A versatile machine. The band saw can be used for straight cuts of course, but it’s also handy for cutting cabriole legs, dovetails, mortise and tenons and much more.I once toured a very large custom cabinetmaking shop and noticed that they had no band saws. When I asked the owner what his reason was for not having one of these saws, he responded by saying, “Band saws are for curves, and when we need to cut a curved line we use either a scroll saw or a saber saw.” I was shocked to think that a multi-million dollar manufacturer of wooden products did not have one of the most valuable and versatile tools in the shop.
As a matter of fact, I have since toured many production and home shops that do not have band saws either. How can that be? I think the band saw is one of the most versatile woodworking tools. Yes, it can cut curves and irregular lines, but that is just the beginning. Band saws can be used to cut thick materials, re-saw lumber, make compound cuts such as those used for creating cabriole legs, reproduce or make duplicate parts with a high degree of accuracy, cut a variety of joints including dovetails and mortise and tenons, cut circles, square notches, make angled cuts, and of course they can cut any type of a straight line – both with a fence and freehand.
The band saw gets its name because the blade that cuts the stock is a narrow steel strip where the ends have been welded together to form a continuous band. It is usually not the first machine purchased by the home woodworker, but it can be one of the most useful machines in the shop. Band saws are not typically used in the final milling process to make boards square or S4S (surfaced on four sides) but they can be wonderful tools to help cut rough lumber to length and width before starting the milling process.
They are sold in a variety of sizes. I have heard over the years that the size of a band saw is determined by the wheel diameter or the distance from the blade to the throat. This measurement is the limiting factor on how wide wood can be cut to the left of the blade. Most home-shop band saws are 10″ to 14″ in size. However, this measurement or size limitation is only one part of the equation. The other consideration when determining the size of a band saw is the depth of cut it can make.
The depth of cut on a band saw is determined by the overall distance from the table to the guides when they are at their highest point. Generally, the larger the machine the more powerful it will be and the more capacity it will have. Bigger machines can typically accommodate larger-width blades which could be desirable for certain applications of re-sawing. All saws should be able to handle narrow blades.
The size of the table is usually not a consideration when buying a band saw, but the larger the table, the more support and control the saw will afford. Today, some manufacturers such as Powermatic offer extension tables that fill the void between the left side of the table and the upper arm. The size of the table will determine how much it can tilt to both the right and left of the blade. Most band saws can tilt 45° to the right and about 10° to the left.
The purpose of this article is not about how to select blades or whether or not to de-tension them when not in use. It is not about how to align the wheels or discuss the difference between bearing guides or cool blocks. Nor is it about the techniques of how to re-saw lumber, cut cabriole legs or how to make and use the variety of jigs and fixtures that make fancy cuts. There are a lot of good articles and books that have already been written on those topics.
The purpose of this article is to explain the proper and safe techniques for using this saw. For the purpose of proceeding, from this point on we will assume that the mechanical function of the saw such as blade tracking and blade tension, as well as the adjustment of the guides, are all in proper working order and adjusted correctly.
Band saws are quite easy to use and fairly safe, as long as you understand two basic fundamentals of the machine: the action of the cut and how to plan the cut.
Band saws do not create a kicking or throwing motion toward the operator. Instead they have pinch points. Because the cutting action of the blade is created by a downward motion, all cutting forces are directed toward the table. This all but eliminates kickback toward the operator. It can, however, pull the stock, especially small offcuts, through the throat plate toward the bottom guides. This in turn could possibly break the blade, damage the throat plate, wreck the guides and throw off the tracking, any of which could create risk to both the machine and operator. So what should you do with all those small offcuts? It is tempting to tap them away with another piece of wood or with your fingers. However, this would put your hands within the 3″ rule – which is in violation of safety rule number 1. These small offcuts cause no harm until you put them in motion. More than likely, the next piece of wood to be cut will push those small pieces out of the way. When the last cut is complete, wait for the blade to come to a complete stop before removing any offcuts next to the blade.
It is also important to know that the blade on a band saw will only cut on the front edge and not the sides or back. Since the sides and back have no teeth, wood that comes in contact with these parts of the blade will not be cut or pulled in any direction. Even if the sides or back of the blade do cause some kind of force to the stock, it will be minimal and more than likely not cause any risk. This is where some confusion comes in with the guides. The guides do not act as guards. Remember, the guides keep in close proximity to the side and back of the blade, yet they leave the business side of the blade totally exposed.
In order for a band saw blade to cut, the stock must be pushed or pulled into the descending teeth on the blade’s front edge. Band saw blades will not cut stock that is idle. The cutting action requires that the stock be placed in motion toward the rotating teeth. With stock sitting flat and supported on the table, it is fine to “let go” of the stock to reposition your hands while cutting. Once you stop pushing, the cut at the point of contact stops. This safety feature allows the operator to always be in control of the cutting action/motion.
It is not recommended to do sculptural work, round or unsupported freehand cutting on the band saw without providing some type of control under the work. For example, round stock at the point of contact is unsupported, which in turn can cause the stock to start to spin and be pulled into the blade. I recommend that a V-block be used to support all round stock to prevent this from happening.
Although it is not advisable to do sculptural work on a band saw, there are considerations that must be taken into account when doing this type of cut. It is important to set your work on the table to create the least amount of angle or “tip” between the stock, the blade and the table. When cutting wood that is “tipped” off the table, the support is gone and the blade will want to grab the wood and slam it toward the table. This pulling will be sudden and can create a major pinch point. If you ever make this unadvisable type of cut, set your work so that the angle of the pinch point is minimized.
Planning the Cut
Usually, the correct cutting position for operating a band saw is to face the blade. However, you can operate it by standing to the right-hand side or the back of the saw if it places you in a better position to see and control the work. (Be aware that if the blade breaks and is thrown from the saw, it has a tendency to whip to the right-hand side as you face the band saw.) Make sure you keep a well balanced stance. Think about your body position at the starting point of the cut as well as at the finish point of the cut to avoid overreaching.
Before the saw is turned on, the upper guides have to be adjusted for the height of the wood being cut. A good rule is to set the guide about 1/4″ above the top edge of the stock. Keep in mind that the upper and lower guides are not guards, but are guides. The function of these guides is to support the blade and to help it run true. They also keep the blade from drifting and deflecting during the cut.
Two things are basic to properly functioning guides: feed rate and the amount of pressure applied to the stock as it is pushed into the cutting path of the blade. Both feed and pressure will depend on the kind and thickness of wood, and the size of the blade and speed that it is traveling. If the feed is too fast, the saw blade will chatter and squeak as the back of the blade is pushed against the ball-bearing blade support at the back of the guide. If the stock is fed too slowly into the blade, it could cause burning. Pushing too hard with one hand or the other could cause the blade to be pushed sideways, resulting in wear on the side guide system. This could cause the blade to dull or break and will more than likely result in an uneven cut.
When the work is so large or heavy that it causes you to pay more attention to supporting it than cutting it, an extra hand or support system would be a good idea. Always let the machine build up to full speed before starting.
Before you cut wood it will be important to think about the path of the cut. Some pieces will swing in such a way that they will not clear the main upper arm support. Without a plan, you might find yourself in a position where backing out of the cut might be necessary.
There are a few simple rules for backing out of cuts: It’s OK to back out of straight cuts but not OK to back out of curved cuts. When backing out of short, straight cuts, the blade remains unaffected in the cut path and the stock has little chance of catching the back of the blade. But when trying to back out of a curved cut, the stock can catch the back of the blade and pull it off the wheels. If you find that you need to back out of a curved cut, simply shut the machine off and use a stick to steady the motionless blade while you remove the stock. If your project requires that cuts be made from two sides, always make the shortest cuts first. This will make backing out easier. Whenever possible, it is better to cut through the waste rather than backing out.
Cutting inside corners that are either radiused or rounded can best be accomplished by pre-cutting on either the drill press or the mortise machine. This is an especially handy idea when you have tight radii or need a high degree of accuracy. When cutting outside radii it would be a good idea to make relief cuts to help keep the back of the blade from binding in the kerf. These relief cuts allow waste stock to fall away as you are cutting to provide more room for the blade to turn.
One interesting fact about the band saw is that cuts are usually made freehand, by good old hand-eye coordination. Making accurate cuts depends on the tension and tracking of the blade along with good feed direction. The basic cutting rule is to keep the blade on the line that you have drawn. Most woodworkers push wood into the blade when making cuts on a band saw. This seems to be the natural and usual way to cut either curved or straight lines. However, I teach students that sometimes it is better to cut by “pulling” the wood into the blade by positioning their hands to the outfeed or back side of the blade as soon as possible. Make sure to allow for the 3″ rule. If you watch the hand position of professional scroll saw craftspersons, you will see that they have a tendency to place their hands to the back of the blade. This gives them better control, allows for better sight of the line and, most importantly, keeps their hands away from the front of the blade.
Remember: The back of the blade does not have teeth so if by accident your hands were to somehow slip or contact the blade, nothing would happen. If you keep your hands on the infeed side of the cut, if you slip, your hands could fall directly into the blade side with the teeth.
Whenever I re-saw, I place both hands to the pull side as soon as possible and try to avoid using my thumb as a hook on the end of the board. Sometimes when re-sawing if there is a lot of stress in the board, the last few inches of wood could pop open suddenly and if your thumb is hooked on the back it will immediately continue, with force, into the front of the blade resulting in a serious injury.
There are no real guards on the band saw other than the guard that prevents undue blade exposure. This guard is usually well above the guide system. It’s important that you establish a boundary of 3″ around this guide/guard system and make it a rule that your hand not encroach this area. If you’re cutting very small or short pieces, use double-stick tape to adhere them to a larger board that places your hands beyond the boundary. Never flick away small pieces with your hands; I’ve had several people over the years tell me they got cut on their band saw by inconsequential hand movement.
Another rule about hand placement is that when you are pushing wood from the front side of the blade, the farther away your hands are from the blade, the better leverage you will have to turn and make corrections. It seems natural to place your hands as close to the blade as possible to gain control of the cut, however, I believe you have better control with your hands farther away. Try this for yourself. Take a large piece of scrap plywood (at least 24″ x 24″) and draw a curvy line down the center. If you keep your hands close to the blade, just beyond the 3″ limit, you will find it difficult to control the turning motion of the cut. Now place your hands at the back edge of the board and notice the gain in control. I recommend that you either learn to pull wood through the cut by placing your hands to the back of the blade, or that you position your hands as far away from the blade as possible to gain leverage.
Important Safety Steps – The Process
The following is how I teach students to accurately and safely use a band saw. There are so many situations that we simply can not cover in this article. All of these rules will apply in most situations. The key is to learn good common sense. If you follow these steps and make them a part of the sawing process, then the “skill” of using a band saw will always be accurate and be safer for the user.
1. Wear protective personal safety gear. Remember your eyes, ears and lungs. Make sure all loose clothing is secured and away from any action that could pull it in – no gloves. Always stay alert.
2. Keep the guards and guides in place and in working order. Make sure there are no chips or offcuts that could affect the performance of either. Make sure the upper and lower wheel guard doors are closed tightly before turning on the saw.
3. Use proper blades that are sharp and well maintained. Be aware of proper blade tension, tracking and alignment. Use the correct blade for the type of cut being made. The narrower the blade, the sharper the curve it will cut. Wider blades should be used for larger curves and re-sawing.
4. Make sure that all moving parts are free and clear. Maintain a regular maintenance schedule and read the important user information in the owner’s manual.
5. Because the main guard on a band saw is used to prevent excess blade exposure and is located above the guide systems, it will be very important to establish a boundary limit of 3″ from that blade that your hands will not enter.
6. The upper guide system should be set to approximately 1/4″ or less above the height of the work surface. If the guide is too high, the blade will not have the proper support and that could cause the blade to twist.
7. Be aware that the right-hand side of the saw is where broken blades have a tendency to travel. Keep bystanders away from this area.
8. Always keep your fingers and hands away from the path of the blade. Avoid using your thumb(s) to hook behind your work to push the work forward.
9. Always use push sticks, featherboards, or any other necessary safety device when cutting small or short stock, or as a way to gain control. Remember that double-stick tape is a great way to hold small parts to larger, more manageable materials.
10. Do not attempt to cut stock that does not have a flat bottom surface (such as round stock) unless a suitable support is used or your work is clamped to a sound surface of some sort. Always remember that the table is your control surface.
11. Hold the material firmly and feed it into the blade at a moderate speed – never force the cut. Allow the machine to come to full speed before making any cut. If the motor starts to slow down and drag, you are feeding the stock too fast.
12. As a general rule, it is OK to back out of short straight cuts. Turn off the machine if the work is to be backed out of curved cuts. It is a good idea to make release or relief cuts before cutting long curves. Without relief cuts, the blade could become pinched in the work; this will dull or break the blade.
13. If the blade breaks, shut the machine off and stand clear until the machine comes to a complete stop. Unplug the machine and wait for the motor to stop rotating before you open the doors.
14. Keep a balanced stance while using the machine. It is possible to move from the front of the saw to the back to pull your work through, because there are no kickback forces. It is recommended that you get help if your workpiece is too large for one person to safely handle.
15. Never try to pick up or push away small offcuts that are next to the blade. Because there is no kickback hazard, learn to leave these pieces alone. If they are in the way, shut off the machine and wait until the blade comes to a complete stop before removing any such piece.
16. Do not overfeed or force your stock into the blade. It can reduce blade life and cause blade breakage.
17. When cutting with the table at an angle, be sure to block or clamp the workpiece to prevent it or the offcut from falling off the table.
18. Give the work your undivided attention. Make sure you shut the machine off when you are finished. Never leave a running band saw unattended. PW
Marc Adams is the founder of the Marc Adams School of Woodworking in Franklin, Ind., one of the largest woodworking schools in the world. For details, visit marcadams.com or call 317-535-4013.