Which is more important to you? Time? Mobility? Safety? Money? You have to ask yourself this question and more when deciding which tools to use for cutting EMT Conduit and other thin-walled pipes and tubes. Today I am going to share some common cutting tools and the sacrifices that you make when choosing one method over the other.
First, let’s talk about ole reliable. The handheld pipe and tube cutter is very inexpensive compared to some of the alternative cutting methods and tools that I’ll mention later on. It’s very approachable and easy to use and is often my go-to cutting tool for smaller projects that only require a dozen or so cuts. Because it doesn’t require electricity, you can use it anywhere that you want, whether it’s in the garden, in the woods, in your living room, or pretty much anywhere else. The cutting wheel, of course, is fairly sharp but overall it’s the safest option out of all the ones that we’ll talk about today. They are also pretty compact which makes them great for modifying builds that are already in place. They are made to cut various sizes and types of pipes and tubes which makes them really versatile as well.
So to recap, tubing cutters are safe, compact, versatile, non-powered, approachable, inexpensive, and easy to use, but how do they actually perform? Unlike some of the other tools that we will talk about, this one is made specifically for this task, so you’d expect it to work well and it does. As long as you don’t over tighten the cutting wheel, it precisely cuts very straight through thin-walled pipes. After a cut is finished, you’ll notice that there is a lip left on the inside of the pipe. This lip can interfere with building accessories like the threaded pipe inserts or plastic end caps.
Most handheld tubing cutters have a built-in reamer that isn’t the best de-burring tool but it does get the job done well enough so you clean up the look of the pipe or insert your desired accessories. If you’re using rubber pipe feet on the end of the conduit or if the pipe end is inside of a building connector then this lip won’t really affect anything and you don’t have to worry about it.
So far, I’ve really only shared the positive things about this tool but as I said, there is no perfect tool for cutting. You have to decide which sacrifices to make based on things like money, safety, and time. The first downside of the tubing cutter is that it requires some physical effort and if you’re doing a lot of cuts, then it can become a workout pretty quickly. You can minimize the required effort by clamping the pipe or tube to a flat surface, but this still doesn’t rectify what I believe to be the biggest downside of this cutting tool, which is time.
All of the features and benefits of the handheld pipe and tube cutter become irrelevant if you’re on a time crunch. If you need to make a lot of cuts in a short amount of time, this is not the tool I’d recommend.
A hacksaw can provide many of the same benefits as tubing cutters while also being a quicker alternative. It is still approachable, non-powered, compact, versatile, and fairly inexpensive especially if you already have a hacksaw that allows you to swap out the blades. On that note, you’ll want to get a blade or hack saw and blade combo that is made specifically for cutting metals like steel. You’ll want to make sure the blade is thin and has at least 24 TPI or teeth per inch.
While this method is faster than a tubing cutter, it also has quite a few disadvantages that result from prioritizing speed. It doesn’t require power, but you are going to need some kind of bench or flat surface that you can use to support the pipe or tube as you cut through it. Unlike the tubing cutter, you won’t be able to move around freely and cut at the same time. Or at least you can but I wouldn’t recommend it.
You’ll also find that you’re trading precision and cleaner cuts for speed. Unless you make some kind of jig, the hacksaw is going to be hard to control once its cutting path is started. This will often result in a crooked pipe end. This could potentially be a big problem if the pipe you’re cutting is intended to be a vertical leg in a desk or something like that. Tubes that are cut with a hacksaw will also have pretty jagged edges. These can be difficult to remove and often require a metal file or power tool to completely smooth them out. The speed of the cuts is also based on the physical effort that you want to put into it. You can go slow if you want or you can go crazy and saw through the pipe or tube really fast.
If you want to reduce the physical effort and time that is required for a manual hacksaw, you can use a powered reciprocating saw or what’s more commonly known as a Sawzall. It functions practically the same way as a hacksaw except a motor performs the back-and-forth motion instead of you. You want to make sure to use a blade that is at least 6” long and designed for cutting metal.
The benefits and sacrifices of the reciprocating saw are pretty easy to identify. Basically, any positive or negative trait of the hacksaw is amplified when you attach a motor to it. It’s faster and requires less energy to operate than a tubing cutter but these motorized quick cuts often result in really crooked and jagged edges. You also have to consider the fact that this tool requires power which means you’re going to need a battery-powered version or you’ll need to be tethered to an electrical connection outlet or extension cord. These versions won’t make it as portable as the previous two cutting tools but again, sacrifices have to be made when you’re prioritizing speed over other things.
Now let’s talk about safety. Any time you’re cutting anything, there are inherent risks. Even if it’s construction paper for arts and crafts. With that said, we are introducing a whole new variable into the safety equation. We now have this extremely sharp blade that is motorized and capable of cutting through steel with just the touch of a button. You want to be extremely careful and wear appropriate safety gear when using this type of saw and some of the others that I’m about to mention.
On that note, we might as well get this next option out of the way. Angle grinders are insanely useful and often capable of doing things that no other saw is. This often makes it necessary for certain jobs. However, cutting EMT Conduit is not one of those jobs. In my opinion, the speed of cutting thin-walled pipes with a grinder is not worth the safety risks. If you absolutely must do it, then you want to make sure to use a cutting wheel that is at least 4” in diameter and is specifically designed for cutting through steel. It’s pretty obvious with this cutting method that you’re sacrificing safety, which again, in my opinion, is not worth it since there are overall better options out there.
Band saws are most commonly used for cutting unique and precise shapes out of wood, but they can cut thin-walled pipes and tubes pretty easily if you have the right blade installed. Make sure it’s rated for metal and has a high tooth count.
You could also potentially use a chop saw to cut conduit if you interchange an abrasive cutting wheel or blade that is specifically designed for cutting through the metal that you’re working with.
The same goes for miter saws. They are similar to chop saws except they serve a more specific purpose which is cutting precise angles into materials. This type of cut isn’t normally used in DIY pipe builds unless you’re welding pipes together or creating some kind of angled leg which brings up the question, why would you use a miter saw or any of these three saws for cutting pipes and tubes like EMT Conduit?
I think these options are mostly beneficial if you already own the saw and can purchase the appropriate blades that are needed to use them for cutting metal pipes and tubes. Otherwise, you’re going to be paying a large upfront cost to get them. You also want to consider the space that is required to use these types of saws. They have a large footprint and require power so you can’t just set up and use them anywhere. Using these saws will either sacrifice portability or cost or a combination of both. With that said, all three of these saw types will offer fast and clean cuts which is great if you already have them set up and buy the appropriate blades for them.
If you have the budget you can also buy a couple of specialized tools that are made to cut pipes and tubes really easily. The first one is most commonly used in an industrial setting and is gonna be overkill for most home projects. It’s known as a cold saw and functions very similarly to a chop saw. However, it is designed specifically for cutting metal pipes. It shoots coolant at the metal to prevent it from overheating which is why it’s called a cold saw. They are rather expensive but if you have access to one, you should take advantage of it.
Portable band saws are another specialized cutting tool and they are much more accessible. They function the same as a normal band saw but they are battery-powered and come in a more portable and compact housing which allows them to be used for cutting thin-walled pipes and tubes really easily. These are commonly used by electricians and other tradespeople because of how convenient and fast they are.
I’ve used one quite a bit and overall I think it’s the best option in terms of speed and portability if you’re okay with the cost. I will say that similarly to the hacksaw, it’s kind of hard to control once the cut has started which makes it difficult to cut perfectly straight. There are some ways that you can minimize this. MKE Gadgets shared a 3D printed clamping jig that is really cool and keeps the cut straight. Check out his video here. You can also get adapters that convert portable band saws into a chop saw of sorts. I haven’t tried any specific ones but from what I’ve heard they work pretty well.
The only other downside that I’ve experienced with a portable band saw is the jagged edges that are left over after a cut is complete. You’ll need a metal file or other de-burring tool to smooth the pipe end completely which is something to keep in mind. In most cases, this is a compromise I’m willing to make. For example, when we went to Saunders machine works, we had a couple of days slotted out to build 5 different carts and packing stations. Over those two days, we made at least a couple hundred cuts, and there’s no doubt in my mind that we wouldn’t have finished everything in time if we were using something like the handheld pipe and tube cutter.
It’s not the best tool for everybody and that’s kind of the whole point of this article. I hope you found the information helpful and are able to figure out which tool makes the most sense for your projects and needs. Click here to see our review of the Milwaukee portable band saw or click here to learn the different methods for de-burring pipe ends. Thanks for reading and happy building!