Secrets for Scrollsawing Success

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This article is from Issue 41 of Woodcraft Magazine.

From blades to tool tuning to cutting

By Rick Hutcheson

Because every tool must earn its shop footprint, many woodworkers question if owning a scrollsaw is a good idea. But for making inside cuts, multiples of curved parts, and crisp fretwork in stock up to 13⁄4" thick, no other tool contends. The trick is to cut smooth, splinter-free, unburned edges that replicate patterns effectively. I’ll help you get set up, and then lay down the skills for the essential cuts.

Talking teeth

Using the right blade for the task and material at hand helps guarantee your scrollsawing success. In the Blade Selector Chart is a rundown of the most common blades and when to use them. These numbers refer to the blade’s thickness, width, and number of teeth. Generally, the lower the number, the thinner the blade and the more teeth. As the blade number increases, so does the blade width and kerf, but the TPI (teeth per inch) decreases, resulting in more aggressive and coarser cuts. 

As a rule, rely on low-number blades for thinner materials (under 3⁄4" thick) and finer cuts. I do most of my scrollsaw work with 2/0, 2R, and 5R reverse-tooth blades, using the first two for fine detail lines and tight curves and the latter for general purpose cutting.

Place the rule to the blade in its downstroke position (A1).

Without moving the rule, raise the arm to its upstroke position. If a gap shows, adjust the Allen screw and thumbscrew so the rule and blade touch at both positions. 

Hold a business card against the blade and table to check for square; adjust the table as needed.

10-minute tune-up

After you’ve selected the right blade, install it and tune up your saw. Follow this exercise every time you begin a project and as needed during cutting.

• Adjust the blade stroke. Ensure the blade cuts straight up and down and is aligned with the stroke of the arm. Photos A1 and A2 show how to check for a vertical blade stroke and adjust for alignment.

• Square the table. With the blade stroke fixed, square the table to the blade (Photo B).

• Set the tension. Tension the blade until you hear a ping and not a dull thud sound when you pluck it. If the blade breaks right away in use, you may have overtightened it. If the blade wanders, it’s probably too loose and requires more tension.

Cut a cube from scrap. Pass the piece through the opening. If it passes freely, your tool is tuned.
With the cut direction established, relocate your body in line with the rule, and feed stock at this angle.

• Conduct a squaring test. To check if your tool is tuned, cut a small shape such as a cube from scrap wood. If the cutout piece slides out the top and bottom 

of the workpiece as shown in 

Photo C, then you’re ready to cut. If the cutout gets stuck at either end, further adjustment is needed.

• Check the blade tracking. Most scrollsaw blades (not precision ground) have a tooth burr along the right side (from the saw’s front edge), causing them to track to the right.  To adjust to this “wander,” push a piece of scrap straight into the blade in alignment with the top arm. Stop 2" in. Without moving the scrap, use a rule to show the angle of cut in relation to the arm as shown in Photo D.

Protocol For Patterns

Choose from two methods of applying patterns: 1) spray adhesive; 2) packing tape. The former method is the faster. To remove patterns applied with spray adhesive go with a heat gun or mineral spirits. With dense hardwoods like oak and cherry, the latter lubricates the blade and reduces burning.

Patterns with thinner cut lines are easier to follow. When cutting patterns with thick lines, those enlarged at a copier, for instance, you need to decide to either leave the line or take it. Typically, I cut along the outside edge of thick lines.

Use the index finger as the pivot point for turns and down pressure; feed the stock with the other hand.

Before leaving the cut area, remove any nibs with the burr side of the blade. (Nib exaggerated for clarity.)

Make quick work of outside corners by making a loop cut in the waste area of the workpiece.

The essential cuts and cutting

With the correct blade installed and the saw tuned, you’re ready to scroll. While some prefer to stand when cutting, I choose to sit so I don’t have to bend over the saw to work. I like the saw table chest high for maximum comfort and control.

Keeping in mind the established cutting direction, feed your workpiece into the blade. Due to the manufacturing process, most blades are burred on the right side. Sawyers take advantage of this defect by keeping the “save” piece to the right front edge of the blade where the cutting action takes place.

I don’t use the tool’s hold-down, nor do most scrollers. (It gets in the way.) And besides, that’s what your fingers do, applying slight downward pressure on the workpiece. In terms of cut sequence, always make your inside cuts first, followed by your outside or perimeter cuts.

As shown in Photo E, position your hands so that the index finger of one hand serves as the pivot point when turning the workpiece; use the fingertips of the other hand to grip edges and feed the workpiece into the blade. Depending on the cut line direction, you may need to switch hands and index fingers.

Upon finishing the cut you may notice a little nib left on the wood. Using the side of the blade with the burr, “file” off the nib as shown in Photo F. It’s faster than removing it with sandpaper.

When a cut offers a little cutting freedom, take it. For example, for sharp outside corners, rather than making a pivoting turn, simply make a loop cut as shown in Photo G.

Keeping the “save” piece to the right of the blade, saw in the direction shown for inside cuts.

Use nails in the waste areas when cutting multiples to hold the pieces together and provide handles.

Cut into a business card and tape it to the table for a zero-clearance surface for cutting small parts.

Sandwich thin metal between plywood to protect the edges and prevent scratching the workpiece.

To make inside cuts, first drill blade start holes slightly larger than the blade itself. Thread the blade into a hole and clamp it in place, applying tension. Now cut out the openings as shown in Photo H. At inside corners pivot the workpiece quickly or back out of the corner after cutting to it. Then sharply cut into the adjacent cut line.

Oftentimes you need to cut multiples of the same part. Depending on the thickness of the material, you can stack the parts and cut them at the same time. To do this, nail the workpieces together with the pattern on top as shown in Photo I. Limit the total thickness to 3⁄4" or less or you’ll risk making bowed cuts and invite blade wander. Locate the nails a safe distance from the cut lines.

Cutting small pieces can prove challenging. They can hang up on the blade opening in the table or drop through. Here, try my handy card trick in Photo J. It’s ideal for cutting tiny parts and puzzle pieces.

Cutting thin copper or aluminum rounds out the essential cuts. For crisp, unbent edges, sandwich the metal between two pieces of plywood scrap such as Baltic birch as shown in Photo K. Again, use nails to hold the stack together. 

About Our Author

Rick Hutcheson of Grimes, Iowa, has scrollsawn professionally for nearly three decades, cutting out designs for clients, performing workshops, and collecting scrollsaws of all vintages. He also operates a scrollsaw pattern business. Go to scrollsaws.com.

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