Much of the work we do when renovating and improving our homes involves cutting straight lines, be it the mitre joints on a door frame, or the straight cuts across kitchen work top, and for these applications, mitre saws, band saws, and other traditional straight cutting saws are the right tool for the job. However, what if you need to be more freehand with your cutting, when cutting curves and intricate shapes for example? For this sort of work a jigsaw is essential.
Besides the ability to cut irregular shapes, jigsaws are also capable of cutting through a variety of materials, anything from fibre boards to plastic, and even ceramic tiles – a jigsaw will make short work of all of them. They can be particularly useful when it comes to cutting holes in plasterboard walls, for example when cutting apertures for electrical sockets.
From peddle powered beginnings in the 19th century, the modern electric jigsaw as we know it was developed by Bosch throughout the 1960’s, technical developments have continued to this day, but the general principles remain unchanged, and now a whole range of manufacturers offer jigsaws that all work on the same basic principle, but as ever each offers slightly different features, some of which will appeal to you depending on what work you need to carry out.
Like other power tools, modern developments in jigsaws include cordless technology and the ability to change blades without the need for tools. Let’s look in a little more detail at the components and features that make up a jigsaw, and some of the advantages and disadvantages you might find among the different models available.
Handle and Trigger Switch
Like any hand-held tool, a jigsaw is really only as good as the comfort it offers, after all if you need to use it for any length of time it’s next to useless if you have to put it down every 5 minutes due to cramp in your hands. In the case of a jigsaw your biggest enemy is vibration from the motor that drives the reciprocating blade mechanism, so a handle that dampens vibration is essential. You’ll notice that better quality jigsaws feature rubber (or rubber-like) over mouldings on their handles to absorb the vibration.
Besides vibration it’s also helpful to have a handle that allows for a range of different grip positions as this makes the saw more adept at different tasks that require you to hold it in different ways. Less common is a secondary handle that allows you to guide the saw with two hands in a similar way to a sander or planer. Although this is very useful for achieving maximum control, for whatever reason most manufacturers don’t see it as a necessity.
As far as the trigger switch is concerned it’s best to opt for a saw that has a wide trigger switch so that it can be operated with both hands, either simultaneously or independently, purely because it reduces the strain and fatigue on one hand alone. You’ll find that almost all models have a ‘trigger lock’ that allows you to work for long periods without having to hold the trigger, a very useful feature indeed.
On more advanced jigsaws the trigger control is proportional, that’s to say that the harder you squeeze it the faster the blade operates. This is particularly useful if you’re cutting a fragile material that cracks or splinters easily, as you can start cutting gently, increasing the speed only when you feel it is safe to do so.
Even most basic jigsaws feature an adjustable speed feature that allows you to cut according to the material you’re working with, so the main consideration here is the position of the dial. You’ll find the speed control dial is either located at the top or bottom of the handle, or near to the trigger, and really it’s just a case of personal preference which works best for you. Some jigsaws also feature a ‘soft-start’ motor, which in other words means that when you press the trigger the saw gradually ramps up to speed. This prevents the tool from jerking unexpectedly when you start cutting, and also avoids damaging the work piece by accidentally scraping or chipping it undesirably.
Jigsaws are inherently prone to generating a lot of dust, and this of course is messy, irritating, and potentially even damaging to your health. You’ll find that many jigsaws come with a dust extraction port which can be connected to a vacuum cleaner via an adaptor. Some go even further by featuring a ‘chip extractor’ to guide wood chips into the extraction port, this works well although having the plastic chip guard in front of the blade can obstruct your view of the blade and cutting line.
To simply keep dust and chips clear of the blade and line of cut nearly all jigsaws feature a dust blower to clear the area just in front of the blade. Whilst this doesn’t do anything to control the dust in the environment, it does mean that you get a clear view of the job which should help you retain accuracy.
Besides the speed of movement, the other factor that determines the cutting performance of the blade is its orbital action. This is essentially the movement of the blade not only up and down, but also forward and backwards as well. The greater the forward ‘lunge’ of the blade the more aggressive the cut. You’ll find that most jigsaws feature 4 settings ranging from no forward and backward movement at all, all the way up to 3 (maximum orbit) for cutting quickly, but not particularly accurately.
Tool-less Blade Changing
A pretty much standard feature on all jigsaws these days is the ability to change blades without the need for tools, this of course makes changing blades a lot quicker and easier, however some mechanisms are easier to work with than others, ranging from stiff, clunky clamping levers to a simple push button release mechanism. If you think that you’ll be chewing your way through a lot of blades then it would definitely be wise to opt for a jigsaw with the latter.
Adjustable Base Plate
The baseplate is as the name suggests the plate that the tool rests on as you guide it about the work piece. Most of the time this plate will sit perfectly level so that you can make cuts in one plane only, however if you wish to make bevel cuts, for instance around the perimeter of a picture frame, then the need to be able to adjust the angle at which the base plate sits comes into play. The accuracy of the angles that you’ll be able to set the jigsaw at varies depending on the manufacturer and quality, so if you know that bevel cuts are going to play a big role in the work you do, it would definitely be worth doing a bit of investigation to make sure the jigsaw you’re thinking of buying is up to the job.
Whilst the features mentioned above are of course important, the real acid test when it comes to any jigsaw is how well it performs. This includes the speed and smoothness of the cut, the level of noise, and perhaps most importantly of all the amount of vibration generated. All jigsaws have some precautionary features to minimise vibration, including counterweights to act in opposition to the action of the blade and motor, as well as the aforementioned rubberised grips. None less, some saws better at this than others, so it’s certainly worth checking.