Now that everyone has their patterns applied to the wood, we are finally ready to turn on our saws and do some cutting.
Since the practice patterns that I have given you have no inside cuts, we are going to learn some practical ways to start and finish our cutting lines. I call this ‘casting on’ and ‘casting off’ the wood.
Most people – especially when starting out – just aim for the part of the design that is closest to the edge and start cutting. This isn’t always the best option , as it sometimes leave little bumps or points where the blade meets up from where it went in.
Also, there are times when you dive in at a point that may be strong when you begin your cutting, but will be much weaker by the time you come around the line and try to cast off. This could result in a problem shaving off that little section that is left and possible cause damage to your piece. With a little thought and planning, this could be avoided and things can be much easier and look better on your scroll work.
Here is a picture of some of the pattern pieces with curved edges from our practice sheet:
I have mounted them on a 3/8” piece of maple for this practice exercise. You can use just about any wood you have extra in your shop. You will just need to adjust which blade you use accordingly.
To cut the pieces out, I chose a #3 Mach blade by Olson. The reason I chose this blade is because I want something that will cut through the maple easily, but also something that I will be able to control enough so that I will be able to follow the lines comfortably.
If I am using a blade that is too big, I will have too much friction from the blade and it will not only be difficult to maneuver it around the design, but it will also increase the chance of ‘chatter’ (where the blade grabs the piece of wood and it jumps from your hands and rattles up and down on the saw table.) If I use a blade that is too small, I will have difficulty following the line, as the blade will want to follow the grain of the wood and it will take more effort to push the wood through the saw.
Using the proper blade size will minimize these two things considerably.
You should be able to gently guide the piece through the saw, allowing it to do the work for you and it should not be something that you need to labor on.
If you don’t have the same type or thickness of wood, or are using different blades, test them out on a scrap and see how they perform. Most times you could use a range of sizes to cut the same piece and it will still work out fine for you. It just depends on your personal preference that you will develop as you learn.
Once you choose the type of blade you are going to use, install it in your saw. Prior to installing the blade, I strongly recommend that you clean the ends of the blade in some mineral spirits so that you remove any oil or coating that the blades may have on them from packaging and shipping. Not all blades have this, but I found that many companies do put a coating of some sorts on them to prevent rust and this coating can cause blades to slip out of the blade holder when you are cutting. If this happens and you are not initially aware of it, it is possible that the coating can transfer to your blade holders on your saw and perpetuate the problem, even with blades that are clean. If this happens, it is necessary to also clean the blade holders of your saw in the same manner. I have found that many blade slipping problems can be solved by doing this, and it is better to start clean and stay clean by performing this simple step.
Simply Dip the end of the blade into some mineral spirits:
I use a small plastic cubby with a sponge in the bottom to keep some mineral spirits handy by my saw. Then I use a clean paper towel to wipe the ends of the blade off completely:
We are now ready to install the blade. Since everyone here has different saws, you need to get to know how to do so properly on your own saw.
Once the blade is installed, the next step is to set the proper tension. This can be one of the trickiest parts of using a scroll saw, and something that is best learned by practice and experience.
Many times I receive questions from people asking how to tell if they have the proper tension. While it is difficult to be exact without being there with you, there are some basic guidelines that you should follow that will help you out.
I feel that the tension should be set fairly tight. When you pluck the blade, you should hear a high pitched ‘ping’ and there should be little flex in the blade when you push your finger against it (the saw should be OFF!)
The best way to know if you have the proper tension is to do a test cut. If you are cutting and the blade is bowing and you have to use a lot of pressure, chances are the blade tension is too loose. A sharp blade that is the proper size should cut through the wood fairly easily without excessive pressure. You should also be able to follow a line fairly easily without the blade wandering and following the grain. If it does this and you feel that it is tensioned enough, you may need to increase the size of the blade you are using.
On the other hand, if you find that you are breaking blades prematurely when they are still sharp, that could be a sign that you are tensioning the saw too much. This would occur more frequently when you are using very small blades. If you notice this happening, try to back off the tension just a little bit and see how you do. If you try this and find that now you can’t follow your line, again try going up another blade size.
I realize that blade sizes and amount of tension can be a very complicated issues. It is difficult to summarize everything and every case scenario in one lesson. My plan for the class here is for us to do several different cutting projects using many different techniques, types of wood, thicknesses and so forth so that we can gain a feel for what to use when we are choosing our own projects. In essence, I want to give you the basic building blocks of information you can apply to other circumstances in your own practical uses. I also encourage you to ask questions at the end of this lesson so we can discuss your concerns and help others in the process.
So on to cutting . . .
Let’s start with the bear. I have drawn an arrow on the pattern piece which points to a suggested entry point if I were cutting this piece out.
Many times I have seen new scrollers start to cut a piece like this by going straight to the nose of the bear since it is the closest part of the piece to the edge of the board. I don’t recommend doing this for two reasons:
-In general, I don’t recommend beginning a cut on an outside curve.
-It doesn’t give you a chance to get a ‘feel’ for what you are cutting and make minor adjustments before you get to the cutting line.
Let’s discuss my reasons for these suggestions. We’ll start with the first reason – not beginning the cut on an outside curve.
When you scroll saw, the place that you start and stop your cut can sometimes leave a small bump where the blade enters the wood and ultimately exits. This is especially true when you are starting out in scroll sawing and are still learning to control the blade. But it is common, and happens to many of us who have scrolled a long time, too. You can see what I mean by the picture below:
This occurs because the blade doesn’t meet up exactly at the point where it enters on your line. With a bit of practice, you usually can keep this little bump to a minimum, but many times to some extent there is a small mark.
Now on pieces such as this oval, we have no choice but to cast on to an outer curve. The entire piece is rounded and there is no other option. It is nothing to worry about, and we can easily sand the edge to minimize the spot or eliminate it altogether.
But for many pieces, we have other options. For example, if we would have chosen to cast on at the nose of the bear, sanding that bump could become a bit of a problem. If the nose were on the grain of the wood in a certain direction, we would take the chance of losing a little piece while sanding, or having it shaped funny. Also, by casting on to pieces at the outside curves, you may find the pieces will be weakened at the end of the cut, such as when you are cutting scrolls and curls.
So for now, I am suggesting that you cast on to your piece on an inside curve or corner. This way if there is a discrepancy between where the blade enters and exits, it is well hidden in a curve or corner of the piece and not as obvious.
The second reason that I like to begin deeper into the piece and a bit away from the edge of the wood is that it gives you a little time to get the ‘feel’ of what you are doing. By cutting through the wood for an inch or two, you can make fine adjustments to things like tension and speed and find your comfort zone while you are still in the waste area of a piece and before you start the actual cutting.
You may feel the blade pulling to one side or another and decide that you need a bit more tension. You may also have to push a bit too hard to get through the wood and decide to change the blade to a new one or even a size larger. These few seconds can mean a lot to you and allow you to feel comfortable with what you are doing before you even begin to cut your piece. You can save yourself many headaches this way and feel confident that once you are cutting, you have everything set correctly.
So now we begin to cut the bear. First you follow in the waste area and aim for the entry point :
You will notice that your saw will cut slightly to the right and not exactly straight ahead. Due to the characteristics of blades and the way they are made, this is typical and expected. We will talk about that more in a subsequent lesson when we are looking at cutting straight lines.
It is important to relax and go at a nice, even pace. Make sure that your shoulders are relaxed and that your elbows are down and you are not tense.
Gently guide the piece through the saw. Let the saw do the work. You aren’t in a race and don’t need to speed through things. The most important thing is control. Use your fingertips to gently hold down and guide the piece through the blade.
Since you are aiming for the cutting line on the neck of the bear, start to back off your forward pressure and momentum approximately 1/4” from the line. That way you won’t over cut too far and go into the piece. Remember even a correctly tensioned blade is slightly flexed toward the back as you are pushing forward, and slowing down allows it to relax into a perpendicular position again. The illustrations below show this.
First this is an illustration of the how the blade is flexing to the back while you are pushing the piece forward:
And then when you stop pushing forward, it allows the blade to come to a perpendicular position:
This is when you should pivot and turn your piece.
Once you made your 90 degree turn, you are ready to cut along your piece. Use your fingertips to gently guide the piece through the blade. Remember to let the blade do the work for you and you are in essence ‘steering’ the piece through.
Slow down at the sharp curves and allow the piece to pivot left or right before you continue your forward motion.
If you go off of the line, gently and gradually work back toward it. With most pieces, this slight variance won’t even be noticed, and as you get better, it will be easier to stay on the line more and more.
When you come around to your starting point, aim as closely as you can to the point where you began cutting on the piece. If there is a slight bump where you didn’t quite meet up, it will be barely noticeable in the corner:
When you finished cutting, just peel off your pattern. Name your little bear (I am going to call my bear ‘Byron’!) and be really proud of yourself! You learned a lot cutting this little bear. Practice some more and cut an entire bear family! Hopefully it will be the beginning of some great new projects and a lot of fun for you!
I think we are going to stop here for today’s lesson. As I compiled this information for you, I understand that it is a lot to learn. The beginning lessons will be like this – short and focused, yet full of information. There is so much that you should know at the beginning that I feel if I go much faster, I will overload you with things and you will be frustrated. As we learn our basic steps, we will be moving forward a bit more quickly and doing more specialized techniques. But in the beginning, I don’t want to miss anything important so I am trying to go at a pace that everyone can handle.
I made a short video which shows me cutting the bear out. I am not the best at doing videos, but I think it is watchable and will get the point across. (I’ll never be a ‘Steve’ though!) I hope this helps you understand things a bit better.
At the end my pattern kind of came off a little. Those things do happen and it was possible to finish cutting anyway. Part of that could be that I am still not used to using the spray adhesive over the blue tape, where I could afford to spray it on a bit heavier. I am sure I will get used to it the more I do it.
Please feel free to ask questions about things you may not understand. I will answer them as fully as I can and I am sure that others here will help out too. I welcome all of your thoughts and input and hope you enjoyed this lesson.
-- Designer/Artist/Teacher. Owner of Sheila Landry Designs (http://www.sheilalandrydesigns.com) Scroll saw, wood working and painting patterns and surfaces. "Knowledge is Power"