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Tool Lab | How to Select and Use a Track Saw

Ask This Old House carpenter Nathan Gilbert explains everything we need to know about track saws—including their parts, how they work, and how to use one.

Carpenter Nathan Gilbert gives us an in-depth lesson on track saws. First, Nathan explains how track saws are changing the way carpenters and woodworkers are breaking down sheet goods. Then, he walks us through all of the different parts and adjustments that these handy saws and the tracks they ride in have to offer.

Not long ago, a table saw or a conventional circular saw was the only option for ripping large sheet goods, making a long bevel cut on a thick piece of oak, or cutting a straight edge on the rough-sawn stock. Introduced by Festool in 1980, the track saw has since become a go-to tool for carpenters and woodworkers for these tasks and more.

Consisting of a plunge-style saw with a shrouded blade that’s guided by a companion track, a track saw can make rip cuts, crosscuts, and bevel cuts with the accuracy of a table saw. But it’s portable, safer, and costs considerably less. A track saw is ideal for working solo; instead of two people having to move bulky materials, the saw travels to where it’s needed.

Its splinter-free and ruler-straight cuts make quick work of jobs that require precision, like breaking down plywood for site-built cabinets, trimming doors, and making plunge cuts to repair flooring.

Track Saw Anatomy

Saw anatomy

  • Power source: Track saws can be corded or cordless. Corded saws always have power on tap as long as there is an outlet nearby. Cordless saws offer the ultimate portability.
  • Dust collection: Discharge ports that can connect to vacuum or dust collection systems help keep the job site or shop clean. They also remove dust from around the blade and motor to help it run cooler and more efficiently.
  • Blade guard: The shroud around the blade is the blade guard. This keeps hands and cords away from the spinning blade.
  • Blade: Most track saws use 6 ½-inch circular saw blades.
  • Depth adjustment: Track saws have depth adjustments very similar to standard circular saws. However, these adjustments are even more important for track saws as these tools plunge down into the material. Setting it ahead of time is very important.
  • Bevel adjustment: When cutting bevels or miters along the length of a cut, users can set the bevel gauge up to 45 degrees.
  • Speed control: Adjusting the speed to the material in question can help ensure a smoother cut. For hardwood, lower speeds are ideal. For softwoods and construction-grade plywood, higher speeds are sufficient.
  • Splitter: The fin that trails behind the blade is the splitter, and it prevents the material from binding on the blade as it cuts.
  • Guides: The slots in the bottom of the saw’s bed are the guides, and they ride along the track to create accurate and repeatable results.

Track anatomy

  • Length varieties: Tracks come in different lengths and users can attach them to one another for longer cuts.
  • Splinter guard: The rubber or plastic edge that runs alongside the track is the splinter guard. It prevents wood tear out while cutting. It also provides an accurate way to align the track before the cut.
  • Grip pad: Most tracks have at least two rubber grip pads on their bottoms. These pads rest on top of the sheet goods and prevent the track from sliding.
  • Clamps: For situations where grip pads won’t do the trick, users can clamp the track in place. These specially designed clamps slide underneath the track to keep them out of the way of the saw.

Track Saw Buying Guide: What to Look For

Track Saw with features called out. Charles Bickford

Common features

  1. Dust port: Connects to a dust bag or vacuum
  2. Riving knife: Follows blade to help prevent kickback
  3. Bevel adjustment knob: Sets bevel angle
  4. Depth adjustment: Controls blade depth
  5. Blade lock lever: Handy for changing blades
  6. Variable speed control: Maximizes motor efficiency
  7. Trigger switch: Turns on the saw
  8. Trigger release: Acts as a safety lock
  9. Track adjustment: Eliminates saw wobble on the track
Track saw with features marked Charles Bickford

Worthwhile upgrades

A) Splinter guard: Eliminates chipped edges on the blade’s waste side

B) Anti-tip mechanism: Makes cutting bevels safer

C) Power-cord outlet: For removable power cord

Choosing a Track Saws Best for Your Projects

Ryobi 18V ONE+ HP Brushless 61/2’’ Track Saw: Affordable cordless

Ryobi 18V ONE+ HP Brushless 61/2’’ Track Saw: Affordable cordless Courtesy Ryobi

This Ryobi kit (PTS01K), which includes the saw, two tracks, a battery, a charger, and track clamps, is the most budget-friendly cordless track saw on the market. Its powerful brushless motor is efficient and runs on the 18V ONE+ battery platform. The saw’s depth capacity is slightly less than those of its competitors’ models, but it does have a good bevel range. The saw features both an electric blade brake and an anti-tip safety feature. The tracks are only 27½ inches long, so to make longer cuts, you’ll need to buy additional sections.

DeWalt Corded TrackSaw

Dewalt Corded Track Saw Courtesy Dewalt

This track saw (DWS520CK) is loaded with features such as a riving knife, adjustable speed control, an antikickback mechanism, and an electric blade brake. In addition, its tracks (one 59 inches long or two 51 inches long) are designed so that either edge can be used—a nice feature in tight spaces. The saw is available as a cordless or corded tool, and can be used with several other manufacturers’ tracks. Its one downside is that it has the least smooth plunge mechanism of the track saws shown.

Kreg Adaptive Cutting System Saw + Guide Kit: DIY-friendly corded kit

Kreg Adaptive Cutting System Saw + Guide Kit Courtesy Kreg

DIYers on a budget would do well to look at the Kreg track-saw kit (ACS2000), which is designed to integrate with Kreg’s Project Table, a modular work surface. In addition to the saw and track, the kit includes a riving knife, an electronic blade brake, a dust bag, and an antikickback control. Available only as a corded tool, the saw is equipped with an extra-long power cord that gives you more flexibility. The saw comes with one 62-inch-long track, so you’ll need to buy an additional section to rip full-length sheets of plywood.

How to Set Up a Track Saw

Nathan Gilbert using a track saw Bob O’Connor

Before using your track saw for the first time, it’s necessary to trim the splinter guard, the track’s plastic edge that prevents the material from chipping beneath the track.

  1. Place the track on a sacrificial surface. A piece of rigid foam over a workbench works well.
  2. Set the saw on the track and, if it is equipped with track adjustment, adjust it so that the saw moves freely on the track but does not rock left or right as you push it along the track’s guide rail.
  3. Set the blade adjustment to ¼ inch or so—enough to cut through the splinter guard and slightly score the sacrificial surface beneath it.
  4. Once the saw glides smoothly and firmly along the track’s guide rail, it is ready to use.
  5. Starting at the leading edge of the track, turn the saw on and slowly lower the blade into the splinter guard.
  6. When the blade reaches its full depth, push it slowly along the track to the end.
  7. Now the track is ready to be used as a guide for accurate cuts.

How to Cut Multiple Sheets at a Time on a Track Saw

Most track saws can cut up to two ¾-inch-thick pieces of material at once. If youadd a third piece to the stack, the blade will cut a shallow saw kerf on the bottom piece that you can use to align the track on the next cut.

  1. Stack up to three sheets of ¾-inch-thick plywood on a stable work surface. Make sure the edges are aligned and square to one another.
  2. Use bar clamps to keep the sheets in line. Tip: Use 1½-inch-thick rigid foam under the plywood as a sacrificial support.
  3. Measure and mark each end of the top sheet of plywood.
  4. Align the track on the marks so that the material you want to keep is under the track; the waste is on the blade side.
  5. Set the depth of the plunge mechanism to the desired thickness.
  6. Make your cut along the track.

How to Make Clean Beveled Cuts on a Track Saw

Illustration of making beveled cuts Ian Worpole

Making beveled cuts for long miters, or when scribing baseboard, countertops, or doors, is where the track saw really shines, because the track edge will guide the saw in a perfectly straight line, and the blade aligns against the track, no matter at what angle the blade is set. If you’re bevel-cutting material that’s narrower than the width of the track, be sure to support the entire track width with scrap pieces to ensure a stable, safe cut.

  1. Start by measuring to the long point of your bevel angle.
  2. Adjust the bevel of the saw to your desired bevel angle.
  3. Set the depth of cut to the material you’re using. The best way to do this is to hang the track over the edge of the material and plunge down until the blade looks like it will exit the bottom of the material.
  4. Clamp the track in place in alignment with your marks.
  5. Start the saw, allowing the blade to come to full speed, then slowly lower the blade into the material.
  6. Push through the material slowly until the blade exits.

How to Make Plunge Cuts

Illustration of a track saw making a plunge cut Ian Worpole

Plunge cuts come in handy for working on jobs such as wood floors or countertops. All track saws are equipped with marks that indicate where the blade cut will start and stop when at full depth. Use these marks to gauge the start and stop points of the cuts. Make sure that the blade can safely cut through whatever is under the material you are cutting.

  1. Adjust the depth stop accordingly.
  2. Align the back of the blade (noted by the plunge mark on the saw) with the beginning of the plunge cut.
  3. If the saw is equipped with one, engage the antikickback lock. This will keep the blade from accidentally moving backward.
  4. Start the saw, allowing the blade to come up to full speed, and slowly plunge the blade into the material until it reaches the full depth of the cut, then move forward.
  5. Stop when the blade reaches the end of the cut.
  6. Release the trigger and allow the blade to stop.
  7. Raise the blade up out of the cut, and readjust for the next cut as needed.

How to Make a Clean Straight Edge

  1. One of the nice features of a track saw is that it can be used to rip a straight edge on rough-sawn lumber.
  2. First, lay the board on a sacrificial solid surface like a workbench or across two sawhorses.
  3. Place the track along the length of the board so that the irregular, rough edge of the wood is on the waste side.
  4. Clamp the track to the board, then make your cut.
  5. Once you’ve made the cut, you can use the straight edge as a reference against the fence of a table saw, or use the track saw to rip the board to the desired width.

The Splinter Guard is Your Guide

Track saws come with splinter guards that are too wide for the track, but this is on purpose. The reason is simple: Once the user makes a pass across the track with the saw running, it will trim the sprinter guide to the exact width required. After this initial cut, the splinter guard becomes the perfect guide for aligning the track during cuts.

The best way to cut the splinter guard to width is to set the track up on 1 ½-inch foam board. Set the saw on the track, start the blade, and plunge the blade down, into the splinter guard. Continue the pass from one end to the other to trim the guard to size.

Aligning Cuts with a Track Saw

Aligning the track is easy. Simply measure and mark the desired width at both ends of the sheet. Lay the track across the marks so that the sprinter guard rests on both. If necessary, clamp the track in place. Finally, place the track saw on the track, turn it on, and plunge it through the wood while pushing it across the track.

Track Saws Can Miter, Too

Most track saws can miter as well. Simply set the track saw’s angle adjustment to 45 degrees and align the track across two measured marks. Place the saw onto the track, turn it on, and plunge it into the wood while pushing it down the track. The resulting angle should be a perfect 45-degree cut.