Scroll Saw Basics

Get Started Scrolling / Techniques / Techniques for Beginners

Scroll Saw Basics

Start every scrolling project with these simple steps.
Plus! Troubleshoot common problems


Squaring the Table

Most scroll saws have an adjustable table that allows you to make cuts at different angles. There are times when you want the saw set at an angle, but most cutting is done with the blade perpendicular to the table. If the table is even slightly off square, the cuts will be angled. This interferes with puzzle pieces, intarsia, segmentation, and many other types of scrolling projects.

The most common method for squaring a table uses a small metal square, or right-angle tool. Set the square flat on the saw table against a blade that has been inserted and tensioned. Adjust the table to form a 90° angle to the blade.

The cutting-through method is also popular. Saw through a piece of scrap wood at least 3/4″ (1.9cm) thick and check the angle of the cut using a square. Adjust the table until you get a perfectly
square cut.

You can also use the kerf-test method. Take a 1-3/4″ (4.4cm)-thick piece of scrap wood and cut about 1⁄2″ (1.3cm) into it. Stop the saw, back the blade out, and spin the wood around to the back of the blade. If the blade slips easily into the kerf, the table is square. If it doesn’t slide into the kerf, adjust the table and perform the test again until the blade slips in easily.

Attaching Patterns

Temporary-bond spray adhesive is the most common method used to attach patterns to stock. Cover the wood blank with blue painter’s tape to lubricate the blade and make the pattern easier to remove. Photocopy the pattern. Spray the adhesive on the back of the copy of the pattern, wait a few seconds, and then press the pattern onto the taped blank. Rubber cement or glue sticks work similarly.

Some scrollers prefer to use clear adhesive shelf paper. Place a piece onto the table, shiny side up. Cut the pattern pieces apart if necessary, apply spray adhesive to the back, and attach the patterns to the shelf paper. Cut the pattern pieces out. To apply them to the blanks, peel the liner off the back of the shelf paper.

You can also use graphite transfer paper. Place the pattern on the blank and slip a sheet of transfer paper in between the pattern and the blank. Use a few pieces of painter’s tape to hold the pattern and transfer paper in place. Trace around the pattern with a red pen (so you know where you have traced). Choose a light-colored transfer paper for darker woods. Carbon paper costs less than graphite paper, but must be sanded off before finishing.

Stack Cutting

Stack cutting lets you cut several pieces of a project—or even several projects—at one time. Essentially, you attach several blanks together and cut them as one unit.

One way to attach blanks is with tape. Align all of the layers and wrap a layer of tape around the outside edge. You can also wrap the whole stack in tape for extra stability. Use masking tape, painter’s tape, or clear packaging tape.

Hot-melt glue is another option. Glue the blanks together with a dot of hot-melt glue on each side.

You can also join pieces by driving brads or small nails into as many waste areas as you can. Cut off any overhanging nails as close to the surface as you can, and then sand them flush to avoid scratching or catching on the table.

Blade Tension

Before inserting a blade, completely remove the tension. Clamp both ends of the blade into the blade holders and adjust the tension. Push on the blade with your finger. It should flex no more than 1/8″ (3mm) forward, backward, or side to side.

A blade that does not have enough tension will wander. It will also flex from side to side, making for irregular or angled cuts. If you press too hard on a loose blade, it will usually snap. A blade that has too much tension is more susceptible to breaking and tends to pull out of the blade holders. In general, it is better to make the blade too tight than too loose.

Blade-Entry Holes

Some patterns have blade-entry holes marked. If the pattern doesn’t, place the holes near a line to be cut to prolong the blade life, but don’t place the hole on a curving line or inside corner (if possible).  Drill the hole perpendicular to the blank. Use a drill press if you have one; otherwise, use a hand drill and make the holes as vertical as possible. Drill through the blank into scrap wood to prevent tear out on the back side of the blank. If you have the space, use a larger bit—it will make it easier to thread the blades through. For thin veining cuts, use the smallest bit the blade will fit through.

Removing Patterns

A quick wipe of mineral spirits will remove most adhesives left behind on the wood. Commercial adhesive removers work as well.

Photocopying Patterns

Some photocopy machines may cause a slight distortion in the copies, so it is important to use the same photocopier for all of the pieces of a project and to photocopy the patterns in the same direction. Distortion is more likely to occur on very large patterns.

Safety Tips for Scrollers

  • Use glasses, goggles, or similar equipment to protect your eyes.
  • Remove any loose clothing or jewelry before you operate the saw. If you have long hair, tie it back.
  • Work in a well-ventilated area. Consider using a mask, an air cleaner, a dust collector, or any combination of these to protect your lungs from fine dust.
  • Be sure that the work area is well lighted.
  • Keep your hands a safe distance away from the blade.
  • Don’t work when you are tired or unfocused.

Choosing a Blade

  • Use larger blades (higher numbers) as the thickness or the density (hardness) of the wood increases. A rule of thumb is to use a #5 or #7 blade for 3/4″ to 1″ (1.9cm to 2.5cm)-thick medium-hard wood (such as cherry, walnut, or maple). Larger blades (#9 and up) are more durable. They are also less likely to break as you apply pressure, and they cut faster. They are mandatory for especially thick or hard wood.
  • Use smaller blades (#3 and smaller) for thin wood. These blades cut more slowly, which gives you additional control when cutting thin wood. Puzzle cutters sometimes use smaller blades to make tight turns, but for general scrolling, a #2/0 blade is small enough. Choose the blade that will allow you to cut the smallest frets without breaking every few cuts.
  • If you are stack cutting, choose a blade based on the thickness of the stack. If you cut eight 1/8″ (3mm)-thick blanks at once (giving you an effective thickness of 1″, or 2.5cm), use a #5 or #7 blade. If you’re cutting four 1/8″ (3mm)-thick blanks, use a #2 or #3 blade.
  • Consider the intricacy of the cuts. Larger blades will not cut tight corners or fit into small frets. When cutting intricate projects, choose the smallest blade that will cut the thickness of wood.


Simple solutions to common scrolling problems.

  • You’re not sure which end of the blade is the top. If you’re using a crown-tooth blade, it isn’t important because these blades cut in either direction. For all other blades, the majority of the teeth should point down. Determine the tooth direction by running your thumbnail along the middle of the blade. It catches more in the direction the teeth are pointing, and it feels rougher if you run your finger in that direction, almost like coarse sandpaper. Once you determine the blade direction on one blade, use a dab of cheap red nail polish to mark the top ends of the other blades in that pack.
  • The blades keep breaking. First, check the tension. If the blade is too tight and you press too hard while sawing, the blade can break. However, if the blade is too loose, it can catch in the wood as it flexes from side to side and break as well. Remember, tight is good, but too tight is bad.
    If the tension seems right but the blades are still breaking, try a larger blade. See the text at left for tips on matching the blade to the wood.
    Blades also break because they heat up, lose their temper, and become fragile. Friction created during the cutting process heats blades, so lubricate the blade by applying a little beeswax to it or by covering the blanks with tape (the lubricant that keeps the tape from sticking to itself will also lubricate the blade).
    Finally, dull blades also break more easily. The easiest ways to tell that the blade is getting dull are that you need to push harder for the blade to cut or you notice that the saw is cutting more slowly. This is a gradual process, so you may not realize the blade is dull until it breaks. If you do notice slowing or difficulty pushing, replace the blade. It is normal to use several blades per project; large projects or those made from thick or dense wood will require even more blades.
  • The blade pops out of the blade holders, or the tension won’t hold. Manufacturers coat blades in light oil to keep them from rusting during transit. The oil is one of the top reasons a blade slips. Keep a scrap of sandpaper near the saw and rub both ends of the blade with it before installing the blade in the saw to remove the oil. Blades also slip because the set screws that hold them in place are polished smooth over time by the action of the blade and stop gripping. A bit of sandpaper will also remove this polish and give the screws a better grip.
  • The wood is scorching. Dull blades cause friction. All cutting dulls the blade, but cutting dense wood accelerates the process. Scorched wood is a good indication that the blade is getting dull and should be replaced. A resinous wood, such as cherry, will always burn if you don’t lubricate the blade with tape or wax. Very hard wood, such as hickory, will dull blades quickly and cause scorching. Finally, sawdust packed into the cut will cause scorching. Try using a skip-tooth blade, which removes the sawdust as it cuts.

Get the answers to more common questions on the Scroll Saw Woodworking & Crafts forums. Plus! Find more techniques in our Get Started Scrolling archives.

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