Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dremel Tool, Jigsaw or Table Saw - Which to Get First?



I have three power tools on my workbench that I use constantly:
  • A workbench jigsaw
  • A small table saw
  • A rotary tool
I have depended on these tools so much over the years, I would have a difficult time deciding which one is my favorite. Each has its own unique value to me. If you were to ask me which tool a beginning miniaturist should purchase first for their workshop, I'd be hard-pressed to choose. So, the answer I would have to give is, "It depends on what you want to do."

If you're thinking about buying a power tool for your miniature work and can't afford to buy a LOT of tools all at once, I'd like to describe the strengths and weaknesses of these three tools in various applications. I'll do this in several blogs over the course of a few days here.

I have purchased my collection of power tools over many years, and I have used and had to replace each of the three major tools listed above at least once. Except for the rotary tool, I chose a different brand the second time around. In one case, I chose a different brand because of the tool's features. In the other case, I was forced to buy a different brand because the manufacturer no longer made the item. I'll talk more about that when I get to them.

The Jigsaw
The variable speed jigsaw is a terrific tool for making cabriole legs and for cutting fancy fretworked screens. It's good for making rough shapes that don't require precisely cut straight lines or for cutting sizeable, rounded over or irregularly shaped pieces of wood. I also use it to rough out the basic shape of an object that I plan to carve.

When I want to do really delicate fretwork, though, I don't use the jigsaw. I turn to my hand-held jeweler's saw instead. When I'm cutting a delicate piece of wood that is 1/16" or thinner, the relentless motion of the jigsaw makes cutting such fine wood very challenging. It only takes one upstroke from the table saw blade binding on the piece to rip out an entire, delicate leaf that I've just cut. You can't feel the saw blade start to bind with the jigsaw like you can with a hand saw. On the other hand, the jigsaw makes short work of cutting larger or multiple pieces such as roof brackets.

My first tabletop jigsaw used blades that had pins in the top and bottom of the blades. It was manufactured by Dremel, and it was a pretty good machine. It incorporated a sanding disk on the side of the machine, which was handy, too. The blades changed quickly. There was a lot to like.

There were other things about it that I didn't like, though. It vibrated a lot. After cutting a number of pieces of wood on that vibrating table top, I could feel the effect in my arms and hands. My fingers and wrists began to feel numb as a result of that vibration. I also didn't like the limited choices of blades. Also, the pin-fastening system of the blades required my drilling nearly a 1/8" hole in a piece of wood if I wanted to do inside fretwork cuts. On intricate fretwork, that's a sizeable hole! Also, it was a single speed machine. I couldn't slow it down for working on extremely delicate pieces.

One of the tool catalogs offered a fence for rip cutting wood with a Dremel jigsaw. The idea was that you could set the fence and "rip" boards lengthwise using the jigsaw. I purchased the fence and was very disappointed. It never worked very well for me. I have found that if I want to do a straight cut in a piece of wood - whether a cross cut or rip cut - I can do it faster with a table saw, and the resulting piece of cut wood has far fewer imperfections to the cut. 

Speaking of cutting, the jigsaw can cut your finger, but it's far less likely to do severe damage to a digit than the table saw. (To be honest, I've never cut myself on either type of saw, and hope I never do!)Rule number one with any saw is to never put your fingers anywhere close to the blade. Use a push stick instead. Rule number two: Never try to touch any moving saw blade - even if it's just idling to a stop. A co-worker nicked my leg with a chain saw one time when it was idling to a stop. It put a gash in my leg that required about six stitches. Rule three: unplug the saw when you change the blade.

When I had some money saved up, the Dremel jigsaw table was the first tool I replaced. I purchased a Sears Craftsman jigsaw table. It had a slightly larger tabletop than the Dremel. It's variable speed, and can be slowed to a gentle cutting motion for working on really tight pieces. It also had a blower on the hold down clamp that helps to blow some of the sawdust away from the cutting line.

The saw itself weighs nearly twice what the old Dremel saw weighed; vibration is now barely palpable when I run this saw. Last, and most importantly, it has a set-screw system for holding down the blades. I can use very delicate saw blades on this machine as well as more coarse ones for rough-cutting wood. And I can adjust the tension level on my blades.

When I shopped for the new saw, there were table jigsaws with built in lights to illuminate the work. I already had a combination magnifier/lamp set up on my workbench that allows me to put the light very close to the work and peer down at what I'm jigsawing through the magnifier. Whenever I'm cutting out anything that requires precision, I always use that lamp magnifier.

There were even larger and heavier jigsaws that had their own stands to hold them. (I'm sure they have even less vibration to them.) I had two limitations to consider in my selection - workshop size and tool cost. The jigsaw needed to sit on my workbench. I could not afford to give up floor space to a saw on a separate stand. Likewise, I didn't want a monster saw sitting on my workbench, taking up a large amount of space there. And with two kids approaching college age, I didn't want to fork out the extra dollars for the higher end saw.

You may have noticed in the photo that there's a piece of plywood siding on the face of my jigsaw tabletop. I didn't like the size of the hole where the blade comes through the table. I cut a much smaller hole in my wood for the blade to pass through, which allows me to cut moderately delicate pieces of wood without its breaking.

So there you have it.  A jigsaw is great for cutting out various shapes of wood and for doing some fretwork cuts. If the wood is quite delicate, the jigsaw is generally too rough a tool for cutting it. Thursday evening I'll talk about the table saw.

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