A reciprocating saw is a power tool with a blade that moves back and forth rapidly (i.e. reciprocates) to cut through things. There are two main types. The smaller type is a jigsaw, famous for being the tool originally used to cut jigsaw puzzles. (I would totally buy a “jigsaw puzzle” where the finished picture is of an actual jigsaw. Wouldn’t that make a cute gift for the carpenter on your holiday shopping list?) As for the larger type, everybody calls it a sawzall, even though technically that name is a Milwaukee trademark. There’s no good alternative, so for the sake of clarity I too will call it a sawzall.
Here’s the sawzall’s big advantage over other saws: it can get into really tight spots. With its blade sticking way out in front, you can reach into a stud wall to remove a stud that’s off layout, or to trim an overhanging top plate. You can cut a hole out of a piece of sheathing or drywall (start the hole with a large drill bit) to thread a utility through, such as a vent. It’s endlessly useful!
You can use the jigsaw for hard-to-reach places, too, especially on finish surfaces like cabinets. The sawzall is too powerful to give you a fine, precise cut, so reach for the jigsaw if you expect to see the cut once you finish the house. (That said, the sawzall has a longer reach, especially if you install the blade upside-down… neat little hack Terry showed me.) Another use for the jigsaw is to cut unusual shapes out of flooring and decking planks. The openings in our kitchen floor for plumbing, the cutouts in our front porch around the roof support posts: those were the work of a jigsaw.
Always make sure you use the right blade for the job, and replace it when it gets dull. Reciprocating saw blades are designed to get swapped out easily. There are blades for plain lumber, for “wood with nails”, and for metal, among other things. And keep a tight grip so the saw doesn’t buck. If the job allows, hold the saw’s muzzle tight against the surface you’re cutting before you turn it on; that way it’s the blade that reciprocates rather than the rest of the tool.
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