We love our track saw. It’s an expensive tool to have in a home woodworking shop, but it’s worth the money. We’ve written about track saws in the past, and you’ll find the article here.
In that piece, we compared a track saw to the model train sets of our youth. Oh, my, how much fun we had setting up the tracks, creating a train station, trees, mountains, tunnels. Trains stayed on the tracks because the wheels were concave and sat upon rails that kept them in line. Great fun.
In addition to the track saw, we also have a circular saw in the shop, along with a table saw. While there may be some overlapping of talent and skill among these power tools, each plays its part in our woodworking projects.
Today we’ll dig a little deeper into two of them – the track saw and the circular saw. Perhaps budget constraints require a choice be made, and we’ll help shed a little light on these two for you.
What Is A Track Saw?
Just like model trains run on tracks, so does a track saw. A blade is encased in a housing not dissimilar to a circular saw in concept. The housing has a base that includes runners that fit inside the grooves of a track. Those grooves hold the saw in place as it is moved along the track to make its cut.
The blade of the saw protrudes right at the edge of the track to maintain the line you have measured carefully and laid the track along. The track sits on the plywood, for instance, and is held in place by the sticky base to make the cut true and straight. All you have to do is move the saw along the track.
You can see how it would be used to rip that plywood, then. It is also a very able plunge saw – it has an easily adjustable depth gauge, and the track will help maintain that depth with great accuracy.
The advantages of a track saw over a table saw or circular saw makes them a very versatile tool. They are lightweight, easy to set up, and don’t require clamps. The rails come in varying sizes and extensions that can be assembled into whatever length you need them to be for your cuts.
Standard rail sizes are 102” and 118”, long enough to handle an 8’ sheet of plywood. Supported on saw horses, that plywood sheet can be ripped into any width easily and quickly, much more so than with a table saw. In the case of a track saw, it is brought to the material to be cut, whereas with a table saw the material must be brought to the tool.
What Is A Circular Saw?
Circular saws are ubiquitous on job sites. They’re very portable, easy to carry, and can handle both rip cuts and cross cuts with ease. They are the perfect tool for the job site carpenter, a real workhorse for many utilitarian tasks.
Circular saws are power tools that turn a round, flat blade to cut wood, metal, or plastic, depending on the blade and the need. The blade turns in a circular motion spinning around an arbor, and the blade is guarded as it moves along the material being cut.
While the blade rotation is powered, the movement of the saw through the material being cut is supplied by you. The saw’s grip is held and the saw is pushed through the wood to make the cut. They power up immediately, and power down almost as quickly, with the blade guard protecting you and the material while the blade stops turning.
The circular blades come in different tooth configurations and sizes, and are easily interchanged depending on what is being cut. Fewer, larger teeth cut quickly but roughly, while smaller, more numerous teeth cut more finely and slower.
Circular saws weigh between 7 – 10 lbs, and blades come in sizes ranging from 7 to 10 inches as the most commonly used. The blade guard covers the blade when it isn’t running (those carbide teeth can be very sharp). When you are ready to cut, the guard is lifted so you can see the marked line. The base of the saw, called the shoe, sits flat on the material being cut.
Easy and quick to use, it is one of the starter tools that made our list of power tools for the beginner in a previous article here.
What Are The Differences Between a Track Saw and a Circular Saw?
Track saws look like an upgraded, more mature, and sophisticated circular saw. While they both are power tools that cut wood well, they differ in performance and degree of accuracy.
A list of differences includes:
- Structure. Track saws are fully enclosed and housed, whereas the circular saw is more open with an exposed blade. The blade guard is necessary on a circular saw, while the housing of a track saw provides the protection entirely. Track saws are lighter in weight than a circular saw, making them easier to carry from cut to cut.
- Manner of performance. While you power both saws through the material being cut, the track saw moves along tracks, whereas cutting with a circular saw is freehand. This can and does affect the pure accuracy of the cut, and with the circular saw requires much more attention to what you are doing.
- The cuts. A circular saw makes two cuts well: rip cuts and cross cuts. A track saw can handle both rip cuts and cross cuts well, also, but beyond them can also make miter and bevel cuts natively.
- Accuracy. Once the tracks are set to your measured line, the track saw is held in place and line by them, resulting in a much more consistent and accurate cut every time. The circular saw is a freehand cut, and the accuracy will be determined more by your ability and experience. Even then, circular saw cuts will not match a track saw cut in consistently accurate cuts.
- Dust. With a circular saw, the dust will fly freely. This doesn’t matter at a job site, as cleanup is a regular part of new construction. But in a shop, freely flying dust might be an annoyance. It’s different with a track saw, though. The saw housing includes a fitting to which you can connect your dust collection hose. The cut material is the only sign of a cut having been made, as your dust collection system removes the saw dust as the cut is being made.
- Usage. A track saw can be used without the track, and in doing so, you have a rather expensive circular saw. Of course, why would you buy a track saw only to use it without the track? Its attractiveness as an investment for your shop is that the track will always guide a consistently accurate cut.
But, all is not lost. If a track saw is well outside your shop budget, with some adjustment and imagination your circular saw can be turned into a track saw.
The answer is to make your own “track” with some scrap plywood. A jig for your circular saw that will enable you to reap the benefits of a track saw without all of the expense is not difficult or complex.
It will not have the convenience of the track a track saw uses, of course. Those tracks have straight and square edges, so extending the tracks with another piece of track, just like you did when you were young, is easy.
Making a 108” jig might present something of a challenge, but it would need to be made only once. And if you have enough scrap pieces of plywood handy, you can make varying sizes of jigs to help you handle smaller cuts.
A circular saw is heavier than a track saw, and not as convenient to carry around to make cuts. But, a budget is a budget, and a little lugging around won’t kill you.
And, you’ll want to have a variety of clamps available, too. The track of a track saw has a sticky base that holds the track in place when cutting. Your homemade DIY jig won’t, unless you add something to the plywood. Clamps will be needed to hold the jig securely while cutting. Still, your shop is likely to have plenty of clamps handy, so that should be no problem.
You can leave it up to This Old House to show you how, even. The concept is simple and straightforward, and even a beginner can follow along.
How about miter cuts with a circular saw? Sure, with a little imagination you can make a miter saw jig for your circular saw, too. Again, some scrap pieces can be turned into that jig for you at minimal cost. Here’s another video that will show you how. You’ll see some other possible straight edges to supplant the tracks in this video, including a speed square held in place with a clamp.
With some imagination and ingenuity, you can turn your circular saw into a track saw inexpensively and well. Jigs will do the trick for you at far less than the cost of a track saw.
We do love our track saw and are happy to have it in our shop. But it’s not the end of the world if you can’t afford $500 for one. Use the circular saw you already have in your shop, make the jigs, and enjoy most of the same benefits for far less.