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What To Know About Jigsaws & Woodworking
First, let’s get some words straight so we’re both clear about what we’re talking about. It’s a bit confusing, but traditional “puzzles” were originally cut on a “scroll saw” which used to be called a “jigsaw”. Today, the term “jig saw” refers to a handheld portable woodworking tool, while the term “scroll saw” refers to a stationary woodworking machine. Another way of looking at it is that in the case of a jigsaw, the tool is brought to the workpiece, and in the case of a scroll saw, the workpiece is brought to the machine. Another name for a jigsaw is “saber saw.”
I’ve been using jigsaws longer than I care to admit. I found the first one lying around my father’s woodworking shop in the basement of my childhood home. A few years after that I bought a cheap one from Sears. That jigsaw gave me the quick utility that all jigsaws provide, but there were persistent and annoying problems with no apparent solutions: First, the blades had no guides, so they would always wander away from the cut line, especially when I tried to trace curved pencil lines. Second, when cutting curves in thick material, the jigsaw blade would bend toward the outside of the curves. Third, the early jigsaws did not have orbital pendulum action, and so they would charge up and burn in thick materials. Changing blades required a screwdriver and care had to be taken not to lose the set screw.
Today’s top quality jigsaws have eliminated all these problems and, compared to the previous models, are revolutionary. I will limit my remarks to better quality jigsaws because there are still cheap basement models out there with the problems I just described. That said, here are the important things to look for in your next jigsaw:
At the top of my list are the topics blade tracking and blade guides. Take a closer look at how each jigsaw manufacturer has approached these challenges, because you probably won’t get a chance to try your next jigsaw before you buy it. Look for details: Some manufacturers simply say something like “superior blade tracking” without saying how this is achieved. Others are convincingly descriptive.
Another problem with all jigsaws is splinters. Most, but not all, jigsaw blades are designed to cut on the upstroke, meaning that the splintering often occurs on the good side of the board or plywood. Splintering can be minimized in two ways: (1) finely cut blades and (2) splinter-free inserts mounted in the saw base immediately adjacent to each side of the blade. Fine-cut blades cut slowly, so if speed is a requirement and you’re using a more aggressively toothed jigsaw blade, a splinter insert is an absolute necessity unless you plan to grind and/or mill the splintered area away later.
Frequent blade changes are a fact of life with all jigsaws. For the sake of production efficiency, this process should be as quick and easy as possible. The days of screwdrivers, Allen keys and set screws are over. You want a jigsaw that lets you pop blades in and out quickly.
If you are health conscious and want to minimize airborne dust in your work area, it may be a good idea to collect dust right at the source by connecting a vacuum hose to the jigsaw. If so, check for a dust port and make sure it is compatible with your vacuum hose. Personally, I prefer to wear a good dust mask and thus avoid the hassle of dragging a vacuum hose along with the jigsaw when trying to steer the machine along curves.
I mentioned orbital pendulum action above and I wouldn’t even consider buying a jigsaw without it. My first orbital machine was a Bosch barrel grip model. I was allowed to try one at a woodworking shop while on a business trip and it went home to Hawaii in my suitcase. Here’s why: The seller had a piece of eight-by-four white oak and encouraged me to cut some curves in it. There were four circuit settings on that machine, the first being “no circuit action” and each one thereafter being more aggressive than the one before. With the circuit in the “off” position, I began a cut. As I expected, the machine worked slowly through the cut and I knew if I pushed it harder the jigsaw blade would either burn or break. Then, at the suggestion of the seller, I put the circuit lever in position “4”, the most aggressive, and made another cut. The blade flew through the thick oak that was the butter. There is a little more splintering than before, but not really that much. Sold, American!
A side benefit of an oscillating jigsaw is extended blade life. When a blade is stuck inside a cut, it has nowhere to go to dissipate the heat. The pendulum swings the blade in and out of the cutting surface, letting in cool air while the blade is momentarily positioned away from the cut. At the same time, the accumulated sawdust is allowed to fall out of the cut, so that the blade always cuts new wood, not old sawdust. Therefore, it can go faster and cooler.
Most good jigsaws, but not all, have electronic speed control (ESC), which is an important nicety. ESC is like the cruise control on your car: it maintains a constant speed with changing load conditions. The harder you push the jigsaw, the more electrical power is automatically supplied to the motor so the saw blade does not slow down. The analogy is that your car is driving up a hill on cruise control.
Many jigsaws today come in two different body types: barrel handle and top handle (sometimes called D handle). I’ve owned both, and I have a personal preference for the barrel grip style because it’s easier to control when making fine cuts. Just like when using a router or other hand tool, a low center of gravity and a solid grip equals better control. With a top handle jigsaw, your hand is at the top of a taller machine and the tendency to tip over is greater. With a barrel handle jigsaw, the center of gravity is as low as it can be. There is a knob on the top, just above the jigsaw blade, for your other hand for better control. The large, round barrel is easier to hang on than the thinner D-handle.
Jigsaw manufacturers usually measure motor power in terms of amperage rather than horsepower. This is fine because amperage is a more reliable indicator of actual power than horsepower. The more amperage, the more power and effect is important when cutting thick or dense materials.
The speed of the jigsaw blade is expressed in “strokes per minute” or “SPM”. The more the better.
Depth of cut is something you want to consider when dealing with very thick or dense materials. In softwood, the depth of cut refers to the maximum distance between the bottom tooth of the blade and the foot plate of the jigsaw when the blade is fully extended. In metal, plastic or other materials, the depth of cut is based on the ability of the saw and blade to cut through dense or resistant materials.
Jigsaws are often used to cut expensive and delicate materials, such as veneered plywood sheets and a standard steel base plate, which can leave scratches as it moves behind the blade. Some manufacturers offer coated footplates, some provide an “overshoe” for the footplate, and some completely fail to address this problem. If you’re cutting delicate materials that can mar easily, pay close attention to this feature (or lack thereof).
Machine weight is the next consideration. My knee-jerk reaction is to look for the lightest machine so I don’t tire as easily during a long day of cutting. On second thought, the light weight is nowhere near the advantage it would be in e.g. an impact machine or electric drill, because the weight of the jigsaw almost always rests on the material being cut. Furthermore, light weight may mean that the manufacturer skimped on construction materials and possibly replaced plastic parts with metal as a cost savings.
Stroke length is the distance the saw teeth move up and down during cutting. This is almost universally one inch, so it is not a useful number when comparing models from different manufacturers. In general, the longer the stroke, the faster the cut and the shorter the stroke, the smoother the cut.
Jigsaws can make bevel cuts, usually up to 45 degrees from vertical, both left and right. The more slanted, the thinner the material that can be cut. Adjusting the slope can be difficult or easy. Some jigsaws require you to use a screwdriver, allen wrench, or allen wrench to loosen or tighten a set screw that holds the foot in a certain position. Other jigsaws are designed with the adjustment mechanism built in and therefore require no tools. Choose the latter whenever possible, all things considered.
All jigsaws vibrate and make noise. The less vibration and noise, the better. Vibration is transferred to the cutting point and affects your ability to control the cut. More importantly, vibrations are fatiguing when they enter the operator’s hand and arm. Different jigsaw manufacturers have approached this problem in different ways, but the most common anti-vibration technique is to “counterbalance” the motor. The second way is to put vibration-absorbing material on the external surfaces of the machine that come into direct contact with the operator’s hand(s). Of course, padding will not minimize the vibrations that are transferred to the jigsaw blade at the cutting point. Noise reduction varies by machine design, and the only way to make this comparison requires running the jigsaws you are considering purchasing.
Some jigsaws are equipped with a variable speed wheel to set the maximum speed of the tool for better cutting results in different materials. This is different from the speed control of the variable speed trigger. Full speed of the trigger will always be limited by the setting of the variable speed wheel. Most jigsaw triggers have a locking feature because keeping the trigger on all day can actually numb your hand. Barrel handle jigsaws do not have a trigger, but instead use a latch-type thumb switch. If you have the variable speed set to half speed and you lock the trigger or thumb switch, you will get half speed at full trigger deflection until you change the setting on the wheel.
Most jigsaws are equipped with some sort of air blower to keep chips away from the cutting line. The air blower on the earlier machines was located halfway between the operator’s chin and nose. Some manufacturers mount the blower nozzle near the cutting point, others on top of the machine. Some have adjustable nozzles. The important thing is effective removal of chips and dust so you can see where to cut.
Another aid for a clear view of the cutting line is a built-in light. LED lights are best because they are bright white and last almost forever. Just in case they don’t, see if they are replaceable and available.
There are several types of jigsaw blades and you will need to use the kind that your jigsaw is designed to accept. There is a difference between blade types. The T-shank is my preference because it stays locked in the saw piston. Other types include pincer shank and U-shank. Once you know what type of blades your jigsaw requires, be sure to check the availability of blade designs that fit the job you need to do. Rough cut blades drive through thick and coarse materials but leave a lot of splinters.
Fine-cut blades have many more teeth, leave fewer and smaller splinters, but cut more slowly and are generally shorter in length. They can also be thinner (front to back) to allow for tighter turns around sharp curves. They break more easily than a rough blade. Metal cutting knives are also available. Only use these for metal because they don’t cut wood very easily and will stick up and burn into wood. On the other hand, a wood carving blade will not be able to cut metal effectively. Depending on the manufacturer, there are many other specialized types of jigsaw blades available. Make sure you always have plenty of extra knives on hand to avoid unexpected trips to the store right in the middle of a job.
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