Worm Drive vs Sidewinder Circular Saws


When it comes to circular saws you essentially have two different options – the compact and lightweight sidewinder or the powerful, heavy-duty worm drive. Both of these saws serve the same basic purpose, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from looking at them.

Interestingly, the preference for one saw over the other tends to be regional-based more than anything. Carpenters and framers west of the Mississippi tend to prefer worm drive saws, while east of the Mississippi the sidewinder saw is the preferred option.

There doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for this regional difference in worm drive vs sidewinder saws. But the question remains, what are the differences between worm drive and sidewinder saws? And which saw is the better choice for you?

Comparison Table

Worm Drive Sidewinder
Motor Location Behind Blade Next to Blade
Blade Orientation Commonly ‘Blade-left’ Commonly ‘Blade-right’
Torque High Low
RPMs 4000-4500 5000-6000
Weight 12 to 16 lbs. 9 to 10 lbs.
Maintenance  Requires occasional oil changes None

Worm Drive Saw

The worm drive circular saw was popularized by the Skilsaw company, which invented the worm drive saw back in 1924.

This saw earned the moniker “the saw that built America” for its popularity on job sites lasting generations. The successor to this saw is still sold as the model 77 today and remains a popular saw among carpenters, framers, and DIYers.

early model 77 skil worm drive saw
An early model 77 skil saw. [Source]
The most obvious difference between worm drive saws and their sidewinder counterparts is the motor position. In a worm drive saw, the motor is positioned behind the blade instead of in line with it.

This design creates a longer narrow saw with a handle that protrudes back towards the user. This handle positioning gives the user increased reach when compared to a sidewinder – allowing for greater ease when cutting large sections of plywood.

The name Worm Drive comes from the type of gear used inside the saw. The worm gear (also called spiral gear) is a gear where the two gears meet at a 90-degree angle. This creates an extremely robust and powerful saw with a lot of torque but a slower blade speed than a sidewinder.

This type of gear creates a lot of sliding friction, which requires oil to keep the gears properly lubricated. That means the oil will need to be checked and changed every so often in a worm drive saw.

Sidewinder Saw

The sidewinder saw – also called the direct drive saw – is likely what most of us picture when seeing the words ‘circular saw’. These saws get their name from the blade being positioned at a right angle to the motor rather than behind it.

sidewinder circular saw
Sidewinder circular saw. [Source]
Like worm drive saws, sidewinders also trace their lineage back to the 1920s, with the first one being invented in 1928 by Arthur N. Emmons. At that time the worm drive saw’s design was patented, and manufacturers were looking for a saw with an in-line motor.

The resulting saw used a simple spur gear to transfer power from the motor to the blade. It also featured a blade-right orientation instead of the blade-left orientation used by worm drive saws.

Sidewinder saws feature a wider and more compact profile than worm drive saws and are typically lighter and easier for beginners to handle. Because the handle is closer to the blade, the user’s reach is reduced when using a sidewinder when compared with a worm drive saw.

Worm Drive vs Sidewinder Saw Breakdown

Now that you’ve got a basic understanding of the two types of circular saw, let’s take a closer look at the differences between them.

Weight

Pick up each saw and you’ll notice a difference in weight right off the bat. Worm drive saws typically weigh in the 12 to 16 pound range, while sidewinders are a good deal lighter, falling in the 9 to 10 pound range.

This weight differential means the two saws are used differently in practice.

sidewinder saw cutting particle board
The sidewinder’s lightweight design makes it ideal for awkward and unusual cutting tasks. [Source]
The lightweight sidewinder can be used for more awkward cutting tasks like cutting an upright piece of lumber or even overhead cutting tasks. The worm drive saw’s added heft increases stability when cutting, and can also be used to guide a downward cut.

Worm drive saw’s added weight also makes them more stable when making long rip cuts. This makes them ideal for ripping sheet goods.

Blade Orientation

Traditionally, worm drive saws were blade-left saws and sidewinders were blade-right. However, with tool manufacturers experimenting with all types of saw designs, you can now easily find blade-left sidewinders and even a few blade-right worm drive saws.

One of the disadvantages of the traditional sidewinder design was that the blade was oriented to the right of the motor.

That means when making a cross-cut with the motor resting on the waste side, your line of sight would be partially obscured.  A blade-left worm drive saw doesn’t have this issue, with the cut line being easily visible while cutting.

However, now that blade-left circular saws are available from nearly all major tool manufacturers, there’s less of a reason to reach for a worm drive over a sidewinder.

Safety

Sidewinders are safer for beginners to use than worm drive saws.

Because they have much lower torque than worm drive saws, sidewinders are less likely to create any sort of kickback while cutting. Rather than creating kickback, most sidewinder blades will simply stop spinning if they bind or stall while cutting.

cutting with a worm drive saw
The higher torque generated by worm drive saws can lead to powerful kickback. [Source]
Worm drive saws on the other hand can create some serious kickback, which can be especially intimidating if you’re not accustomed to it.

Maintenance

This one’s another win for sidewinders, as they require essentially no maintenance other than changing the blade every so often.

Most worm drive saws require periodic oil changes in their gearbox to ensure the saw runs smoothly and the worm gear doesn’t wear out prematurely. This isn’t true for all worm drive saws though, as hypoid saws have the same sealed gearboxes as sidewinder saws, and don’t require any oil maintenance.

Most manufacturers recommend changing the oil after the first 10 hours of use, which is actually more than you might think as a typical cut take mere seconds.

Ease of Use

Lastly, it’s important to consider ease of use when comparing worm drive vs sidewinder saws.

Sidewinders are generally much easier for beginners to get the hang of than worm drive saws. Their lower weight, compact profile, reduced kickback, and lower torque mean they’re easier to handle and have less potential for something to go wrong.

That doesn’t mean you should discount worm drive saws altogether though. These saws are excellent for making long rip cuts, cutting multiple pieces of plywood at once, and once you get used to using one the extra torque becomes an asset rather than a liability.


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