A complete beginner’s guide on how to use a circular saw to make straight cuts safely and accurately and build successful projects.
A circular saw is one of the most common beginner power saws. It is a versatile and useful tool that can help you make accurate cuts and easily replace a table saw in many cases as long as you know exactly how to use it.
It was the second saw I bought after my miter saw, and it has become an essential part of my workshop.
Here, we are diving deep into how to use a circular saw for the best results.
🤔 What is a circular saw?
A circular saw is a power saw that cuts material using a round blade. The sharp blade spins around an arbor axis, and you push the saw through the material you want to cut. You can cut various materials using it and make straight cuts, bevel cuts, crosscuts, and rip cuts.
Circular saws are available as corded or cordless. They are handheld and portable, making them great to use in any area of your workshop without needing a special workspace specifically dedicated to their use.
Circular saws come in various sizes, and the size is determined by the blade size, with 7 ¼″ being the most common size. A 7 ¼-inch circular saw can cut a maximum depth of about 2 ½ inches.
If you wonder if a miter saw or circular saw is right for you, I have a full comparison of a miter saw vs. a circular saw for you.
A circular saw is used to make straight, accurate cuts in plywood and crosscuts in lumber. It can also make beveled cuts. It is especially a great tool to help cut down large sheets of plywood.
What types of material can you cut with a Circular Saw?
A circular saw is not just great for cutting lumber or plywood. With the right blade, it can cut almost any material. Plastic, fiberglass, concrete, asphalt, brick, stone, metal, and tile are a few examples.
Types of cuts you can make with a circular saw –
- Crosscut – Cuts across the grain of wood.
- Rip cut – Cuts along the grain of the wood.
- Miter cut – An angle cut on the face of the board.
- Bevel cuts – Cuts that are made with the saw blade angled.
- Compound miter cuts – Cuts that are miter and bevel combined
- Plunge cuts – Cuts in the middle of a piece of a material where the saw blade plunges into an interior part of the material.
👉 Types of circular saws
Circular saws are available as a left blade or right blade. There are three basic types of circular saws.
Compact circular saws – These have blades smaller than 5″ diameter, and the handle extends behind the saw. They are more expensive than regular circular saws but are extremely portable and can be used to make quick cuts, tight spaces, and small demolitions. With the right blade, they are powerful enough to cut through various materials.
Sidewinder – The motor for these circular saws is mounted on one side, making it more compact. These tend to be lightweight. These are probably the more commonly available saws.
Worm drive saws – The difference between the worm drive circular saw and the sidewinder saw is how the motor and gears are arranged. The motor is to the back of the saw and uses lower speeds, but the gears can transfer a higher torque.
Track saws – A track saw is basically a circular saw that runs on a dedicated track and helps make straight and accurate cuts. These are typically more expensive than circular saws but worth it if you often cut down large sheet goods.
It is important to get to know your circular saw before using it. Here are the various parts of the saw. They may look slightly different or maybe at slightly different locations depending on the brand of your saw, but their function remains the same.
- On/Off Trigger
The on/off switch turns the power to the saw on and the trigger makes it run. Once you let off the trigger the saw blade slows and stops. Be sure to turn off the switch when not in use.
- Handle and Handhold
The handle and handhold together are used to guide the circular saw while in use. The handle is used by the dominant hand to push the saw while the other hand holds the handhold guiding the saw through the cut.
The cord on a corded saw or battery on a cordless saw is located at the back of the circular saw and provides the power to the saw.
- Bevel Adjustment
The bevel adjustment allows you to set the angle you will be cutting. It is usually located at the front of the circular saw and off to one side and varies from 0-degrees to 45-degrees.
- Depth Adjustment
The depth adjustment allows you to set the depth of cut for the saw. This depends on the size of the saw you are using.
A circular saw blade is a round metal blade with teeth. You can get sharp blades with different numbers of teeth depending on the material you are cutting. In general, as the number of teeth goes up, the cleaner the cut. I usually use a 40-tooth blade for most of my cuts.
- Blade Cover
The blade cover encloses the blade and protects you from injury. It is made up of two parts – the top permanent cover and the bottom retractable blade cover.
The top blade cover is not just great for safety, it also keeps debris from flying back at you as you cut.
The bottom retractable cover is also extremely important for safety. It is spring-loaded and moves out of the way as you make your cut. Once the cut is complete and you remove the saw from the material, the cover goes back in place and covers the blade as it comes to a complete stop.
- Gaurd Lever
The guard lever controls the retractable blade cover. You can use it to help see the markings on your materials as well as get the saw started with cutting.
- Base Plate or Shoe
The plate, or shoe, allows you to rest the saw on your material to keep it level and steady. The plate surrounds the blade on both sides. It also has markings and notches helping you guide the saw as you cut.
You should follow safety tips and guidelines when operating a circular saw to prevent serious injury, as with any power tool.
- Wear safety glasses, hearing protection, and a respirator/ dust mask.
- Make sure there are no loose clothing or jewelry hanging and long hair tied up.
- Unplug your circular saw when not in use.
- Make sure you are using a sharp blade and that it is attached securely.
- Check material for any imperfections that may be obstructive to cutting. For example, you don’t want any screws or nails in the wood board.
- Keep the power cord out of the way of the blade and behind you as you cut.
- Use a straight edge guide. This will help you not just get a straight cut line, but will keep the blade from binding and will prevent kickback.
- Hold the circular saw correctly using the handle and the handhold. This helps not just get better cut results but makes sure your hands are away from the blade.
Below is the full video all about the circular saw – so you can watch how it is used.
You will need to do a few things to set up your circular saw before using it. Proper setup will ensure you don’t waste any material.
Be sure to keep the saw unplugged or remove the battery while getting it set up.
- Measure and mark a line for the cut on your material. You will need the line marked to follow unless you use an exterior guide to rest the saw against as you make your cuts – something I recommend 100%.
- Determine the best blade to use and attach it to the saw by securing it with the bolt clamp. The blade choice depends on the material you are cutting and what type of cut finish you are looking for.
- Measure the thickness of the material and set the blade depth to ⅛ inch below the depth of the material.
- Set or check the angle of the blade for your cut using the bevel adjustment.
- Make sure that the material is supported as close to the cut line as possible. This is very important for a good quality cut and to prevent kickback. You can use a sheet of foam insulation. I use 4×4 boards. You could also use 2x4s stacked up.
- Set up a straight edge guide for the saw. More about that below.
- Plug in the saw or pop in the battery and you’re ready to make your cuts.
And yes, you can use it on the floor. See how you can use a circular saw without a table.
⚙️ How to use
A circular saw is fairly easy to operate, but always be sure to read the manual to get to know your saw well.
Make practice cuts on a scrap piece of wood while you learn before attempting a project.
- Place the plate of the circular saw on the edge of your material near the cut line and align the 0 notch with the cut line. The space in the notch is for the kerf of the blade. Be sure to account for it in your cut. Learn more about kerf here.
- Press the trigger to bring the blade up to full speed before beginning your cut.
- Keeping the plate firmly on the surface of your material, ease the circular saw forward towards your cut line keeping the trigger engaged.
- The retractable blade gaurd should lift automatically, if it doesn’t and gets stuck (which can happen with thin material), lift it slightly using the guard lever to start the cut. You can let go of the lever as soon as the cut is underway.
- Without pushing with too much force, guide the circular saw along the cut line. Let the saw do the work to keep from burning up the motor.
- Once the cut is complete, let go of the trigger. The circular saw will slowly come to a stop. The retractable cover will close automatically making it possible put the saw down while it stops.
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📏 Cutting straight lines
You can try your best to cut a straight line using just your circular saw, but most of the time, the saw will stray from the drawn line. It is just part of being human. Trying to correct it will inevitably bind up the saw, and not only will you waste material, but it can also be dangerous due to kickback.
To prevent this from happening and to get a straight cut, you should use a guide that the side of the circular saw plate rests against.
There are many options for this.
- A straight edge – Any known straight edge like a level, a yard stick or the factory edge of plywood works. You can simple clamp it to guide the baseplate against it.
- A speed square – it is great for shorter cuts like cutting dimensional lumber. Basically, you can only cut material that have a width equal to or smaller than the speed square.
- Homemade jigs – These are fairly easy to make and can be made using scrap plywood boards. Here is an example.
- Circular saw cutting jigs – You can purchase saw guides made specifically for cutting with a circular saw. Some of my favorites are a Rip-Cut, the straight edge guide, and the portable cross-cut station.
⚙️ Cutting plywood
Using a circular saw is the easiest way to cut down the large sheet goods to the size you need or make them more manageable to use on a table saw.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when cutting plywood with a circular saw.
- Make sure you have a sharp blade with lots of teeth. The more teeth your blade has the smoother the cut will be.
- Always cut your plywood with the good side down. A circular saw makes it’s cut on the upward rotation of the blade meaning it cuts from the bottom up. As it exits the top, the most tear out happens. By cutting with the finished side down you keep the top of the board free from tear outs and jagged edges.
- Be sure to use a guide to keep your cuts straight
- Set the depth of your blade so that the lowest tooth on the blade is no more than an ⅛ an inch below your plywood board.
- Support both sides of the cut as close to the cut line as possible to make sure the blade doesn’t bind or use a sheet of foam insulation to suport the entire sheet.
⚙️Cutting dimensional boards
Cutting dimensional boards is pretty straightforward with the help of a speed square long enough to cover the width of the board.
- Clamp the board to the worksurface with the part you want to cut off hanging out. If you are cutting off a small piece – upto 6″-8″, you can support the other side of the cut with your hand. But if you are cutting in the middle of a long board, you want to support both sides of the cut line just like you would with a sheet of plywood.
- Set up the speed square with the T-edge against the long edge giving you a perpendicular guide to cut along.
- Make the cut!
🔌 Corded vs. Cordless
One of the most common questions I get is – are cordless circular saws worth it? Using a cordless circular saw has its advantages and disadvantages. Whether it’s worth it to have is really a personal choice.
Both corded and cordless circular saws are portable and can be used anywhere.
Having a cord means being plugged into an unlimited power supply, but cords can also be limiting and can get in the way.
Cordless saws depend on the amount of charge a battery holds, and as the battery starts to run low, the saws can lose power. Of course, cordless saws are easy to store by simply removing the battery without winding back the cord.
Circular saws are fairly straightforward to use once you understand how to set them up and use them safely. They make cutting down your boards quick and easy.
Now that you know all about the circular saw, you can build lots of projects.
❓Why does it kickback?
The main reason for the circular saw to kickback is the blade binding. This happens for two reasons.
- Not cutting in a straight line.
If you are freehanding the cut or your guide isn’t well clamped, you can deviate slightly from the straight line. When the front of the blade is not in line with the back of the blade, the blade siezes up or binds causing the blade to come to a stop.
This is why ALWAYS use a straight edge guide.
- Not supporting the material well.
If the two sides of the cut line are not supported, as you get to the end of the cut, the two sides will begin to collapse on each other, causing the blade to pinch and the saw to kick back. This will also splinter the material at the end of the cut. This is why you want to support the material with either a sheet of foam insulation or boards perpendicular to the cut line.
A circular saw is fairly simple to use and once you get to know it, you can make many types of cuts and projects.
I have even used it to make half-lap cuts for my DIY Hammock stand.
👉 Further Reading
See all the woodworking 101 articles here.