Worm-drives vs. sidewinders? A conversation with Larry Haun. - Fine Homebuilding

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Worm-drives vs. sidewinders? A conversation with Larry Haun.

comments (21) June 4th, 2009 in Blogs
ChuckB Charles Bickford, senior editor

Is it head to head, or side by each?
Is it head to head, or side by each?Click To Enlarge

Is it head to head, or side by each?

Larry Haun:
Sometimes a real battle can rage as to what type of saw a person should favor. I have met people with fixed ideas on this topic who were ready to go “saw to saw” and may the best carpenter win.

It is my experience that we prefer to use the saw we first picked up be it a worm-drive or a sidewinder (direct drive saw). In 1951, I laid down my handsaw and bought a second hand Skil 77 for $85. After having spent many a day on a lumber pile cutting studs to length by hand, I thought that this power saw was sent to me directly from heaven.

So which saw do you use? It seems to be an east-west thing. My understanding is that sidewinders were early on marketed east of the Mississippi and worm-drives to the west. The first models of sidewinders that I saw many years ago were pretty flimsy, hard to hold when they kicked back, were not the worm-drive workhorse, had an armature that burned out under stress, and would soon be battered out of shape on a production framing job. The worm-drive saw can and does take a beating!

I have some trouble using a sidewinder because I am right handed and don’t like to look to the right over the saw frame to see the cutline. For me, when using a worm-drive, the cutline is easy to see by looking straight down. Sidewinders would seem to be the better choice for left handed people.

Yes, the worm-drive is heavier, but you don’t have to be a gorilla to use one. Look at me---long, lean, and hungry looking, skinny as a rail, with arms that look like sticks. Carpentry of any kind has little to do with brute strength. It does have a lot to do with co-ordination, something many people call athleticism. For many years when we were framing in So. Calif., we were one of the few outfits to hire women framers. The women we hired learned to use the worm-drive just like the rest of us.

I have used a sidewinder enough to know that I can rip and make any other kind of cut just as accurately with a worm-drive. On the other hand, I do often use a sidewinder when working with material lighter than sheets of ply or 2x stock.

In my travels back east, I did notice that the type of saw one was using actually determined the way one worked with wood. The worm-drive saw has the handle to the rear while a sidewinder has the handle nearer to the topside. Because of this, we learned to do our cutting in a downward position thus eliminating the need to set up sawhorses or cutting stations. About the only time we use sawhorses on a jobsite is when we are cutting rafters and even then these are temporary horses that can hold a hundred or more common rafters.

When you cut downward, bent over with wood in hand, the weight of the saw and gravity does most of the work. For me, this is what makes the worm-drive saw a real production tool.

On the other hand, folks using a sidewinder most often do their work on saw horses or a saw table when cutting wood. I don’t think, it is necessary for me to comment on which way is best. I think that this is determined by the kind of work you are doing, framing or finish.

Chuck Bickford:
Invariably, carpenters divide the universe into two camps - worm-drive saws (West Coast, right-hand) and sidewinders (East Coast, left-hand). Despite all the various arguments for and against each type, I agree with Larry - it’s a matter of the function. I’m from the East, and have always used a sidewinder. If I had been a framer, we may not have been having this conversation, but I did lots of remodeling and trim work, so the lighter saw made more sense. I’ve heard of guys trimming with wormdrives, but I could never do it. Those heavy machines (even the magnesium models) are for guys with forearms like Popeye. (Unless, as Larry says, you know how to leverage that weight. He’s also pussy-footing around the fact that he could still outsaw most of us with a dull garden rake.) I don’t even like the big-plate sidewinders that Milwaukee and DeWalt have made; I have a Makita that’s lighter and suits me just fine. I just want to get through the day with as few complaints as possible from my shoulders, elbows and wrists.

Complicating my point of view is the fact that I’m left handed, and have found lots of ways to compensate for my “disability” in a right-handed world. I’ve grown so accustomed to holding the saw in my left hand and reading the blade from the right (and getting a face full of sawdust) that I’m completely disoriented when I try to use a wormdrive. I usually have enough to think about when building without having to get the left side of my brain’s hand-eye coordination involved.

Wormdrives have more torque, yes, but it’s typically not an issue with sidewinders if you maintain a straight line and a sharp blade. You can’t just plow through the work, it’s true, but again, that’s the role of function. Chew through 2x stock and concrete-spattered plywood all week long, go with a wormdrive. Cross-cut and rip thinner stock with closer tolerances, use a sidewinder.

Larry Haun:
So where does this discussion leave us? I guess my hope is that we could all be “suddenly free from fixed mind.” This would leave us open to being able to discuss the relative values of the type of saw we prefer, along with many other topics, without having to go “saw to saw.”

Chuck Bickford:
Agreed. Want to discuss the relative merits of East Coast/West Coast basketball instead?

posted in: Blogs, framing, finish carpentry, circular saw

Comments (21)

studio513 studio513 writes: Minnesota is where East meets West in many ways. I was trained on sidewinders, but converted to the worm drive some decades ago. Not sure if it's the same as what preople mean by "higher torque" but the worm drive delivers power more efficiently. Even high-grade sidewinders can stall out ripping dimension material, especially if a bevel is involved - the difference is in a geared drive vs a belt drive. Also having the handle behind the blade instead of over it means that you have more leverage for making those micro adjustments to keep a cut on the line.

One place the sidewinder does come in handy is making bevel cuts where there is only one aproach and the worm drive pivots the wrong way. For these situations a commercial duty cordless is a good thing to have around.

The Mag 77 cuts two pounds off a standard 77, a 6 1/2" unit will do the same. One other thing - the Skil is definitely the way to go. Everything else is either a club or a wannabee.
Posted: 10:27 pm on July 13th

GYoung GYoung writes: As Larry pointed out what you learn on is usually what you are most familair with and tend to favor.
I am left handed and was trained witha side winder and a cutting protractor. We were trained for accuracy, productivity and safety. We marked length with a very sharp hard carpenters pencil with a fine crow's foot. We cut on ssaw horses so we didn';t have to bend over in the mud and strain our backs, Once a board was marked we picked up the protractor which was layed rightabove the board placed the saw and protractor on the board pulled the trigger and split the point of the crow's foot. Once the saw was placed and styarted you could sloce your eyes and make a perfectly square(both ways) cut. No looking at lines, no sawdust in the eyes. At the end of the day we had plmb, square, and tight framing.
I first encountered termite saws on the west coast(don't they look like a termite) along with waffle sledge hammers and keels. Always interested in productivity and new tools to improve it I bought a worm drive saw. Tis is what I elarned about htem. They are heavy, the torque on turning them on twists your elbow and wrist leading to earlier joint injuries. The bases were rounded on the edges making it nearly impossible to run them along a cutting protractor. The blade was on the wrong side for this also. The lower rpm's meant rougher cuts. So did I ban them on my jobs. No. They actually excell fomrsome applications. The lower handle angle makes them good for ripping especially when working on floors etc where you don't have to pick them up a lot and fight gravity. the high torque wades thru difficult materials like wet douglas fir, wet wafer board, and as previously pointed out roofing demo.
A well equipped carpenter will be profitably rewarded by having both saws. A good adjustable protractor is esential to get the quality and speed demanded by many builders. The zen of physics includes all aspects of gravity, inertia, momentum, and force vectors. Let these work for you not against you. Gravity can't help you cut until you have purchased it with a lift. That is a zero sum game. If you are pushing your saw too hard maybe you need a sharper blade.
Posted: 1:24 am on June 22nd

TCN TCN writes: The answer for me is a resounding "both." Though an East Coaster, I swapped out to wormdrives some years back--and haven't looked back. For whatever reason I've always worked my framing packages sans sawhorses, so the in-line, down-cut a wormdrive offers fits my accidental style. But I also love them for their smooth operation in finish work: running a wormdrive along my shoot board trimming a door or making an MDF shelf is what I'm talkin' about. I even use the auxiliary handle. And for building decks--fugghetabout it. Whether lopping off joists or trimming the decking its wormdrive all the way. However, there's room for sidewinding on my sites and that comes in the form of a 6 1/2 inch tool, whether it's a 36 volt Bosch cordless or a Ridgid Fuego. Both are ideal for all kinds of stuff from fencing to vertical plunge cuts and interior remodeling where room to move is at a premium. Short story long, both platforms make sense, as does the eminently experienced and sensible Mr. Haun.
Posted: 10:40 pm on June 17th

gable1934 gable1934 writes: I started in this biz with sidewinders and then switched to worm drives, for all the reasons above plus one. I nail a tapered 2x4 on the side of the sawhorse where I hang the saw on the front handle, out of the way. With a sidewinder I can't find a handy place for the saw. I hate anything on the table but wood. I own both types though I don't use the sidewinder much, sometimes just because the table turns the other way.
Posted: 5:56 pm on June 16th

sawzall316 sawzall316 writes: I'm a little shocked at my fellow lefties that have issues cutting right vs. left. Righties might not know it but Lefties (it's a brain thing) typically are ambidextrous using either hand with almost equal dexterity.
I have use both types, as the work requires. Framing commands a worm. Sheet goods are handled easier with sidewinders. Cutting jigs/sleds usually handle sidewinders better too. In the end, if you are left-handed, you should not have problems adapting to using either style of saw.
The job is the job.
Posted: 12:05 am on June 16th

JDaley JDaley writes: Worm drive or sidewinder, I've owned both but I learned carpentry using a skill saw wormdrive despite being right handed and on the east coast. I learned to use the extra weight of the wormdrive and gravity to cut downhill by tilting the work up as I begin cutting. I found sidewinders to be more apt to kickback than wormdrives and there is no question in my mind about the sheer power and longevity of a wormdrive. Had I learned carpentry using a sidewinder I would probably be defending its virtues. I think its just a case of what you get used to using. I bought a new wormdrive when skill came out with the magnesium model and that was some years ago, which tells me that I am still after all these years well aware of the weight of the wormdrive, especially after a long day in the August heat.
Posted: 9:57 pm on June 15th

blegen blegen writes: It's good for me to have one of each around but most of the time, I pick up the worm drive. It doesn't bog down as much, and I've never had a kickback with it. I like to use the sidewinder when cutting just a little off the end of a board where there isn't enough to support the saw to the right of the kerf. A friend told me he thought that the safest saw is the one you're most comfortable using, and I tend to agree. Most of the time I feel best using the worm drive.
Posted: 8:00 pm on June 15th

ranrog48 ranrog48 writes: I had used sidewinders for several years until a local carpenter who was president of the local Little League brought a Skill 77 to a bridge project at the ball park one day. That was the first time I was able to really cut a straight line and when I found a real bargain on my own Model 77, I jumped right on the offer.

I have used the worm drive religiously--no pun intended--when our church has worked on Habitat for Humanity projects and can't envision a time I won't have one.

Posted: 5:48 pm on June 15th

fidolido fidolido writes: Hi all,

I think each tool whether it be a sidewinder or worm drive has it's place. As mentioned above, some benefit differently. I used both. If I had to pick an annoyance, it would be with the sidewinder as the motor gets in the way when having to trim large sheets of heavy stock or for example, I had to trim a door bottom due to an imperfection in the floor and though I was able to clamp down my guide, the blade barely cleared the door because the motor had to rest on top of the guide.
Posted: 1:56 pm on June 15th

thomasofmayfield thomasofmayfield writes: I first used a wormdrive in the late 80's. My dad, an accomplished builder, had owned one since the 50's (west of the Mississippi).

Presently, I use a large Skil wormdrive which I was given for Christmas in the early 90's, except when cutting lighter material.

Learned early to "leverage" the wormdrives weight.

Posted: 1:06 pm on June 15th

57006 57006 writes: Because worm drives saw are narrower there are times when they can get into places that the sidewinder cannot. I started out using a sidewinder and then bought a worm drive saw and have seldom used the sidewinder. I also found that worm drive saws last longer.

There is one positive attribute about a sidewinder. I let my dad use my sidewinder because he liked it better than the worm drive. One day he was changing the blade and he hit the switch and it started up. He was able to hold the blade and he would not have been able to do that on my work drive.

I have one sidewinder that is not a top handle saw and it has the handle directly behind the blade. I like it.

I have never had a worm drive saw break down on a job but I have with two sidewinders. One of them burned up and the other had the teeth strip on the bull gear. I had the same thing happen on a Rockwell 8" portable tablesaw I bought years ago. It was the same gear as in my sidewinder.
Posted: 11:55 am on June 15th

Corianman Corianman writes: Having been working in Cabinet shops for over 40 years in Maryland on the Eastcoast the sidewinder was the saw of choice under all the old timers benches in these shops and Skill was the saw of choice. So much that I thought the name of this tool was a Skillsaw for many years as a kid. As I got older and worked part time on Construction sites also I got a taste of the great worm drive animals. Yes they are heavier but as pointed out gotten use to quickly. I liked how to me, being a righthander I could see the leading edge of the blade which is how I cut not using the fence as a guidline. Later when I owned Corian shops the wormdrive's extra power was evident and the weight worked better for you. We always used both. I still own a small Skillsaw and love the light weight little guy but my big Milwaulkee worm drive is sitting there for any tough stuff I ever need to cut as well.

God bless everyone.

PS : SO far ...10 fingers and thumbs
Posted: 11:15 am on June 15th

Wolfmont Wolfmont writes: DeWalt also makes sidewinders with the motor on both the left and the right, though it seems that most of the corded saws have their motor on the left while the cordless models mostly have theirs on the right. I've never used a wormdrive saw, but the few times I've picked one up it seemed like it would be awkward for precise cuts, or for any occasion where I had to cut while holding the saw well above my waist.

Just as another note: I have an old Black & Decker Tradesman model 7 1/4 circular saw from 1982, and it still cuts just as well as any other saw I've used. I don't like the B&D saws they make now, but that one is a workhorse. The only major maintenance I've had to do to it has been to replace the brushes.
Posted: 10:58 am on June 15th

Brentwood Brentwood writes: I can testify that Larry is not a gorilla. In fact, I worry every time we have a big norwester blow here on the coast that if he goes out he might just blow away or break in two.;~). Seriously, though, knowing Larry, I would certainly never consider going saw to saw or even head to head with him in any discussion about building or tools. There is a lot of experience, knowledge and wisdom in that tall lanky frame of his.
I think I was about 10 years old when I cut my first boards with a power saw, and it was my dad's old skil sidewinder. Naturally, when I got my first very own saw, it was also the old familiar sidewinder. Since I was still a teenager and considered a dollar an hour good money, it wasn't the best tool money could buy. My first paid carpentry job was when I was 18. From that time until I was 43 I used only a sidewinder and it served me well. I didn't even consider anything different until I moved to Coos Bay, Oregon in 1990 and got a job rebuilding an old house on the bay with a couple of guys who were definitely NOT "free from fixed minds". Since I was the new guy on the job, of course, I was the brunt of all the "fixed minded" commentary on the best ways of doing everything and the best tools to do it with. These guys made such a big deal over my obviously inferior sidewinder that after I left that job, the shame was still haunting me. I decided to consider the merit of their taunts. Shortly after, I bought a Skil 77, which is still going strong after cutting several hundred miles of boards. A couple of years ago it mysteriously started putting on weight and I noticed more than ever how difficult it was to do those overhead cuts or to hold it straight out to cut a rafter tail. Last year I reluctantly bought a Bosch 1677, because it is a couple of pounds lighter. Now I can hold my saw straight out again. I was amazed how much difference a pound or two makes in a tool. I still have, and will probably keep my old Skil 77, if for no other reason than the emotional attachment.
I think the most important point Larry made in this discussion is the “hope…that we could all be “suddenly free from fixed mind.” My 44 years in the building trades have taught me that there rarely only one way to do things, and when someone insists that their way is the only way, beware of the “Fixed mind”.
Brent Lerwill, Brentwood Home Inspections. Coos Bay, Or.

Posted: 10:52 am on June 15th

capnbob capnbob writes: Interesting mix here.
I was trained on 7 1/4" and 8" sidewinders as a carpenter's apprentice on the east coast. Never even saw a worm drive saw. When I went to California in the early 70s worm drive Skil's were the ONLY saw on the job. I bought a 6 1/2" worm drive because it will handle even a 45 degree mitre cut in a 2X, and if I was cutting more than 2X you needed bigger than 71/4" anyway. It is significantly lighter than the 7 1/4.

I found the saw MUCH easier to use and I got much straighter cuts. I attributed this to the fact that I am left handed, and with the blade on the left, I could hold the wood with my right hand and look right down the blade. I couldn't believe somebody in the world of right handers had invented this saw for me!

Of course the carpenters I worked with were mostly right handed and used worm drives too, so that argument would seem to have limits.

I thought it was just saw evolution, and that California was simply ahead of the east coast.

Well, I'm back on the east coast and carpenters here still use sidewinders, but at least they've started to use nail guns now!

My Skil still works fine, but it doesn't get much use because I don't do real work for a living any more, having become an architect.
Posted: 9:19 am on June 15th

InNameOnly InNameOnly writes: I have both sidewinders (Skil & Hitachi) and worm-drive (Milwaukee). The Skil was my best buy in 1974 for $29.99 and I kept alive till 2004, when I could no longer get replacement blade bushings which I would regularly replace whenever ANY play developed, to maintain smooth cuts. I loved this saw because it was so light and when I used guides, it made cuts smoother on maple flooring than my radial arm saw, chop saw or even my Delta Unisaw. I find, that with guides, I can easily maintain accuracy of better than 1mm, maintaining furniture accuracy even when framing. I replaced the Skil with a Hitachi sidewinder which I selected for its light weight and the fact it used standard (cheap) ball bearings. Out of the box, it made much rougher cuts than my worn 30 year old Skil. Then I realized the baseplate wasn’t square or true, so I had its baseplate edges machined true on a milling machine. After that modification, it now it cuts as smoothly as the old Skil did for 30 years.
My sidewinder is the saw I was brought up on, but there are jobs it simply couldn’t handle. It would sometimes really struggle ripping. My most challenging cut was using a roofing blade through multi-layers of tarred paper and flashing on a flat roof. Enter my Milwaukee worm drive - smooth, quiet, powerful and very heavy. Rips likes its going through butter when used with a rip blade. It handled the tarred paper roofing without complaining or bogging down. If pushed too fast it would simply trip the circuit breaker. I use it only when necessary for two reasons: First it’s heavy, and being brought up on a sidewinder I never learned to use gravity to my advantage. I don’t use a tool that tires me out quickly if there’s a choice. The second disadvantage is that because of its small baseplate, relative to the bulk of the saw, guides do not work as well, and the cuts are not as smooth and accurate as the Hitachi sidewinder.
On most jobs, the Milwaukee worm-drive stays in the truck, in case it’s needed. The chop saw stays at home most of the time. They’re both too bulky and heavy and I get better quality cuts with my sidewinder together with the simple guides and jigs I’ve developed for it.
Posted: 9:17 am on June 15th

SleazyRider SleazyRider writes: Hey, what about the Porter-Cable Saw Boss? It's a small (6-inch), lightweight sidewinder with the blade on the LEFT instead of the right. Though I'm I die-hard worm saw fan aand always use gravity to my advantage as the article describes, the Saw Boss has become my favorite portable circular saw since I began using it two decades ago. The 6-inch blades, however, are pricey and hard to find. And, yes, I'm a righty and, yes, I'm from the East Coast!
Posted: 4:43 am on June 15th

michael2160 michael2160 writes: West Coast Builder
I have not done a lot of framing but when I did I used a worm-drive (a true worm-drive Milwaukee, not a hypoid). I found the weight to be an advantage when cutting lumber to length: hold it in the crook of your foot and let the saw fall through the board.
I also found the weight to be a disadvantage, especially when having to hold the saw above you head.
I have a small PC finish sidewinder, but I haven't used it in years. When doing finish work I either use a hand saw or miter saw.
Worst of all, I found my framers removing the guards. While I never had a saw related job site injury, I have seen the one & half foot and three finger framers who worked for other builders. If I found a missing guard the saw was not allowed on my job. Period.

Posted: 3:58 am on June 15th

JFink JFink writes: East-coaster here, so it's no surprise that I started out with a sidewinder. But over the last year or so I've switched almost completely to a worm drive. It's easier to see the blade (I'm right handed), the saw has more torque, depth settings are easier to access, and when it comes to ripping sheets of plywood or cutting a 2x to length, the extension and weight of the saw are HUGE benefits. That said, I still pull out the sidewinder for anything overhead.(see Larry? stubborn allegiance can be overcome by practicality!)
Posted: 1:02 pm on June 12th

RYagid RYagid writes: As a born and bred East Coaster, I’ve really never had the opportunity, much less the desire, to cut lumber with a worm-drive saw. My old boss used to have a worm-drive tucked away in the trailer somewhere, but his arsenal of sidewinders got the most use. This was probably a benefit in a number ways, especially when it came to safety. In my opinion, a worm drive is just too heavy and a bit unwieldy. When your boss demands that every blade guard on every circular saw be jammed open in order for the crew to, “pay better attention to what they’re doing” you want a lightweight, nimble saw. Looking back now, I’m sure the day Travis rolled a sidewinder across his thigh would have ended much differently were he using a worm-drive.
Posted: 4:56 pm on June 10th

bobbys bobbys writes: I lived in New Jersey before Oregon. My father was a builder and bought a Worm drive in 1946 after the war, I still have it and it still works Perfect, He built hundreds of homes and this saw was used and i used it in the 60s and 70s. We also used a sidewinder but always had a commercial model with extra ball bearings. So i always saw Wormdrives but While Framing Sidewinders Mainly on other jobs, A lot of Rockwell and porter cable saws. Every Framer Used to have a Wormdrive mainly brought out while cutting headers, After i moved to Oregon i worked Union and it was all wormdrives, As it rains here nobody wanted to be the first person to touch it in the morn as they were All metal!!!! A helper could only do it once!!LOL,

At any rate i would never say one kind is better then the other rather both are used by me, Lets say i had to cut the ends of Rafter tails, One side is perfect for the worm drive the other side of the house is perfect for the sidewinder!!!..

Lets say i was roofcutting its handy to have both kinds .

Maybe because im older i cant cut plywood straight with the sidewinder any more i need the bigger base of the worm drive.
Posted: 7:57 pm on June 8th

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