Reciprocating Saws vs. Jigsaws

So you want to know which you should use, a reciprocating saw or a jigsaw. Let’s start by defining each term and some other names you might know them by. Both saws have a lot more in common than you would think. We’re going to take a look at either saw, then compare the two and see which will work better for you.

Reciprocating Saw

Reciprocating saws were originally called the first portable electric hacksaw. Created by tool-mogul Milwaukee in 1951, it was the first of its kind. Arguably, it was the tool that allowed the brand to become what it is today.

Also Known As

Reciprocating saw goes by many different names: Recipro saw, saber saw, or recip saw. The most common name for them, Sawz-all or Sawzall, actually comes from the Milwaukee-brand – the pioneers of the tool.

Function

A reciprocating saw looks a bit like a tiny chainsaw – the handle is at the back and the blade sticks out the front. But unlike a chainsaw, the blade is only a few inches long, is anchored only on one end, and it saws by moving rapidly back and forth (hence the name “reciprocating”). Blades can be easily swapped in and out depending on what you’re cutting. The saw is usually held out in front of you while you’re working. The blade is a thin, tiny blade with little teeth on either side.

The motion is achieved via a rotating motor that moves a piston forward and backward.  The piston, in turn, is attached at one end to a clamp that holds the blade. The saw generally has a handle designed to be used when cutting vertically through a horizontal surface.  The foot of the saw, the cutting end, typically has a spring-loaded hinge to provide a cushion between the saw and the surface that is being cut.

Safety Issues

There is a big safety issue with using a Sawzall. Since it operates like a chainsaw, the same precautions have to be taken. It is a blade spinning at high speed with no guards around it. It can slice through a body part and do lasting damage. Please make sure you fully understand how to operate the saw before picking it up and pulling the trigger. Make sure you have on all of the correct personal protective equipment before using it.

Jigsaw

The origin of the jigsaw is a little funny. A guy in Switzerland replaced the needle of a sewing machine with one of his saw blades. The company Scintilla AG went on to produce these jigsaws professionally before Bosch bought the brand and therefore the tool. Jigsaws are actually a time of reciprocating saw, with a major difference.

Cordless Jigsaw

Also Known As

Although jigsaws don’t have any colloquially coined nicknames, they are also called reciprocating saws. This might be confusing, but it’s simple. Looking at the composition of a jigsaw, it literally is a reciprocating saw with the blade turned 90 degrees. That’s right, jigsaws are a type of reciprocating saws. Though it is important to mention that whenever someone says “reciprocating saw” they are referring to a Sawzall, not a jigsaw.

Function

The jigsaw looks just like a sewing machine with a blade instead of a needle, it even works the same way – go figure. That’s the simple explanation of how it works, the not so simple explanation is as follows:

Within the housing of a jigsaw, the motor is connected to the blade by a set of gears with off-center axes. These gears convert the rotary motion of the motor into the reciprocating vertical movement of the blade holder, causing the blade to move quickly up and down.

It’s worth noting that the blade of a jigsaw actually cuts on the upstroke since the teeth are pointing upwards. That being said, here’s a little tip. If you want to have a clean cut you should turn your workpiece over so that you cut from the back of the material to prevent splintering on the front.

To operate, it’s akin to sliding a sewing machine along a piece of wood. The base, called the shoe, of the tool is placed against the workpiece. You drive the jigsaw flat along the piece of wood and the blades will, in turn, cut the material.

Big Difference

Besides the angle of the tool being a different orientation between a Sawzall and a jigsaw, there’s one more big difference. Sawzalls are only available as a hand-held power tool. Jigsaws, on the other hand, can be made as a stationary table-top or standing unit. In that case, the material will be fed into the blade.

Uses for Each

Uses for a Reciprocating Saw

Sawzalls are a powerful and versatile handheld tool that can cut through wood, metal, masonry, fiberglass, and more. It is arguable one of the most essential tools for many contractors and DIY workshops around the world. Why is that? Because of how much you can do with the tool.

Some common uses are demolition, pruning, carving plywood freehand, and remodeling.

Indentations in Walls

When you are remodeling a unit and need to place wiring on the walls, you’ll need to make an indentation. A reciprocating saw is highly recommended when trying to do this, especially when the area includes odd angles.

Changing PVC Piping

PVC pipe is often located in places where regular saws can’t reach, so usually, there is nothing more effective than a reciprocating saw when modifying piping. PVC is easy to cut with this tool as well, so making any changes you need is a cinch.

Cutting Through Difficult Nails or Pins

Face it, sometimes nails, bolts, or pins don’t want to come out. You might try for a while to use a gentle hand to get it out before you get fed up. Time to bust out the big guns.

Take advantage of the reciprocating saw when you come across nails or pins that prove difficult to remove. If you are working on a project where there is no other way to pull out a nail or pin because of its tough hold, you can use a reciprocating saw to cut the head as an alternative to pulling it out.

Cutting Tree Branches

If you need to take down branches in your yard, this is the perfect tool for the job because of its durability and cutting power. Why bother chopping it down with an ax when you have a fully equipped cutter that does not need much manpower?

Cutting Through Different Materials

When cutting with a reciprocating saw, anything goes, especially since its area of use is so flexible. You can cut almost any material, like wood, PVC, or even metals.

Uses for a Jigsaw

Making a Jigsaw Puzzle

Ever wonder where the name “jigsaw puzzle” comes from? They can be cut using a jigsaw! Jigsaws are great for cutting tight radii, small pieces, and doing so by hand. For that reason, they are the best possible tool when it comes to cutting something as intricate as a jigsaw puzzle.

Cutting Through Different Materials

That’s right, just like a recip saw, a jigsaw can work on a variety of materials. It can deal with wood, PVC, and some metals.

Working on Countertops

If you’re installing a new countertop, you will need to make cuts to fit various things such as faucets and sprayer hoses. These often require small, round holes and the jigsaw is ideal for doing this unless your countertop comes with the holes already cut.

There are jigsaw blades that are specifically designed to cut countertops and you’ll need to use one of these to do the job properly. Search for a downstroke jigsaw blade as these are specifically made for hard, deep surfaces such as countertops.

Reciprocating Saw for the Machine Shop

As mentioned earlier, there is a standing or desktop version of jigsaws which reciprocating saws don’t offer. This means that you can get a unit for your machine shop, shed, or workshop. It makes cutting wood and thin metals really easy. Remember that it’s a hand-fed operation so you need to be safe using it – it has the same safety implications as a Sawzall at that point.

In other words, if you need a reciprocating saw for the machine shop, the jigsaw is the only option.

Cutting Ceramic Tile

There are several instances when you might need to use a jigsaw with ceramic tile. For example, you might need to cut a semicircle or curve around a pipe. With the correct blade on your jigsaw, you can easily accomplish this. It’s not something you can accomplish anywhere near as easily with a tile cutter. For this, you can use a carbide grit jigsaw blade.

Cutting Carpet

Although most people wouldn’t immediately think of it, you can use a jigsaw to cut carpet. This offers a more accurate cut than you’d manage with a utility knife or by using scissors. There’s a special soft material blade you’d use on the jigsaw for this.

Major Differences

Even though the jigsaw is part of the reciprocating saw family, there are a few major differences.

Safety

For the hand-held version of either tool, there is a huge difference in injury potential. The Sawzall is a mini chainsaw, and the jigsaw is a cut-y sewing machine. That said, the mini chainsaw is a lot more dangerous.

The jigsaw is a lot smaller so it can be handled with one hand.

Blade Geometry

Jigsaws have a narrower and more fragile blade. Therefore, they are more suited to precision cutting and cutting more complex geometries. Some of the things you can do with a jigsaw include crosscutting, plunge cutting, beveling, and ripping. They are a thin, narrow,  flat blade with downward-facing teeth on one side.

In a nutshell, the jigsaw is designed for function and versatility

Reciprocating saw blades are stronger and thicker. Also, due to Sawzalls having more powerful motors, they can cut through materials faster. The blades on these saws are rough cutters designed for demolition works. Recipro saws feature serrated knife-like blades.

Power

It has been mentioned that jigsaws are smaller, have a tiny and fragile blade, are used to cut delicate and complex geometries. This leads to the logical conclusion to those points; jigsaws have way less power.

Sawzalls are the powerhouse in this matchup. Recip saw motors are typically 10 amps but can go up to 15 amps. Jigsaws offer much less powerful motors. Their 5-amp motors are considered “heavy-duty” for the tool.

Weight

Since a Sawzall has much more power, it also weighs more. It weighs so much more, in fact, that you need two hands to operate the tool. The second hand is also used to help mitigate the kickback while operating. Jigsaws weigh less and are typically operated with one hand, while the other hand is flat on the material pushing it down (out of harms way, of course)

Ability to Cut a Straight Line

Using a jigsaw during a field sobriety test would be a nightmare – you can’t cut a straight line with the thing. The blade is small and loves to warp and dance around while you cut. Imagine using a handsaw made out of rubber. The good thing is the blades are so small and sharp, and it rotates so quickly, otherwise, the tool would be useless.

The Sawzall, on the other hand, is much better at straight lines. Because of the beefier and tapered blade, it makes light work of cutting straight lines.

Blades Breaking

Jigsaws are notorious for breaking blades while working. It’s always at the most inopportune time, too. Luckily the blades are really cheap and easy to replace, so it’s not that big of a deal.

Sawzall blades, on the other hand, are way more durable. In fact, they last long enough that you need to sharpen the blades as they dull. DeWalt also has a cool blade that separates into two different pieces so as the base wears, you can remove it and cut with new blades. Sawzall blades are more expensive but they’re just as easy to replace – with the key difference being they don’t break as frequently or as easily.

Types of Surface They Can Cut

Jigsaws are plain and simple; due to the design they can only cut on flat and even surfaces.

Sawzalls, obviously, are the more versatile tool in this category. They can cut circular, square, or any rough surfaces. You name a shape, the Sawzall can cut through it.

Which is Better for You?

Of course, this answer can’t be easily answered. Different scenarios would prefer a different tool. Let’s take a look at some examples and see if the Sawzall or the jigsaw would be preferred for the user.

Construction Work

If you work on a construction site, you’re going to see a plethora of jobs. Cutting PVC, laying wire, installing counter, cutting concrete, squaring corners, notching molding.

It’s a clear decision here, you need the functionality and versatility of a reciprocating saw. It can cut different materials, geometries, and can cut at different depths and angles. It’s also much better at making a straight line which you need in this application.

Machine Shop

If you work in a machine shop, there is only one answer for you. The jigsaw is the only saw in this comparison that offers a standing or desktop unit. So for machining purposes, you’re going to pick the jigsaw.

Creating Complex Geometries

If you are part of a project where you need to make complex geometries with your cutouts, there’s only one choice.

Examples of this type of work might be making props for a play or movie, making crafts, rough cutting a piece before final machining, or prototyping a design. If you’ve been following along at home, you’ll know that only a jigsaw can achieve the tight corners and complex geometries required.

Novice Users

Sawzalls are a lot harder to tame and use than jigsaws. If you are new to woodworking, inexperienced handing power tools, or uncomfortable using tools, stick to the jigsaw. There’s more room for error and the tool is a lot more forgiving. Additionally, there’s no real method to using it, you just pull a trigger and push.

Demolition Work

The Sawzall is hailed as THE demolition tool. It’s got the power, portability, versatility, and blade design that allows a demo worker to get lots of miles out of it.

General Professionals, Contractors

If you are a semi-pro or professional user, or a contractor, the odds are really high that you would want to pick the Sawzall. Except for machinists looking for a tool in the shop, every other professional in this category would reach for the Sawzall to get the job done.

DIYers

DIYers or general house owners who are handy are more than likely going to go for the jigsaw. It can be used for various levels of remodeling, crafting, carving, as long as it’s done on a flat surface. For those reasons, DIYers should use jigsaws.

Summary and Takeaways

So there’s a lot to learn when it comes to jigsaws and reciprocating saws. They are both very versatile tools and extremely useful in their spheres.

Sawzalls are bigger, stronger, heavier, and more dangerous. They can do most of the things a jigsaw can do, plus a million more things. They are extremely useful when it comes to demolition, and they have a strong blade that can cut horizontally or vertically, through a plethora of different materials. The reciprocating saw is the go-to tool for construction workers, contractors, and generally anyone who uses power tools professionally.

Jigsaws are a more centralized tool. They can cut through a variety of materials but can only do so on a flat surface. The big selling point is that they can cut intricate geometries and tight radii. They’re also the much safer tool in this matchup, and less expensive as well. The jigsaw is ideal for DIYers, novice, and nonprofessional tool users. 

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