Reciprocating Saw vs Oscillating Saw

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This article reviews the basic facts about reciprocating and oscillating saws. We’ll compare and contrast their similarities and differences, and boil things down to one major differentiating factor. Finally, you’ll learn when to use a reciprocating saw, when to use an oscillating saw, and which is better. 

What Is a Reciprocating Saw?

Reciprocating saws are sturdy, powerful, rifle-shaped power tools that can cut through just about anything. Their stocky, heavy body requires two hands to control, while a very thin blade on the end moves in a reciprocating, or back-and-forth, motion.

Using proper safety techniques, a reciprocating saw can be used to make internal (plunge) or external cuts. The first popular reciprocating saw was produced under the brand name Sawzall, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. 

Man using a reciprocating saw on home construction project

Nowadays, the best reciprocating saws are made by popular brands like Makita, DeWalt, and Bosch.

These powerful cutting tools are often used in the demolition phase of construction. They can cut through metal, wood, and plastic without difficulty, so there is no need to navigate around existing screws or nails. 

Another popular use for reciprocating saws is in the garden. Where pruning is necessary or troublesome tree roots have taken hold, a reciprocating saw is the perfect tool to gnaw through the growth. 

Similar to a jigsaw, this rugged tool is only as good as the blade attached to it. The material, length, and width of the blade all have an effect on performance. 

Bi-metal blades, with a spring-steel back and high-speed steel teeth, are best when you may encounter nails or screws. For making clean cuts in wood, choose a high-carbon steel blade. 

To prune, an irregular teeth pattern with deep gullets (the space between teeth) that cuts on both the push and pull motions will make short work of green wood.

To saw through cast iron, fit your reciprocating saw with a diamond-grit blade. Cutting cast aluminum requires a carbide-tipped blade for best results and minimal discoloration. For any other steel product, such as steel pipes, plates, bars, or channels, a high-speed steel or bimetal blade is fine. 

Reciprocating saws can even cut tiles, terracotta, or masonry when fitted with a masonry blade. 

What Is an Oscillating Saw?

The proper name for this product is ‘oscillating multi-tool’. While blades can be attached to this power tool, allowing it to be used for cutting and sawing, it is not just a saw. Depending on the attachment that is secured to an oscillating multi-tool, it can also grind, sand, scrape. 

Oscillating is one of the four types of mechanical motion. The other three are rotating, reciprocating, and linear. Oscillation can be best described as ‘swinging from side to side’. The blade of an oscillating saw moves in a similar manner to the pendulum of a clock. 

A flat, narrow and straight blade with small teeth can be attached to an oscillating multi-tool to make plunge cuts, while a wider blade with large teeth will make efficient, clog-free flush cuts. Square-shaped bimetal blades can make flush cuts through nails, screws, or other metal impediments. 

Circular high-speed steel blades must be operated at a slower speed to avoid clogging, but cut in multiple directions at once. This makes them ideal for cutting sheet material such as fiberglass, sheet metal, or plastic. 

Plexiglass

For removing old carpet or linoleum, a rigid scraper knife can be attached to an oscillating multi-tool. Flexible scraper knives are better for removing caulking or paint. There are even special hook-shaped scraper knives for cleaning out crevices, cracks, and corners.

For tough removal jobs, like removing thin-set mortar or tile adhesive, a grinding blade or grinder disc is the right choice. The abrasive action of these blades, backed by the power of the oscillating multi-tool, can quickly remove even stubborn material. 

An arrowhead shaped sanding pad can be used with different grits of sandpaper to speed up detail sanding. 

Reciprocating Saw vs Oscillating Saw

There are a few important similarities between these two powerful cutting tools. While on the surface they may appear the same, several key differences distinguish reciprocating saws from oscillating saws. 

Similarities

Oscillating saws and reciprocating saws are widely available, similarly priced, and can cut through the same materials. 

Materials

Both a reciprocating saw or an oscillating multi-tool can be used to cut through almost any material. Choosing the right blade is essential to success. Wood, metal, fiberglass, tile, mortar, and plastic can all be cut with either a reciprocating saw or oscillating saw. 

Availability

Reciprocating saws and oscillating saws are available in both battery-operated and corded models. They are widely available and can be purchased from nearly any home improvement centers or hardware stores. 

Price

The cheapest available reciprocating and oscillating saws start at around $60. Mid-range saws tend to be priced around $150. For contractor-grade, high-quality tools, you can expect to pay closer to $300. 

Differences

Both reciprocating saws and oscillating saws are used for cutting, but the way they cut is very different. 

Motion

Reciprocating saws move the blade back and forth along a straight line. Oscillating saws move the blade in a subtle swinging motion, from side-to-side. 

Blade Configuration

The blade for a reciprocating saw has teeth only on one side. Reciprocating saw blades resemble a very thin serrated bread knife. The blade can be bowed or flexed to change the angle of the cut. Most blades can be inserted with the teeth facing up or down. 

Oscillating saw blades are usually rectangular or square-shaped. The teeth are on the end, and sometimes sides, of the blade. There are also semi-circular blades. 

Stroke Speed and Length

Mid-range reciprocal saws operate around 3,000 strokes per minute, with industrial/contractor quality tools capable of up to 9,000 strokes per minute. Their long stroke length chews quickly through material, but may not leave a clean edge. Oscillating saws have a much shorter stroke length for cleaner cuts, and can surpass 20,000 strokes per minute. 

Versatility

An oscillating multi-tool is much more versatile than a reciprocating saw. Simply by changing the blade or attachment, you can complete a variety of jobs with one tool. A reciprocating saw is only good for one thing: sawing. While it performs this job very well in a variety of circumstances, it cannot be used to sand, grind, or scrape. 

Reciprocating saw

Life-Span

Reciprocating saws are sturdier than oscillating multi-tools. They can be expected to last up to ten years with proper care. The thin blades do need frequent replacement, particularly when you’re learning how to use the saw. 

Oscillating multi-tools tend to last less than half that time, about five years on average. 

Major Differentiating Factor: Precision

A reciprocating saw is sometimes referred to as a ‘wrecker’ saw. It isn’t very precise or agile, but it will cut quickly through almost anything.

Oscillating saws are much more precise and maneuverable. They take more time to cut, but produce smoother edges. 

When to Use a Reciprocating Saw

Reciprocating saws are tough tools, best used for heavy-duty home and garden destruction.  

Demolition

Reciprocating saws have the power and precision to plow through studs, joists and pipes, making them perfect for demolition. Not only can you saw directly through nails, screws, and other fasteners, a reciprocating saw will cut wood, metal, or plastic. They can even be used to break down large pieces of furniture such as couches. 

Pruning

If the branch, limb, trunk, or root you are trying to cut is less than four inches in diameter, a reciprocating saw is the perfect removal tool. It is safer and easier to control than a chainsaw. For thicker tree parts, you may need to hire a professional. 

Removing Window and Door Frames

When you need to replace your windows and doors, removing the frames can be the most difficult and time consuming part. Instead of prying the frame out of place with a crowbar, a reciprocating saw can be used to slice through the metal fasteners, popping the frame out of place. 

When to Use an Oscillating Saw

An oscillating multi-tool with a saw attached is superior to a reciprocating saw in a few scenarios. 

Confined Spaces

Because the oscillating saw is much smaller than the reciprocating saw, it is easier to maneuver when you need to make cuts in small or awkwardly-shaped spaces. 

Delicate Materials

No one would call a reciprocating saw a delicate or refined tool. They are best for blasting through material that won’t be used again, such as in demolition. In these cases, marks on the material are inconsequential. 

Where you’re going to need to live with the results of your work, you want to avoid marking, scratching, or otherwise damaging the material. The gentler vibrations of an oscillating saw are less likely to damage wood. 

Sheetrock Work

When installing drywall or sheetrock, straight and even cuts are essential. Oscillating saws are better than reciprocating saws at making these kinds of cuts. 

Which is Better, a Reciprocating Saw or an Oscillating Saw?

A reciprocating saw is better for tough cutting jobs that require a lot of power. Oscillating saws are better for finer, more detailed work. 

Oscillating multi-tools can also be used for sanding, grinding, and scraping, while reciprocating saws can only be used for cutting.

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.