetrates all the way through the wood.
If you’re looking for intricate detail and artistic through-cuts in your boards, a scroll saw—sort of a combination between a band saw and a jigsaw— is the tool for you. The saw’s short blade vibrates up and down like a jigsaw, but is secured to the machine at the top and bottom so you can move the board over a table like a band saw. This setup offers incredible precision, as well as the ability to disconnect the blade, slide it through a hole in the board, and reattach it. The detachable blade means you can start cuts in the middle of the board like a jigsaw, too.
When not to use a scroll saw
It’s worth noting that scroll saws cut fairly slowly. Because they’re designed for precision rather than power, you won’t be able to move through a lot of material at once. That means they’re not a feasible option for processing wood—you shouldn’t use one to rip boards or crosscut anything to length. There’s also a bit of a learning curve, as it can take hours of practice to get the most out of a scroll saw. I’m still terrible with them, though I’ve only used one a handful of times.
That said, there are few better ways to cut beautiful scenes into your wood.
Hand saws: a dimension of their own
While power tools tend to be faster, and, frankly, more accurate in beginner hands, not every situation needs electricity. Sometimes the gentle rasp of a saw moving back and forth through the board is exactly what your project requires. And I truly find an accurate hand-sawn cut quite a bit more satisfying than one I just pushed through the table saw. Though of course, the odds that I mess up that hand-cut are quite a bit higher.
There are too many types of hand saws to cover in this article, but I’d like to talk about the two I use most often.
Pull saw: good for low-effort cuts
If you’ve never used a pull saw, I recommend trying one, because it’ll change your outlook on hand sawing. The saws many of us grew up using to slice branches off of trees are saws that cut on the push stroke. Pull saws, as their name implies, cut on the pull stroke. Conveniently, this is the direction where we are both strongest and the most stable. When you push a saw through wood, the tip becomes more and more unstable as there’s nothing locking it in place and preventing it from vibrating back and forth. When you pull it toward you, however, the force of the board and your hand on the handle keep the blade steady and smooth through the entire cut.
The easiest cut to make with a pull saw is a rip cut, which is following the grain. However, they’re perfectly capable of cross cutting as well. And with practice, they can be a precision instrument. Many people use pull saws to cut intricate joinery, for instance, though they do still typically need to clean up the edges with chisels.
Coping saw: good for intricate manual cuts
Coping saws have a U-shaped handle and—like a scroll saw—a thin blade attached at the front and back. The blade is similarly detachable, so you can slip it through a hole in a board and make cuts on the inside of the face. And because the blade is so thin, it can easily turn and curve inside the wood. This allows you to cut all kinds of fancy shapes. They’re excellent for removing material in joinery, like hogging out the bases of dovetails or trimming a back cut on molding.
The cuts can get a bit wobbly, though, and there’s no built-in way to keep them square to your board, so the top and bottom of the cut likely won’t line up exactly. As such, it’s usually best to use these saws to get close to the cut line, and then finish everything with chisels, files, or other more precise tools.