Jigsaw: Cutting a range of materials
Using the right blade is the key to cutting various materials.
My jigsaw often sits for months just gathering dust. But then I’ll need to cut out an intricate pattern for a hobby project, saw into a countertop to install a kitchen sink or cut a material like thin tile or metal that my other saws can’t handle. That’s when I remember why I love this jigsaw tool. It’s a versatile tool a novice can safely operate, control and—with minimal instruction—enjoy good results from within minutes of picking it up. We’ll show you how to get superior results cutting wood, plastic laminate, ceramic tile and metal.
Cutting wood with handheld jigsaw
Photo 1: Keep the saw shoe on the workpiece
Cut smooth curves in wood. Begin by pressing the saw shoe firmly on the workpiece with the blade away from the edge. Start the motor, guide the blade along the outside of the cutting line (for finer sanding later) and move from curves to inside corners. Always move the saw forward at a pace that allows the blade to cut without deflecting and doesn’t make the motor labor. Prevent the saw blade from binding on tight curves by using relief cuts to remove waste.
Photo 2: Use a fence for perfectly straight cuts.
A jigsaw is versatile enough to make straight, compound and beveled cuts through boards. Hold the workpiece firmly and guide the saw steadily against a saw fence. Avoid driving blades into the bench top (bending and breaking them) by using rails to raise the workpiece.
Photo 3: Finish cuts made with a circular saw
A jigsaw can precisely complete cuts begun with a circular saw in stair stringers, wood flooring and sheet materials. To avoid bumps in your final stair stringer, hold the jigsaw blade tight to the inside of the stringer cutting line.
General purpose wood cutter blade
Use this blade for cutting wood.
Jigsaws are ideal for cutting curves and complex shapes in wood (Photo 1). They also work well for making short crosscuts on a board (Photo 2) and finishing inside corner cuts (Photo 3) that you start with a circular saw. Jigsaws are not good for making fast, long, straight cuts. Use a circular saw instead. When cutting wood, follow these guidelines:
- Jigsaws work best for cutting softwood that’s no more than 1-1/2 in. thick and hardwood up to 3/4 in. thick. Jigsaw blades tend to bend when cutting curves in thicker boards, leaving a beveled edge rather than a square one. To keep the cut square, use a sharp blade and avoid forcing the saw through the cut.
- To “plunge cut,” that is, make an entry saw cut into the middle of your wood, tip the jigsaw so that the blade is parallel to the workpiece and the saw’s weight rests on the front lip of the shoe. Start the saw at maximum speed, tilt the shoe and steadily lower the stabbing blade into the wood. I usually reserve plunge-cutting for rough work so that an errant blade doesn’t slash and mar expensive woods. In fragile material, drill a 1/2-in. starter hole to safely position the blade for a cut.
- For quick cutting, use a coarser blade. But note that the coarser the blade, the more sanding later.
- Most wood-cutting blades for jigsaws are designed so the teeth cut on the upstroke. For fine work demanding less chipping—in wood veneers, for example—choose a “downstroke-cutting” blade (Photo 4). An alternative is to place painter’s or masking tape on the cutting line path before drawing on the pattern line.
Photo 4: Drill a hole to start the blade
Make precise, no-chip cuts in laminate by drilling a 1/2-in. starter hole in the countertop for the blade. Use a special laminate blade that cuts only on the downstroke, and follow the cutting line drawn on masking tape. Avoid marring the countertop by taping the bottom of the saw shoe.
Down-cutting laminate blade
Use this blade for cutting laminate.
A jigsaw is perfectly suited for making the curved (or short diagonal) cuts at the corners of countertops and for the final long cut parallel to the backsplash. When installing a sink, make the front and two side cuts in the countertop with a circular saw. It’s faster and there’s no blade deflection to deal with.
The narrow space between the sink cutting line and the backsplash won’t accommodate the wider circular saw shoe but lets the narrower shoe of most narrow-body jigsaws sneak in perfectly (Photo 4).
If you’re not comfortable making countertop cuts with a circular saw, use a jigsaw for the whole job. Cutting through a countertop with a jigsaw is slow-going. Choose a special down-cutting laminate blade. Its 5/16-in. wide blade, with eight teeth per inch, minimizes laminate chip-out. Use short relief cuts inside curves to ease the blade through the turn.
Cutting ceramic tile
Photo 5: Cut slowly when working with tile
Use a carbide-grit abrasive blade to make curved cuts in ceramic wall tile that’s up to 1/4 in. thick. Speed the work and reduce tile breakage by clamping the tile and using a light mist of water to lubricate the saw cut. Jigsaws that have a movable scrolling head work best to move the blade through tight curves. This is slow work that demands patience, blade changes and relief cuts to open the tightest turns.
Carbide-grit ceramic blade
Use this blade for cutting ceramic tile up to 1/4-in. thick.
Cutting curves and shapes into tile with tile nippers and ceramic rod saws is slow and results in a lot of tile breakage. If you’re cutting wall tile no more than 1/4 in. thick, try your jigsaw for this task.
Use special toothless, carbide-grit blades for tile cutting. For thin tile, apply water frequently to lubricate the saw cut. Thicker tile requires lubricating the saw cut with cutting oil.
To minimize tile breakage, it’s imperative that you clamp your tile down tightly and hold the saw firmly on the tile to control saw and blade vibration. Avoid marring the tile by applying masking tape to the saw shoe. Go slow, using short relief cuts to remove waste and ease the blade through the turn.
Photo 6: Clamp metal between plywood to cut it.
Cut sheet metal without shredding it by clamping the workpiece tightly between two thin sheets of plywood. Begin by drilling saw blade starter holes inside all pattern circles. Cutting through a plywood sandwich is slow-going. For the smoothest cuts, select metal-cutting blades that have 21 to 24 teeth per inch.
Use blades with 21 to 24 teeth per inch to cut metal.
With the proper blade, jigsaws can cut through wood with embedded nails, 1/8-in. mild steel, no-iron pipe and sheet metal up to 10 gauge thick (Photo 6).
For cutting sheet metal, choose a finer blade with 21 to 24 teeth per inch. To avoid shredding sheet metal or raising a lot of edge burrs, tightly sandwich the metal between two layers of thin plywood. Cut metal plate and pipe on low speed. For pattern cutting, drill blade starter holes instead of making plunge cuts. Expect it to take a while to cut through the sandwich. When cutting over a workbench or sawhorses, prop the sandwich on rails for adequate blade clearance below.
Features such as higher saw power, long blade stroke, variable speeds and orbital cutting action are all pluses for cutting metals, and are found on more costly jigsaws. Saws that are equipped with vacuum hose connections to keep the pattern cut sightlines free of dust also are a plus. Cutting pipe and mild steel plates wears out blades fast. Keep plenty of blades on hand, select a coarser blade (like 14 teeth per inch) and lubricate the saw cut with cutting oil.
Blade and Saw Basics
A jigsaw (also called a saber saw) cuts in a rapid up-and-down motion. The key to excellent results with a jigsaw is to match a specific blade to the type of material you’ll cut: wood, metal, plastics, tile, etc. The blade package will indicate what material the blade cuts best.
Most blades are carbon steel, 2 to 3-1/2 in. long and either 1/4 in. wide for making tight radius cuts or 3/8 in. wide for general-purpose cutting. Six-teeth-per-inch blades cut fast but rough; finer blades with 10 or more teeth per inch deliver smoother cuts. Special toothless blades cut everything from leather to tile. When buying blades, consider investing in bimetal blades. They can last 10 times longer and are less likely to break.
When purchasing a saw, check to see what type of blades it uses. Most jigsaws accept blades with a 1/4-in. universal tang that locks into the blade clamp with a set screw. Some saws accept only specially designed blades (like bayonet-mount) from their own manufacturer. Once you discover the blades you use the most, stock up to avoid running out in the middle of a job.
If you’ll only use a jigsaw once in a while, you may want to buy just a basic model. When you’re ready to move up, you can spend more than $200 for a heavy-duty saw that performs better and has more features, such as:
- Orbital cutting action. If you’ve ever rocked a handsaw up and down while cutting a board or firewood, you’ve noticed how this speeds the cutting action. Jigsaws with this feature have dialed settings that change the pitch of the blade from straight up and down for metal cutting to angled forward for aggressively cutting wood.
- Longer blade stroke. Using a jigsaw that delivers a 1-in. long blade stroke will get you through a job faster than using a saw with a 1/2-in. long stroke.
- Blade guides. Saws so equipped have a pair of rollers or other guides below the blade clamping assembly (Photo 4) to steady the blade for less bending and greater accuracy.
- Variable speeds. A jigsaw with preset speed settings or a variable speed trigger allows you to customize each cut and to slow down when you’re at a tricky point in a pattern. This helps you work with a wide variety of materials and densities, too.
Required Tools for this Project
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
- Extension cord
- Hearing protection
- Safety glasses
You’ll also need a jigsaw blade for the material you’re cutting.
If you’re cutting countertops, you’ll need a drill and a 1/2-in. drill bit to make a starter hole.