Puzzling Out The Jigsaw
A jigsaw is an extremely versatile power tool. It is capable of cross cuts, ripping, straight and curved cuts, plunge cuts, beveling and mitres. In a pinch it can be used instead of a number of other tools (but won’t give quite the same quality of finish or be as easy); these include a band saw, circular saw, scroll saw and router. They’re also pretty cheap tools so it’s likely you’ll pick one of these up before buying any of the more specialized tools above.
A jigsaw essentially consists of a motor with a reciprocating saw blade attached. The blade is the possibly the most important part of this tool; different blade types will allow you to cut different materials and achieve differing levels of finish. I’ll give more information on blades a bit later on.
Let’s have a quick history lesson here. The origin of the jigsaw goes back to the 1940s to an engineer called Albert Kaufmann. After seeing the action on his wife’s sewing machine he replaced the needle with a saw blade and suddenly he could make detailed and delicate cuts in wood.
Jigsaw power options
The first decision when buying is whether to go for a pneumatic or electric jigsaw. This will most likely come down to personal preference, but if you think about your usual type of project it’ll probably guide your decision.
Pneumatic jigsaws aren’t as common as electric, but they do have a few advantages. They’re a lot safer to work with under wet/damp conditions as you’re not going to get electrocuted; and they’re quite powerful (more so than battery powered ones at least). Once you’ve charged your air compressor you also don’t need a power outlet. If you’re just working at your home this likely won’t be an issue, but if you’re a professional working on a customer’s drive this could be the single most important point. They’re also quite a bit lighter than either electric variety (excluding the compressor of course).
If you go for an electric jigsaw then you’ve got another decision, corded or battery.
A cordless jigsaw has some benefits over its corded brother; you don’t need to worry about whether you’ll have a power outlet available. If you don’t have a cord you also don’t need to worry about cutting through it while you’re focussing on your cut. Of course a drawback to not having a cord is that you are reliant on batteries, so you need to keep them charged and maybe have a couple so you can be charging one while using the other. This can be expensive though as batteries aren’t cheap. Disadvantages include being the heaviest type (blame the battery), and having less power than corded/pneumatic so you’re going to be restricting your maximum cut depth straight away.
Corded jigsaws have more power than cordless, but you’re going to have to work within a maximum distance from your power outlet. You’ll also need to be very safety conscious; it’s easy to lose track of where your power cord is and you could get a nasty shock if you cut it.
Now that you’ve decided on your power choice lets start going through some other features that you might be interested in.
Orbital or pendulum
This just describes the way the blade moves. Regular jigsaws move the blade in an up/down motion. An orbital jigsaw also moves the blade forward/backward at an (adjustable) angle. You can change the angle to match the material that you are cutting. The benefit of this is threefold.
- You’ll be able to cut more aggressively through thicker or harder materials.
- As the blade moves backwards, away from the material, it will momentarily be able to cool. Combining this with not having to push as hard when you’re cutting, means that the blade will be less likely to overheat and scorch your project. This could mean a longer life for your blades, saving you some money.
- If you’re cutting wood this also allows the sawdust to drop away from the cutting line, when the blade moves backwards, which gives you a better line of sight to the cut.
Variable speed control
Most jigsaws will allow you to control the speed of the blade. This can be very important depending on the types of materials that you’ll be cutting. As a general rule, the harder the material (e.g. metal), the slower the blade needs to be moving; and the softer (e.g. wood), the faster the blade should be going.
This simply allows angled cuts in both directions. The benefit here is that you won’t have to move either your work piece or yourself to bevel on both sides.
This can really make seeing your cutting line a lot easier. Don’t rule it out just because you’ve got lights in your shop!
Quite a simple thing but, again, this can help you follow your cutting line by projecting a line showing where your jigsaw is pointing. This can help if you have trouble wandering off your cut line.
The same as any tool used for woodworking, if you’re collecting your dust as you go then it’s not flying around in your face (or lungs) and there’s less to clean up afterwards which is always a bonus!
Jigsaw blades types
Jigsaw blades come in several varieties depending on the type of material they are designed to cut. You’ll probably get an all-rounder blade with your jigsaw, which will give ok performance in a few different materials; but you’ll most likely want to buy a specialised blade almost straight away.
There are a few things to consider when selecting a new blade – check out my article on band saw blades too, as they’re quite similar.
- Blade material
- Teeth per inch
- Tooth set
- Blade width
Most blades are made from one of three types or material.
Tungsten carbide: These work best for cutting masonry or ceramics.
High-speed steel: These are good for lighter metals of soft woods such as pine.
Bi-metal: Use these for heaving jobs, such as harder metals and hardwoods like oak.
Teeth per inch
Shortened to TPI, this measures how many teeth are in each inch of the blade. This will determine the type of material the blade can be used for along with both the speed and quality of the cut. A low TPI (6-20) is suitable for soft materials. This will result in a fast cut that needs some sanding to smooth it off. Harder materials need a higher TPI (14-36) and will be slower to cut.
The tooth set will be either ground or milled. Ground sets have a fine point, will cut slowly but result in a higher quality cut. Milled sets are good for fast, rough cuts and are blunter. Milled sets tend to last longer than ground sets.
Blade width is measured from the back of the blade to the tips of the teeth; this has the biggest impact on the radius of a cut that you’ll be able to make. A thinner blade will make a tighter radius cut. If you’re doing a straight cut then use the widest blade your jigsaw can accommodate as this will result in less wandering.
So you’ve got your jigsaw and an appropriate blade, before you go and have some fun you’ll need just a few more things to keep you safe and get a decent finish.
- Eye protection
- Ear defenders (depending how loud your saw is)
- A face mask to reduce your dust inhalation
- Saw horses, a jigsaw table or a workbench to hold your work-piece
- A few clamps to hold it securely
So there you have it, all the information you need to help you choose the best jigsaw for your projects. Just make sure you use an appropriate blade or you’ll risk damage to the blade and maybe even your new saw. And, of course, remember to play safe!