The most important saw I have in the shop or on a restoration job site is the one I need to do the task in front of me at that moment. Whether you’re undercutting a door jamb to add a new floorboard or tile, or cutting out studs and plates from a horribly remuddled partition wall addition, the phrase “right tool for the job” exists because it’s true. The reason the saw at hand is the most important isn’t because it’s fancy or expensive or refined; it’s because restoration success is about doing all the steps well with the right tool. If I can’t do a task—large or small, difficult or easy—progress comes to a halt.
I mainly rely on five saws to see me through: a reciprocating saw, circular saw, miter saw, table saw, and a Japanese handsaw. While having these saws is great, it’s only half the battle. Using them efficiently and safely is the other half. Everything from the right blade to the right accessory combines to make good work great and keep your restoration train running down the rails.
A recip saw, invented by the Milwaukee Electric Tool Corporation in the 1950s and branded Sawzall, is used mainly for demolition. While this word is generally anathema in a restoration context, I’ve seen many wonderful old homes chopped up into rental units where what once were doors have been studded up and drywalled over. Then there are the original basements retrofitted with awful 1970s paneling and landscapes littered with rusting store-bought metal sheds.
Chances are very good that as an old-house restorer, you’ll need to take some things apart before you can have a shot at putting them back together, and the tool for this go-hard-or-go-home work is a reciprocating saw.
For cutting through most construction-related material, I use a 10″ “demolition” blade. Designed to take a beating, these blades’ small, hook-shaped teeth are configured for cutting the hodgepodge of nail-embedded wood, plaster, drywall, and just about anything else you’ll find.
One thing I really rely on this saw for is what I call smart demolition—in other words, I can use it to remove an item carefully. Take, for example, a door opening that’s been covered over with studs and drywall. I can use the saw to cut the drywall away in manageable pieces. Then, instead of pounding on the studs nailed into the jambs and floor to pry the nails or dislodge the wood (which doesn’t work, by the way), I run the saw between the member that’s staying and the one that’s going, and cut the nails. This frees the work piece without bashing it, and minimizes both work and collateral damage.
Outdoors, if I’m cutting apart a metal shed or some fence posts, I’ll use a metal-cutting blade. Since unsupported metal will usually flop around, I minimize that vibration by pressing the shoe of the saw firmly against the work. If I have to cut tree branches (or roots, for that matter, which are common obstacles in post holes) I swap out the blade for one with more aggressive teeth, such as the Skil “ugly blade.”
Circular saws are the big daddy tool for just about any project, and they come in two flavors: sidewinder and worm drive. Sidewinders are lighter and smaller, and generally have the blade on the right side and the motor projecting out the left. Worm drives are front-heavy, in-line saws named for the worm gear inside that turns the blade. I’m a worm-drive guy myself—its configuration jibes with the way I work, letting me make my cuts faster—but both configurations get the job done.
Restoration projects often require rough carpentry—a floor has been damaged by a longtime leak; a porch is falling apart; the bathroom floor framing has been eviscerated by previous plumbers. A circular saw is the go-to tool for cross-cutting and ripping framing members and sheet stock like plywood.
A circ saw is also the tool you need for removing a damaged floorboard. (Make two passes down the length of the damaged board—enough to get a bar in there—then carefully pry the two pieces free. Removing the bottom of the groove on your replacement piece lets you easily lay it into the void.) Setting the saw to the right depth and keeping a keen eye on the blade will enable you to make the precise cut required for this project because you want to cut up to—but not into—the adjoining floorboard. This is one of the many reasons I like worm drives: Despite weighing nearly twice that of a sidewinder, the blade is on the left, so as a right-hander, I can see what I’m doing without craning my neck over the saw.
A circ saw, a straight-edge called a shoot-board, and a fresh blade are my first picks for trimming door bottoms and stiles. I can set the saw and straight-edge to make precise cuts in century-old doors to square them up for new openings. The worm drive’s in-line body easily passes by the clamps that hold the straight-edge down—not always possible with a sidewinder’s outboard motor.
If there’s a core to my tool setup, it’s the miter saw. While it can be used for cross-cutting framing, angling pergola rafters, or slamming through umpteen fire-blocks, it is primarily a finish tool I rely on for trim—base, casing, chair rail, crown—and my standard is a 12″ dual bevel sliding compound miter saw.
Bonus: See our review of the sliding compound miter saw.
But a miter saw isn’t magic. In order for it to really shine, it needs to be set up properly—not on the ground with a couple of bricks on either side—to hold up a 12′ length of crown molding. While I’ve built a custom work table for my miter saw, you can buy stands or build out less involved setups with just a few 2x4s, a sheet of ¾” plywood, and some 2×4 blocks. Whatever route you choose, the thing that makes a miter saw effective is what’s called infeed and outfeed support—surfaces on the left and right of the saw that support the work, enabling you to cut it accurately.
Having this allows you to see what you’re doing—notably which side of your pencil line the blade is passing through. When I position the work in my miter saw, I look right down the blade plate and line up my pencil mark with the edge of a blade tooth, making sure to keep the thickness of the blade on the waste side of the piece. It might sound simple, but it takes practice. I also use premium blades for premium work, like Vermont-American’s King Carbide or Ridgid’s titanium-coated sawblades. They’re expensive but worth it, because they cut accurately and cleanly, and you can sharpen them multiple times.
Portable Table Saw
Another “frame-to-finish” tool, a table saw is designed to cut planks down their length, a process called ripping. While some portable job-site table saws are capable of opening wide enough to cut a 24″-wide piece of sheet stock like MDF or plywood, they’re really not designed for it, and it’s dangerous (not to mention almost universally inaccurate) to try. This is the domain of the circular saw (and shoot-board, if you need accuracy), or full-fledged contractor or cabinet saw with infeed and outfeed support.
But table saws are the main tool for tuning a board to the right width and sometimes thickness. They’re hyper-handy on any project using tongue-and-groove material like flooring or pine paneling. Not only can you use a table saw to rip boards to make graceful transitions around corners, but you can remove the bottom or back part of a groove to lay it over the tongue of the previous board as you near the end of a run. You also can use them to cut the parts for a cabinet face frame, or to trim cedar starter-strips or final pieces on siding jobs.
Much like the miter saw, a table saw benefits from outfeed support. I’ve had terrible luck with the various roller stands you can buy in stores. However, a site-made table that’s a little lower than the saw’s deck works great. One of my favorites is a Rockwell Jawhorse with a 2×4 T-clamped in the jaws at the right height.
When cutting material that will show—say, a threshold for a flooring project, parts for a bookcase, or a column wrap—the better the blade, the fewer saw marks that will appear in the cut. (Always look for saw marks on an appearance-face cut and sand them out, because they become glaring once painted or stained.) The Freud Fusion blade is one of the best all-around table saw blades I’ve worked with. It leaves a very clean cut and ably handles most materials.
One final note: If you’re super-serious about woodworking or doing a large-scale molding or cabinet package where you’re milling the parts, a job-site-type table saw isn’t enough tool. It will get you by, but the heavier iron of a contractor or cabinet saw will do it better. They’re bigger, more expensive, and not intended to be moved often, but they deliver the power and stability that type of work demands.
I’ve already said that the most important saw I have is the one I’m using at the moment. However, a saw that continually gets me out of scrapes is my Japanese handsaw.
I don’t use it frequently, and you could make the case that the raft of new oscillating tools could take its place, but I love it for undercutting door jambs to accept new flooring. I can run the tool flat and make the cut easily—about a hundred times better than any jamb saw I’ve ever seen. The tool cuts on the pull stroke (most Japanese saws do this), and because the teeth go all the way to the end of the blade (not all Japanese saws have this feature; check before buying), I can essentially cut out of a corner.
There are more saws, of course, and all have critical-need uses: A jab saw for working plasterboard, plaster, or drywall; a coping saw—one of my absolute favorites—for inside corners on various moldings (molding is almost always more accurately installed by coping rather than mitering); even a chainsaw for anything from lot-clearing to firewood. But no matter how big or small your stock of saws, the most important tool in your arsenal is the one you need to get the job done.
Carpenter Mark Clement is working on his century-old American Foursquare in Ambler, Pennsylvania.