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Choosing A Scroll Saw

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Make the Right Choice the First Time

If you equate scrolling with a clunky saw from your junior high school woodshop days, you may be in for a very pleasant surprise. Today’s scroll saws are easy to use, quiet and very safe, making scrolling an activity the whole family can enjoy.

Indeed scroll sawing can be fun, relaxing and rewarding. It also can be frustrating if you do not make a wise choice when purchasing a saw. Before purchasing, give serious thought to what you’d like to do with your saw. For well under $200, you can get a saw that can make simple cutouts. But if you know already that you want to do intricate fretwork (or work that requires the wood to be pierced to make the cutout), you need a saw with some more features for which you’ll pay more. If you buy a saw that doesn’t suit your purpose, you will probably:

  1. Not like scrolling at all and never use your saw.
  2. Stumble along but not really enjoy scrolling or
  3. End up selling your saw and buying a better saw—the one you should’ve purchased in the first place.

Basic Saw Designs

Often compared to the action of a sewing machine, the blade of a scroll saw moves up and down, with the teeth facing forward and down. The mechanisms that power the blade can be grouped into three major designs:

  1. Parallel Arm–The original design of the parallel arm saw actually goes back to before 1870. Two arms run parallel to each other with the blade attached to the ends of each arm. There are two pivot points used in this design, and the blade moves in a nearly true up and down motion. This is the safest of the modern saws because when the blade breaks, the top arm swings up and out of the way, stopping immediately.
  2. Double Parallel Link Arm–The latest design in scroll saw development, it relies on two parallel arms that go back and forth and converts this motion at the very tips of each arm into an up and down blade motion.
  3. C-Arm Type–This design simply is an arm shaped like a “C” with the blade attached to the ends of the “C.” The C-arm has only one pivot point and creates a cut that is aggressive and in an arc. When a blade breaks on this type of saw, the top portion of the blade continues up and down until you shut off the saw.

There are two other two designs: rigid arm and oscillating loop drive system. The rigid arm design was quite popular in the Delta jigsaws of the ’30s and ’40s. Most recently Powermatic saws featured this design; according to the company, they have stopped production.

The oscillating loop system is available on only one saw, the Eclipse. I won’t get into specifics here since other sections of the Buyer’s Guide cover details about this one-of-a-kind, handbuilt saw.

Features to Consider

To make the best purchasing decision, spend some time to thoroughly think through what you want to get out of your scrolling activity. Will it be a weekend hobby or a serious, forty-hour-a-week effort? Prices for saws run from as little as $80 to over $2,000, with $400 being an average price. You can find a “lemon” or “gem” in all price ranges, so be aware and shop carefully. If you will be an occasional user, such as a hobbyist, perhaps a $180 saw will do. If you plan on going into the craft business, you should look for a saw in the $400 to $1,000 price range. For very high quality and high production you might have to spend $2,400 or more. Regardless of what your use and/or price range, purchase the absolute best saw you can afford.

Another piece of advice: try different saws before you purchase, if at all possible. Scrolling picnics are the best place to try saws, and, of course, meet other scrollers. Big woodworking shows draw major saw manufacturers and also provide excellent opportunities for hands-on use. A specialty store like Woodcraft will have them ready for testing. You may have the least luck going to a local diy center. These types of stores often don’t have models set up for “test driving.”

When you’re shopping for a saw, here are a couple of terms and features you should know:

Blade-changing feature:

Nothing will take away from the fun, enjoyment and relaxation of the scroll saw than a saw that requires special tools to change the blade or change the blade tension. Have the salesperson show you how the blade is changed. Then you change the blade yourself. (The salesperson has probably changed the blade hundreds of times and can make it look easy.) If the salesperson takes out a special tool, run, don’t walk, away!

 

Blade types: There are two major kinds of scroll saw blades: pin-end and plain or flat-end. Pin-end blades have a pin at each end of the blade in order to hold it in place. Plain end blades are simply plain and require clamps to hold the end in place. If you really want to do true scrolling, do not purchase a pin-end saw, nor one that accepts both. The pin-end blades are much too large and cannot make sharp, delicate, interior cuts; most are not very high quality saws.

Thickness of cut: This is the maximum cutting thickness you can cut with the saw. Two inches is about what most saws will cut; most cuts will not be over 3¼4" thick.

Throat length: This is the distance between the saw blade and the back of the saw. Sixteen inches is the minimum but there are some saws available with a 30'' throat. Sixteen inches to 20 inches is about as large as 95 percent of all projects require, so unless you have some very unusual needs, the extra throat length is not necessary.

Table tilt: The ability to cut on an angle might be important to some people. Some saws tilt only one way, usually to the left, up to 45 degrees. Some saws tilt both ways. Unless you plan to do some special work, that needs the tilt, this may not be particularly important to you.

Speed: With scroll saws, speed is measured by the strokes per minute. Some saws have variable speeds, some have two speeds, and others have a pulley set-up where you have to adjust the belt to get the desired speed. It is a good idea to have at least two speeds, but a variable-speed saw gives you the most options for cutting materials other than wood. To cut plastics, for example, you need a slow speed to reduce heat buildup. You can also cut paper and metals, too.

Weight: If you plan on moving your scroll saw a lot, weight could be a factor to consider.

Vibration: Try to choose a saw with as little vibration as possible. There is a big difference between saws, so check this feature out.

Accessories: There are a few accessories you should consider purchasing with your scroll saw.

Stand–Do not skimp on a stand; a lightweight stand will add extra vibration and noise. Get a good solid stand.

Foot switch–Is a very handy accessory as it frees up both hands, makes the saw even safer to use, and will actually speed up your work.

Scroll saw covers–Help keep dust off your saw while not in use. (A large plastic trash bag does the same thing and costs a lot less.)

Editor’s Hot Tips for Beginners

I, too, was a “new blade” once. When I first started, I took some wrong paths. I’d like to help you avoid them so you can get to makin’ sawdust instead of getting frustrated.

Patterns & Photocopies

  • Make photocopies to preserve your original pattern, but remember most photocopiers distort in one dimension. Carefully check your photocopy against the original. Make any adjustments to your pattern before cutting.
  • Always spray the PATTERN and not the wood to attach the pattern to the wood. If you spray the wood, you’ll have a terrible time removing the pattern.

Buying Wood

  • Thin plywoods for scrolling won’t be at your do-it-yourself center. Your best bet is to contact one of the advertisers in this or other wood-related magazines.

Scroll Saw Blades

  • I bought my first scroll saw from a diy store. The saw came with a few pin-end blades. Wanting some different sizes, I returned to the store but came up empty. I tried another diy place and found some blades but the packaging was not helpful as I tried to find the #2 and #5 blades. BEST BET: Blade companies who advertise in Scroll Saw Workshop. It seems like a shameless plug, but trust me, they are the most direct source.
  • HOT TIP: Make sure the blade is installed properly! The teeth of the blade must be pointing downward to cut. WITH THE SAW OFF, lightly run your finger up the blade. You should feel a little bit of resistance if the blade is installed correctly.

Making the Cuts

  • You’ll probably notice when you start to cut that you can’t seem to saw in a straight line. It’s the blade. Due to the manufacturing process, there’s a slight burr on one side of the blade. To compensate, take a scrap piece of wood and cut into it to see the direction the blade is cutting. Shift your body position relative to this line so as you push the blade into the wood, you’ll again be cutting straight.
  • As you begin cutting, keep firm but not-white knuckled pressure on the wood. If you don’t keep firm pressure on it, the blade will get a hold and rapidly move it up and down against the table’s surface. This is called “chatter.” Besides scaring you the first time it happens, you can damage the piece you’re cutting.

JOHN’S PICKS

  • OCCASIONAL USER: I recommend the Delta 16" 40 – 570. (At the time of this writing, Delta reported it was changing this model’s name to Delta Shopmaster SS350.) It is a variable speed, parallel arm design saw retailing for around $200. The newly introduced Ryobi SC180VS is good saw in this price range, too.
  • HOBBYIST : By far the best value for the weekend hobbyist is the DeWalt DW788 scroll saw. It is a double parallel link arm design. It has the easiest blade disconnect of all scroll saws in all price ranges. It sells for around $400. A heavy duty stand is available and recommended for $89.95 extra.
  • SERIOUS PROFESSIONALS: If you plan to use your saw 40 hours a week, week in, week out, you should expect to pay around $1,300, somewhat less at woodworking shows:
    Excalibur EX 30
    Hegner M18V
    RBI 226

TOP TEN POINTS TO CHECK BEFORE BUYING A SCROLL SAW

Courtesy of Woodcraft Supply Corporation, www.woodcraft.com.

  • Throat size—If you are going to be doing a lot of work that requires deep cuts, don’t buy a 15" or 16" throat saw, but, instead, check first 20" saws.
  • Motor power—Scroll saws are not high amperage or horsepower tools, but they do need enough power to cut through moderately thick, or padded (stacked) stock. Look for at least 1.25 amperes.
  • Variable speed—Being able to vary the speed makes many cuts easier to control. Generally, ranges can run from 450 to 1600 or so rpms.
  • Table size and construction—The table needs to be large enough to support the work the throat will accept. This varies widely, but generally the larger the table the better. The table should be machined flat.
  • Dust blower and dust collection hood-ups—At the least, a dust blower is needed.
  • Table tilt—The table needs to tilt 45 degrees to one side, and doing so to both sides is better.
  • Ease of blade changes—Tool free is best.
  • Control location—Up-front is best. You don't want to have to wiggle a hand under the table to change speeds or shut the machine down.
  • Vibration—Less is much better.
  • Noise—Again, less is better.
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Comments (2 posted):

rock0 on 12/11/2010 17:40:51
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As a ew blade this wass very helpful Thank You rock0
Shannon on 12/13/2010 09:43:08
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Here's the link to our updated buyer's guide: Scroll Saw Woodworking & Crafts - 2010 Scroll Saw Buyer's Guide
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John A. Nelson
John Nelson is a retired industrial arts educator and the author of The Complete Guide to Making Wooden Clocks and Scroll Saw Workbook. He is considered an expert among scroll saw enthusiasts and is a frequent contributor to Scroll Saw Workshop. He lives in Dublin, New Hampshire. more