Last Updated on May 3, 2023 by Barry Gray
Table saws and circular saws are both versatile, powerful tools for your shop. But they have distinct features that make them especially useful for specific tasks, so it’s important to know when to use each tool.
In general, circular saws are more portable, less expensive, have greater cutting capacity, and are better for plunge cuts. On the other hand, table saws are more precise and better-suited for rip cuts and dadoes.
First, let’s talk about cutting capacity. When you talk about cutting capacity with circular saws, there are two factors to consider: first, the maximum depth of cut, and then the actual maximum width or length of cut the saw can make, if there is any.
Depth of cut is a simple measurement of how far into the wood the saw’s blade can go. Of course, it will vary depending on the diameter of the blade, but most table and circular saws have a maximum depth of cut of 4″.
Table saws’ maximum width of cut is limited by the space between the sawblade and the fence. That’s also called a rip capacity, and on most table saws, it’s 30”. That’s plenty for most boards people cut, but you should keep it in mind if you will need to make rip cuts on very wide pieces of wood.
Because circular saws move freely, there’s no maximum rip capacity with them. But it’s worth considering that the very thing that limits table saws’ rip capacity–the fence–is what makes them more suitable for rip cuts in the first place. Despite not having this limit to cutting capacity, circular saws may not always be the right choice for that cut.
Circular saws have a maximum cutting capacity of around 17 inches. That’s enough for most framing tasks, but it may not be suitable for larger projects. You may need to break the project up into smaller pieces to use the circular saw.
Next, let’s talk about precision. Circular saws are not known for their precision. They’re designed to cut quickly, but the cut can result in a jagged edge if you don’t use proper circular saw techniques. To make matters worse, the blade guard on a circular saw is notoriously difficult to use. If you try to make a precision cut with a circular saw, you’re usually in for a frustrating experience.
Table saws, on the other hand, are very precise. Their precision extends not only to the cut but also to the setup. You can precisely set the width and depth of the cut with a table saw. The table itself gives you the stability that you might not have if you’re relying on a circular saw.
Table saws also have a rip fence that keeps the material from wandering. That’s not the case with a circular saw. There’s no fence on a circular saw, so you have to guide the material manually. That makes it difficult to make a straight cut.
Fortunately, quality saws are available at generally reasonable prices. Circular saws are much less expensive because they don’t have the built-in table that table saws obviously require, but you can still find affordable table saws out there.
Circular saws are relatively inexpensive. A decent circular saw costs anywhere between $100 and $300, although you can find them for as little as $50. Depending on your needs, you might end up paying less than a quarter for a circular saw than what you’d pay for a table saw of equal quality.
While they start at $200, decent table saws aren’t available unless you’re ready to pay at least $450. The most costly table saws may cost up to $2,800, although even for most pros, they aren’t essential.
Maintenance needs are another important component of price. Circular saws are designed to make lots of cuts, so they don’t usually require maintenance. You can just wipe them off after each use and store them away.
Table saws, on the other hand, need to be regularly tuned up to perform their best. They also require periodic maintenance, such as replacing the blade, to stay in good operating condition.
Portability can be very important for professionals that frequently move between job sites.
Most circular saws are lightweight and easy to move from place to place. They don’t require any special trailers or dollies. All you need is a pair of gloves to protect your hands and a place to stow the cord.
Table saws are bulky, heavy tools that are difficult to move. You’ll need a trailer and lots of help to move a table saw around. Even moving your table saw across the shop can be a project requiring multiple hands.
Types of Cuts
Circular saws are among the most versatile saws out there. That means that they can make almost any kind of cut, although they won’t necessarily do it better than every other saw. On the other hand, table saws are much more specialized and able to make fewer cuts at a higher quality.
It’s possible to make a plunge cut with a circular saw, although it’s certainly easier with higher-torque saws like worm drive saws. Plunge cuts require power and torque that very cheap circular saws may struggle with.
Although it can require caution and even some accessories, plunge cuts are also possible with table saws. It’s usually not a woodworker’s favorite tool for plunge cuts though, especially because it’s hard to see exactly where the blade is positioned below with the wood blocking your vision.
Dadoes are an interesting, difficult cut to make with many saws.
Circular saws are designed to make cross cuts, but they can also be used to make rudimentary dadoes. A circular saw’s rip fence is only accurate to the nearest half-inch. But if you make a dado that’s less than one inch wide, the circular saw can give you an accurate cut.
Table saws are better for making dadoes because of their accuracy. They’re also easier to use because you don’t have to make a side cut with a circular saw. You just make one long, continuous cut. Most table saws can make dadoes up to 2 inches wide. If you need to make a wider dado, you can use a dado stack or a dado head.
Both table saws and circular saws are great choices for making cross cuts.
Circular saws can make cross cuts, but they’re not as precise as a table saw. The rip fence on a circular saw is notoriously difficult to use. Failing to adjust the saw’s distance from the fence is the number one cause of inaccurate cuts.
Table saws are much more precise than circular saws. They have a miter gauge that makes it easy to make an accurate cross cut. And the rip fence on a table saw is easy to use.
Rip cuts can be tricky and even dangerous with the wrong tool. Fortunately, safe rip cuts are completely possible with both circular and table saws.
Circular saws can make rip cuts, but they’re not as accurate as table saws. They don’t have the added stability of the table saw’s fence, and the blade guard often gets in the way. If you find yourself making frequent rip cuts, you may want to build your own track saw for cleaner, easier rip cuts.
Table saws are much more accurate than circular saws in general, and that applies to rip cuts as well. The stability of the table and the fence make it both easier and safer to get a clean rip cut with a table saw.