Terms of the Trade: What Is a Reciprocating Saw?

a power saw with a thin blade on a shiny white background

The word ‘reciprocate’ basically means to return. Appropriately, reciprocating saws cut in a basic forward and backward motion, like a miniature mechanical version of the motion you make using a handsaw.

The small blades of reciprocating saws allow for a freedom of motion that can be used to make controlled, potentially curved cuts. Jigsaws are essentially smaller reciprocating saws, used for work requiring finer lines.

How it Works

The idea of the reciprocating saw came from the two-man saws used by lumberjacks, where one man on each end of the saw would pull and then the man on the other end of the saw would pull in the opposite direction, eventually cutting down the tree.

Reciprocating saws are also known as oscillating saws, recipro saws or Sawzalls (a brand name saw from the Milwaukee Electric Tool company).

What Styles Are There?

There are many different designs, ranging in power, speed, and features. Smaller handheld models are usually shaped like cordless drills, and are suitable for home use in smaller projects, like model or furniture construction. Larger models are usually powered via cord, and can be valuable in heavier projects, like professional demolition.

Most reciprocating saws have variable speeds, controlled either through trigger sensitivity or via a dial on the saw. Some newer models include an ‘orbital’ action, which allows the tip of the blade to move in an oval pattern, up and down as well as back and forth, facilitating more precisely curved cuts.


Reciprocating saws usually have a guard at the base of their blade to help prevent injury. Always make sure your power saws are switched off before and after use, and allow the blade motor to come to a complete stop before you lay a handheld saw on any surface.

Some saws have a lock switch or button to ensure that they cannot be turned on without pushing the button.