How to Use a Band Saw: Essential Band Saw Tips & Tricks
Anyone can figure out how to cut simple curves with a bandsaw. But these tips, from a seasoned bandsaw expert, help you achieve much better results, whether you're cutting curves or turning logs into lumber. These are the tips our trusted pro swears by.
What's the Difference?
Band saws come in many sizes and prices, but they're all basically the same tool: A band of steel with teeth rotates on two wheels and passes through a table. Guides and bearings located above and below the blade hold it in position as it cuts. You simply place a board on the table and push it through the rotating blade.
Entry-level benchtop saws offer portability over cutting capacity (maximum cutting width and height). Their lightweight construction is likely to allow some vibration, adjustments are finicky and blade choices are limited. Cutting thick hardwood can push them beyond their limits, but that's OK: These 9- and 10-in. saws are designed for light-duty use—they'll cut like the dickens when you don't ask them to do too much. And you can't beat the price.
Floor-model 14-in. band saws typically feature heavy construction with vibration-dampening cast-iron components, induction motors, substantial blade guides, tensioning and tracking systems and a full range of blade choices. They have larger cutting capacities than benchtop saws, and larger tables. Is the combination of capability and stability these saws offer worth the cost? If you're an avid woodworker, yes, especially if you want to try your hand at resawing.
Cut on the Outside Edge of the Line
Band saw cuts usually leave saw marks, so it's good practice to allow extra material for smoothing the edge. Cutting on the outside edge of the line minimizes the amount of material you have to remove. However, accurately following the edge of a line—especially a curved line—takes practice. So until you've mastered this skill, it's best to start far enough away to leave a bit of wood showing between the line and the saw kerf. Remember: An oscillating spindle sander (or a sanding drum chucked in your drill press) is a band saw's best friend.
Cut Nonferrous Metals
A blade with lots of fine teeth works great for cutting thin-walled brass, aluminum and copper. Make sure the teeth are hardened—a blade without hardened teeth will dull quickly.
Instant Zero Clearance
Here's an easy way to eliminate those annoying delays caused by offcuts getting jammed next to the blade in the saw's throat plate. Just cut a kerf in a piece of thin cardboard from a cereal box and tape it to the table.
Make Relief Cuts
Cutting a contoured profile is easier if you first cut in to the line along the curves and at the transition points. Then, when you saw the profile, the waste falls away whenever you reach one of these relief cuts. This frees the blade to continue and effectively reduces each contour to a series of short, manageable cuts.
$1 Blade Guide Setup
Use a dollar bill (or a piece of paper) as a spacer to properly set up a saw equipped with metal blade guides and thrust bearings. These metal components must be positioned ever so slightly away from the blade to minimize friction and keep it from overheating. Remove the blade guard to make these adjustments easier.
Start by setting the blade guide assembly about 1/4 in. above the height of the stock you're cutting. Then fold the bill into four thicknesses and use it to position the thrust bearing behind the blade (above left). Next, bring the guide assembly forward until the fronts of the guides (which are round bearings on this saw) rest just behind the bottoms of the blade's gullets (above center). Finally, use the unfolded bill to set the guides on both sides of the blade (above right). Then repeat the process to position the lower guides and thrust bearing.
Immediately Replace a Dull Blade
This is a must-do. A slower feed rate, burning and increased difficulty in following a line are all signs of a dull blade. Persisting won't do any good—installing a sharp blade is the only solution.
Tip: Check the dull blade before you toss it. If it's dirty or covered with pitch from cutting resinous woods such as pine, a good cleaning may be all it needs. Just coil it and soak it in the same blade cleaner used for table saw blades.
Release the Tension
Extend the life of your blades by releasing the tension whenever your saw will sit idle for three days or longer. Some saws have a quick-release mechanism that makes this a snap. Otherwise, rotating the tensioning knob two or three complete turns will do the trick.
Keeping the tension on can cause metal fatigue that will make the blade break prematurely. It can also cause tracking problems by flattening the crowns on the saw's rubber tires.
Upgrade the Blade
Our first recommendation is to replace the blade that came with your band saw. This simple upgrade is guaranteed to improve your saw's performance. We prefer blades made with hardened teeth that are cut rather than pressed (Timber Wolf is one brand). They cost more than twice as much as economy blades, but we still consider them a bargain.
Aside from quality, there are two features to consider in a blade:
- Width: Wider blades are best for thicker wood and straight cuts because they 'wander' less than narrow blades. But narrow blades are essential for curves. The narrower the blade, the tighter it can turn. The narrowest blades can cut curves with a radius as small as 3/16 in. (That's the diameter of a ballpoint pen tip!)
- Teeth per inch: Lower-TPI blades are better for cutting thicker stock. A higher-TPI blade will cut slower but leave a smoother surface.
Although the widest and narrowest blades are good to have, you'll get the most bang for your buck with midsize blades. Ranging from 3/8 in. to 1/4 in. wide, midsize blades can make both straight and curved cuts. (A 3/8-in. blade has more rigidity for straight cuts; a 1/4-in. blade cuts a smaller radius, 5/8 in. vs. 1-1/2 in.) Installing one of these workhorses will minimize blade changing, because it'll make most of the cuts you typically make. If you make a lot of curved cuts, a 1/4-in. 6-TPI (teeth per inch) blade is the workhorse that you'll use the most.
If you want to slice thick boards into thinner boards, consider a 'resaw' blade designed just for that job. A resaw blade's added width provides rigidity to keep it from twisting. To cut without overheating, a resaw blade also has widely spaced teeth that cut aggressively and deep gullets that efficiently remove sawdust.
Switch to Cool Blocks
The square steel guide blocks found on many older saws are bad news: They can cause a blade to overheat, and they'll quickly dull a blade if they come into contact with its teeth.
Replace these blade killers with Olson Cool Blocks. Cool Blocks are self-lubricating, so they won't cause overheating even if they contact the blade, and they're soft (compared with steel), so they won't damage its teeth. These two qualities also ease setup, especially with narrow blades (1/4 in. and smaller), because you can press Cool Blocks against the blade and its teeth. Unlike steel blocks, they don't have to be exactly positioned.
It's All in the Wrist
This is the easiest way to coil a blade for storage. All you have to do is rotate your wrist 360 degrees.
1. Using either hand, hold the blade with your palm facing out and the teeth facing away from you. Wear gloves—those teeth are sharp! Stabilize the blade with one foot. Place a block of wood under the blade to protect the teeth from a hard floor.
2. Press down with your hand to compress the blade into an oval.
3. Slowly rotate your wrist so your palm faces in and the blade begins to coil. Grip the blade firmly during this step so it doesn't slip in your hand.
4. Continue rotating your wrist and coiling the blade until your palm faces out.
5. Use your free hand to capture the coiled blade.
Start at the Shallow Angle
Always start a contoured cut at its shallowest angle. Cutting in the opposite direction—so the cut ends with the shallow angle—can result in a ragged edge, because the blade can veer off the line at the last second and pop out. If the angles are shallow at both ends of a contour, start at each end and cut to the middle.
Round the Blade to Improve Performance
Cut tighter curves, reduce blade vibration and increase blade life by truing the blade with a saw blade finishing stone. Start by removing the back corners, then round the back. The process takes about five minutes, and the benefits last for a blade's lifetime. You can use the stone on scroll saw blades too.
Install a Bigger Table
The 24-in.-square table shown here provides more than twice the surface area of this 14-in. band saw's original table. Use your table saw to cut the blade slot, and attach a cleat to correctly position your new table against the front of the saw's table. Then locate and drill holes through both tables for machine screws. Countersink the holes in the new table so the screw heads rest slightly below the surface. Then slide the new table into position, anchor it to the original table and you're ready to cut.
Set the Guides Close to the Wood
Every band saw manual tells you to set the guides close to the wood, and here are two good reasons why. It positions the upper blade guides as close as possible to the lower blade guides (which are mounted under the saw's table), so it provides the best cutting results. And it exposes less of the blade, which is safer for you.