What Is The Difference Between A Band Saw And A Scroll Saw?

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How many types of saws are there?  After attempting to make a list, we stopped at 3 dozen and figured simply that there were a lot.  Power saws, hand saws, specialty saws, portable saws, job site saws, and the list just kept going.  

Today’s piece is about two power saws that have one similarity:  they each have a vertical blade.  After that, they diverge in many ways that include cutting motion, blade size, and purpose.  The right tool for the right job is our often-used expression, and these two saws have distinct talent, capability, and purpose.  

The band saw and the scroll saw are the burly and the refined, the power horse and the delicate one.  You’d choose one over the other for the task at hand based upon that sort of distinction.  Let’s look into this a bit.

What is a Band Saw?

Band saws are not new to us at Obsessed Woodworking, and are not new to these pages.  You’ll find past articles on band saws here, here, here, and here in answer to a variety of questions.

Band saws are power tools that have a long, continuous blade held in a vertical position that stretches between two wheels, one of which is powered and the other of which acts as guidance for the blade.  These wheels keep the blade circulating continuously.

The workpiece is pushed through the blade as it circulates, and since the blade circulation is continuous, piece after piece can easily be cut.  The table is usually made of cast iron, providing strength and stability while workpieces are pushed against the blade.

The strength of the band saw is the type of cuts it can make, cuts that other saws in your woodworking shop can’t make.  Neither your table saw nor your miter saw can make curve cuts, but that is a specialty of the band saw.

Its versatility extends to other cuts as well, including:

  • Crosscuts;
  • Bevel cuts;
  • Compound cuts;
  • Miter cuts; and,
  • Rip cuts.

You could use your jigsaw to cut curves, too, but jigsaws cannot compare with the bandsaw for cabriolet table legs and irregular shapes.  Bandsaws are also a great choice for resawing lumber or ripping large slabs into smaller slabs.

Bandsaw Size

Band saws come in a variety of sizes and with a variety of blade dimensions to choose from.  The size of the bandsaw is measured from the blade to the shaft which serves as the return path for the blade as it is circulated by the two wheels.  That shaft is called the throat.

The distance between the blade and the throat determines the size of the largest piece of wood the saw can cut safely.  Some bandsaws do come with a fence, too, which will also factor in determining the largest piece of wood the saw can cut.  Absent a fence, the straightness of a cut will have to rely on the steadiness of your hand while pushing the wood against the circulating blade.

Bandsaw Speed

A safe speed of 1000 feet per minute for the circulating blade will be adequate for safe cutting.  However, speeds of up to 5000 feet per minute are possible, but slower does mean safer.

Blade tension will also come into play when safety is a consideration.  As you’d expect, a taut blade makes a better cut safely.  Manufacturers will recommend a tension of between 15,000 and 20,000 PSI for a typical carbon steel blade.

What Can a Band Saw Cut?

Wood, of course, is on the list, but so are metals.  It is quite common to see a band saw in a metalworks shop used in the fabrication of tool-making.  Plastics are on the list as well.

Bandsaw Advantages

  • Fast cuts;
  • Curves and irregular cuts are its strength;
  • Minimal waste, as the kerf is narrower than table saws;
  • Ripping large lumber into thin strips is another strong talent;
  • Safety – the blade cuts on the downward cycle, thus keeping the workpiece solidly on the cast iron table and eliminating the risk of kickback.

What is A Scroll Saw?

Earlier we wrote of the burly saw and the refined saw, the power horse and the delicate horse.  In the case of a scroll saw, imagine a mini-me version of a band saw, with a smaller and finer reciprocating blade (moves up and down) to make your cuts instead of the circulating blade.  

Used to make intricate designs and patterns with curves, the scroll saw’s fine blades make more delicate cuts than other saws, and makes them easier than fine-bladed hand saws.

The throat on a scroll saw, as with a band saw, determines the maximum size of the workpiece you can cut.  In the case of the scroll saw, the throat refers to the back of the saw.

Most projects will require between 16 inches and 20 inches, although some scroll saws will provide 30 inches.  However, you pay extra for the distance, and since most projects, you will likely take on won’t require it, save the money.

We’ve written of scroll saws in the past, and for more detailed information about them, their blades, and their abilities, you will find a good article from us here.

How Does a Scroll Saw Work?

The blades of a scroll saw are connected top and bottom, rather than banded in a loop like a band saw.  The blades move up and down while you push, turn and twist your workpiece through the blade.

The blade differs from that of a band saw in a very important way:  the teeth on the top half of the scroll saw blade point down, and the teeth on the bottom half point up.  This enables the blade to cut on both the downward and upward stroke, allowing an extremely accurate and fine cut of your workpiece.

There are a variety of blades to choose from, and you will want to have several to choose from in your inventory depending on the project.  Cuts are not limited to exterior, as interior cuts are also possible with a scroll saw, and in fact, it is their strength to make intricate designs and patterns.

Changing blades is easy with most scroll saws.  This becomes important when working on intricate interior cuts that call for different blades to address different degrees of difficulty and fineness in the cuts on a single workpiece.

Variable speeds is also a scroll saw feature.  Scroll saw speed is measured in strokes per minute.  Both variable speed and two-speed are options when choosing a scroll saw for your shop, with variable speed models giving you more options. 

Speed will be determined by the material you are cutting.  For instance, plastics should be cut at a slow blade speed so as to avoid heat buildup.  

What Materials Can a Scroll Saw Cut?

We’ve just mentioned plastic as a material scroll saws can cut, but the list contains more.  Wood, of course, but also metal, brass, copper, leather, and bone can be cut with a scroll saw.

As you move along that list and your projects vary, you will need to choose the correct blade size, tooth count, and blade speed depending on the material you are cutting.

As for size of the materials, a scroll saw is well suited, generally speaking, ¾ “ wood is the maximum size for detailed cuts.  Anything thicker should be cut with a band saw, although you will not get the intricacy of patterns or curves with a band saw you get with a scroll saw.  

Scroll saws can also cut plywood, although the ¾ “ thickness rule applies equally when doing so.  We will mention that it is possible to cut a 2 x 4 with a scroll saw, so long as you choose the largest blade available, set the blade speed to the lowest setting, and move the piece very slowly through the blade.  But, we recommend you stay with the thinner pieces for scroll saw use, and let the band saw take care of the 2 x 4s.

The Differences Between Band Saws and Scroll Saws

We’ve given you enough information about each type of power saw to discern the differences.  We’ll set them out here for a quick reference you can return to when you are considering one or the other for your woodworking shop:

  • Talent.  Band saws are great for cutting curves and irregular angles in your workpieces, are powerful, easy to use, make quick cuts, and can handle many different cutting tasks; scroll saws are less powerful but more detailed and refined in the cuts you can make with them, are easy to use, and although capable of making quick cuts they are better used in making slower and more detailed cuts.
  • Blades.  Band saw blades run in a continuous loop with larger blades capable of cutting much thicker pieces easily, including ripping lumber, making bevel cuts, miter cuts, and more.  Scroll saw blades move up and down, teeth angled differently between their upper and lower halves, giving you the ability to make very fine and detailed patterns and curves both in exterior and interior cuts.
  • Price.  Band saws will run from around $400 to more than $4000, and are floor saws that remain in their place once set.  We’ve written of a very decent Rikon Band Saw model that is in the range of $430.  Scroll saws can run from $80 to $2000, with $400 being the average.  The casual, weekend woodworker can find a very suitable scroll saw for less than $200; the more advanced woodworker, someone producing workpieces intended for sale, should expect a range of between $400 and $1000.

While a bit oversimplified, this video will give you these same basic differences and explain each saw’s strengths and weaknesses for your projects.  

Each power saw is a worthy part of your shop’s inventory, and which one you choose will depend on your experience and the types of projects you will undertake.  The cost advantage for the average woodworker is in the scroll saw’s favor, but if your projects will involve larger pieces to cut that will not require fine detail, the band saw is the better choice.  Its versatility in tasks outlined above also might weigh in its favor.

Either way, these are terrific saws if you have the room space and budget space for them.

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