Guide written by:
Alice, Furniture Maker, Manchester
Handheld coping saws and electric scroll saws can both be used to cut out intricate shapes in wood. Whether you want to make your own jigsaw puzzle or decorate furniture, these saws will serve you well. From basic coping saws to freestanding scroll saws with multiple features, read on to find the best saw for your job!
- Variable-speed drive
What is a coping saw?
The main function of a coping or scroll saw is to cut curved lines into wood or other materials to create intricate patterns.
This technique is used to form small curved components (such as the backrests of chairs, decorative panels, etc.), in cabinetmaking and, most commonly, in marquetry, instrument repairs and modelmaking.
Why use a coping saw?
Not to be confused with a jigsaw – which is better suited to coarser cuts – the coping saw is the ultimate tool for curved cuts. Coping saws are handheld tools that offer a high degree of precision. A scrolling saw, on the other hand, is basically the electric version of a coping saw. A manual coping saw is best suited to occasional use while an electric scroll saw can be used for more regular work. While these tools are designed to make curved cuts, they can still be used to make the odd straight cut. Electric scroll saws may offer a range of features to help make your task easier (such as blowers, lights, foot pedals, etc.). It's up to you to pick the right saw based on your needs and budget.
Manual coping saw vs. electric scroll saw
Saw design and uses
Both electric scroll saws and handheld coping saws feature two arms which connect to each end of the blade.
The frame of the saw forms a U shape, the depth of which determines the maximum size of workpiece you can cut.A coping saw works around the workpiece whereas wood is fed into an electric scroll saw.
Handheld coping saws
A handheld coping saw is made up of a handle fixed to a U-shaped frame which is usually made of steel. The blade is held to each end of the frame by small locking pins.
A relatively lightweight saw, a coping saw features a sturdy handle made of wood, aluminium or composite materials. These saws can be handledverticallyorperpendicular to the cutting surface. Simply pull it back forth in a classic sawing motion and hey presto: your cuts will appear!
Choose your blade according to the type of material you plan to cut (i.e. wood, plastic or soft metals like copper or brass) and the thickness of the piece. Handheld coping saws will only be able to handle materials up to around 30 to 40 mm in thickness, though this will depend on the model.
There are many different types of handheld coping saw, each designed for a specific application. A jewellers saw, for example, has a small frame with a depth of around 80–130 mm and can weigh as little as 50 g. That said, even the largest coping saws don't exceed 500 g in weight or 300 mm in depth.
Why choose an electric scroll saw?
Electric scroll saws also feature a U-shaped frame and their blade is also held by two arms. However, the movement of the blade is controlled by a small motor which produces an up-and-down movement.These electric saws are equipped with a flat aluminium table where the workpiece is cut. Depending on the model, this table can sometimes be tilted to angles of up to 45° allowing you to cut bevelled edges (i.e. at an angle).Scroll saws may be built into a stand or be designed to sit on a tabletop to take up a bit less room.Quick tip: some scroll saws offer the option of adding on a Dremel-type precision tool for finishing off workpieces.
Main features of scroll saws
These machines come with a variety of accessories to facilitate cutting, including:
- Clamp - to help hold the piece steady against the saw table;
- Blower and / or dust extraction - to remove dust as you cut;
- Variable-speed drive - for improved cutting control in tight corners or delicate points;
- Adapters for mounting all sorts of blades;
- Light for better visibility;
- Protective cover to protect you from flying splinters;
- Quick change blade clamp;
- Pedal-operated control;
- A mitre guide for improved precision cutting;
- Magnifying glass for high-precision cuts.
The length of an electric coping saw frame ranges from 30 to 60 cm. The power rating of these machines can vary from around 70 to 200 W with a single-phase 230V power supply (standard mains connection).
They can be fixed on a workbench or mounted on stand; the latter option means these tools are entirely freestanding. In terms of size, assume that bigger generally means better. Trust us: you'll notice the differece with a 250 x 400mm saw table! Blade speed generally variesbetween900 and 1400 strokes per minute but this, once again, depends the type of material you want to cut.
Electric coping saw
Choosing the right blade for your task
As you might have guessed, you won't be using the same type of blade to cut 3 mm plywood and 2mm copper sheet.Manufacturers usually offer provide guides indicating what kind of blade you'll need for each type of material and the thickness of each. You will also have to ensure that the blade is compatible with your saw's blade lock system. The standard blade length is 130 mm but be careful as, very occasionally, you may come across a blade with different dimensions.
In short, your blades should be chosen according to your saw and the type of material you plan to cut. Electric coping saws are usually supplied with a set of blades and an outline of what each blade is designed to do. Nonetheless, here are a few basics:
- 'TPI' (teeth per inch) indicates the number of teeth on the blade;
- The hash (#) symbol summarises a set of characteristics (namely, blade thickness, depth and TPI);
- Spiral blades cut in all directions – the only downside is that they can only produce a fairly wide cut;
- Reverse-tooth blades are designed to cut without creating burrs; use with caution, however, as poor execution can produce burrs on both sides of a workpiece.
Final tips for choosing your coping or scroll saw
When it comes down to it, your choice will basically depend on how frequently you plan to use your saw.
For occasional use, a handheld coping saw will do the job well enough.Very affordable, these saws can be used to cut fairly intricate pieces for a range of DIY applications. They can be used for delicate work on small pieces of wood, metal or even plastic.
For more frequent use,an electricscrollsaw is the better option. These machines offer easy handling and superior cutting quality. They also provide a more ergonomic design as the blade is positioned at a right angle to the saw table. This allows you to cut comfortably and keep your pieces flat on the cutting surface – unless, of course, you're intentionally working at a tilt to produce bevelled edges! The deeper the frame on electric models, the larger the pieces you can cut.
Guide written by:
Alice, Furniture Maker, Manchester, 10 guides
I have been handy since my childhood, I have always been fond of new tools and other small practical machines. Beyond my interest in tools and materials, I am interested in building of all types. My professional experience as an artisan craftsman (ok the word says ‘man’, but it can work for me too.), allows me to with a material and that’s both noble and common at the same time: wood. Surrounded by carpenters and other builders, I am constantly interacting with professional and amateur wood workers, but also various kinds of manufacturing. I am also an amateur gardener, I like to cultivate my vegetable garden. You could say that summer ends under the sign of ratatouille. So, with two passions, I hope to answer your questions.