by David Frane
A jigsaw isn't the first, or even the second, power tool
most carpenters buy. But if you're going to do trim work or
install cabinets, it's one you can't afford to be without. Over
the years, I've owned and used a lot of different power tools,
but few of them have changed as much as jigsaws. With features
like dust blowers, orbital cutting action, and toolless blade
and bevel clamps, today's saws are much easier to use than
Jigsaws have the ability to make curved and irregular cuts
with great speed and accuracy. You can make similar cuts with a
band or coping saw, but coping saws are slow and bandsaws
aren't portable. Circular saws will cut broad arcing curves,
but not the tight radii that jigsaws can.
carpenter needs to cut a scribe line on a cabinet, countertop,
or piece of baseboard, odds are he'll do it with a jigsaw. The
same goes for fitting siding around curved windows and doors or
for making decorative trim items like shelf supports and
exposed rafter tails. Some carpenters will put a scrolling
blade in their jigsaw and use it to cope the ends of crown and
other molded trim.
Stopped cuts. Carpenters frequently use
jigsaws to make stopped cuts. You can use a circular saw or
miter saw to notch items like deck boards, window stools, and
door sills, but circular blades make arc-shaped cuts, so unless
you're willing to cut beyond inside corners, you'll need to
finish with a jigsaw. Cabinet installers use jigsaws to do sink
cutouts and make openings for items like electrical boxes,
plumbing pipes, and ventilating ducts.
Utility cutting. A jigsaw is also a good
substitute for a hacksaw. With the right kind of blades, you
can cut aluminum thresholds, threaded rod, angle iron, and most
kinds of plastic and metal pipe. Hand-held grinders are better,
but in a pinch you can use a jigsaw to cut fiberglass, cement
board, and ceramic tile.
Getting a Grip
There are two kinds of jigsaws, ones that have handles and
ones that don't. Saws without handles are known as barrel-grips
because you hold them by their barrel-shaped motor housing.
Top- handle models are just what they sound like, jigsaws with
handles on top. Also known as overhand-grip or D-grip jigsaws,
these tools are often barrel-grip models that have been
modified by adding a handle and trigger switch. Many tool
companies offer the same saw in either configuration.
The type of saw you choose is purely a matter of personal
preference. In the U.S., top-handle models outsell barrel-grips
by a factor of about ten to one. The opposite is true in
Europe, where barrel-grips are much more popular. No one knows
why this is; it's just one of those regional preferences like
East Coast carpenters using sidewinders and West Coast
carpenters using worm-drives.
Personally, I like barrel-grip saws because I think they're
easier to control, especially on intricate cuts. Your hand is
closer to the work and the tool feels more like an extension of
your arm. Barrel-grip models aren't very tall, and that makes
them easier to maneuver in tight spaces, like inside cabinets.
But there are good reasons why you might prefer a top-handle
saw. For example, they're simple to turn on and off in a hurry
because the trigger switch is right there in your hand. And I
think it's easier to plunge cut when there's a handle to grab
When tradespeople talk about why they like a particular power
tool, you rarely hear them mention the switch. I've heard
carpenters get all excited about being able to replace brushes,
even though it's the kind of thing they might do once every
five years. But if you ask me, the switch is one of the most
important parts of any power tool, because it's something you
use every single time the tool comes out of the case.
Jigsaws are made with two different types of switches.
Barrel-grip models rely on a slide switch mounted somewhere on
the motor housing. Overhand-grip saws use a trigger switch
mounted right up on the handle.
Slide switches. Slide switches are simple
on/off mechanisms, so speed is always controlled by turning a
separate thumb wheel. Simply put, the only way to change the
speed during a cut with a barrel-grip saw is to have both hands
on the saw. One hand operates the trigger, and the other turns
the thumb wheel. I'd rather control the saw with one hand and
have the other free to steady the workpiece.
The biggest issue with a slide switch is where it's located.
Usually, it's on the top or left side of the motor housing.
Being left-handed, I prefer a top-mounted switch because I can
get at it with either thumb. A side-mounted switch is
impossible to use when it's under the palm of your hand. That
said, if you're exclusively right-handed, a side-mounted switch
might be preferable because it's closer to where your thumb
lies when you use the tool. DeWalt provides a third option and
puts the switch on the bottom of the saw. This allows you to
activate the switch with the fingers of either hand without
having to shift your grip.
There are a couple of different kinds of slide switches. The
older style slides straight forward for on and straight back
for off. No harm's done if you occasionally fumble to turn a
saw on, but in an emergency you've got to be able to turn it
About half of the barrel-grip models have a newer type of
switch that slides forward for on, but rocks back for off. It's
easier to turn the tool off because all you have to do is tap
the rear end of the switch and it pops backward.
Trigger switches. Nothing is easier to use
than a trigger switch. Squeeze the trigger and the saw turns
on, release it and the saw turns off. It's even better if the
switch is true variable-speed, because then you can control
speed by finger pressure alone. About half the top-handle saws
I tested have this feature. The rest have a type of trigger
switch that only turns the saw on or off. Like a slide-switch
on a barrel-grip saw, speed is controlled by turning a separate
thumb wheel somewhere on the handle or motor housing.
Personally, if I were going to buy a top-handle saw, I couldn't
imagine settling for one without a true variable-speed switch.
Otherwise, you have to put both hands on the saw if you want to
change speed in the middle of a cut.
Another thing to consider when buying an overhand-grip saw
is the location of the trigger lock. Some manufacturers put it
on the left side of the handle, which is fine as long as you
use the tool right-handed. But if you're left-handed, this can
be a dangerous location because it's easy to accidentally
activate the lock with the palm of your hand. Many tool
companies have recognized this and put the lock where you can't
accidentally trip it.
In recent years, toolless blade clamps have become popular
features on jigsaws. They're mostly a matter of convenience,
because they don't hold blades any better than old style
clamps. And some of them aren't even any faster to use than an
Allen key. But most toolless clamps make it less annoying to
change blades because you never have to search for lost
About two-thirds of the saws I tested had toolless blade
clamps. The mechanisms vary quite a bit in terms of design and
ease of use. Most are activated by turning a knob or pulling a
lever on the gear housing. The rest rely on mechanisms that are
attached to the end of the blade spindle.
Bosch, Makita, and DeWalt have clamps that are activated by
rotating a knob or lever on top of the saw. The Bosch mechanism
is a little slower to use because you have to rotate the blade
so that the teeth face forward after you place it in the clamp.
It's no great hardship but is not the sort of thing you want to
do when the blade is hot. The Makita and DeWalt mechanisms are
slightly easier to operate, but neither one is significantly
faster than using an Allen key.
Milwaukee's toolless blade clamp is one of the best I've
ever used. To install a blade, you pull back a lever on the
nose of the saw, insert the blade, and then release the lever.
To remove blades, just reverse the process. This is about as
fast and easy as it gets. In addition, if you pull back on the
lever and shake the tool, you can frequently get the blade to
fall right out of the machine. It beats the heck out of burning
your fingers on a hot piece of metal.
Most jigsaws still require Allen wrenches to adjust the angle
of the base. But three companies now make saws with toolless
bevel clamps. DeWalt and Makita saws have lever-activated
mechanisms that are much faster to use than Allen wrenches.
Porter-Cable also makes a toolless bevel clamp, but it's not as
fast as a lever because it rotates rather than pivots. As far
as I'm concerned, any toolless bevel lock is preferable to
using an Allen wrench.
All but one of the tools I tested had bases that tilt 45
degrees left or right for bevel cuts. Usually, some kind of
detent slot is milled into the base at common angles such as 0,
15, 30, and 45 degrees. More settings aren't necessarily
better, because carpenters normally change angles only when
they need to back-cut scribed pieces, so the exact angle hardly
It used to be that most jigsaws had stamped-steel baseplates.
The problem with steel plates was that they were likely to bend
if you dropped the tool. These days, it's much more common to
see a cast-metal plate with a steel or plastic insert. A number
of saws come with plastic covers that fit in or over the base
to prevent it from scratching delicate surfaces. I appreciate
the added rigidity of a cast base but wouldn't go out of my way
to get a plastic cover or insert because it's easy to protect
delicate surfaces by covering the bottom of the saw with
Orbital cutting action used to be an exotic feature on
jigsaws. But nowadays, it's nearly impossible to find a
professional grade tool without it. If your current saw doesn't
orbit, that's reason enough to replace it.
Orbital cutting. Jigsaws cut a whole lot
faster with orbital action because the blade swings forward and
back as it goes up and down. This aggressive motion is great
for cutting wood, provided you don't mind increased splintering
and rougher cuts. A lever on the gear housing controls the
amount of orbit. If you need to make cleaner cuts, set the
lever to straight-line cutting. You should always do this when
you cut metal because the orbiting action will ruin the
Orbital action is transferred to the blade by a small
cam-activated roller behind the spindle. The roller is usually
grooved to house the back of the blade, which prevents it from
bowing from side to side as it cuts. Porter-Cable and Festo use
smooth wheels to push the blade and slotted guide rods to
stabilize it. The guides help but won't absolutely prevent
blades from wandering, especially in thick stock.
Speed. All things being equal, cutting speed
is a function of blade speed, which is measured in strokes per
minute (spm). As far as I'm concerned, the faster the saw, the
better. Most corded models have a top speed in the range of
3,000 spm. The fastest cordless model topped out at 2,000 spm,
significantly slower than the corded saws.
Vibration. One thing to consider when you
evaluate power tools is how much they vibrate. I think it's
reasonable to conclude that a tool that runs smoothly is of
better quality than one that shakes and clatters. It's not just
a matter of how long the tool will last; it's also relevant to
safety. When tools vibrate, your natural response is to grasp
them more tightly. This contributes to fatigue and, over time,
to injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. The spec table below
contains my opinion about how much or how little each jigsaw
Dust Blowers and Other
Most of the saws I tested were equipped with dust blowers,
which is a fancy way of saying that some of the cooling air
exhausts through the front of the tool. It's hard not to
appreciate this feature when you've spent as many years as I
have using lung power to blow dust off cut lines. Some of these
tools have an on/off switch for the blower, and the rest are on
all the time, which is fine by me because I can't imagine ever
wanting to turn it off.
Some of the saws come with dust collection ports, and a few
more can be equipped with them. In most cases, this option for
dust collection has become available because similar models are
being sold in Europe, where there are very strict safety
standards concerning dust control. The clear plastic shield on
the front of the saw is there to aid dust collection. But if
the saw isn't connected to a vacuum hose, the shield gets
coated with sawdust, which makes it hard to see where you're
cutting. Luckily, the shields pop right off.
Cord length. The saws I tested had cords that
were anywhere from 7 to 14 feet long. It's not a make-or-break
issue, but other things being equal, I'd rather have a long
cord than a short one. Having an extra couple of feet sometimes
makes the difference between finishing a job quickly or
wandering around the job site trying to locate an extension
Cordless models. A number of companies,
including Makita and Metabo, have tried selling cordless
jigsaws in the past. These tools didn't catch on, however,
because the batteries of the day weren't up to the task. But
recent advances in technology have made it possible to build a
greater variety of cordless tools. Two of the more interesting
saws I tried for this article were a 12-volt barrel-grip model
from Milwaukee and an 18-volt top-handle from DeWalt.
The first thing you notice about these saws is how much
slower they cut than corded tools. Milwaukee's saw has a single
speed of 1,700 spm. DeWalt's saw is variable-speed and tops out
at 2,000 spm. Also, these saws differ a lot in weight.
Milwaukee's saw weighs 5.8 pounds, so it feels like you're
using a regular jigsaw. DeWalt's tool weighs 8 pounds, so it's
noticeably heavier than any jigsaw I've ever used. Weight and
extra cost aside, I'd be a lot more interested in buying a
cordless saw if someone made one that cut as fast as a corded
David Frane,a former finish carpenter, is a
contributing editor toThe
Journal of Light Construction
See page two of article for jigsaw descriptions and