The Trick to Cutting Detailed
Scroll Saw Patterns

Fretwork Chipmunk
If there was a magic formula I would give it to you, but there isn't.  Cutting patterns is challenging, but scroll saw patterns are designed to have enough strength and stability so that they can be cut by most anyone with the patience and confidence to attempt it.

Start in the center of the piece and work out, watch the order of your cuts and be determined to finish the piece and you will be surprised what you can accomplish.  You don't need the top of the line saw, a hundred years of experience, or even divine intervention.  You do need the desire to push yourself into working outside your normal comfort levels, and once again confidence.


Drilling and Cutting


Take a good look at the pattern before you head to the drill press.  Take note of any long cuts in the piece, as well as the way the overall strength of the wood will be affected your scrolling.  Try to plan your cutting in advance, start close to the center in the area you feel most likely to break, that way if it becomes “designer firewood” it does it early.

Another consideration before you drill, several of the connections in my designs are thin and the cuts very close together, you have to be sure your drill bit is perpendicular to the wood and be extremely precise when you do drill.  Cutting some of my patterns will cause the wood to loose strength as you cut, keep that in mind and drill accordingly.

Cut all of my designs with Flying Dutchman Spirals .  For most of designs use a 2/0 and drill holes with a #68 bit.  Bits that small while wonderful for this kind of detail will often cause the wood to “splinter” on the bottom making blade changes all but impossible. To eliminate this problem run the bit down in the hole a second time to cut the back clean. 

Keep in mind as you begin cutting; a pattern is simply a guide book not a rule book feel free to make any changes you want thicken some lines, remove some of the cuts, whatever you feel meets your talent, experience and saw.

Blade tension on patterns like these is especially important; the blade will need to react as soon as you move the wood.  I like a setting of about 4 - 4 ½ on my Dewalt.  Use a tension you're comfortable with bearing in mind how thin the connections in the pattern that you are cutting.


How to cut that long piece and not break it

First if you are using a spiral it is not necessary to turn the wood around the blade.  Use the blade like a pencil and trace the lines of the pattern using the entire 360 degrees of the cutting surface a spiral offers.  Another technique is to change directions when cutting.  Often if you follow the line all the way around you will end up with a long piece that hangs way back into the cut out without enough support to keep it from breaking off.  If you will change direction cutting across the waste area to the hanger when you get to it and cut it then resume the outline you won’t lose those pieces.  Take your time and let the blade do the cutting.

The most difficult cuts to make are the long straight ones.  One way to deal with those is speed, keep reading it’s not what you think.  Try to make those cuts as fast as you can comfortably feed the wood into the blade, my feed rate almost doubles when cutting those long straight lines.  It sounds crazy but you will find if you speed up your feed rate it will be easier to cut a line that is at least fairly straight.  If the need arises use the spiral to “sand out” some of the little wiggles to straighten it out.

If you feel like the cutting needs more support as you get close to completing it use clear packing tape on the top and bottom to give it some extra support this allows you to see the pattern while giving a little strength. 


Finishing and Framing


Once you have completed the cutting of your work it's almost ready for presentation.


Dust Removal


While the pattern is still attached use an air compressor to blow the dust off both the front and back of my piece.  Depending on how fragile the piece is you can either separate them from the stack, or leave them together.  Use an old window screen to put behind your cuttings then blow them out.  The screen allows the dust and air to pass through, But adds some support for the wood so you don't blow pieces out.  It is also important to turn the pressure down on your compressor to about 40 PSI.


Clean up the Fuzzies

To deal with the fuzzies that a spiral will inevitably leave I stand the cutting against a piece of scrap wood big enough to completely cover the piece with the back side facing yourself then use a torch, use a bernzomatic plumbers torch to burn off the fuzzies much the way they used to burn off the pin feathers from a plucked chicken.  A few very important things to keep in mind here.  Turn the torch way down, make sure the scrap wood totally covers the piece, having all the cut outs with something solid behind them will greatly eliminate scorch marks, keep the torch moving quickly make several passes but don’t hold the torch in one place or you will burn through.  Should you find some minor charring on the front, fold a piece of 220 sandpaper and run it in the cut on the front side of the piece, it will quickly remove all but the worst scorches.  Once you have finished this use a compressor to blow off the charred fuzzies and repeat as necessary.  This process will not work if you intend for both sides of your cutting to be seen, however since most of you will put a backer behind your cuttings of my designs it will do nicely for us here.

I prefer to use felt for my backer because I like the texture of it, but feel free to use whatever you like.  Black often works the best, but once again this is your cutting not mine.  Use Aleene’s tacky glue in the clear bottle (it dries crystal clear just in case) to mount backer board.  Use care to avoid glue running out into the cut outs.

The last step is often the most overlooked.  Select a beautiful frame for your work.  You invested a significant amount of time in these cuttings and they deserve to be treated like the true works of art you created.  It really adds that special finishing touch to something you have put so much of yourself into.  Think about it the cutting deserves it and so do you.


Pattern Adhesive and Removal

When attaching my patterns, use 3M super 77 spray adhesive.  Generally use a fairly heavy coat, especially if their are fairly large amount of thin areas in the designs (blades of grass, feathers etc.) If you don't use enough adhesive, the pattern will lift and you will be left trying to guess where to stop your cut.  A heavy cut of adhesive can cause you some troubles when it comes time to remove the pattern from the cutting though.  The best way I have found to handle that is to use an old Windex bottle filled with low odor mineral spirits.  Thoroughly saturate the paper with the mineral spirits and allow it to soak in for about 5 minutes.  Your paper should take on a sort of gray translucent appearance when the solvent has worked its way down to the glue.  Once that occurs you can simply grab the corner of the pattern and lift.  The pattern can usually be removed in one piece.  Getting the paper off is only the beginning, mist the wood down again, only this time rub gently with the balls of your fingers.  That "slimy" stuff you feel there is the residue from the adhesive, continue to rub until the wood feels smooth and you have gotten all the glue off.  Use a clean rag (a cloth diaper works great) and blot off the excess thinner.

Two questions may have come to you at this point:

  1. Will the mineral spirits discolor my wood? The answer is no let the thinner dry thoroughly (overnight if possible) before finishing and you won't be able to tell the difference between it and a piece that wasn't saturated with thinner.
  2. Will the thinner raise the grain of my wood?  Using this technique on solid wood you should not have any problems.  Using a solvent on your wood is the equivalent of using an oil based finish like stain.

Spiral Blades


Spiral blades blades offer a host of advantages that are often overlooked.  They have the ability to cut on the entire 360 degree surface of the blade.  Meaning you no longer have to worry about turning the wood.  A handy use for that; consider cutting a sign in a large oval board let's say 50" with the throat (distance from the blade to back of the saw) of most saws falling in the 20-24 inch range we have a problem we can't turn the wood around the blade without hitting the back of the saw.  Spirals eliminate that problem, but allowing you to run the board from left to right.

Another often overlooked feature is their ability to make extremely tight inside corners, a 2/0 spiral blade will create an inside corner with a radius of .012.  That's going to do a nice job on just about every corner you will ever need to cut.

Finally, consider how much faster you can cut a piece with an extreme amount of detail.  No more spinning the wood for each little wiggle, instead you can accomplish the same thing by simply wiggling the wood on the saw table.

Some of you will be intimidated by them, you have read or heard how hard they are to control, how sloppy they cut and that they are difficult to get into the blade holders.  Spirals are no different then standard blades they do take some getting used to.

To help with control; try stacking an extra piece or two of wood with your cutting, or using a blade that is smaller then what you would normally use.  Increasing the thickness of the wood or downsizing the blade will slow the rate that the blade cuts to an extent. 

Don’t try to turn the wood around the blade, use the entire 360 degree cutting surface that a spiral offers, tracing the line in whichever direction it goes, changing the direction you feed the wood into the blade instead of turning it to always feed into the front.

As far as sloppiness is concerned, spirals do create a lot of fuzz, but the best you can do is find an effective way to remove those fuzzies without taking longer to clean the back of the piece then cutting it took. 

Reverse spirals are available and they do help with the fuzzies, but they won’t totally eliminate them.  Personally, I don’t care for them; although there are a number of scroll sawers out there that love them.

It is true that spirals can be difficult to get into the blade holders without bending or breaking the ends, but when you first tried it was hard to consistently get a standard blade in straight each time you did it, you learned by repetition; spirals will work out the same way.

Try to work past your initial frustration and you will develop a feel for them.  Some choose to flatten the ends with pliers and that works, but it adds another step into each blade change.  Another option for you is the spirals that come with flat ends, they are out there and they are effective if you have problems getting the blades into the holders.

Spirals will take some getting used to, but will take your scrolling to a level you never thought possible.


Stack Cutting

There are several reasons to stack.  The most important maybe by stacking you can cut my production time by 75% (think about it I can produce 4 pieces in slightly longer then it would take to cut just one) That isn't the only reason though, many of my patterns can use the thickness for extra support,as well as to help slow the aggressiveness of the blade.  A tight stack will also dramatically reduce the fuzzies that a spiral will inevitably leave behind on all sheets but the bottom one. 


Now that you know the why lets get into the how.  There are probably as many ways to stack wood as there are people reading this, feel free to use whatever method works for you.

Start with the pieces of wood you plan on using and stack them neatly on top of each other.  Be sure your “good sides” are all facing the same direction and that your wood is flush on all sides After stacking your wood with the ends flush and all the face sides pointed up, try using a few large spring clamps(The spring clamps will help to assure a tight pad) I generally use 3 for an 11 x 14 cutting (one on each corner and one in the middle) Place the clamps far enough into the wood that you can run your tape along the edges without having to remove the clamps.  Once you have run the tape along the edge, pull it snugly around the to the back of the wood and while keeping pressure on it fold it over the back.  I like the blue painters tape, it is easy to see on the wood and releases fairly easily.  However, don’t use this tape if you pre-finish your wood, you will have an incredibly difficult time removing it.  Instead if you pre-finish use the purple painters tape.  Once you have secured the side, remove the clamps and continue around the wood.  If you would like to check the stack to be sure it is tight, finish all four sides and squeeze the stack right on the edge between your fingers if you see wrinkles appear in the tape then the stack is still loose.

If you want some extra security, you can use wire brad nails in the cut out sections, hot glue on the edges, or any number of other options.  Do not use carpet tape, the thickness of the tape can leave spaces between your wood effectively creating a void and you will find fuzzies on each piece just as bad as the bottom one.

I know it sounds like a lot of extra work, but I assure you the time you save in removing those fuzzies will make it well worth the effort.

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