What is Orbital Action on a Reciprocating Saw and Do You Need It?

What is orbital action in a reciprocating saw and do you need it? That’s the question we’re looking at today and it’s a common one. With a few notable exceptions, most manufacturers weren’t adding this feature to their cordless reciprocating saws. This led to a little confusion as to whether or not you actually need it to cut quickly.

What is Orbital Action?

The orbital action setting on a reciprocating saw introduces an elliptical motion to the standard back and forth sawing. This more aggressive action removes more material when cutting through wood. With a more aggressive cut, however, comes additional vibration. As a result, you should never use this mode when cutting metal or PVC.

what is orbital action reciprocating saw
We “removed” the shoe in the above illustration to give you a better view of the orbital action on a reciprocating saw.

Some saws combat the additional vibration caused by a reciprocating saw with a counterbalance. This takes the form of many different types of systems. Skilsaw Buzzkill technology looks like this:

Skilsaw Buzzkill technology recip saw

The vibration-reducing flywheel on the Milwaukee Sawzall looks like this:

Milwaukee Sawzall flywheel counterbalance

When Did Reciprocating Saws Start Using Orbital Action?

We traced orbital action back to a patent filed in 1982 by Black & Decker Inc. for application on a jigsaw. While not definitive, it shows the technology goes back around 40 years or so. A couple of years later, another patent applies orbital action to a reciprocating saw.

When Milwaukee Tool invented the Sawzall in 1951, but that tool (shown below) lacked any sort of orbital action. At the time, just getting the blade to move back and forth satisfied a lot of needs as an electric version of a hacksaw.

When to Use Orbital Action on a Reciprocating Saw
The original reciprocating saw – the Sawzall. It didn’t even have orbital action in mind at the time, but the feature would come with time.

Does Orbital Action Really Matter?

We have some evidence to work with aside from manufacturer claims about orbital action. When testing the best reciprocating saws we got our hands on models both with and without this type of cutting mode. In our testing, saws with orbital action typically cut the fastest in wood. Keep that in mind if you primarily demo wood with nails.

However, a couple of other well-designed saws didn’t lag too far behind. So what about a more apples-to-apples approach? After all, we really wanted to know when to use orbital action.

what is orbital action and using it to cut nail-embedded wood

We took a Bosch 18V reciprocating saw and ran it through the same test several times with and without orbital action engaged. Using just technique, and see-sawing the tool through the cut, the closest we got still trailed the fastest orbital speed by roughly 2.5 seconds.

What is Orbital Action and Does it Matter?

The results of more scientific testing are even more telling. We used the same weight to provide equal downforce on the saw while testing. The Bosch cut through our 2 x 12 pressure-treated lumber embedded with five 16D nails in 31.83 seconds. Switching over to orbital, the time was just 18.28 seconds—a drop of just over 13.5 seconds. That makes the non-orbital action nearly 75% slower!

The Bottom Line

Letting the saw and blade do the work is always the way to go when cutting, even in demo work. When you do that, orbital action has a massive advantage in wood cutting. Even if you try to beat it with technique, you’ll still fall short and you’ll work a lot harder trying.

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