How to Use a Reciprocating Saw: A Step-By-Step Guide

Reciprocating saws are incredibly useful tools for anyone looking to get their feet wet doing a little remodeling, demolition, and even tree pruning. If you’ve been getting by using a variety of prybars, hand saws, and chisels – the best way to take your DIY game to the next level is by getting your hands on a reciprocating saw!

You may have heard reciprocating saws referred to as Sawzalls before, but don’t let that confuse you – the Sawzall is just the name Milwaukee gave their reciprocating saw when it was invented back in the 1950s. The terms are more or less interchangeable nowadays.

Reciprocating saws are exceptionally valuable if you need to take on any type of serious remodeling job. Think removing rotted wood around windows, cutting through nail-embedded wood, and cutting a hole through a subfloor.

I’ll break down how to use a reciprocating saw in step-by-step detail, so you’ll be comfortable using one to tackle that remodeling job!

What’s a Reciprocating Saw?

Reciprocating saws are handheld power saws that cut using a back-and-forth “reciprocating” motion. The flat, knife-like blade allows you to get the saw blade in tight spaces that would be impossible with other power tools.

The rapid reciprocating cutting motion allows you to rip through a variety of materials in almost no time at all. These saws lack the precision of circular saws so they aren’t geared towards jobs that require exact cuts.

Parts of a Reciprocating Saw

reciprocating saw diagram

Reciprocating saws feature a rather unique design, with their closest cousin probably being the jigsaw. The saw is held sort of like a rifle or shotgun, with your dominant hand on the handle and trigger, and the other hand under the front grip.

The trigger is typically variable speed, so you can adjust the blade speed by changing your finger’s pressure on the trigger.

At the front of the saw, you’ll find the blade release for changing blades. Nearly all modern reciprocating saws feature a quick-release blade change mechanism – which allows you to add and remove blades without using any tools.

Blades can be mounted either facing downwards for typical cutting tasks or upwards for cutting from below. Some reciprocating saws also allow you to mount the blade sideways, which can come in handy when cutting in tight spaces.

At the base of the blade, you’ll find the shoe, which is the metal piece that rides against the material as you make cuts. Shoes are often pivoting, so they’ll swivel as you maneuver the tool. Many are also adjustable, so you can vary the amount of the blade that’s exposed.

Some newer reciprocating saws feature an orbital action setting – which enables you to use the saw in an elliptical motion in addition to the normal back-and-forth sawing motion. This is useful for aggressive cutting through wood.

Reciprocating Saw Blades

Reciprocating saw blades differ depending on the material they’re designed to cut. The most obvious difference in blades is the number of teeth per inch (TPI).

Blades designed for cutting wood have the lowest TPI, hybrid demolition blades designed for cutting wood, metal, and PVC feature a medium TPI, and blades designed for cutting thick metal have the highest TPI number.

Examine some blades closely and you’ll notice that they come in different thicknesses as well as blade shapes. Demolition blades tend to be the beefiest, as they need to be able to cut through tough materials like nail-embedded wood, drywall, roof shingles, and more.

assortment of reciprocating saw blades
Assortment of bi-metal reciprocating saw blades including wood, metal, and demo blades.

Blades also come in different lengths depending on the thickness of the material you plan to cut.

The most common reciprocating saw blades are Bi-Metal – which is a combination of durable tooth steel and flexible blade steel. These blades are cheap, effective, and can be disposed of when they start to dull without worry.

Carbine tooth blades are also available, which are far more durable than Bi-Metal blades but also much more expensive. These aren’t necessary for typical DIY work but can be a good option for pros who use their saw on a daily basis.

Blades typically come in sets with an assortment of different blade types, so you can easily select the right one for the job. 

How to Change a Reciprocating Saw Blade?

Changing a reciprocating saw blade is a fairly straightforward task. Be sure to remove the battery or unplug the saw before you change blades.

Most reciprocating saws have tool-free quick-release blade change mechanisms, so no hex key or screwdriver is necessary.

To change the blade simply depress the quick-release lever and hold it down. This will unlock the mechanism, allowing you to slide your blade into place. Then, release the quick-release lever to lock the blade in place.

changing reciprocating saw blade

Lastly, pull on the blade to test whether the blade was successfully mounted in the locking mechanism.

How to Use a Reciprocating Saw – Guide

Now that you’ve got a solid understanding of how a reciprocating saw works, let’s take a look at how to use one in real life.

Step 1: Select a Blade

First up, you’ll want to select the right blade for the material you plan to cut. High TPI blades will give a smooth but slow cut, while low TPI blades will give a rough but fast cut.

Many blade manufacturers label the material they’re designed to cut on the blade itself – so there’s no guesswork involved.

You’ll want to choose a blade that’s about 2 to 3 inches longer than your material thickness. This helps the saw work more efficiently. Don’t go too long though, as this can increase the odds of kickback.

Step 2: Install the Blade

Once you’ve chosen a blade, you’ll want to install it in the quick-release blade mount. Disable the saw’s power source, depress the quick-release lever, and install the blade.

Then test the blade to make sure it’s locked in place, and reconnect the power source.

Step 3: Adjust the Shoe (Optional)

Not all reciprocating saws have adjustable shoe’s so if yours doesn’t go ahead and skip this step.

Adjust the shoe so it exposes the portion of the blade you wish to use. This can be useful if the blade is worn out in a particular spot, which often happens when you do a lot of repetitive cutting tasks.

Step 4: Adust the Orbital Action (Optional)

Many reciprocating saws don’t have an orbital action feature, so if that’s you skip this step. This feature will enable you to make far more aggressive cuts when working with wood.

Note the orbital action setting is only intended for use in wood and is not designed for use with other materials.

Step 5: Grasp the Saw

Next up, grasp the saw with your dominant hand on the rear handle and your other hand under the front grip. Always use two hands when using the saw, as it will kick and become unwieldy if you try to use it single-handed.

Step 6: Make the Cut

Next, grip the saw firmly with both hands and press the shoe up against the material while the blade is an inch or so away from the material. You want to keep the shoe in contact with the surface of the material your cutting to reduce vibration and kickback.

Then, lightly depress the trigger so the saw blade starts moving at a slow pace and touch the blade against the material until a groove begins to form. As the groove gets bigger, increase your pressure on the trigger to increase the blade speed and cut faster through the material.

It’s important to keep proper pressure on the saw while working your way through the material. This takes some experience to get the hang of, so don’t worry if you don’t master it right off the bat.

cutting post with reciprocating saw

Reciprocating saws are great at making plunge cuts through plywood and other materials. They’re far better than circular saws at this, as they’re more maneuverable and have small easy-to-reposition blades. In fact, some blades even have a “plunge point” design specifically designed to assist with starting a plunge cut.

To make a plunge cut:
Lay the shoe flat against the material with the tip of the saw blade aligned with where you want the plunge cut to begin. Then depress the trigger and tilt the saw forward until the blade makes contact with the material, as the blade starts to cut through the material increase the saw’s angle until the blade is all the way through.

A Word About Safety

Reciprocating saws are fairly safe, but it’s a good idea to take a few basic precautions to avoid any issues.

  • Reciprocating saws can create lots of debris and cause chunks of material to go flying while you make cuts. Wear a pair of safety glasses to avoid any possible damage to your eyes.
  • Avoid wearing loose clothing while operating the saw.
  • Kickback is another serious consideration – so make sure to grip the saw securely with both hands.
  • When cutting through pipes and thick pieces of lumber, the sawblade can bind when the surrounding material pinches it. This can rapidly stop the blade, causing the saw to buck and the blade to bend or break. This can be especially jarring if you’re not expecting it and can even cause the entire saw to go flying if your not careful.
  • When cutting through walls and floors that may contain wiring be especially cautious.

Denis Gardner

I've loved tinkering and fixing things for as long as I can remember. So, naturally, I gravitated towards DIY and home improvement when I bought my first home. Nowadays you can find me writing about my passions or messing around with my newest tool!

Leave a Comment