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What is a Scroll Saw?

Updated on November 11, 2009

The modern scroll saw is an electrically powered saw used for cutting detailed shapes  and it also has the ability to make interior cut outs in wood and other materials. A scroll saw functions much like a hand held fretsaw or coping saw but it cuts much faster and more accurately  than its hand operated counter-part.

A little Scroll Saw history:

Many people have not heard of a scroll saw or know what one is, but scroll saws have actually been around for many years, even before the electrically powered saws were available.

Below are three examples of these early saws. The pictures, prices and descriptions are from a book published in 1918. These saws are really interesting but there were many earlier models built with some being made of wood, some were foot-powered as in these pictures, and some used a flywheel that was turned by hand.

The Cricket Scroll Saw

This is the cheapest foot-power scroll saw that you can buy and is the one that sells for $4.50. It has a table that tilts which permits you to saw your work on a bevel - that is on a slant - so that you can inlay it with some other kind of wood or metal. This little machine weighs 17 pounds and is 33 inches high; it is made of lighter castings than the machines which follow but it will do just about as good work as the higher priced ones.

The Lester Scroll Saw With Turning Lathe Attachment

This is a well made saw, has a cast iron frame and the arms of the saw frame and the pitman - that is, the rod which connects the crank wheel with the frame - are of ash.

The Lester has several very handy attachments and these are:

(a) an automatic dust blower, which blows the sawdust away from the line you are sawing on;

(b) an adjustable lever saw clamp with a hinged jaw which prevents the saw blades from breaking; and

(c) a drilling attachment.

This saw costs $10.00, is 35 inches high and weighs in the neighborhood of 30 pounds. The lathe attachment costs $2.00 extra.

The Fleetwood Scroll Saw

This is the best and consequently the most expensive foot power scroll saw made. It has a swing of nearly 16 inches. It is fitted with a tilting table, a vertical drill and a blowing attachment. A scroll saw of this kind with a plain stand can be bought for $21.00, or one with a fancy stand can be had for $25.00.

These old scroll saws are interesting to look at and some are still in working order. A few avid scrollers have made an additional hobby of collecting antique and unusual scroll saws and related items.

Scroll saws have evolved considerably since the ones shown above were common, but those saws from the past still retain the distinction for having the most character.

To the right is a picture of the latest Dewalt model DW788 which is probably the most popular scroll saw in use today.

This slick saw has a powerful little motor with variable speed controls, a double parallel-link arm design which make the saw nearly vibration free and very quite. The lack of vibration helps the operator to cut more accurately. The unique design of the the arm keeps the blade perpendicular to the work surface which helps to avoid over or under cutting.

The DeWalt scroll saw has a handy up front tensioning lever, speed control and off-on switch, tool-free blade clamps (very important for fretwork) and a cast iron table that bevels 45-degrees left or right for added versatility.

There is also an optional stand or the unit can be mounted on a workbench or a shop-built stand.

The Dewalt DW788 is priced in the mid range of the commonly available saws at about $500. The Excalibur 30 saw which is made similar to the DeWalt but has a larger cutting capacity is about twice the price. Some models of the German made Hegner scroll saw approach  the $2500 price range.

But there are several scroll saws that cost less than the Dewalt with the Dremel pictured here being one of them. This saw sales for a little less than $250.

Although it has a smaller cutting capacity it is still loaded with features such as a variable speed motor with up front controls, a tilting table and the unique ability to rotate the blade 90 degrees to accommodate larger work. In fact, this unit is more than just a scroll saw, it is a complete workstation that includes a disc sander and accepts a flex shaft attachment to add the use of over 150 Dremel rotary tool accessories.   Pretty cool machine.

How does a Scroll Saw work?

A scroll saw has the advantage over any other type of saw because of it's ability to cut very intricate patterns with very small radius curves and for it's ability to make the same close radius cuts inside of the design as well as around the perimeter.

A bandsaw may be able to accomplish the outside cuts on some patterns but it can not make isolated interior cuts . A hand held electrical jigsaw or saber saw can do interior cuts but is restricted to curves with a much wider minimum radius.

For fine line and delicate work with inside cuts, called fretwork, the scroll saw is the tool to use.

The scroll saw can cut with blades that are very thin, small enough to thread thru a 1/32" hole. When sawing with blades this small, delicate fretwork can be created with edges that are very smooth requiring virtually no sanding.

To the right is an example of what could be a pendant, or possibly a Christmas ornament depending upon the size of the pattern. The black and white picture on top is the pattern.

When using a pattern, a light coat of temporary spray adhesive is applied to the back of the pattern then it is lightly pressed on the top surface of the material that is to be cut.  Small entry holes are then drilled in each area that is to be removed, as noted by the blue dots on the pattern shown here.

To cut out an interior area one end of the blade is detached from the scroll saw and threaded through the hole in the work piece then the blade is attached to the blade holder on the saw. The blade tension is then adjusted and the machine turned on then carefully following the lines the waste material is cut out and remove.   The machine is switched off,  the blade is loosen from the blade holder again and the blade is removed from that opening and threaded through another of the holes and that area is cut out.  The process continues until all the inside cuts have been completed.  Then the pattern is cut around the perimeter outline completing the cutting.  The pattern can now be removed and discarded leaving the completed cutting ready for a light sanding and finish.

This pattern only has 6 inside cuts. Some patterns have hundreds of cuts; some have thousands.

Other advantages of the scroll saw.

The scroll saw produces a very smooth and clean cut that requires little or no sanding. It also produces very little kerf (the area removed by the width of the blade) and this is important when cutting jigsaw puzzles and when doing intarsia and segmentation projects.

A scroll saw is the ideal tool for anyone who is just a beginning in woodworker or  who has only a small shop area.   Some people even operate scroll saws inside their homes or apartments because they produce very little sawdust and most are relatively quiet. 

Many projects can be made with only a scroll saw and a small drill for drilling the entry holes.

The scroll saw is extremely safe and, when accompanied by an adult, there is no reason why young children shouldn't be able to use the saw also. I have managed scroll saw  discussion groups for years and I have never heard of anyone being  cut by the blade,  other than maybe a small scratch.   A steak knife is actually more dangerous than a scroll saw.

One additional advantage to having a scroll saw is that it offers a way to a relaxing and rewarding hobby, and possibly some additional income.

There is much yet to be talked about concerning scroll saws and scroll sawing, so please check out my other hubs.



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      Multiman 6 years ago

      Good article

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      Bill Wallace 7 years ago

      I`m Bill Wallace. Am new at the Scroll Saw work or hobby. Am also 72 and retired USAF SSgt living in the Rockingham area of West Australia. Went to the wood craft show at the Perth Showgrounds today and saw the Scroll being demonstrated and a display of products made. Would the activity be found in the Mens Shed operation? There is one being started in Rockingham soon. Not sure if they will have the Scroll Saw, but will find out. Very interesting activity. A beginner outfit if available for $135. Just might get it. Thanks and look for your reply. My email is Later