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I'm doing some small projects such as building a workbench, and I don't have a saw to cut plywood with. I've got a 12" compound miter saw, so I don't currently need a circular saw for anything other than cutting plywood.

I looked around and I think I found a good quality DeWalt saw as a candidate for ~$140. I also found some really cheap Harbor Freight saws for $25-$35. Is it worth paying 4x the price for a quality saw, if all I'll be using it for is the occasional plywood cut? (I'm also a little worried about safety issues with such a cheap saw. Do the blades have a higher chance of flying apart and sending shrapnel toward the user?)

Follow-Up:

I ended up going for a mid-range saw and buying a Ridgid. Several different factors weighed in on my decision:

  • I borrowed a friend's 25 year old Craftsman, and one of the features I wish it had the most was a front and rear kerf indicator for both sides of the blade. It got annoying fast not knowing exactly where the cut line would be. The Ridgid has this. The DeWalt mentioned above doesn't.
  • Tool weight and feel. I went to HD and held all the saws. I really liked how the Ridgid felt.
  • Degree and depth markings. I was looking for a saw that had a positive stop at 45° bevel. The depth indication also helps a ton.
  • Warranty: The Ridgid came with a 90 day money back guarantee, a 3 year warranty, and a limited lifetime service warranty.
  • Did I mention it's QUIET? I can barely tell a difference when it's cutting vs. no load.

The first cut I made with my new saw was at a 45° bevel through 1/2" plywood, and it didn't catch or bind at all. I'd recommend it - unless it ends up breaking in the near future, which I highly doubt.

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7 Answers

up vote 22 down vote accepted

I wouldn't worry so much about blades flying out, even when using a cheap harbor freight saw. What is more likely to happen is the motor will burn out quicker than a quality tool. I've bought many harbor freight tools for "time to time" use. I've got a drill press that's lasted quite a long while ... granted I only use it a few times a year so I got my money's worth.

I think you'd be fine with the cheap saw as long as you're not going to use it all that often. The blade won't come flying out but the motor will probably burn out and fail long before the DeWalt motor would.

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The question is, would 4 of them last longer than 1 DeWalt? :) In all seriousness though, I'll probably end up buying the cheapo HF saw for a few projects now, and upgrading later when I've got some extra money to spend. –  Doresoom Nov 5 '10 at 20:01
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Agreed. If you're performing saw-related work on a daily basis, then DeWalt would be more appropriate. But personally, I've been happy enough with my Harbor Freight stuff. On a side note, I've heard positive reviews for Ryobi. That might be a good middle ground. homedepot.com/h_d1/N-5yc1vZ1xgl/R-100634339/h_d2/… –  Mike B Nov 5 '10 at 20:30
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One more vote for inexpensive Ryobi tools over HF - I remodeled my kitchen and had to purchase a bunch of tools for one-off or seldom use and the Ryobi stuff has been stellar. –  kkeilman Nov 5 '10 at 21:06
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@Mike B @kkeilman: I'll definitely keep Ryobi in mind while deciding on a cheaper saw. –  Doresoom Nov 5 '10 at 21:09
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@Doresoom One criticism I've heard about Ryobi is that their stock saw blade is poor. Consider getting a new one if you buy it. Still a good value though. –  Mike B Nov 5 '10 at 21:19
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For very occasional use, an option is to get a jigsaw instead of a circular saw. You can still get straight cuts out of it if you use a good straight guide. It will cut bevels the same as a circular saw.

It's easy to get a variety of blades for different materials. A jigsaw will cut tight curves, including cutting a circle in the middle of material - a circular saw can't do this.

A jigsaw is going to be a lot slower for many tasks. If you're not cutting often, that's OK.

A circular saw + a (battery powered) reciprocating saw is a better combination than a jigsaw, but for very occasional use, a jigsaw alone may be good enough.

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$140 seems high. I would go with a Black and Decker or Skil for around $35 to $60. Check Amazon and Lowe's. I have had a Skil for over 15 years.

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Of course the real question isn't how long you've owned a tool but how much work has it done in that time. I reckon I could easily kill a $35 anything in a weekend or two of real work. –  John Gardeniers Jan 7 '11 at 2:24
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I bought a cheap circular saw and had terrible trouble making 45 degree cuts on old hardwood, with the blade binding and smoking and blackening the wood. It went OK with 90 degree cuts, but I guess that when rotated the blade was not properly aligned. I replaced it with a Makita ($140) and it works beautifully. I wish I had done it sooner. I have cheap drills and a belt sander that work perfectly. I have a cheap mitre saw that is OK. I guess what you can get away with depends on the type of the tool.

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For such little use, you might want to consider getting a cordless circular saw. If you don't already own a cordless drill (which is a must have), then you can buy a kit for less the the cost of the DeWalt that comes with a cordless drill, circular saw, and a few other pieces. I bought a cheap Ryobi kit at Home depot for $69 for a gift and it works great for small infrequent projects.

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If you get a cordless circular saw, be sure to buy an extra battery you can have ready in the charger. It is quite annoying to run out of battery power when you're in the middle of cutting up a piece of ply. Some kits will come with two batteries. Batteries cost almost as much as a new tool, so just buying the matching drill, flashlight, etc. might make sense. –  Bryce Jun 23 '12 at 0:59
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If this is a one-off project it may be worth asking the ply merchant if they can do the cutting for you, which might work out even cheaper than a cheap saw. Other than that, I suspect that if you do buy a saw you will end up using it more than you thought you would and should give consideration to buying the dearer one, which in all likelihood will last you many decades. Also consider that a solid brand name saw like the DeWalt is likely to be maintainable over the long haul, whereas a cheapy is unlikely to even be worth maintaining.

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If it was just for a one time project, I'd go ahead with the Harbor Freight. Otherwise, for light occasional use, the DeWalt should be fine. If you think you might become a heavier user, then I'd recommend stepping up from the DeWalt.

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Stepping up to what? –  msemack Nov 7 '10 at 16:05
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@msemack anything with a worm drive is a step up and always worth the money. homedepot.com/h_d1/N-5yc1v/R-100628958/h_d2/… –  Tatton Chantry May 22 '11 at 23:36
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What makes a worm drive better? –  msemack May 23 '11 at 12:41
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