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May 16, 2021

Professional Tool Reviews for Pros


Sidewinder vs Worm Drive Circular Saws

sidewinder vs worm drive circular saws

You’d be hard-pressed to find a jobsite without a circular saw. So what makes people choose between sidewinders and worm drives? And why does the East Coast choose the former while the West Coast seems to prefer the latter? Isn’t a circular saw just a circular saw? *Buzzer Sound!* Actually, no. While sidewinder circular saws (or more appropriately, direct drive) and worm drive circular saws perform the same function, there are some important differences. We’re here to cut through the confusion about sidewinder vs worm drive circular saws!


Quick Article Summary

  • Corded worm drives typically provide more torque
  • Corded direct drive (sidewinder) saws operate at higher blade speeds
  • Worm drive saws typically weigh more than sidewinders
  • Cordless sidewinder and rear-handle saws have surpassed corded worm drive saws in both speed and power (torque). No, we’re not kidding.
  • For cordless tools, it is now a handle- and motor-orientation preference.

Setting Up the Comparison

Curiously, tradesmen in the West and Midwest typically favor worm drive circular saws. East Coasters more often reach for our sidewinders. It’s not without good reason. What we want to know, of course, is whether those preferences are based on anything other than tradition. Is one saw truly better than the other? If so…how so?

Sidewinder vs Worm Drive Motor Orientation and Profile

Skilsaw developed the first worm drive saw in the mid-1920s. The motor sat behind the blade, making the tool relatively long and narrow. Worm drive saws still carry this design today. The centerline of the motor sits in-line with the handles, parallel to the plane of the saw blade. A narrow foot lets users—like remodelers, for instance—get into more confined spaces. The longer distance between the handle and the blade also extends a user’s reach while making a cut, which is helpful for jobs such as framing a roof.

Sidewinder Vs Worm Drive Circular Saws

That makes a worm-drive saw narrower but longer than a sidewinder saw.

A spiral gear (the worm gear) turns another gear oriented at 90-degrees, which turns the blade. This increases the torque of the blade, making these saws very powerful. It’s not uncommon to see guys cut through several sheets of plywood or OSB at once with these saws.

SKIL SHD77M Worm Drive gear

Due to different design ideas or patent constraints or a combination of both, the direct drive saw (sidewinder) was later developed featuring the motor next to the blade. This made the saw wider, but also shorter and lighter, than a worm drive saw. It also provided more control for the less experienced user.

A spur gear turns the Direct Drive’s blade. Also, with less gearing, you don’t have to worry about oil and you have less moving parts to contend with.

Skilsaw Sidewinder SPT67WL-01 Handle

Sidewinders Care About the Waste Side if the Cut

There’s another consideration here. Direct drives motors put the saw off-balance, so to speak. The motor side is heavier than the blade side. Imagine the extra control needed if you finish a cut with the motor over the waste side of the material. The saw will have the tendency to fall toward the motor. However, making the cut so that the motor ends over the supported, “keeper” side helps you maintain control as the cut ends. This isn’t always possible without some pre-planning.

Sidewinder vs Worm Drive Blade Orientation

Traditionally, Worm Drive saws have been blade-left saws while direct drives have been blade-right. This is changing, however. The distinction isn’t quite as clear as it once was. This might seem irrelevant at first, but it influences cut-line visibility. The narrower, longer, blade-left worm drive saws give right-handed users a better sightline. Of course, blade-right saws give left-handed users a better sightline. Keep in mind that a clear sightline happens with one-handed use. Using the non-dominant hand on the pommel handle can obscure the line.

See our article on Left Side vs Right Side Circular Saw Blades.

Blade Speed or RPMs

Worm drive saws spin slower than sidewinders. You’ll usually find worm drive saws at about 4,250 RPM while direct drive saws carry speeds of 6,000 RPM or higher. You can count them all, or just take our word for it! This makes up for the (typically) lower torque in sidewinders (read on).

Skilsaw Sidewinder SPT67WL-01 Action

Sidewinder vs Worm Drive Torque

A worm drive saw has larger gear teeth with more load-carrying capacity than a sidewinder, offering more power and durability. It also allows the saw to handle higher shock loads. It has more muscle to plunge cut and handle tougher jobs. Conversely, sidewinders are almost always lighter than worm drive saws and offer very similar performance. In fact, modern cordless sidewinders have eclipsed the speed and power of corded sidewinders in our most recent best circular saw reviews articles.

Sidewinder Vs Worm Drive Circular Saws

Because of this, many Pros who carry both saws consider the worm drive a rip-cutting saw and the direct drive a cross-cutting saw. In truth, you can use either one for both tasks once you get a feel for it. And with cordless technology—all bets are off. More and more, handle- and motor-orientation has become simply a matter of preference!

Learn how to make the perfect cross cut in our video!

Sidewinder vs Worm Drive Weight

Well, oops, we gave it away already. Sidewinder saws typically weigh less, so you can more easily hold and maneuver them for unusual cuts. While the heftier tools might dissuade some tradesmen, you can use the weight to your advantage for longer cuts or quick crosscuts in a downward direction. Of course, the other advantage you get with direct-drive sidewinders has to do with blade options. Small brushless 6-1/2″ circular saws make cutting regular sheet goods and framing material super-easy.

Sidewinder vs Worm Drive Circular Saws By the Numbers

You don’t have to be a longtime reader to anticipate what we think. Both circular saw designs work well. While one design might seem more convenient for a particular application, the lines have seriously blurred. We recommend you have both because, hey, more tools!


Direct Drive (Sidewinder) Breakdown

  • Spur Gear Design
  • Side Motor Design
  • Higher RPM
  • Lower Torque
  • Shorter and Wider Profile
  • Lighter Weight
  • Typically Blade Right for Corded Models
  • Easier to Maneuver
  • Best for Cross Cuts and Softer Woods

Worm Drive Breakdown

  • 90-Degree Worm Gearing
  • Rear Motor Design
  • Lower RPM
  • Higher Torque
  • Longer and Narrower Profile
  • Heavier Weight
  • Typically Blade Left
  • Tougher to Maneuver
  • Best for Long Rip Cuts and Harder Woods
  • Periodic Oiling is Necessary

Whatever saw you choose, always be sure to wear appropriate safety gear. We hope you’ve enjoyed this article about Sidewinder Vs Worm Drive Circular Saws. If you’re a Pro and you have additional circular saw tips, add them in the comments below or hit us up on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to share your thoughts.

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TX_Darling

Hello, My house was built in the 60’s. Much of the wood is original and very strong with some killer knots. I had two cordless Milwaukee saws fail to cut through a knot in a vintage piece of exterior 1in X 6 in siding/fascia board today. I also experienced saw kickback.  Taking my piece of wood over to the standing miter saw eliminated the problem but since I have zero experience doing this I don’t know if I need a better saw or if this kinda stuff is to be expected given my homes age?  Both circular saws were cordless… Read more »

Thomas Tables

My choice is, for precision, use a sidewinder. For rough work use a worm drive. For instance if I’m cutting out a hole in a countertop for a sink I like to use a sidewinder with at least a 40 tooth blade. If I am cutting framing material I want a worm drive. In the late 80s I was building a very high end kitchen and we were putting in corian countertops and my friend had a brand new worm drive saw and he wanted to use it to make some cuts in the corian. We finished the whole kitchen… Read more »

Worm drive typically can cut at 60deg angle vs only a 45 deg for direct drive due to the shoe/plate being able to be put at an more of an angle. This is because the the motor does not interfere as much with the plate shoe. The motor on the direct drive prohibits the plate from going to 60 deg.
You get what you pay for when it comes to tools.

Carter Powell

So I guess I missed it somewhere. But why do western tradesman prefer worm drive, and east coast prefer sidewinder style?

Art Thogh

The worm drive is much more pleasant to use, at least compared to the Skilsaw sidewinder that has a shrill sound to it. The shrieky sound of the direct drive is rather annoying; with the worm drive, the sound of the wood cutting predominates more than the motor.

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