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Track saws and circular saws look very similar but they are quite different. However, not many people understand the difference between them and that’s why there is often a dilemma on which portable saw with a disc blade to choose.
In this article, I try to show the similarities and differences between these two saws to help you choose the right one for the job. But first, we start with the definition.
What is a circular saw?
A circular saw is a type of hand-held power saw that uses a disc blade to make freehand straight cuts into material. It makes most of the cuts you can make on a table saw including bevel cuts, cross cuts, and rip cuts.
Additionally, a circular saw can make plunge cuts into material as well as diagonal cuts, which are impossible on a table saw.
What is a track saw?
A track saw is very similar to a circular saw except that it has a dust collection mechanism and the base plate or shoe travels on a rail track to make a straight cut.
In other words, a track saw is like a circular saw on a guide rail with extra features to improve performance and dust collection capability.
You can use it basically to make the same cuts as a circular saw. However, the cuts with a track saw are more accurate with less splintering and chip out.
Track Saw vs Circular Saw: Similarities
As I have mentioned, a track saw is like an improved version of a circular saw. So, these two saws have a lot in common. Some of the similarities include:
Both saws use circular saw blades to cut
A rail saw and a standard circular saw use the same cutting blades to cut material. The blades can have different Teeth per inch depending on the application and can be of different sizes. However, the most common size of circular saw blade is 7-1/4″.
As I have mentioned, a track saw is quite similar to a circular saw.
Cut on the upward stroke
The blades on circular saws and track saws rotate counterclockwise and therefore cut on the upward stroke. This is different from a table saw which cuts on the downward stroke because the blade rotates in a clockwise direction.
Both can make accurate cuts
Both the track saw and regular circular saw can make accurate cuts. However, a circular saw would need additional jigs such as a guide rail that the base plate can ride along. With proper set up and operation, a circular saw can make as good of a cut as a plunge track saw.
Handheld and easily portable
Track saws and circular saws are hand-held and are generally the same size. However, some a smaller and others are heavier. It depends on the tool brand.
Because of the fact that these two saws are handheld, they move on the workpiece to make a cut rather than feeding the workpiece to them like on a table saw.
Can make the same standard cuts
A track saw as well as a circular saw can make all the standard cuts into lumber and sheet goods. These standard types of cuts include:
- Crosscut – a cut across the grain.
- Rip Cut – a cut along the grain.
- Bevel cut – an angled cut into the depth of the workpiece.
- Miter cut – cut at an angle on the face of a workpiece.
- Plunge cut – cut from the middle of the stock.
In addition, these two saws can also make diagonal cuts across sheet goods, which is not possible on a table saw.
Available in corded or cordless versions
Circular saws and rail saws are available in battery powered and corded versions. This adds more versatility and portability to these two handheld power saws.
Track saws vs Circular Saw: Differences
Despite the similarities, track saws and circular saws have notable differences that set them apart.
The blade of a track saw is shrouded and has a dust port for collecting wood dust. You can attach a dust extractor or shop vac hose to the port. As a result, track saws keep the work area clean and free from dust.
On the other hand, circular saws don’t have any form of dust collection system. Moreover, the blade is not covered, meaning that the work area of a circular saw is dusty and you must wear a respirator to avoid inhaling the wood dust.
This makes circular saws suitable for outdoor woodworking where wood dust might not be a problem. On the other hand, track saws are better for working in the shop because they don’t make your workspace dirty. However, you must hook a shop vacuum hose or even better, a dust extractor vacuum. It takes away almost all the wood dust.
A track saw moves along a track set on the workpiece to make a cut whereas a regular circular saw slides on the workpiece itself. However, you can make a guide rail to use with a circular saw if you want to make dead-on accurate cuts.
Saw track vs circular saw guide rail
As I have mentioned, the track saw slides along a track or rail. The saw track has a channel onto which the rail saw attaches. The rail channel keeps the saw from drifting sideways when cutting.
In contrast, a circular saw guide rail must have a fence against which to push the saw to keep it in a straight line. Therefore, when using the guide rail, you must push the circular saw downward and forward to make a cut and against the fence to keep it in a straight line. On the track saw, you only push the saw downward and forward. The rail keeps the saw in a straight line effortless.
Another notable difference between the rail of a track saw and that of a circular saw is that a saw track has rubber strips on the bottom side to keep it from sliding on the workpiece. In contrast, a circular saw guide rail does not have rubber underneath to generate positive friction that can keep it from shifting on the workpiece. Therefore, you must use C clamps to hold it in place.
Ease of setting up
A circular saw is quicker to set up than a track saw when using it to make a freehand cut. This is when the accuracy of the cut does not need to be dead-on accurate. All you do is set the depth, the cutting angle if any, and of course, mark the workpiece.
For a track saw, you must lay the track on the workpiece and if you need to make a longer cut than the track, you can join two or more tracks together. Also, you must install the track saw on the channel before starting to cut. The advantage is that a rail saw will always produce accurate cuts.
However, when you want to cut as accurately with a circular saw as a track saw, the setting up of the circular saw gets complicated. You must set up the guide rail and clamp it in place with a couple of clamps to keep it from moving.
Ease of use
Once you set up the track saw, you can make long cuts through the material in a few seconds. In contrast, cutting a straight line with a circular saw requires you to move slowly to keep the saw on the line. However, when you have a guide rail, you can make the cuts faster but not with ease as with a track saw.
Splintering and chipping out
Track saws are better than circular saws for making splinter-free cuts. There is a rubber strip on the edge of the saw track that supports wood grain along the cut line to minimize splintering and chip out. This enables you to cut your stock from any side and with the good side facing up or down.
On the other hand, to prevent splintering on the circular saw, you must cut with the good side facing down so that any splintering will occur on the other side. This works well when building objects that must have a beautiful front side such as a tabletop.
But when both faces of the workpiece are important, such as when making doors, you have to cut with the front side facing down and then score the cut line with a knife before making the cut.
As you have seen, both track saws and circular saws are capable of producing accurate cuts. However, a track saw is inherently accurate whereas to get the same level of accuracy with a circular saw you must add a fence or a guide and apply some hacks such as scoring the workpiece to prevent splintering.
Track saws are just downright more expensive than circular saws. You can get a good circular saw for at least $100 whereas the price of a good track saw starts from $300 without a rail. And if you add the rail, the price can go be as high as $500 or more.
Which is Better? Track Saw or Circular Saw
Having seen all these differences and similarities between a track saw and a circular saw, it is clear that these two saws can be used interchangeably. It is only that a circular saw requires more effort to make very accurate cuts. But from the cost differences, the extra work on the circular saw may be worth it.
So, the question of which is better between a circular saw and track saw generally boils down to a trade-off between cost and dust collection.
If you are allergic to dust or just want to keep your work area clean, then a track saw is a better choice than a standard circular saw. It is the best choice for working indoors.
On the other hand, if wood dust is not a concern, especially when working outside the workshop, a circular saw might be an easier option. You can use it to make freehand cuts with minimal setup. All you need is to place the sheet good material on styrofoam for ground clearance when working on the floor and you are good to go.
As I have said, track saws are more expensive than circular saws. Typically, a good track saw will cost 2 to 3 times the price of a circular saw. When you add the rails into the maths, the price of a rail saw setup would even quadruple that of a decent circular saw.
So, if the price is not a problem and all you care about is the performance, quality of cuts, ease of use, and ability to keep the workspace clean, the rail saw easily comes on top. These are some of the best track saws on the market that you can consider.