What sort of woodworking projects interest you? How well equipped is your woodworking shop? Are your projects simple and straightforward, or are they involved, advanced, and intricate?
In past pieces we’ve written about saw inventory in the home woodworking shop. A table saw, a miter saw, and a circular saw are the power tools for all of us. But for more involved work, a band saw or a scroll saw are likely to be in that saw inventory.
Each is necessary for intricate designs, patterns, and curves. While a band saw has a band blade, banded on a loop, and moves in a continuous downward motion, the scroll saw has a smaller, finer blade that merely moves up and down, connected top and bottom at a pin-end. This distinction is a major difference between the two saws, with another being the size and thickness of the material they can handle well.
Here’s a helpful video that distinguishes scroll saws from band saws.
Scroll saws are very versatile tools. With the right scroll saw blade you can cut a wide variety of materials beyond just wood, including plastic, leather, paper, glass, tile, and more. Their finer blades are able to make more delicate cuts than other saws and make them easier to use than fine-toothed handsaws.
Their difference from other power saws also includes the tooth configuration on their blades. The teeth on the upper half of the scroll saw blades point downward, while the teeth on the lower half of the blades point upward. Since the blades cut on both the upward and downward strokes, you will get a much finer and more accurate cut on your workpiece.
What To Look For In A Scroll Saw
When choosing a scroll saw for your woodworking shop, there are some important considerations in selecting the right one for the work you intend to undertake. We’ve noted them in a past article on scroll saws, and you’ll find that piece here.
To highlight a few:
Blade changing. Pick one that makes this task easy, especially if you will undertake projects that might require a few types of cuts or will involve different materials – harder woods, softer woods, workpieces of different thicknesses, and so on.
Blade speed. Different materials require different blade speeds. Pick one that has variable speed control to make the scroll saw more versatile in your shop.
The table. A cast iron table is durable and long-lasting and will allow your wood to move smoothly over it. Cast iron tables also help dampen vibration during operation and cutting.
Dust port. This will help during cleanup, of course. And speaking of dust, some scroll saws will have a dust blower to blow dust off your workpiece so you can see the cut lines. Flexible dust blowers allow you to change the position and angle of the airflow to keep the workpiece clean during your cuts. It’s a terrific luxury if you will be using your scroll saw often.
Go for the throat. The distance between the blade and the back of the saw is called the throat. Somewhere between 16” and 20” should suit you just fine for most projects, although throats can extend up to 30” in some models. Unless you expect to be working with large pieces, though, the smaller throat should be adequate.
Scroll Saw Blades
With a variety of sizes and tooth considerations, choosing the right blade for the job does require some thought. Your blade inventory for the scroll saw will want to be varied to suit the different materials and thicknesses you’ll be cutting. The higher the number in blade sizes, the larger the blade.
- Higher numbers, and thus larger blades, will be your choice for thicker or denser workpieces.
- Larger blades (higher numbers) will be more durable and longer-lasting. They’ll also cut faster.
- Smaller blades (lower numbers) are the correct choice for thinner workpieces.
- Larger blades are the incorrect choice for more intricate cuts or tighter corners. You will want to choose the smallest blade size suitable for the thickness of the material being cut.
Teeth on scroll saw blades also differ, and the choice of tooth configuration will come into play depending on the project. Without getting too deep into teeth, but still wanting to help you make an informed decision, here are a few options:
- Skipping blades. Instead of beginning the next tooth at the end of the previous, these blades skip a space between teeth. These blades cut faster and clear away the sawdust, but their cuts are rougher than those blades where the teeth are evenly spaced along the span.
- Double Tooth with a Skip. Two teeth, and then a space, as you would guess from that. Smoother cuts, but not as fast.
- Two ways. Teeth alternate – one up, one down. You’ll get cleaner, smoother cuts, but again not as fast.
There are more types, but as you can see, choosing the right blade for the task requires you to have a few types handy in your shop.
Those projects may include inlay work, musical instruments, even dovetail joints, and other joinery techniques. So you can see with such finely detailed work capabilities with a scroll saw, the choice of both saw and blades becomes very important.
Let’s see a scroll saw in action in this Scroll Saw 101 video to illustrate some of what we have presented here so far before we get to the main question of the day.
Types of Woods and Thicknesses with a Scroll Saw
As you have read, scroll saws are an excellent tool for carving and cutting materials in intricate details and patterns with thin woods. While most blades could through woods that are 2” thick, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should. There is even a Goldilocks element to this point.
Thinner pieces of wood will give you less control with your cut; harder woods raise the likelihood of vibrations due to the wood’s resistance to the cut; and thick, harder woods can ruin your blade, or smoke/burn during the cutting if you push the piece too firmly against the blade.
Yes, a scroll saw can cut a 2 x 4, but should you? Even if you insist on doing so, make sure you use a large (high number) blade, and set the blade speed to the lowest possible level, pushing the piece very slowly through the blade. The better choice, though, is your band saw, which is better suited for thicker and harder wood.
So, wood thickness is important. While capable of cutting thicker pieces, it’s not advisable. Even if it’s a softer wood, it still can cause damage to the blade, or the saw, or your fingers if you push too hard.
The better, if not the best choice, is to work with wood up to about ¾ “ with your scroll saw. The saw is designed to cut delicate, complex patterns with intricacies that only the finer, smaller blades can handle. If you have thicker, harder wood to cut, your band saw will always be the better choice.
Choose softer woods to practice on until you feel comfortable with using your scroll saw. Plywood and cedar (although a little expensive) are good woods to practice on to get your scroll saw legs beneath you. Another choice might be poplar because of its even grain – an even speed and no need to swap out blades.
Plywoods have good tensile strength because of the way they are manufactured and offer a stable material to cut. But it will wear your blade down faster than a softer wood.
For harder woods, woods that will hold a pattern well for you, ash and maple can be good choices, but only after you’ve practiced and honed your skills a little. A lower blade speed will serve you well when working with these harder woods. Hickory, a less expensive hard wood, is also a good choice, especially with its great strength-to-weight ratio.
Generally, then, and while a scroll saw can cut 2” thicknesses, you’ll have better results with woods in that ¾ “ to 1 ¼ “ range. Choose the right blade and blade speed for the job and the wood, and you’ll be just fine. For anything thicker, or particularly hard wood, the band saw is the smarter choice.
Prices for Scroll Saws and Blades
Scroll saws will run from a low of around $125, with higher-end saws over $1000, depending on brand name, features, and quality. For the average home woodworking enthusiast, though, a good and adequate scroll saw can be found for under $500. Anything higher is better suited for professional fabricators whose work is almost exclusively with scroll saws.
As we mentioned, keep a variety of blades handy in the shop to increase your saw’s versatility. Packs of scroll saw blades are in the tens of dollars, so they will not break your budget.