Skill Saw vs Circular Saw

Introduction

If you are exposed to woodworking or other types of carpentry and construction long enough, you are bound to hear the term skill saw. However, pinning down exactly what a skill saw is can be a bit tricky. This is in a large part because other people may look at the same tool and refer to it as a circular saw.

The terms skill saw vs circular saw are often used interchangeably, this can create confusion when you are looking to purchase or use either of tools. Which should you use? Oddly, the answer has less to do with woodworking and more to do with both etymology, or the study of word origins, as well as people’s tendency to confuse a manufacturer of a product with the product itself.

What Is In A Name

Depending on where you were and when you first heard either term, you may understand a tool called either a circular saw or a skill saw. In truth, they are both right and both wrong. A circular saw is itself a much broader term for a category of tools that has been applied to a singular iteration of that design in contemporary usage. However, the term “circular saw” can actually apply to a host of products including mitre saws and table saws.

A skill saw, on the other hand, is a proprietary eponym, derived from the handheld circular saw developed by Skil. This is where a the brand name associated with an incredibly successful product comes to replace the categorical name for that product. Kleenex instead of tissue or Band-Aid instead of bandage are two examples where the products in question became so popular and made up such a large percentage of their respective markets that their brand name became a shorthand for their categorical name.

In this way, circular saws and skill saws can be seen similarly to that geometric adage of a rectangle and a square. Essentially, because of how specifically it is categorically designed, every skill saw is a circular saw, but not every circular saw is a skill saw.

circular mitre saw or skill saw comparison cut

History

The circular saw itself was invented in the 18th century but was much larger than the tool we refer to with that word today. In the Late 1700s, this initial incarnation of the circular saw was used for converting the timber of logs into usable lumber for building purposes. This first circular saw required an entire assembly line style arrangement and could only be used for large rip cuts.

It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that the handheld circular saw, the tool we refer to today when we use the term “circular saw,” was invented by Edmond Michel. Michel, with his business partner Joseph Sullivan, started a company to manufacture this hand held circular saw which would eventually be renamed Skilsaw Inc.

This first hand held circular saw was a worm drive and used primarily for framing and rough cuts. However, its popularity and virtual market ubiquity led many construction workers to adopt the term “Skill Saw” as a moniker for the worm drive, hand held circular saw.
Still, it was not long before the hand held circular saw continued its technological development and produced the sidewinder drive. This innovation allowed the motor to be placed alongside the saw blade, making the tool more reliable with a direct-drive mechanism as well as more portable. This advancement in saw technology allowed much more portability unlike many saws which require cumbersome stands. Furthermore, the sidewinder hand held circular saw could be more easily controlled for finer cut work--though, few hand held circular saw are truly suitable for finish cutting.

Different Types of Hand Held Circular Saws

While the development of circular saws has led to a plethora of slight design modifications for a variety of purposes, there are two primary types of hand held circular saws: the worm drive and the sidewinder. While these two subcategories can each hold a multitude of minor variations in size and power, their primary difference hinges on the arrangement of their motor.

Hand Held Circular Saw

This is the most common type of tool referred to when someone says “circular saw.” This tool is generally used for rough cuts of smaller pieces of lumber, though the different motor arrangement of each will apply to different situations when this is called for. While the skill saw moniker may have been originally applied to worm drive hand held circular saws, its popularity allowed the name to transfer over to the sidewinder circular saw which was actually developed by Porter Cable.

Portability

In a general sense, the hand held circular saw offered numerous advantages that the other types of circular saw lacked, though the primary advantage was the ability for workers to take the tool places that circular saws with a base or requiring more stability could not go. Moreover, hand held circular saws afforded users the ability to cut more quickly as they did not need to go through the routine of placing a piece of lumber on the table, cutting the lumber, and then removing it.

Safety

The additional control of a circular saw also provides a degree of safety that was lacking on early table saws and radial arm saws. However, current safety features which can sense when the blade encounters skin and automatically locks the motor has alleviated those concerns. In fact, high end table saws are often safer than contemporary hand held circular saw.

Accuracy

Another feature that circular saws provide is accuracy and precision. In this case, hand held circular saws are able to make cuts that other types of circular saws simply cannot manage. While they do not offer the same freedom as a jigsaw in this regard, smooth circular cuts are still possible.

Moreover, hand held circular saws are able to cut to a certain depth in the lumber better than table saws. The reason is two-fold: the table saw often generates more torque than a hand held circular saw which ends up pulling the lumber into its blade while the need to feed the lumber into a table saw’s blade makes controlling to cut-off point and stopping the motor more difficult.

Worm Drive Circular Saws

In terms of motor arrangement, hand held circular saws come in two forms: worm drive and direct drive, also called sidewinder drive. While the arrangement may seem trivial, the placement of the motor ultimately divides these two types of hand held circular saw based on their respective advantages and when those are most useful.

Blade Placement

Worm drive circular saws place the motor behind the saw blade and uses two gears set at ninety degree angles to turn the blade. This setup reduces the maximum rpms of the blade when compared to sidewinder circular saws but generates more torque. This design is also more advantages for plunge cuts.

Sight Lines

Moreover, worm drive circular saws also have the advantage of better sight lines. Because the motor is located behind the blade, there is no angle in which the bulk of the tool obscures the cut line of the user--regardless of the user’s handedness. This is not the case for sidewinder circular saws.

​Weight

Unfortunately, worm drive circular saws are also considerably heavier than sidewinder models. Moreover, with the motor in the back, worm drive circular saws are much longer as well. This creates a situation where it is more difficult to balance the worm drive circular saw without a steady surface to support the weight during the cut.

Direct Drive “Sidewinder” Hand Held Circular Saws

Sidewinder circular saws are set up entirely different. The motor is arranged on the side of the blade parallel with it which allows a single gear to turn the blade. This prevents the loss of energy when turning the blade and allows sidewinder circular saw to generate significantly more maximum rpms than worm drive circular saws.

Lightweight

​This arrangement also makes the saw far more compact and easier to balance. Moreover, without the need of additional gears and the housing to contain them, sidewinder circular saws are generally lighter as well. Together, these two qualities make circular saw much easier to handle and cutting on a vertical surface or above your head is far easier than with a worm drive circular saw.

​Plunge Cuts

​The disadvantages of the circular saw are few. While they are not as good at plunge cuts as a worm drive circular saw, sidewinders are not bad at the cut either. As such, unless your job or projects calls for a preponderance of plunge cuts, you are unlikely to favor a worm drive for this purpose.

Sight Line

The other potential disadvantage of a sidewinder circular saw will generally matter more depending on which is your dominant hand. If, like most people, you are right handed, the arrangement of the motor will often block your sight line a bit. You can re-position without sacrificing safety, but it is a bit annoying. Moreover, while they do make left-handed sidewinder circular saws, they are far less common and will feel awkward--if not outright dangerous--when using them in your off-hand.

Which to Use

While different people will prefer different hand held circular saws, this preference generally follows two patterns: region and profession. Users from the east coast and the southern United States generally prefer to use sidewinder circular saws, while those living in the midwest and the west coast often favor sidewinders. This is an entirely arbitrary designation that likely has more to do with the fact that worm drives were developed in Chicago, IL and sidewinders were invented in Syracuse, NY.

In terms of professional preferences, worm drives are often favored for framing due their greater amount of torque. Since framing lumber is often thicker, the increased torque makes cutting easier. Woodworkers and general residential contractors will often favor the sidewinder circular saw for its ease of control and precision.

Skill Saw vs Circular Saw: Conclusion

Ultimately, the term Skill Saw is a bit of a misnomer at this point. While originally it was used to describe a worm drive circular saw, it eventually became a shorthand for all hand held circular saws. However, once Skilsaw Inc. fell out of favor as a professional grade power tool brand, the more universal “circular saw” took its mantle.
 
Today, the term “skill saw” is more likely to be a term used by older contractors and woodworkers. Still, the terms “skill saw” and “circular saw” are technically interchangeable--especially considering the social application of those terms to both types of hand held circular saws.

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