Master the Jigsaw

With a jigsaw with a steel base, such as this Metabo, you can correct a warped base. First put the saw on a known flat surface and look for gaps.

With a jigsaw with a steel base, such as this Metabo, you can correct a warped base. First put the saw on a known flat surface and look for gaps.

The jigsaw generally gets a bad rap as a rough tool that’s best suited for kitchen installations and odd-ball carpentry jobs.

And while I do use my jigsaw for coarse operations – I also consider it one of my essential tools for building fine furniture.

With the right blade, a little confidence and – most important – the right body position, you can do almost anything with a jigsaw that you can do with a band saw. Plus you can do a lot of things that are impossible to do on the band saw.

You also should try rocking the base on the flat surface. If the saw rocks, it won’t track a line well.

You also should try rocking the base on the flat surface. If the saw rocks, it won’t track a line well.

Here’s a taste: Recently we were installing a kitchen and had to remove 1″ of the depth from a finished cabinet against one wall. The only tool I needed was a jigsaw, and it took just a few minutes to do the job.

Here’s another: Early in my cabinetmaking career I made historical reproductions for another shop down the road. A lot of these pieces had fancy bracket bases, but we didn’t know what the profile would be until the customers placed their order. So we had to cut the scrollwork on the base after the entire cabinet was assembled. This technique worked so well that it’s how I do many of my cabinets today.

These cuts on the bracket base, when done well, require little or no sanding. I can usually just hit the edge with some sandpaper and am done with it.

A pair of pliers can fix most problems with a steel base. Hang the troubled corner off your work surface and grab it with the pliers. Lever it up or down and then check your results.

A pair of pliers can fix most problems with a steel base. Hang the troubled corner off your work surface and grab it with the pliers. Lever it up or down and then check your results.

And, of course, I’ve used my jigsaw for rough carpentry: cutting vent holes in roofs, framing stud walls, cutting drywall, PVC pipe and sheet metal.

A lot of woodworkers lack the confidence to make finish cuts with a jigsaw, but I contend that it’s easier than you think. Read this article, then take some strips of plywood and practice some cutting in the shop. It doesn’t take much practice to get good at it.

Choosing a Saw
This isn’t a tool review, but there are some general guidelines I would follow when buying a jigsaw. First, if you cannot afford a good saw, I’d wait until you can.
What’s a good saw? When I buy a jigsaw I’ll first turn it on. If it’s relatively quiet and doesn’t shake too much, that’s a good sign – low vibrations contribute to a smoother finished cut.

I also don’t like it when a jigsaw heats up in use. Again, this is something that you can only check by turning on the saw and putting some time in on it.

Your index finger should be extended when you grip a jigsaw. This is one of the cues to your body to cut straighter.

Your index finger should be extended when you grip a jigsaw. This is one of the cues to your body to cut straighter.

I also prefer the barrel-grip designs to the traditional top-handle designs – although a Metabo top-handle design is used for this article because top-handle models are more common. The top-handle tools are good, too, but the barrel grips allow me to get my hand closer to the work, which improves my accuracy.

Preparing the Tool
Jigsaws tend to get handled a little roughly and are frequently knocked around or dropped. This rough treatment is hardest on the base of the tool.
Why should you care? If you’re having trouble tracking a line then chances are your base is out of kilter. And if you can feel the tool rock on the work, your base is definitely not flat.

There are two flavors of bases: cast metal and stamped steel. If your base is a casting (as in the jigsaw shown at right), you can crack the base if the jigsaw takes a tumble to a concrete floor. If your base is stamped steel you can bend it back, but these steel bases seem to go out of alignment more often. So neither base has the real advantage in my mind.

If I suspect my steel base is warped I’ll place it on a known flat surface, such as my table saw, and see if I can detect any problems with my eyes or by rocking the base of the jigsaw at the corners.

These two blades  are all I need for cutting wood: The Bosch T101B for most cuts and the Bosch T119BO for tight scrollwork.

These two blades are all I need for cutting wood: The Bosch T101B for most cuts and the Bosch T119BO for tight scrollwork.

If I find a problem, I’ll bend the high corners down with pliers.

Another thing to check: Routine use can cause the base to tilt a degree or so. I’ll check the blade with a square to ensure the blade is 90° to the base.

Most jigsaws have orbital settings – these control how much the blade moves forward and backward as the blade moves up and down. At “zero” the blade moves only up and down and is not aggressive. At “three” the saw is a monster.

For building furniture, I keep the saw set to “one.” This offers a good balance of a fine but aggressive cut. When dealing with thick stock, I might switch to “two.” When I’m poking a hole in a roof: “three.” I almost never use “zero” because I find that the saw cuts so slow that it heats up the blade too quickly. Sometimes I’ll choose zero when working in plywood, however, because it does reduce chipping on the face veneer.

I use the T119BO blade only for tight-radius work, such as the small radius in this bracket foot.

I use the T119BO blade only for tight-radius work, such as the small radius in this bracket foot.

Most jigsaws also have a speed setting that you should be aware of. Usually there’s a dial that limits the jigsaw’s top speed. But the trigger allows you to increase and decrease the speed in that speed range with finger pressure. On a jigsaw with six speed settings, I’ll generally keep the top speed at “five.” I use the slower speeds for metals and plastics.

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