Fine Woodworking Tools We Love: Jigsaw

Cutting Dovetails with a Jigsaw - Fine Woodworking When I started woodworking, I had a lot of tools to acquire. Of course, the table saw was the first big purchase. After a while, I got a really nice sliding miter saw, and then a planer. One of the ‘big’ tools that took me a long time to acquire was a bandsaw. I love a good bandsaw, don’t get me wrong… in fact, my co-operative shop had three! But I never forget how useful a high-quality jigsaw can be in fine woodworking and furniture making, and continue using one in my shop today.

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Cutting Dovetails with a Jigsaw - Fine WoodworkingOne of the things that makes a jigsaw so versatile is the variety of blades available. Here are five blades specifically made for cutting wood; a short, thin blade that excels at nimble tight curves, a super aggressive blade for demolition work, a traditional up-cut blade for clean cuts, a down-cutting blade for a clean top surface, and lastly, a long, wide blade for cutting thick timbers. Additionally, there are blades specifically for steel, aluminum and composites too.

Cutting Dovetails with a Jigsaw - Fine WoodworkingThis slab of red oak is super heavy… maybe 70 or 80 pounds! While a jigsaw is an excellent tool for processing rough timber in general (as opposed to a circular saw which can bind and kick back), it can even cut complex shapes on the end of 3-inch thick slabs like this one. By bringing the tool to my work I save time, and more importantly, my back.

Cutting Dovetails with a Jigsaw - Fine WoodworkingThe jigsaw is capable of remarkable precision too. The blade barely wandered while cutting this behemoth plank. Jigsaws made today have a guide bushing that controls the blade as it oscillates up and down, making it much more accurate than models made in years gone by. As with other tools, dull blades and incorrect feed rate dramatically affect tracking.

Cutting Dovetails with a Jigsaw - Fine WoodworkingAnother advantage of the jigsaw is the ability to change the blade in a split second. To switch from one blade to another on a bandsaw takes at least 10 minutes. The guides have to be adjusted, and the blade tensioned properly. In contrast, changing the blade in a jigsaw is a flip of the thumb and twist of a finger. Making these two cuts on a bandsaw would have taken 30 minutes!

Cutting Dovetails with a Jigsaw - Fine WoodworkingYou may ask, well what about cutting circles; the bandsaw does that really well. I made a simple jig for cutting circles with my jigsaw too. Two pieces of wood ‘clamp’ the base of my jigsaw to an armature with a ruler drawn on it. The work piece has to hang off the edge of a table and rotate as you cut, but that isn’t that big of a deal. Easy!

Cutting Dovetails with a Jigsaw - Fine WoodworkingIf I need to cut a curve on a smaller piece, like this arched stretcher, I clamp the stretcher to a sacrificial piece of inexpensive plywood and hang it off my bench. The plywood supports the waste piece, which in turn provides a stable base for my jigsaw to ride on as I make the cut.

Cutting Dovetails with a Jigsaw - Fine WoodworkingThese dovetails are an example of how quick and precise a jigsaw can be. It took me about an hour to cut the tails and pins with a jigsaw and clean the cuts with a chisel. Once I apply glue, this box will literally last a lifetime. While I wouldn’t recommend the jigsaw for super-fine dovetails, the jigsaw can certainly make work-a-day dovetails perfect for some projects. If I am only removing waste and then cleaning up with a router, I find the jigsaw gives me a great sightline for cleaning up big planks before I move in with the calipers.

It is true, there are a couple of things that the bandsaw can do that the jigsaw cannot. Most glaringly, the jigsaw in no way can facilitate re-sawing for veneer or maximizing thick boards. This job requires a continuous blade and a fence, neither inherent to the jigsaw. The other is making very small or thin curved parts, where the table of a bandsaw provides a stable and safe surface for cutting. But I would like to be on the record as an advocate of the jigsaw as a fine woodworking tool. If you’ve been avoiding curves in your woodshop because you don’t have a bandsaw yet, put that assumption aside, and go invest in a decent jigsaw ($100.00 will get you a very nice jigsaw these days). Many projects with curves came out of my shop before I had a bandsaw. Now that I have access to a bandsaw, I certainly don’t regret owning a jigsaw… it just makes me faster and more versatile than ever.

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13 Responses to “Fine Woodworking Tools We Love: Jigsaw”
  1. MTAV

    I agree Seth, the Jigsaw is a very versatile saw. Even though I have a BS I use the jigsaw (or as some call it sabre saw) frequently. The neat thing is that, as you say, it can cut other materials as well, such as, steel and aluminum….a real advantage.

    Reply
  2. MTAV

    I agree Seth, the Jigsaw is a very versatile saw. Even though I have a BS I use the jigsaw (or as some call it sabre saw) frequently. The neat thing is that, as you say, it can cut other materials as well, such as, steel and aluminum….a real advantage.

    Reply
  3. jpbrady1

    A jigsaw was all I had for several years and I got very good at adapting it to any of the projects I had on the workbench.

    Reply
  4. jpbrady1

    A jigsaw was all I had for several years and I got very good at adapting it to any of the projects I had on the workbench.

    Reply
  5. SAKeller

    Hi MATV and jpbrady-
    The jigsaw is such an amazing tool, but one that often goes overlooked. I bought my first jigsaw at the same time I bought a reciprocating saw… I just couldn’t stomach the thought of buying a tool designed for demolition when all I wanted to do was make things, so I compensated by buying one that takes things apart, and another for creating!
    Seth

    Reply
  6. SAKeller

    Hi MATV and jpbrady-
    The jigsaw is such an amazing tool, but one that often goes overlooked. I bought my first jigsaw at the same time I bought a reciprocating saw… I just couldn’t stomach the thought of buying a tool designed for demolition when all I wanted to do was make things, so I compensated by buying one that takes things apart, and another for creating!
    Seth

    Reply
  7. Joe Legault

    Could you take a bit more about feed rate and deflection? I have a Ryobi 6.1 amp Jigsaw. , and I tried to cut 2 pieces of 3/4″ Oak plywood so I could get identical cuts, however, to my dismay I ended with a wicked angle on the bottom piece. (I watch some guy in a video do it and it worked for him. The top piece wasn’t very all that great either..

    Reply
    • WWGOA Team

      Hi, Joe. There could be a number of factors. Two layers of ¾” oak ply shouldn’t be too hard to cut, but you need to make sure you’ve got a fairly aggressive blade on the saw, around 20 TPI should be ok, but reduce that to 12 TPI if necessary. If the saw has an orbital action I’d set it in a mid-range. That helps the blade clear the waste, but will give you a rougher cut. As you feed, let the blade do the work. It’s very possible to keep moving forward, while at the same time distorting the cut. Especially in thicker stock. Finally, different saws have different tolerances. I’ve never used the Ryobi saw so I don’t know how it cuts. Hopefully with the right blade and feed you can get it all to work.

      Reply
      • Matt T.

        I have experienced a similar issue when I tried to cut insert holes for drawers in a 1×12 piece of knot-free pine when making a coffee/train table for some friends. I first tried using the jigsaw (Dewalt, using the orbital action) for the whole thing–while the top side of the cut was straight, the bottom side waved all over the place. After a couple attempts, I finally gave up in frustration and used my circular saw for the majority of the cuts in order to keep them straight and then used the jigsaw just to finish off the last little bit in the corners. I couldn’t understand how it kept deflecting so much when I made sure I didn’t feed too fast or twist the jigsaw too much to stay on my layout line; due to that tainting experience I now hesitate to ever use the jigsaw and always try to accomplish cuts with anything but it.

        Reply
      • Peter Karpf

        My .02 is the Ryobi is the lowest quality saw at HD. Step up to almost anything else and watch the results.

        Reply
  8. Eric Turner

    For cuts like your stretcher cut I built a box that has a 2′ x 2′ top and mount my jigsaw on the bottom of the top with the blade sticking thru. If you drill a hole and add a zero clearance insert you can then cut like a scroll saw and because the blade is cutting on the down stroke you don’t get tear out on your piece.

    Reply
    • Kelly Craig

      Starting back about forty years ago, I had a B&D jig saw. I couldn’t kill the thing, but also couldn’t get a straight (defection free) cut out of it on a 1/4″ pieces of balsa wood. Too, it went broke blades just sitting there, it seemed. From there, I jumped to the great saws of Sears. With those, I could, at least do a little acrobatic work, as I made my angled cuts.

      When I started getting more serious about woodwork, I started investing more in this heavily used tool. I bought an expensive, commercial grade B&D one, which was touted as having ball bearings, in hopes it would last more than six months. On tearing it apart to repair it, I learned their idea of a ball bearing was to drill a hole through a bronze ball.

      About that time, I heard of some company called Bosch. I read a little on it and went for broke. About one hundred seventy dollars worth of broke, about twenty-five or thirty years ago. I was, immediately, in love with the saw. I was able to make square cuts in thick stock. The blades lasted (in all these years, I’ve broken only a couple bayonet woodworking blades and about twelve metal blades, out of the hundreds I’ve bought), and the thing is still alive all these years later, though it, now, lives at my brother’s house.

      I upgraded it a few times and I stay with the barrel model, which was acquired only because the dealer was all out of the “real” ones. Now, I prefer the control they offer.

      My current model needs no tools to change blades or to adjust the angle of cut. Just as with my first Bosch jig saw, I use the current one to cut fine letters into 3/4″ stock, to scroll through 2-1/2″ stock and so on.

      In short, spend the money on a Bosch or Festool, if you want a saw to last a lifetime, and to do the tough stuff. If you’ve never ran other than a cheap saw and blades, you will be nothing short of amazed.

      Reply
  9. Peter Karpf

    Praise the jigsaw! So many furniture makers look down on the jigsaw, and I think it relates to their teachers and the low quality of jigsaws in the past. Necessity dictated my jigsaw use, and now it is an everyday tool. Get a cordless and learn how easy they are to use!

    Reply