While table saws make ripping easy, for the most part, not every home woodworking shop has one. Perhaps there’s not enough room for one, or it’s outside your budget, or maybe you’ve figured out a way to work without one. If you are one of the latter woodworkers, you can likely guess what this article will be about.
At the least, we expect that every shop has a circular saw. But can a circular saw replace the table saw when it comes to ripping sheets of wood (plywood, mdf, dimensional lumber), and even cutting thin strips of wood? The answer is yes, and there are even options on how.
A steady hand with a circular saw is not necessary. A guided hand keeps the cut straight and true, and for guides there are the store-bought kind and the clever, DIY kind. We’ll give you options on each, and with either a few dollars or a little bit of your time, you’ll be cutting thin strips of wood with your circular saw in no time.
The Circular Saw as Track Saw Trick
Circular saws are a regular tool on job sites. They’re lightweight and portable, and take on rip cuts and cross cuts equally well. They are extensions to the hands of job site carpenters, always handy and nearby.
They turn a round, flat blade in a circular motion around an arbor, and the blade is guarded as it turns. The motor turns the blade, but you move the saw through the material being cut – part motor-driven, part human-driven.
Its more mature cousin is the track saw. This sophisticated power saw is fully housed and not open as is the circular saw. It’s also much more lightweight than the circular saw. Like the model trains of our youth, the track saw moves along, well, tracks as it cuts. That movement is human-driven, just as with the circular saw, but the track keeps the cut straight and true. A steady hand is not required, only a steady pace.
We know track saws and have written of them in past articles. In fact, in one of our past articles, we described turning a circular saw into a track saw.
Track saws are expensive, and tracks are, too. Festool track saws are the gold standard in track saws, but they require a big budget. A starter set of saw and track can begin as high as $600 – $700, whereas circular saw prices range from $50 – $200. Brand and size will determine where in that range your chosen saw falls.
That’s a big difference, and a big savings if you can find a way to use your circular saw as a makeshift track saw that makes straight and accurate cuts every time.
Circular Saw Guides For Straight Cuts
Converting your circular saw into a “track saw” requires only a little ingenuity, a little time, and sheet stock of some kind – plywood or MDF, for instance.
Two pieces will be needed for a saw guide: the base piece upon which the circular saw will be pushed; and, the guide piece acting as a fence against which the site of the saw base will run. Measurements for each are required, as are straight edges.
Factory-cut edges can be counted on to be straight and true, so use a factory-cut edge, if possible, for the guide/fence piece. The large DIY saws can also help in this regard, as they are happy to cut a sheet stock with their panel saw to give you that straight edge the guide/fence will need. The straight edge of the base piece will become so with your first cut.
While we could use a lot of words to describe the process of creating a DIY “track”, here is a video that demonstrates the build easily and clearly using solid sheet stock. You could just as easily substitute sheetrock or MDF for it, too.
Making Your Own Track for a Circular Saw
The advantage of the track saw is the track, of course. Just as the tracks for our model train sets, the track saw tracks provide the guide rails on which the saw glides as you push it through the cut.
I knew a carpenter/builder/woodworker who once told me that if you could describe something to him, he could make it from wood, no matter what it was. I saw him create some amazing things in the time I knew him.
When researching for this piece, we found another talented and imaginative woodworker. What Festool and other track saw manufacturers make from aluminum, he made with wood – a track and a detachable sled for his circular saw. Watch him make them in this video with – you guessed it – his circular saw.
Commercial Tracks for Circular Saws
For those of you who are not quite as clever or talented, or simply want a quick solution without all the work, there are commercial tracks available for circular saws. Such track systems include a sled that holds your circular saw as it glides along the tracks.
Kreg, famous as the company that manufactures the pocket hole jigs, is not a one-trick pony. It manufactures circular saw guides that include a sled on which the saw rides when making the cuts. The guide extends over the edge of the workpiece and holds the sled in place as you move it along the cut lines you’ve measured.
The sleds are wide enough to accommodate most any circular saw. The base of the saw is clamped into the sled at the front edge, and the saw stays in place while being pushed through the workpiece for the cut. As long as your measurement was true and the track was laid in alignment with the measurement line, the cut is true.
These commercially available tracks and guides range in price from as low as $40 (Kreg), and up, with options in the $80 – $100 price range. You can find them at the big DIY stores as well as major online retailers for much shorter dollars than a Festool or Makita track saw. Since a circular saw is also much less expensive than a track (plunge) saw, your budget dollars are saved.
Cutting Thin Strips of Wood With Your Circular Saw
What all of these options have in common is the ability to cut strips of wood reliably, straight, and true. Those strips or planks can be of whatever dimension you need them to be. From ripping sheets of wood into smaller sheets or planks, to cutting thin strips, the circular saw relies upon the tracks or guides for stability and straightness in those cuts, rather than the steadiness of your hand.
In fact, in the video of the fellow making his own wooden tracks, he cut the track guides, thin strips, using his circular saw.
It depends on your measurements and your needs. If you need a ½ “ strip, simply measure ½” on the stock being cut. Align the end of the base piece (if using your DIY guide), or the wooden “track” you’ve made, or the store-bought track, at that measurement, and make the cut.
The Circular Saw Blade Matters
The thinner the strip being cut, the finer the saw blade you will want to use. A job site circular saw blade used for cutting 2 x 4 framing pieces, or plywood underlayment for floor boards, will tear thin strips. A finish blade for your circular saw, higher tooth count and sharp, won’t tear a thinner strip.
For added protection in making thin strip cuts, you can also tape the cut line with masking tape. This will protect the wood from tearing and hold the wood fibers in place for the cut.
With that caveat, though, a homemade guide, a homemade track and sled, or a store-bought track and sled, will enable you to make good and accurate cuts for thin strips.
You may even have scrap pieces of sheet stock, whether plywood or MDF, already handy in your shop that you can use to make your own guide or track. If not, a sheet of either will not set you back badly.
A couple of sizes, too, might be a smart idea – an 8’ guide and a 4’ guide. If you are avoiding the purchase of a table saw and must use your circular saw to rip a 4’ x 8’ sheet of plywood, that 8’ guide will come in handy. The 4’ guide can take care of any smaller lengths you might need to cut.
There’s a great satisfaction derived from solving our own problems and answering our own questions. When doing so also saves us money, the pleasure is doubled. Making your own guide or track can do both for you.