We’ve all been guilty of going at a home renovation project with the incorrect tools. I’ve used a butter knife countless times on outlet covers rather than searching out a screwdriver. When I didn’t have a tub drain wrench, I used a pair of pliers instead. As DIY home renovators, we tend to look for inexpensive and easier options, especially when looking at a tool you will likely use only once.
One tool that should be carefully researched and chosen based on its merit is the saw. Electric saws are much more expensive than manual handheld ones, so you’ll want to research which is best for you. Two of the most common types of table saws are the direct drive saw and the belt drive saw. These names refer to the type of motors they have, not the saw blade type.
Both have pros and cons to their makeup, so it’s not fair to claim which is better. However, we’ll take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of these saws so that you can decide which one would work best for you and your project. We’ll also cover the worm drive saw, which is one of the older designs still used today.
Direct Drive Table Saw
Direct drive saws have the motor attached directly to the saw blade configuration. This means that all the power that the motor generates goes directly to power the blade. Think of this motor as similar to a horse (yes, the horsepower reference is not lost on me). When you ride a horse on its saddle, you are directly connected to that vehicle. As the horse moves, so do you.
This is a very strong tool that can also be portable. You can find these as both handheld and portable bench saws. When attached to a table saw, the direct drive saw is more portable and relies on a smaller base than the belt drive table saw. You may recognize these table saws as ones seen in home renovation shows since they are easier to transport from job to job.
Though the motor and tables are smaller and lighter, they can be quite noisy. Since there is less heft to the direct drive motor saw, there is more possibility of vibration, which puts stress on your body and the wood. Just like if you are riding a horse, your body jerks around quite a bit. It’s not a smooth ride.
The size of the motor is also much smaller, usually only requiring one to two horsepower to get the blade running smoothly (one horse to ride, one horse for your motor). Some woodworkers complain that there is a lag in how long the saw blade moves once it is shut off. This can be dangerous if you are not experienced with this type of saw.
|Cheaper||Not as precise cuts|
|Less maintenance||Not as much power|
|Fewer parts to replace||More vibration|
|Smaller and lighter||Noisier|
|Can fit in 120-volt plugs||Can burnout easily|
Belt Drive Table Saw
Let’s continue with the horse metaphor for this motor. Belt drive saws use a belt to connect the saw configuration and the motor.
This is similar to if you were riding in a horse-driven carriage. The harness attached to the horse is the belt. It is not directly connected to you, so you will not experience the same power and jerking motions that you would when riding the horse. The harness – or saw belt – absorbs a lot of the vibration. A carriage would take up more room in storage, just like the larger table saws do. But you can attach more than one horse for more power (i.e., a stronger motor).
Okay, enough of the horse metaphors.
Belt drive motor table saws are not very portable. They are much heavier than direct drive saws, and they require a lot more space in your workroom.
Using a pulley system, the motor transfers power through the belt to move the blade. Because of this small loss of power between the blade and motor, manufacturers use three to five horsepower motors instead (more horses for a carriage, more horses for your motor). This provides a more powerful saw blade, but it comes at a price – these tend to be more costly and require high voltage plugs.
These saws are often used for commercial purposes because they can cut harder woods and make deeper cuts than the direct drive saws. For instance, a direct drive saw can only cut wood about two inches thick.
However, belt drive saws also require more maintenance because of the multiple working parts. For instance, the belt will need to be changed and parts need oiled. If the pulley loosens, it can cause some power issues. However, since the motor and the blade are further apart from each other, less sawdust can reach the motor causing possible clogs and burnouts.
|More powerful||May use a 240-volt plug|
|Less vibration||More expensive|
|Less noise||More kickback on wood|
|More working room around the blade||More maintenance required|
|Cut through harder woods|
Worm Drive Saw
While not as common for DIYers, I’d be remiss not to mention the worm drive saw. This will likely come up somewhere through your research, so I should explain.
The worm drive is more similar to the direct drive saw. These motors are both connected directly to the blade. The main difference is in the configuration and location of the motor. Worm drive motors are located at the back of the blade, so they use torque and force to move the blade per rotation. Imagine that your horse is pushing you up a hill with his nose. The force will most likely get you up the hill faster than if you were climbing it beside your horse.
Worm drive motors are built using two interlocking gears: a corkscrew and a worm gear. This allows the gears to lock in place, moving smoothly along each other for a steady and strong rotation of the blade.
These motors are much more powerful than a direct drive motor. The teeth on a worm drive saw blade tends to be a bit longer, which provides deeper cuts than the direct drive saws. Because worm drive saws provide more torque, the speed does not need to be as fast as it is with a direct drive to get the materials split. This can provide a cleaner cut.
Most worm drive saws are handheld, but there are newer worm drive saws that are affixed to tables. These handheld saws are great for reach since the motor attached to the back will extend the reach of the blade. Those that are connected to tables are not often portable since they are much heavier than direct drive saws. This is not always a good thing, because even the handheld worm drive saws are heavier than handheld direct drive saws. This makes it a bit more difficult to control.
Since the motor is in the back of the blade, it allows a good right-side sightline for cutting, where the motor is on the right side of a direct drive saw. Since there are more righties in the world, this seems to be more practical. Another drawback for worm drive saws is that they require more maintenance. You need to lubricate the gears often to keep the saw moving smoothly, while this is not an issue with direct drive saws.
|More torque||More maintenance|
|Good sightline||Heavier than direct drive|
|Handhelds are portable||Harder to control|
|Can cut hard and knotty woods||Slightly more expensive|
|Large saw blade teeth|