Reciprocating saws (also known as sabre saws, or ‘recipro’ saws) are basically an electric handsaw, and are very powerful and adaptable. They tend to be characterised as a demolition tool, as their design enables them to easily perform very labour-intensive applications. In this guide you will find everything you need to know to buy the best reciprocating saw for you.
These saws are designed to cut a range of materials, including wood, metal and plastics, but are not known for their accuracy. If it is accuracy you are after, a power tool such as a circular saw may be a more worthwhile investment.
Reciprocating saws are the only type of saw that can perform flush cuts. This is when the blade is pressed up against a flat surface to cut off a protruding element and make it flush with the surface. This type of cut requires specialised flexible blades, as they must bend along the flat surface.
They are also one of the only saws that can perform plunge cuts. Plunge cuts are where a cut is commenced in the middle of a material without any initial hole. This is done by starting the saw when it is almost horizontal and slowly angling it into the material (only using blades specifically designed for this type of cut).
There are two main types of reciprocating saws; light duty and heavy duty. The best reciprocating saw for you will fall into one of these two categories.
These reciprocating saws are relatively small and lightweight, but pack quite a punch. They can be used for a multitude of applications, including small pruning tasks and general purpose cutting.
Heavy-duty reciprocating saws are the largest, most powerful, and most common reciprocating saws available. They are quite heavy, but good luck finding an application that exceeds their capabilities.
Reciprocating saws feature many different components, and having a sound understanding of these plays an important part in the purchasing process. Knowledge of these parts also aids in the efficient and effective use of the tool.
The power source is the component that provides the tool with electricity. On reciprocating saws, this is done through a wired connection to a mains power supply. In Australia, reciprocating saws operate off mains power (240V) through a 10A socket.
Cordless reciprocating saws that are powered by a battery and a charger are also available and bear very similar features to those described below. They are generally not as powerful as their corded equivalents and require regular charging, but are usually considerably light in weight and have unmatched portability.
The switch allows the electricity from the power source to flow through the tool. A reciprocating saw is activated by a trigger switch. When the trigger is depressed, the tool will begin to operate.
This button can be pushed while the trigger is depressed and the trigger will lock on to that set speed. To cease this function, simply pull the trigger.
Make sure this button has been released prior to disconnecting the tool. If not, the tool will begin to operate upon reconnection and may result in injury. For more safety recommendations, click here.
Motors are the main component of all power tools, and are the component that converts the electricity into motion. The power that motors produce is measured in Watts. Motors used in corded reciprocating saws are called AC motors (they are also known as universal or series motors). They will have an input power of between 400W and 1300W, and weigh between 1.5kg and 4.5kg.
Many manufacturers will state only the input power of the saw, as this is the larger and more impressive number. This value is actually just an indication of the demand a tool will place on a power outlet under normal operating conditions. The power output at the blade, though, is significantly less than the input power. This is due to the efficiency of the saw’s internal components, and how power is transferred through the machine. Generally speaking, higher quality tools and the best reciprocating saws have greater efficiency and require less input power to produce the same power output. Therefore, although it is uncommon for most manufacturers to include a power output value, it is a much better way of comparing tools. With sawing power tools, the best indication of power is wattage, as speed is generally a constant.
Most professional quality tools will have a round port on either side of their housing. These ports give simple access (with a slotted screwdriver) to the most frequently wearing component of any tool – it’s brushes.
Also known as a gearbox, transmissions dictate the speed range (strokes per minute, or spm) that a reciprocating saw can operate at, and the power it will produce.
Transmissions in reciprocating saws most commonly contain a single gear, but the very best reciprocating saws come with two for added versatility. This can be distinguished by a small numbered gear switch or dial on the saw. On reciprocating saws with a single gear, power and speed are balanced for optimal cutting effectiveness. Those with two gears feature more power in their first gear, and more speed in their second gear.
Each time the blade moves up and down it is known as a stroke. The speed that the blade oscillates at is called the stroke rate. This rate describes the amount of times the blade travels up and down in a minute. Reciprocating saws can attain speeds of up to 3500spm.
The length of each stroke varies amongst different models of reciprocating saws, and ranges from 13mm to 32mm. For example, if the saw has a stroke length of 32mm, the blade will travel 32mm up, and 32mm down. The longer the stroke length of the saw, the more efficient the saw will be. This is because a larger stroke length allows more teeth to come into contact with the material per stroke.
A reciprocating saw’s efficiency is predominantly determined by its blade stroke length and the stroke rate.
Depending on the model, reciprocating saws are capable of cutting up to 300mm in wood, 130mm in steel, and up to 160mm in plastic. More than anything though, it is the fitted blade that dictate a reciprocating saw’s cutting capacities.
For faster cutting, the best reciprocating saws will feature a pendulum setting (the same action found on jigsaws).
The speed control dial is a small numbered wheel on the top of most reciprocating saws that allows users to preset a speed selection, and gain more control over the tool.
The blade clamp is the component of the reciprocating saw that secures the blade in place.
On some reciprocating saws, the blade clamp is in the form of one or two hex drive screws, that must be loosened and tightened (with a supplied allen key) to clamp or lock the blade in place.
On the best reciprocating saws, the blade clamp is nearly always a keyless system, which enables a blade to be changed in seconds.
For added versatility, the design of most blade clamps allows the blade to be inserted upside down – some even allow the blade to be inserted left to right.
The housing of a power tool is the casing that protects the internal components.
Reciprocating saws will have either a clamshell housing, or a jampot housing.
A clamshell housing is where the housing is manufactured in two plastic halves, and where these halves are fixed together around the internal components.
A jampot housing is where the internal components of the saw are inserted into the housing and then a lid (usually an alloy casing) is screwed down to seal it. This durable style of housing is generally used on heavy duty power tools and the best reciprocating saws, and is much more effective at keeping the internal components aligned and the power toolstructurally sound.
Some reciprocating saws also have built in shock absorbing capabilities in order to quell excessive vibrations during prolonged use.
The handle is the component of the reciprocating saw that you hold with your dominant hand that allows you to provide pressure and stability to the tool.
The support handle is a moulded grip (commonly rubber) located toward the front of reciprocating saws that you can use to more accurately guide the saw blade through a material.
Some reciprocating saws will also feature an additional and detachable side handle that clamps around the support handle.
The adjustable shoe of a reciprocating saw is the plate that rests on the material and provides stability as cutting occurs. It also allows for various lengths of the blade to be used, depending on the application.
The shoe’s angle changes as the tool is pressed against the job, and adjustments to the shoe’s reach are usually made by pulling a quick release lever or button.
The blade that a reciprocating saw uses is the key characteristic that defines its cutting capabilities, and is the tool’s primary accessory.
Always ensure the tool is disconnected from the power source prior to changing accessories. For more safety recommendations, click here.
There are different types of reciprocating saw blades available, and each one has its own style and characteristics.
The shank is the part of the blade that locks into a reciprocating saw’s blade clamp.
The most common style of blade shank used in reciprocating saws and also the one with the widest range of blades is the ½” universal shank. This is the industry standard amongst manufacturers, and is what all the best reciprocating saws utilise.
Some manufacturers do however have their own blade shank design – the only blades that their products are able to use. This is a common feature on general purpose reciprocating saws. If you are unsure what blade shank your saw takes, you should consult your tool’s manual.
Reciprocating saw blades can be designed for either straight, curved, flush, or plunge cuts. All blades are capable of cutting straight lines, but those that have constant parallel edges are designed especially for repetitive straight cutting.
Curved cutting blades can be recognised by the large curve that joins the shank and the extra thin blade.
Flush cutting blades are generally quite long to give the blade enough flex so that it easily bends along a surface. Not all blades are designed to perform this type of cut, so you must ensure it is specified on the manufacturer’s packaging.
Plunge cutting blades are harder to recognise than their equivalent jigsaw counterparts as they do not feature a very unique tip. They can be identified however by their tapered backs.
Reciprocating saw blades are generally made of either high carbon steel or high speed steel (or a bit of both). High carbon steel blades are very flexible, but wear the fastest and are easily damaged from excessive heat. High speed steel blades are harder and more resistant to wear, but are less flexible. To achieve the best of both worlds and for more demanding applications, bi-metal blades were designed. These are the best reciprocating saw blades as they have high carbon steel bodies and high speed steel teeth, providing both flexibility and durability, and are essentially shatter-proof. Some reciprocating saw blades also feature tungsten carbide tipped (TCT) teeth for use on specialised applications.
Reciprocating saw blades also have differing quantities of teeth. This is usually relative to their application but generally speaking, the more teeth the finer and slower the cut. The number of teeth on a reciprocating saw blade is usually measured by a ‘tooth-per-inch’ (TPI) measurement.
There is not one reciprocating saw blade that will cut everything. Each saw blade can be used on a small selection of different materials. These materials include:
Wood with nails
Each blade will have recommended thicknesses that it is able to cut through on specific materials. A shorter blade will have a smaller cutting capacity than a longer blade (and finer teeth). The specific capacity will be stated on the blade’s packaging upon purchase.
Reciprocating saw blades can become extremely hot after use, and it is therefore recommended you wear gloves when removing them. For more safety recommendations, click here.
Once the correct blade has been selected and fitted, it is important to remember to let the blade do the work. Forcing the saw along will only result in substandard work and shorter blade and tool life. If the work rate decreases, it is most likely the blade is blunt and needs to be changed.
When purchasing a reciprocating saw, decide what features are most important to you (from the specifications above) and make sure these are included in your final purchase. The main considerations you should make include how much power you require, the size and weight of the tool, whether you need it to be cordless, and how often you will be using it.
The defining point in choosing a reciprocating saw is that you must feel comfortable handling the tool for its desired purpose.
Manufacturers will either direct their products at the DIY or professional market. DIY tools are designed for home use and generally include plenty of features for a very modest price. They also tend to have very generous warranty periods, including replacement warranties. Professional tools are designed for commercial use and are built for durability, performance, and reliability. Their warranty periods tend to be much shorter than DIY tools, and are exclusively repair warranties. The main advantage of these tools is that they should well outlive their warranty period, and if they require repair and maintenance spare parts are readily available.
The price of any tool will depend on the quality, capabilities, and features of the model. Bear in mind that at least one of these three elements is commonly sacrificed by manufacturers to reduce the tool’s price and increase its sales. After all, price is the most important factor for consumers.
Reciprocating saws can cost anywhere from $50 to $800.
It is important to bear in mind that the entire cost of any power tool is not just it’s initial purchase cost. Added costs can include accessories for the tool to function, maintenance, downtime, and replacement costs. Buying according to your requirements will help to keep these costs to a minimum.
The following tips will help to preserve the life of your reciprocating saw, increase your efficiency, and most importantly, keep you safe.
- When cutting hard materials like metals, slower speeds should be used. Alternatively, when cutting soft materials like wood, faster speeds should be used.
- If you work at a low stroke rate for a long period of time, reciprocating saws can heat up quite rapidly. It is a good idea to allow the tool to cool naturally by running it at it’s maximum stroke rate with no load.
- To maintain optimal cutting efficiency, reciprocating saw blades should be at least 25mm (1?) longer than the material they are cutting.
- Never apply excessive pressure to the tool when cutting- always let the blade do the work.
- Always ensure blades are sharp to ensure less load on the tool and better cutting results.
- Cutting oil is recommended for metal cutting applications (with the exception of brass and iron)
- Always let the blade cool naturally. Never force them to cool down in water (or any other liquid).
- Always operate the saw with two hands and when positioned in a firm stance.
- Let the blade run freely for a few seconds before commencing the cut.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) must always be worn when operating power tools. For more information on PPE and power tool safety, click here.
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