What-Is-a-Reciprocating-Saw-featured-image

In the massive cutting arena, perhaps the question I’m asked most is what is a reciprocating saw?

Crucial for any serious DIYer, contractor, builder, or demolisher — these units allow you to access areas other saws cannot reach. And, typically boasting a variety of speed outputs and choices of blades, you can adapt your tool to perfectly suit the demands of your target material.

Here’s your complete reciprocating saw 101 — and how it compares to other sawing formats.

Basics Behind the Reciprocating Saw


Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reciprocating saw gains its moniker from its blade’s cutting motion — it reciprocates, that is, it moves back and forth in a linear motion. Depending on your geographical location and the circles you mix in — they’re also known as recips, linear cutters, hognose saws, or Sawzalls.

Strictly speaking, the category covers jigsaws and saber saws too as they also utilize a mechanical push-and-pull movement. However, as you’ll discover later in this article, in DIY and contractor arenas, these two similar formats are differentiated from a true recip saw. For goodness sake, don’t mix them up in front of a trade-pro or in an anally retentive sawing online forum — unless you want to be met with a torrent of laughter, head-shaking, and general abuse.

Most commonly utilized in demolition work due to their ability for close-quarter and tight space operation, these handheld machines take the strain when crowbars and claw-hammers struggle. That said, they’re equally useful in construction as opposed to destruction projects — such as trimming drywall, sizing slats, or trimming baseboards.

Preparing to use a reciprocating saw.

Photo Courtesy of Junglecat, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Design of the Reciprocating Saw


The reciprocating saw design has been described as the most perfect, sublime, and awesome of all God’s tool creations. Although, that particular pearl of wisdom was uttered by my cousin Hank at our annual summer cookout — and he was somewhat fuelled by the passion of a significant amount of beer intake.

However, to be fair, it is a pleasing build.

Outside, the case is either designed for palm-held use — much like a cordless screwdriver and ideal for small household projects — or with a D-handle, perfect for more hardcore trade-grade work, as exemplified by the DeWalt DWE357 unit.

A shell-mounted dial or throttle trigger allows you to control the speed to suit your target — while a keyless clamp permits you to select from a range (usually after an additional purchase) of medium-suitable blades for wood, drywall, metal, stone, and tile. The Tacklife DRS01A, for example, arrives with two cutting edges — one for plastic and timber and the other for metal.

The blade is surrounded by a foot or shoe that allows you to securely press against your
soon-to-be-cut material — much like that featured on a jigsaw, although considerably less sizeable. Adjustable, it enables you to alter the cutting depth of the chosen blade. For more info on using a reciprocal saw, check out my How to Use a Reciprocal Saw article.

Preparing to use a reciprocating saw.

Swashplate In a Reciprocating Saw – Enl public, CC BY-SA 4.0

Internally, the reciprocating action is created by a swashplate — or increasingly, a more efficient Scotch yoke system is integrated on higher-end units. This remarkable feat of engineering transforms the rotary action of the motor into a linear motion — creating the reciprocal cutting movement.
YouTube video

Uses for a Reciprocal Saw


For an in-depth discussion of the uses of a reciprocal saw — and how to use it correctly in different situations — check out my Reciprocal Saw Uses 101. However, generally speaking, you can employ these machines for:

  • Pipe cutting.
  • Baseboard trimming.
  • Drywall shaping.
  • Cutting metal pipes.
  • Flushing old screws and nails.
  • Curve cutting.
  • Small tree pruning.
  • Demolishing.
  • Frame building.
  • Chain sizing.
  • Salvaging.
  • Sill plate cutting.
  • Plumbing.

Reciprocating Saws Vs Other Saws


If you’re a devout DIYer or trade pro — you’re probably already a proud owner of a multitude of cutting machines. Hence, you’re probably wondering, do I actually need a reciprocating saw?

Alternatively, should you be a recip newbie — you may be pondering whether a reciprocal is a saw for you, or should you opt for a different wood and metal cutting saw format.

Hence, here’s how reciprocal units compare and contrast with their similar counterparts:

Reciprocating Saws Vs Other Saws


Back in 1951, when Truman was president and the Korean war was in its second year — toolmeister manufacturer Milwaukee released the world’s first reciprocating saw, the Sawzall. Such was its success that over time, Sawzall became a generic trademark for reciprocating saws.

So, much as Aspirin, Dry Ice, and Escalator have become nomenclatures for acetylsalicylic acid, solid carbon dioxide, and the vertical moving staircase — the name Sawzall represents recips.

Milwaukee still manufacturers true trademarked Sawzalls — including the respected Milwaukee 6519-31.

Jigsaw vs reciprocating saw.

Артём В., CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jigsaw Vs Reciprocating Saw


As mentioned earlier in this article, when you compare a jigsaw vs reciprocating machine, you discover that technically they’re one and the same — as the blade within the jig housing has a back-and-forth motion — it reciprocates.

However, in common usage, there is a difference between jigsaw and reciprocating saw.

The key contrast is that the jig features a blade that moves vertically — while the recip is traditionally utilized for horizontal action, although, the beauty of a reciprocator is that its case build permits it to be used at any angle.

Furthermore, jigsaws typically feature lengthy and slim cutting blades — perfect for accurate woodcuts, making them ideal for carpentry and wood shaping projects. Conversely, recip saws utilize a thicker, more snub blade, for aggressive rough cutting of metal and timber for demolition.

circular saw Vs reciprocating saw.

Gvsqz, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Circular Saw Vs Reciprocating Saw


When comparing a circular saw vs reciprocating unit — you find that there are perhaps no more disparate cutting machines.

Firstly, the sawing action is completely different — where the recip uses a push-and-pull motion, circular machines utilize a rotary movement. Secondly, the circular tools feature a round blade with rip teeth, whereas the reciprocal boasts a long and thin blade with knife-like serrated teeth.

Furthermore, in the reciprocating saw vs circular saw face-off — these two units are used for contrasting applications.

The circular model is most suited to medium to large-scale timber work — particularly popular in woodworking and cabinet making. Recip machines are for smaller scale but extreme cutting of metal and wood for demolition — where a perfect finish isn’t necessary.

Reciprocating saw vs chainsaw.

Cantons-de-l’Est, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Reciprocating Saw Vs Chainsaw


If anyone asks you for a perfect example of the common phrase same but different — tell them to compare a reciprocating Sawzall vs chainsaw. Although to be fair, if anyone asks you this question, I’d unfriend them for being a weirdo.

In truth, they can both be utilized for identical projects — tree pruning/cutting and demolition.

The difference is the scale.

Chainsaws are ideal for tackling larger jobs, such as felling trees and slicing through timber joists. Reciprocating units are more suited to branch pruning and removing old and tired drywall.

However, build and operation-wise — they’re two utterly disparate machines. While the recip features a relatively modest metal blade — the chainsaw incorporates a scarily powerful rotary chain. Furthermore, you can operate a reciprocal one-handed — impossible with a chainsaw unless you’re Jason Vorhees.

In short, if chainsaws are the terrifying mothers-of-destruction, recips are a more affable aunt. The Texas Reciprocating Saw Massacre doesn’t really have the same ring to it.

Saber Saw Vs Reciprocating Saw


Like the jigsaw, the saber is also a reciprocating saw in that it features back-and-forth blade motion. However, in DIY and trade parlance, a saber saw refers to a lower-powered variant of the ‘true’ reciprocating units. Visually, it’s difficult to tell them apart — although commonly sabers are slightly smaller and feature a wider and stubbier blade than their close recip cousins. As such they’re more the go-to tool for the light-use home improver rather than the hardcore pro contractor. Ideal for low-to-medium intensity timber and thin sheet metal work — they’re less of a demolition machine than recips, and are more suited to light DIY jobs. Consider it a halfway house between a jig and a reciprocal. Traditionally, the lower-grunt and average durability makes them easier on the pocket than their more robust and brawnier reciprocating counterparts.

Conclusion


Boasting handheld operation, omni-direction function, and thin yet durable blades that can tackle demolition, cutting, and trimming work — reciprocating saws are an ideal multi-purpose sawing tool for the DIYer or contractor.

More powerful than a saber saw, safer than a chainsaw, and more robust than a jigsaw — these machines are the go-to weapons for demolition, construction, and timber work. Sure, they’re somewhat rough and ready — these units aren’t going to provide precise tenons or accurate edging.

But, if you want a grunty tool that’s ready to slice, rip, and demolish — check out our top picks of reciprocating saws.

I hope that you enjoyed this explanatory article, and found the information useful. And, should you have a buddy who you believe may appreciate this What Is A Reciprocating Saw 101 — please feel free to share!

Reciprocating Saw FAQs

Q: Is a Sawzall a Reciprocating Saw?

Yes! Respected tool manufacturers Milwaukee introduced the world’s first reciprocating saw in 1951, called the Sawzall. Since that time, the name has become a generic trademark applied to the reciprocating saw category.

For the last 70 years, with numerous modifications and improvements, Milwaukee continues to sell its celebrated Sawzall machine.

Q: What Is Better — Jigsaw vs Sawzall?
A Sawzall vs jigsaw comparison is worthwhile, as both machines are, in truth, reciprocating saws. However, Jigsaws are more suited to lighter work and a more precise finish than their Sawzall Cousins. Furthermore, Jigsaws are difficult to operate away from the horizontal plane — whereas you can use a Sawzall in any direction.
Q: Should I Use a Jigsaw or Reciprocating Saw for Cabinet Building?
When comparing a reciprocating saw vs jigsaw, you discover that the key difference is accuracy and fine finish — with the jigsaw being the winner in both areas. Therefore, jigs are more suited to precise cabinet work rather than the rough and ready reciprocating saw.
Q: What Is a Reciprocating Saw Good For?
Excellent for demolition, construction, and rough cuts — the reciprocating saw takes over when claw-hammers and crowbars fail. With grunty motors and a plethora of cutting blades, they can tackle plastic, metal, and timber.
Q: What Is the Difference Between Jigsaw Reciprocating Saw and Sawzall?
A jigsaw utilizes a blade that moves vertically — while a Sawzall traditionally delivers a horizontal cutting action, although it can be used multi-directionally.