Go-to Tool: Worm-Drive Circular Saw

A worm-drive circular saw, ready to get to work.
  • Beginner
  • 85-120

Last year I wrote an article on tools for DoItYourself.com “I Have No Passion for Tools.” I mentioned in the article that as a former contractor, I was never fascinated by tools beyond the ease they lent to the task.

Maybe that isn’t quite true. Lately, I have been doing some projects around the house and became reacquainted with my 20-year-old circular saw—my worm drive circular saw, which I hadn’t used in years. I, again, acquired a fascination for the ease with which this saw enabled me to rip a couple of large ¾-inch pieces of plywood and some lumber for a bench I decided to make.

Circular Saws and Circular Saws

There are many different kinds of circular saws in the market from worm drives to sidewinders, to trim saws, each with its own unique features.

The sidewinder circular saw as its name suggests has its motor on the side of the blade—in line with the blade, which is usually on the right side and the motor on the left. The result is that with a sidewinder, the blade spins faster, as much as 6000 RPMs and derives its power from the speed of the blade. It is a compact and lightweight saw.

Worm drive circular saws typically have 7 ¼-inch blades, deriving power from a rear motor with the blade on the left side. Power is transferred by a set of gears from the motor directly to the blade giving the saw much greater torque (power) than a sidewinder while spinning at less 4500 RPMs. Worm drive saws are heavier—can weigh as much as 18 to 20 pounds, and are longer than sidewinders.

Trim saws are smaller, lightweight compact saws—with blades in the 3 to 4-inch range, and are available in both sidewinder and worm drive configurations.

Pros and Cons

As I mentioned, the worm drive circular saw typically has its blade on the left. This works well for right-handed people and since most people are right-handed, the blade is in the line of sight for most people, making it much easier for them to follow a cut line. Because worm drive saws are heavier, have more torque, and are longer, they make cutting through wider stacks or lumber or long rip cuts easier. The high torque and a sharp blade make for smooth cuts, and with the right blade, it can cut through light metal or concrete. The blade depth is easily adjusted as can the cutting angle with a couple of thumb sets, and plunge cuts with a worm drive are easy to make.

The added weight of a worm drive circular saw also makes it easier to do hand-held cuts allowing the weight of the saw to do all the work. That additional weight and power, however, can make overhead work much more difficult. Also if you are used to using saw horses to make your cuts, worm drives can be a more difficult adjustment. Worm drives are typically the tool of a professional and not a tool for the inexperienced--costing significantly more than sidewinders, they can approach $200 or more.

Sidewinders are compact and lightweight, making them easier to handle than worm drive saws. They are usually used in conjunction with saw horses or on a stack of lumber with the edge to cut to the outside. Some argue this makes them safer because both hands are used to guide the saw and areas as far away from the cutting edge as possible. Additionally, the compact lightweight makes it easier to use and control for overhead work.

The blade, however, is on the right side making following a cutting line more difficult since it is not in the line of sight. Sidewinders have less torque than worm drives, so cutting through stacks of lumber can be more difficult. While some saw manufacturers have sort to improve on the inherent lack of power, the compact size of a sidewinder makes long rip cuts more difficult.

East vs. West

Interestingly, when I told an old contractor friend that I had taken my worm drive out of mothballs and recently purchased a new blade for it, he mentioned that geography has much to do with preference. Folks on the East Coast, he told me, prefer sidewinders, while we Western folks prefer worm drives.

The truth is every home that houses a do-it-yourselfer needs a circular saw in the toolbox.

The Moral of the Story

The moral of the story is one saw is not better than the other. It’s a matter of the job and preference, and many contractors I know have both types—some even have both cord and cordless versions.