A jigsaw is rightly regarded as the most versatile of all handheld power saws. Its narrow blade and reciprocating blade action make it ideal for cutting curves in just about any building material, but it can also make straight cuts of various types—even miters and bevels, though sometimes accessories such as straightedge guides or miter gauges are needed for specialty cuts. The main advantage of a jigsaw is its ability to use a wide variety of interchangeable blades. This makes a jigsaw an extremely versatile tool that most DIYers will want to own.
What Is a Jigsaw?
A jigsaw is a handheld power saw with a straight serrated blade that is open on one end and cuts through a variety of materials in an up-and-down motion.
The term jigsaw was once used for the stationary saw now known as a scroll saw, but since the 1960s, the label jigsaw has increasingly come to refer to a hand-held motorized saw with a narrow reciprocating-action blade. The term "sabre saw" is now synonymous with jigsaw, though at one time a jigsaw was considered to be the version with a shank control knob that allows you to turn the blade sharply for very tight curves.
Jigsaw vs. Reciprocating Saw
A reciprocating saw is very similar to a jigsaw in its action—the blade cuts by a back-and-forth motion, but with a reciprocating saw the shank and blade are oriented in the same line as the body of the saw, with the gripping handle and controls at the end of the body. By contrast, a jigsaw's spindle and blade are arranged perpendicular to the saw's body and handle. While some jobs can be accomplished with either tool, the shape makes a jigsaw more effective for carefully controlled, precise cutting, while a reciprocating saw is better for coarser cutting, such as severing plumbing pipes or doing demolition work.
Costs range from $30 to $300
Best for detailed work and curves
Dozens of blade styles available
Costs range from $45 to $500
Best for rough work and demolition
Blade options are more limited
Parts of a Jigsaw
A jigsaw consists of just a few main parts, as well as some smaller components that vary depending on the design of the tool.
- The base plate of the jigsaw that smoothly rides across the top of the work material is called the shoe and, on most jigsaws, this can be rotated to make it possible to cut material at different bevel angles.
- The part you hold is the handle and tucked beneath the handle is the trigger or on/off button.
- The last major component is the blade, which is attached to the reciprocating shank of the saw.
More advanced saws have a variety of electronic controls that make the tool more versatile. When purchasing a saw, you may want to consider features like:
- Variable speed: Different materials have different optimal cutting speeds, and a variable speed saw makes it easier to cut all materials, from hard metals to the softest woods.
- Variable orbit action: High-end saws allow you to change the elliptical shape of the cutting orbit, which lets you increase the aggressiveness of the cutting action.
- Integrated dust blower: Some saws have a built-in air blower that clears sawdust from around the blade.
- Job light: Better saws have built-in LED lights that make it easier to follow a marked cutting line.
- Keyless blade shank: Better tools have a spring-loaded blade release that makes it easy to remove and attach blades without any additional tool.
What Blades to Use
Jigsaws are useful for cutting materials like wood, particleboard, plywood, metal, plexiglass, vinyl, plastic, cement board, and even tile. Blade manufacturers typically label blades according to the materials they are designed to cut, which makes it easy to choose the right one.
Jigsaw blades are also categorized according to the number of cutting teeth per inch (TPI). In general, the larger the number of teeth, the smoother the cut will be since individual teeth are smaller. Fewer teeth-per-inch means larger teeth and a coarser, quicker cut. For smooth cuts on finer woodworking projects, a high TPI blade is recommended. Cutting metal also generally calls for a fine-tooth blade.
Aside from TPI count, blades vary in their thickness and width. For curved cuts, narrow, thin blades work best, while for straight cuts, wider blades will be more stable and less likely to wander away from the cutting line.
There are a vast array of jigsaw blade styles to match almost any type of cutting need and any material—from plastic and leather to high-carbon steel and stone. Along with a good jigsaw, a DIY toolbox should include a good array of basic metal-cutting and wood-cutting blades in fine-cut and coarse-cut variations. Additional specialty blades can be purchased as the need arises.
Before using a jigsaw or any other power tool, first put on eye protection to guard against flying sawdust. Contrary to popular belief, you should not wear gloves, as the blade can grab the loose materials and pull your hand in with it. For the same reason, loose clothing should be avoided when operating a jigsaw and hair should be tied back out of harm's way. To prevent the material from jumping, you should clamp it down to a work surface. Lastly, always ensure the power cord is out of the way where you can't trip on it or cut into it.
How to Use a Jigsaw
Prepare the Workpiece and Accessories
Jigsaws cut on the upstroke of the blade shank, and the reciprocating action can cause the workpiece to bounce and "chatter" unless it is clamped in place to a workbench or sawhorses.
Because they cut on the upward stroke, jigsaw blades can sometimes cause some splintering on the top side of a workpiece, so a common technique is to cut with the finished side of the workpiece facing down. This prevents splintering on the side that will be visible. Finish-grade plywood, for example, is often cut with the finish side facing down to ensure that the cut will be smooth, without splintering.
After clamping, mark a cutting line on the workpiece, using light pencil marks.
A jigsaw is not the best tool for making straight cuts, so it is best to clamp on a straightedge guide if you are making long rip cuts or bevel cuts. A straightedge guide provides a surface for the side of the saw foot to glide against. This ensures the cut will be as straight as possible.
Choose and Mount the Blade
Choose a blade appropriate to the material you will be cutting and mount it in the saw. In general, higher TPI blades have many small teeth that provide smooth but slow cuts, while low TPI blades have large teeth that perform rough but fast cutting.
Make sure to choose blades labeled for the material you will be cutting—wood and metals require different blade types.
Adjust the Saw Foot
Make sure the saw foot is adjusted for the bevel angle required. Normal straight or curved cuts will require a 0-degree (horizontal) setting, but for bevel cuts, you will need to tilt the saw foot at the angle required. Most saws can bevel up to 45 degrees.
Adjust the Saw Controls
Adjust the saw speed and the orbital action to settings that are appropriate for the work material. Refer to your saw's instruction manual for guidance on this. In general, a wider elliptical action of the saw's blade shank will create aggressive, faster cutting, while more vertical action and a flatter ellipse will create slower, smoother, and more controlled cutting. For curved cuts, the orbit should be set to zero.
In general, slower speeds are used for metals or precise cutting of harder woods, while faster blade speeds are used for more aggressive, rougher cutting. Most jigsaws let you change the speed of the blade action according to how much you depress the trigger, but there there is usually a dial that allows you to control the top speed.
Position the saw foot firmly on the workpiece with the blade resting either directly on the cutting line, or slightly to one side. (For fine woodworking projects with precise tolerances, you may want to keep the cutting kerf slightly off the line to the waste side to preserve the wood.) The blade can just touch the workpiece.
Slowly squeeze the trigger of the saw, activating the up and down action of the shank. As the blade begins to cut, squeeze the trigger further to full speed and slowly feed the saw into the workpiece while watching the blade progress along the marked cutting line.
Continue the Cut
Watch the cutting line carefully as you feed the saw through the workpiece. Avoid using too much force, as this can bog down the motor and make for rough cutting or a broken blade.
When cutting curves, it works best to slow down both the feed rate and the saw's motor speed as you rotate the saw and blade to navigate the turns. Twisting the saw too fast often leads to a broken blade. For extremely tight scroll curves, some saws have a rotating scrolling knob that allows you to turn the blade shank without twisting the saw itself. Such tight curves depend on using a very thin blade and moving very slowly.
If making straight cuts, make sure to keep the saw foot firmly against the straightedge guide as you move the saw forward. Because their blades are so narrow, jigsaws can easily wander away from a straight cutting line if you aren't careful.
Finish the Cut
At the end of the cutting line, slow the speed at which you feed the saw, but keep blade speed high as the blade clears the edge of the workpiece. This will reduce the chances of splintering.
Release the trigger and allow the blade to come to a complete stop before lifting the saw away.
Buying vs. Renting
Although they are available for rent at home centers and tool rental outlets, jigsaws are so versatile that most DIYers will want to own one. Rental costs are inexpensive enough that just a few uses are enough to pay for your own saw. A quality jigsaw will be used often and is a worthy investment for DIYers of any level.
Keeping a Jigsaw in Good Condition
Keeping your saw clean and dry will ensure long life and tip-top operation. When buying, opt for a saw with a quality case or purchase a small toolbox to store the saw. Always remove blades after use to avoid blades locking in place. Use compressed air to thoroughly clean any dust and debris from the saw's parts. Lastly, properly use the saw. If you abuse it by forcing the blade and overworking it, it will not last as long.
When to Replace a Jigsaw
A good quality jigsaw should last for decades if you care for it and use it correctly. A burned-out motor is the only event that requires tool replacement since it's quite possible to have power cords and other parts repaired or replaced when necessary. With a good quality tool, it's always worth a trip to the tool repair shop before you consider a replacement.
However, cheaper saws often have fairly weak motors, and it's possible for hard use to burn them out rather quickly. If you've paid less than $50 for your saw, don't be surprised if you need to replace it after a few years of hard work.