One of the lesser-known power saws available to the DIY-er is the scroll saw. The scroll saw is a tabletop machine that does its cutting via the use of a very fine blade allowing for very small, very high precision cuts. This can be in different materials including wood, plastic and metal. As the blade is so fine, the scroll saw tends to cut very cleanly, meaning that the sanding down of the cut surface of the workpiece is usually unnecessary. Scroll saws are also useful for making internal cuts. That's because they can be set up beforehand to position their blades for an internal cut. Scroll saw blades can be detached, threaded through a workpiece pilot hole, and re-attached again before starting the cut from the most ideal location.
Scroll saws tend to be used by people interested in ornamental design in wood, also known as fretwork, where very precise cutting is needed. However, the scroll saw is also useful to the regular DIY-er when a small or highly precise cut is called for.
In this review of scroll saws, we first look at the different components of this power tool type and the features to look out for when choosing one for the home workshop. Following this, we look at some of the popular scroll saws that are available to DIY-ers in the UK.
What to look for in a scroll saw
As with all power tools, there are a number of different makes and models of scroll saw from which to choose from, each one exhibiting its own features and functionalities. So what are the critical elements to look out for when buying a scroll saw today? Let's take a look…
Probably one of the most important differentiating factors of a scroll saw is its throat depth. Similar to pillar drills or drill presses, the throat depth on a scroll saw is the distance from the blade to the rear vertical support of the upper blade cutting arm (see picture below). As with pillar drills, the greater the throat depth of the scroll saw, the greater the versatility of the machine as wider workpieces can be accommodated more easily on its work table. On most consumer machines, this can range from about 400 mm to 760 mm.
Compatible blade types
Another critical differentiating component of scroll saws is the type of blades they are compatible with and the mechanism through which the blades are attached to the machine. There are two main types of blades:
- 1Pinned blades
- 2Plain blades (also known as Pin-less or Unpinned)
Pinned blades have integral pins at their ends which serve as the anchor points for the blade in the oscillating arms of the scroll saw. Because of the need to incorporate these pins into their structure, pinned blades have to be larger than their unpinned brethren, which in turn makes the pinned blade less able to make very tight turns in a workpiece. In addition, because of the bulkier nature of the pinned end, this can make it difficult or even impossible to thread a pinned blade through smaller pilot holes when doing internal cutting.
On the other hand, pin-less blades can be ultra-fine, allowing for very detailed cutting and turning within the workpiece. In addition, threading the blade through a small pilot hole is usually not a problem for an unpinned blade, although the mechanism of blade-holding on the scroll saw can determine how easy it is to set up the blade in this way.
Quick-release blade tensioner
Scroll saw blades need to operate under a certain level of tension for them to cut properly and avoid breakage. Lower-end scroll saws will have a cruder mechanism for tensioning the blade. In the case of pinned blades, this usually involves attachment of the blade to the scroll saw before tensioning the blade to the correct level using a dedicated tensioning control. For unpinned blades, an extra step of attaching tool holders to the blade (often requiring a hex key tool) is also often required before placing the blade in the scroll saw and tensioning as before.
Higher-end scroll saws, on the other hand, will often do away with the need for the upper tool holder and instead have a mechanism to clamp this end of the blade directly. This clamping mechanism is usually operated by a quick-release lever that also simultaneously tensions the blade. This quick-release mechanism can make for quicker blade changes compared to machines that use the more traditional way of putting tension on the blade. Since blade changes on a scroll saw can be quite a frequent process, this is an important parameter to consider when choosing a scroll saw.
Most scroll saws can oscillate their blades within a range of speeds. This allows the scroll saw cutting action to be adjusted to optimise for the type of material being cut. For instance, when cutting metal, the ultra-fine blades of the scroll saw tend to heat up quickly, especially at high speed, so running the scroll saw at slower cutting speeds can extend their lifespan. Most consumer scroll saws operate in the range of approximately 300 - 1500 strokes per minute.
The maximum thickness of the material being cut
When operating, the upper scroll saw cutting arm is situated a certain distance above the cutting table. This means that scroll saws have a maximum thickness of material that can fit between the oscillating blade arm and the work surface. However, most consumer scroll saws in the consumer space conform to a standard maximum thickness of about 50 mm of wood, so the decision on this specification is mostly already made for you.
Blade cutting arm type
Scrolls saws are quite dynamic machines, and the oscillating arms on the scroll saw tend to generate a lot of vibration, especially at higher oscillation speeds. Excessive vibration can be quite annoying for the operator, but also work accuracy on the scroll saw can be negatively impacted by the unwanted movement. In general, the shorter the oscillating arm, the less vibration transferred to the body of the machine. This, in turn, means a more stable cutting surface from which to make more accurate cuts.
The work table dimensions on a scroll saw is another parameter one should take into account when looking to buy a machine. That is because getting a scroll saw with too small a work table can mean that larger workpieces will not be sufficiently supported. This can lead to inadvertent tipping of the workpiece during cutting which increases the risk of blade bending and breakage. So taking a few moments to consider the largest size of stock you will be working with is often a worthwhile enterprise before buying the scroll saw.
The mechanism for bevelled or angled cuts
Many scroll saws incorporate the ability to angle their blades relative to the workpiece to produce angled or bevelled cuts. There are generally two mechanisms through which scrolls saws achieve this. Lower-end machines will tilt the work surface of the scroll saw while keeping the blade fixed in the default upright position, while higher-end machines will move the cutting arms instead while keeping the work table on the machine flat. Keeping the work table horizontal is the better option here as the workpiece is less likely to slip to one side while cutting it. This usually increases the accuracy of the scrolling and generally just makes it more comfortable for the operator to work on.
Unlike other power tools, choosing a scroll saw based on its power level is less important. Although higher power machines should mean cutting harder materials faster without slowing down, scroll saw blades are relatively fragile and will likely break before a machine stalls from lack of power. As a result, the power of a machine is a less critical parameter when choosing a scroll saw.
Popular Scroll Saws in the UK
|Einhell TH-SS 405E|
spm: Strokes Per Minute
** Plain blades are also known as Pinless or Unpinned
Scroll Saw Reviews
Axminster AC405SS Scroll Saw Review
If you're not looking to spend an arm and a leg on a scroll saw, then the Axminster AC405SS is a reasonable candidate to consider. The AC405SS belongs to a generic category of scroll saws, of which there are a few members, that all conform to the same basic design. Indeed, these generic machines are so similar that their component parts are almost certainly manufactured in the same set of Far Eastern factories, before being uniquely branded according to the company that will ultimately go on to sell them, in the case of the AC405SS, Axminster Tools. Comparing the AC405SS scroll saw side-by-side with some of the other generic member machines reveals its close similarities to the same basic template, but also highlights what makes the Axminster model different.
The AC405SS has a 125W brushed motor that can generate a variable speed of 550 to 1600 strokes per minute and is capable of cutting through timber up to a thickness of 50 mm. It has a tear-shaped table of 410 mm × 254 mm in size and a generous throat depth of 406 mm, both metrics being identical to the other generic machines on the market. The Axminster scroll saw is built on a cast-iron base providing stability and robustness to the machine. Unfortunately, the tabletop is not made of cast iron but instead of less robust aluminium, however, for beginner scrollers, this is more than sufficient. The table can be tilted to the left up to 45° for cutting at an angle, and at this maximum angle, the saw can cut through timber workpieces up to 20 mm in thickness.
Like most of its generic siblings, the Axminster scroll saw can make use of either pinned or plain (pin-less) blades to do the cutting. However, it is recommended to leave the use of pin-less blades for fine work only, as changing this type of blade is always a more difficult affair on these generic-type machines. Tensioning of the blade is achieved through a knob on the rear of the support arm, which also plays a role in quickly releasing the tension when blades need to be changed.
As for the scroll saw blades themselves, the Axminster AC405SS comes natively with a single starter blade of dubious quality, but thankfully, Axminster has seen fit to include a pack of high-quality (Swiss-made) Pegas blades, allowing the scroll saw novice to get going right away, albeit with the more difficult pin-less variety.
One overriding discrepancy with the AC405SS concerns the screws used to hold the plain blades in place. These Allen key-operated screws are responsible for keeping the blade attached to the scroll saw rocker arms as they move up and down. Unfortunately, given that they are made of relatively soft metal and given that the amount of force needed to secure a pin-less blade is quite high, a very common problem with these screws is that their hexagonal receptacle is easily stripped and rounded out. Fortunately, this is such a common problem, that Axminster sends out, no questions asked, replacement screws. For a better solution, however, replacing the inferior M4-sized screws that come with the machine with hardened steel equivalents (often procurable from other online sources) permanently addresses this issue. And for even better performance, replacing the screws with M4 thumbscrews will also eliminate the need for a separate Allen key to tighten them, increasing the overall speed of the blade-changing process. An added complication also comes with the lower pin-less blade clamp screw in that it is harder to access. Fortunately, the side panel of the scroll saw can be easily unscrewed and removed, providing greater access to this partially hidden component.
Like other generic machines, the AC405SS also incorporates an air blower which, on the Axminster machine, consists of a transparent tube connecting the saw’s air bellows with a fixed steel tube. The blower is meant to keep the cutting line clear of dust and debris. Unfortunately, as the steel tube is rigid, it does not lend itself well to being finely adjusted in order to direct the flow of air and to maximise the blowing away of sawdust from the cutting area. Since other generic machines make use of a Loc-Line-type modular hose, which is far better at allowing the user to set the direction of airflow, the use of the steel tube is a surprising choice for Axminster, which usually provides greater functionality parts over other budget machines.
As for workshop cleanliness, the AC405SS, like other generic machines, incorporates a 35 mm dust extraction outlet that can be attached to a workshop vacuum to aspirate away the sawdust as it is being produced. This is a useful feature especially since the transparent perspex cover over the cutting area tends to attract dust by static build-up, obscuring the operator’s line of sight. However, having the vacuum port protruding from the front of the scroll saw means any vacuum tubing runs out towards the operator and can act as a bit of a nuisance obstruction. One recommendation to get around this design oversight is to use fixed piping, such as waste plumbing, to redirect the vacuum opening towards the side of the machine.
Weight-wise, the AC405SS is only 11.5 kg in weight, light by scroll saw standards especially compared to more professional machines. This makes the machine easy to move around the home workshop, something that is often important in what is usually a space-limited place. However, the relative light weight of the AC405SS also makes the machine more susceptible to vibration. As a result, it is highly recommended to bolt the scroll saw down to a solid surface using the 3 mounting holes in the cast-iron base. The use of rubber washers or rubber matting in-between the scroll saw and the solid surface is also generally recommended to cushion out some of the bigger vibrations.
On the more negative side, there are a couple of components we would have liked to see on the AC405SS but have not been included. One such component, found on some other generic competitors but missing from the AC405SS, is the inclusion of an integral work light. Fortunately, this is easily rectified by using a separate direct-able spotlight available from most home hardware stores or online retail outlets. In addition, some generic counterpart scroll saws have been configured to include a useful pedal switch to control the machine, however, this is not the case for the Axminster AC405SS, where no such facility has been included, not even for an after-market device.
Overall, the Axminster AC405SS, like its generic homologues, is designed for the hobbyist or DIYer working in the home garage or workshop. This scroll saw type is not the biggest, nor the best, nor the quickest for blade changing, but it does represent a lightweight good-sized alternative for the non-professional. The AC405SS has most of the same functionality as its generic competitor machines but, surprisingly, some useful components have not been included (presumably to keep the cost down) which reduce its functionality compared to a couple of these competitors. However, what the AC405SS lacks in functionality, it makes up in pedigree, coming with good support and a standard 3-year warranty from a solid UK bricks and mortar company.