A common pondering echoed in forums and lumber aisles is whether one should buy a circular saw or a track saw. A question for the ages, both are versatile, powerful additions to any woodworker’s or DIYer’s arsenal. So if your significant other asks you to choose, you have my permission to tell them that you need both.
However, if you are intent on only choosing one, this article may help you decide.
What is a Plunge Saw (Track Saw)?
A track saw, also known as a plunge saw or plunge-cut saw, is a type of circular saw that cuts along a dedicated guide. As its name suggests, it does so by plunging into the working surface from above and moving on a precision guide track. The blade of a track saw is fully enclosed – a characteristic that provides an added layer of safety and increased dust control.
Advantages of a Track Saw
A plunge cut saw has several advantages over a handheld circular saw. Following are the major pros of a track saw.
Perfect Straight Cuts
The track saw “shoe” is designed with runners that smoothly slide along corresponding grooves of a matching track guide, creating precise, straight lines and allowing for smooth cuts with exceptional performance in terms of minimizing splintering along the cut-line.
No Clamps Required
The tracks, themselves, typically come equipped with rubber footings that keep the track in place without requiring clamps to secure the track. This small but important detail helps reduce the cut-line setup time that is typically required of circular saw edge guides.
Quick and Easy Set-up
Apart from doing away with clamps, measuring is simply easier and faster with plunge saws because you merely have to mark your line, place the guide, and cut. The track will set your track saw blade exactly on your marked cut-line. This is a much different experience than using a circular saw because you don’t need to take into consideration the difference between the shoe edge and the saw blade/cut-line, which can sometimes be a frustrating aspect when using circular saws with edge guides. This is especially helpful when you have to make multiple, identical cuts.
Ability to Plunge Cut
Also, unlike a circular saw, a plunge saw is not designed to only cut from the edge of a board, but it can also cut to precise depths from any point along the cut-line by making a plunge cut. This makes this type of saw a great option for projects like cutting out an area on a countertop in order to place a sink or even creating a dado effect.
Many track saws are equipped with anti-kickback systems. The simplest anti-kickback mechanism is a riving knife that follows the blade. This works much like a riving knife on a table saw, preventing the cut edges from closing together and pinching the blade.
Depending on the model of your saw, it could also be an anti-kickback sensor that stops the blade motor as soon as a kickback is detected.
Most plunge saws are designed with enclosed covers and dust collection ports. The enclosed design facilitates better dust control. All you need to do is to hook the saw to your shop vac and you have a much cleaner working environment.
Disadvantages of a Track Saw (Plunge Saw)
When choosing a track saw over a circular saw, there really aren’t many disadvantages. However, a few clear disadvantages do exist, and the most important to note is that the cost of these machines can be quite prohibitive.
- Circular saws are about 3 times more affordable, and that’s a conservative estimate that considers only the most affordable track saw packages (that include the track) that are currently on the market.
- On a similar note, your cut length is limited by the amount of track you have. You can typically connect multiple tracks together for a longer cut-line, but this means buying additional accessories, thereby making this purchase even more expensive.
- The additional track requirement also adds to the space required to store the saw while reducing the portability of the saw further.
A circular saw is a versatile handheld saw that allows for quick, straight or beveled cuts. These tools can make cross-cuts (across the grain) or rip-cuts (with the grain) with or without an optional dedicated track, though cutting guides can generally be made from a variety of spare material or tools that you might have laying around, like a leftover piece of plywood or a box level and a couple of clamps.
Advantages of a Circular Saw
In addition to wood products and depending on the blade, circular saws can be used on a variety of other materials as well, including metal and tile.
Related Read: How to Cut Tile with a Circular Saw
They can also be used to cut material in various positions and locations and are not limited to use on a flat, horizontal surface. They also do not require the item being cut to be moveable. In other words, you aren’t limited to what you can move and fit onto your workbench and you can cut things to size even if they are stationary or vertical, like a fence post or a framing stud, without ever having to set up much of a work area unless more accuracy is important for the job.
This versatility and portability are what tool-lovers tend to appreciate most about circular saws. Simply put, they are a tool dedicated to user autonomy. You can easily take a circular saw from job site to job site and switch tasks quite easily, from cutting a piece of trim down to size to demoing through a layer of drywall. Additionally, you aren’t limited to the length of a track when using a circular saw. You’re only limited to how long your cutting guide is, and only if you choose to use one.
Theoretically, you could make a mile-long cut without any additional supplies and without having to reset anything along the way if you had a large enough battery or long enough power cord.
Better for Quick Cuts
When you need to quickly trim a 2×4 or 4×4 lumber, a circular saw is the better option. Setting the track on a small piece of wood for crosscutting is more of a hassle.
Disadvantages of a Circular Saw
Inability to cut perfectly straight cuts especially when it comes to ripping, unless you take the time to set up a straight edge guide or invest in guide tracks.
When using a circular saw, some might view the required cut-line starting point to be a disadvantage, as you must start from the very edge of your piece in order to disengage the safety cover mechanism. This, of course, could be seen as an advantage for safety reasons, but it has the potential to limit functionality. This differs from the plunge saw, which is aptly named for its ability to start a cut from any position along its track rather than the edge as the saw plunges into the working surface from above.
Additionally, many circular saw brands are not designed to have a dust collection system, meaning you are more limited, in some ways, in terms of your work location and will need to stick with where making a dusty woody mess is safe and acceptable.
A more serious drawback to using a circular saw is that cuts will inevitably experience more splintering than a table saw or a plunge saw. It’s also not meant for precision and accuracy, and though guides can help improve these, it’s not the best option for finish-work.
Track Saw vs Circular Saw With a Guide Track
When viewed on their own, the differences between a track saw and a circular saw are pretty clear.
But what if you were to add a dedicated track to your circular saw so that it behaved like a track saw? This is where things get a little squirrely in terms of which is the obvious choice for a particular job.
So, let’s analyze the job where this would be most beneficial: ripping plywood.
Guides very quickly improve the performance of circular saws in terms of ensuring straight, accurate cuts and minimizing splintering along your cut-line, and many modifications can be made to double down on this effort. In this way, you get much closer to the type of effortlessly smooth cuts possible with a track saw, as a dedicated guide or track greatly reduces the side-to-side motion of your saw as you cut while also adding support to the wood fibers along the cut-line.
Additionally, using a track comes closer to eliminating the tedious tasks of measuring, calculating your cut-line distance from your shoe edge, setting your straight edge guide, cutting, then doing it all over again for additional cuts. When using a track, your setup time is much quicker and more comparable to the setup of a track saw cut.
Though you can come close to the performance of a track saw with a modified circular saw setup, you still won’t quite meet the precision and clean cuts that a track saw affords its users, simply because a track saw was designed for that exact application.
- The guide track of a track saw is precisely machined to match the saw base. On the other hand, your circular saw may not fit and/or move perfectly in a generic guide track.
- You also can’t beat the dust collection system that comes with most track saws.
So, Which is Better? A Track Saw or a Circular Saw?
As with most tool comparisons, this almost completely depends on you, your budget, and the task at hand!
Many woodworkers feel that their track saw has completely eliminated the need for their circular saw, as most of their circular saw needs had previously revolved around ripping and cross-cutting sheets of plywood in a controlled environment, like a shop. The track saw provides exceptionally precise, accurate cuts with very little splintering or tearout for this exact purpose.
If you are mainly cutting sheet goods or 3/4 plywood, a track saw would definitely be the better choice for you over a circular saw.
However, when utility is the goal and absolute precision isn’t the most important component of a project or task, circular saws really shine in their versatility, portability, and affordability when compared to a track saw.
If you are someone who moves from location to location often while working on projects (backyard to garage, house to house, home to work, etc.), if you aren’t only cutting moveable material, or if you make a lot of quick, short cuts rather than longer cuts (like cutting many 2×4’s down to size), or if you simply already have a circular saw but not a track saw and you aren’t convinced that a new tool is really worth the investment based on what you’ve learned in this article, sticking with a circular saw may be the better choice for you.