Welcome new Scroller! We've composed a primer for you...
"I am pretty new to the scroll saw..."
If you are, then, welcome friend! Scrolling is a time-honored, rewarding skill and hobby. We have some great information for you. Grab a cup of coffee and take some time to read the "Beginner's Guide" here.
You may have heard that scrolling is an expensive hobby. Sure, there are some up front costs as with any hobby, but even if you buy all new equipment you can easily get started for under $200. If you're a garage saler, if you go to auctions, or if you know someone with a scrollsaw to sell, then it can be even less expensive and you can have an adequate saw.
This article touches on SAW SELECTION, BLADE SELECTION, BLADE TENSIONING, + MORE...
Step 1 -- Purchasing a Saw.
If you're just getting started, we don't recommend paying more than $200 for a new scroll saw at a retail store. There are many decent models right around $150. You probably don't want to buy the most expensive equipment when you're just getting started in any new hobby because you can always upgrade once you're hooked -- the machines that are in the price range we recommend can do most projects.
As with any piece of equipment you buy, the more features you add, the higher the price goes. Keep in mind that many "add-ons" can be purchased later and affixed yourself, like a light bulb or dust blower/collector. It's easy to set up a work light with a clamp or stand, so keep this mindset when you're tempted to go with a more expensive model. One extra you might want to consider as a factory option is a variable speed control. You can't, to my knowledge, add a speed control as an aftermarket accessory.
Possibly THE most important decision to make when buying a scroll saw is whether to get a machine that takes "pin-end" blades, or regular "flat" blades. Ease of blade changing and tensioning with pin-end blades might be attractive, but read on to find out all the facts...
The advantage to pin-end blades (pictured above) is that there is no clamp to work and you can easily set the tension immediately as you lock in the blade. Tensioning the blade in the machine is something that scares a lot of people into going the "pin-end" route -- but I'll warn you, the advantages to using a pin-end system are small and short-lived. I talk to a lot of pin end blade users and their complaint is always: lack of blade variety and the inability to slip the blade through very small holes in various projects.
The metal of pin-end blades is necessarily thicker in order to receive the pin. If the metal is too thin, the pin will not work from an engineering standpoint. The thicker blades cause a couple of problems.
1. The blades will break more easily on tight turns
2. The big pin will not fit through small holes you drill -- you will be limited in what type of projects you can do.
There are some machines that are set up to take both flat end and pin-end blades, in which case, you might be OK if you're dead set on using pin-end blades, but this scroller can’t in good conscious recommend going with a machine that takes pin end blades. You would have to buy a completely different, new scroll saw in order to change from pin end to flat end.
Other aspects to think about when purchasing your first scrollsaw are:
- Size of the table (work surface)
- Adjustable speed or constant speed
- Fancy add-ons like lights, blowers, etc.
- Brand -- important for some people
Scrolling is such a user-specific hobby. By that I mean if you were to ask 5 scrollers the same question, you'd likely get 5 different answers. Each scroller develops in a different way, using different blades, and different techniques. . .so you're going to have to use your knowledge of yourself and your own likes/dislikes when it comes to some of the decisions on selecting your first scroll saw -- and many of these decisions are going to end up being based on personal experience with scrolling; so you have to "get into it" before you know what you want.
Brand can be a big deal to some people, like Chevy and Ford. Craftsman is good, DeWalt is good, Dremel is good, but maybe you don't care or maybe you've had good or bad experience with these or another brand -- I can't tell you which brand to choose. Keep in mind though, that the electric motor is one of the best, most maintenance-free devices ever created and that's what's at the heart of every scroll saw. The motor is NOT going to fail 99.9% of the time you purchase a product with an electric motor, so consider other factors. You could also go over some of the many top 5 lists on the internet for some quick inspiration.
Adjustable speed is nice and can come in handy, but it's not necessary. That said, being able to dial down the speed of the blade does have certain benefits, specifically for the beginner, in that it has the ability to cut more slowly which allows for more control and an easier learning curve without leaving burn marks on the wood. Again, in the old days, there was no adjustable speed and some how we did just fine without it!
Dust blowers, lights, foot pedal power operating switches -- all of these "add-ons" can be considered as you see fit.
Step 2 -- Selecting Blades
If you've just purchased a saw, odds are the manufacturer will include a few sample blades included with your saw. Keep in mind that those blades are in there because that blade company had marketing connections, not necessarily because they are the best blade maker.
Hands-on experience and "tinkering" is the best teacher, so if you already have some blades laying around or a buddy will give you some, my best advice is to just start cutting and get a feel for what each size and/or type of blade will do.
As I've said before, ask 5 scrollers the same question and you'll likely get 5 different answers -- and each answer may well be "correct".
Basic answer: To find a BRAND, you'll need to experiment with blades.
Brand of blade aside, here are some basic guidelines for blade selection:
First, on the numbering of scroll saw blades...here is a general scale from smallest to the largest -- note the change from 1/0 to 1:
- Smallest size blade... 3/0, 2/0, 1/0 ----- 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12 ...to the Largest size blade.
The smallest blades which deliver the finest cut are your "nought" blades 3/0, 2/0, 1/0, as they are called in the hobby. These blades can get almost as small as a strand of human hair for the finest work, but for most scrollers you should probably stock 1/0 blades at first and go from there.
Here's an idea of what you'd be cutting with various sizes of blades:
- 2/0: 1/8"-1/4" softwoods, lots of turns or very fine detail...
- 1: 1/8"-1/4" softwood or hardwoods with detail...
- 5: 3/4" stacked or unstacked material...but not very fine detail... (When I say "stacked material" I refer to a technique used by scrollers in which multiple pieces of 1/8" or 1/4" material is taped together with double-sided tape (or nailed, etc.) so one may cut the same pattern from multiple work pieces at one time, rendering multiple projects from just one pass of the saw blade.)
- 12: Up to 1" of material, usually used for cutting pieces to size...
Keep in mind, this is a general guide, again. . . You need to play with the different sizes to see what you find them best for -- ask 5 scrollers, get 5 answers.
The thicker and/or harder the material you're cutting, the "larger" blade you will need to make the cut. The more detail-oriented the project you're cutting, the "smaller" or more precise blade you will need. As you can see, there is a balancing act to play between a blade sturdy enough to cut your material VS. a blade fine enough to make the detailed cuts your project requires of you!
Now that you have an idea about the sizes of blades, let's discuss the main types of blades which are currently available. Reverse-tooth, skip-tooth, double-tooth, and non-reverse blades are the most commonly touted blades.
Reverse-Tooth blades have 3/4 of the teeth which cut down through the wood from the top, while the remaining 1/4 of the teeth point up and slice through the wood on the upstroke of the saw -- this leaves far less sanding to do on the reverse side of the piece you are cutting...that's the main reason people like them.
Skip-Tooth blades, as the name implies, are missing every other tooth. This makes for a more aggressive cut and the cavity created by the missing teeth pulls some of the saw dust up and out of the project and some say reduce wood burning.
Double-Tooth blades, again as the name implies, have two teeth where only one tooth normally resides. Despite the extra tooth, these blades cut less aggressively which allows for better workpiece control for the beginner or special projects.
Non-Reverse blades are generally considered any blade with full "toothage" in which all teeth point the same direction, that direction being down.
For simplicity's sake, I've put together what I consider a "Beginner's Pack" -- it's a suggested place to start and have a blade for every occassion...
- "The Beginner's Pack of Blades" (A suggestion:) 2/0 -- Great for detail work. 1 -- Still good for detail work, but for thicker/harder stock. 3 -- Cut stacks or hardwoods with a bit of detail. 9 -- Aggressively rip anything to size for subsequent detail working.
If you go with the above selection of just four blade sizes, you should be able to tackle just about any scenario pretty well. Then you’ll get an idea of what the sizes of blades really means to YOU and which work best for your application.
What TYPE of blade to use? As a catch all, I recommend the Reverse-Tooth. These blades really do reduce sanding and tear out on the bottom of your project, giving you a nice clean cut with a still-very-controllable cutting action.
What BRAND of blade to use? I recommend "Flying Dutchman" blades. I'm not a salesman for them, but I find them to be the best quality. Again, ask 5 scrollers and you'll get 5 different opinions about who makes the best blade.
A great source for scroll saw blades is here: www.ScrollsawBladesPatterns.com
Step 3 -- Tensioning your blade properly.
Finally. You've got a saw. You've got a blade or two. What's next?
Tensioning a blade in the machine. You'll hear everyone you talk to say you need to tune it to a "high C" note. That's not very helpful unless you have perfect pitch in your ear, or if you have a tuning fork in high C note.
This is just one of those things you'll have to learn for yourself. The note IS indeed distinctive and you'll recognize it and remember it once you get it. It is a high pitch sound that, well, just SOUNDS right to the ear. It's a "ting".
A couple more general things about blade tensioning...
If the blade is too tight you will break blades often. If the blade is too loose, you will break blades too often!
The blade should appear as a single black line when the machine is running. If it looks blurry, it is probably wobbling from being too loose in the clamps. If the blade pops out of your clamp, it's probably too loose (you can also try rubbing sand paper on the clamp faces to roughen it up and give the blade something to grab onto).
Step 4 -- What are you going to make?
You certainly don't NEED a pattern to have fun with your scroll saw (though I'm sure you'll want one eventually to make a really cool project).
One great idea I've heard is to go grab a leaf out of your back yard. Just trace it onto wood with a pencil and get to cutting -- just jump right in! Learn how your scroll saw cuts. If you have a pattern, however, you'll need to affix it to the wood stock. Scrollers in the past used carbon transfer paper and traced EVERY line onto the wood.
Nowadays, most people use 3M 77 spray adhesive. By spraying a light coating on the back of which ever pattern you're going to use, letting it dry to the point of being sticky, then applying it to the wood, you'll find you can cut right through the paper and into the wood. Later, peel off the pattern. It usually comes off easily, but if it does not peel right off try heating the pattern/adhesive up with an iron or hair dryer. If all else fails, you can sand the pattern off, but that is a messy option to be avoided if at all possible.
During the course of your scrolling, you'll eventually make something which requires an inside cut to be made. Many projects have MULTIPLE inside cuts, possibly even hundreds of inside cuts if it is a super-detailed project!
When an inside cut is required, you must drill through the wood, usually close to a corner or "knook". Use a drill bit just slightly larger than the blade you plan on cutting the piece with, then you can insert your blade up through the hole, re-attach and tension the blade and begin your cut. When you've reached the end of that inside cut, it's time to un-hook the blade, remove the work piece and repeat as necessary.
Step 5 -- How do you cut with a scroll saw?
Never, with any tool for that matter, NEVER, "hog" the wood or attempt to force it through the material too quickly.
Allow the blade to do the cutting. This is one of the skills that cannot be explained, it just needs to be learned through experience and practice. You need to keep the work piece moving. Try to keep the piece moving steadily, not turning off the machine until you're finished cutting the line you're working on or unless you've run into a safety problem with your work.
Remember, it's always easier to back a blade up when the saw is running. If you let the saw run too long, though, with the blade in one place, it will begin to burn the wood due to the friction the moving blade is creating against the wood. Start out with a simple project. A puzzle perhaps. Long, smooth lines with very little detail are the best to start with and get a feel for how the saw cuts.
Practice, practice, practice.
Safety, safety, safety. Watch those fingers. Take your time and enjoy!
I hope you've enjoyed this little guide. I hope you've learned something or that I've at least perked your interest in the scroll saw and removed any feelings of fear or confusion about getting into this rewarding hobby. Scrolling is truly a great hobby with a rich past.
Thanks for reading and enjoy your scrolling!