Band saws are one of the most versatile types of tools in a woodworker’s arsenal and should be one of the first power tools a new woodworker ought to consider buying. This guide will provide an introduction to band saws, what you can do with them, and the types of band saws and their parts. By the time you read this article, you will know everything you need to in order to choose the best band saw for your shop.
What Is a Woodworking Band Saw?
A band saw is a benchtop or floor model power saw that cuts wood and other materials like non-ferrous metals with a flexible, loop-shaped blade that has teeth on one edge. The blade is held taut between two wheels housed inside the band saw’s body.
The blade is tensioned so that it is tight enough to cut the workpiece without too much flexing. As the wheels rotate, the band saw blade turns in a clockwise motion around the wheels, through a set of guides, and down through an opening in the top of the table before it repeats its path in a circular fashion. The downward force of the blade pushes the wood against the table as it is cutting.
Because of the way it cuts, the band saw is one of the safest woodworking tools for cutting wood. The band saw allows you to cut wood without the worry of dangerous kickback like you can experience on a table saw. Kickback is when a saw blade grabs the wood and throws it back toward the user. I can speak from personal and painful experience that you don’t want to be in the path of the board when kickback occurs!
How Are Band Saw Sizes Measured?
Band saws are often referred to as a measurement, such as 14” or 16” band saw. This measurement refers to the diameter of the wheels that power the blades. This diameter also roughly reflects the distance between the blade and the column or post that connects the upper and lower portions of the saw. This distance is referred to as the throat size.
Throat size is an important measurement to know because it dictates the size of the widest cut you can make. For 14” saws, the distance is a little less than 14” to allow for space taken up by blade guards, etc. The actually cutting width capacity made be 13-1/2”, for example.
The second important band saw measurement to understand is the vertical cutting, or resawing, capacity. This size indicates the maximum height of stock that can be fed into the blade. A 14” saw typically has 6” height capacity, which can be increased with the addition of an accessory riser block that raises the limit to 12” or 14”.
TYPES OF BAND SAWS
The two most common types of band saws used by hobbyist woodworkers are bench top models and floor standing cabinet models. The type of saw you need depends on your budget, the amount of shop space available, the types of cuts you intend to make, and the size of the materials you will cut on the band saw.
Benchtop Band Saws
Benchtop band saws are a good choice for new woodworkers who may not have much shop space or who have a smaller budget to buy tools. While you will not be able to resaw or cut very thick wood on these saws, they do provide plenty of cutting capacity and power to cut 1” stock commonly used for many woodworking projects. My first band saw was a bench top model that I got plenty of use from before I upgraded to a floor model.
Frames for these types of saws are most often cast-alloy or welded steel. They usually have 9” to 10” of cutting capacity between the blade and column. Because these saws are small and light, they can be mounted on a bench or stored underneath and pulled out when needed.
Benchtop band saws have smaller motors, which are attached directly to the lower wheel, than floor models. Size is measured in amps rather than horsepower, with common sizes being 2.5 or 3.5 amps. Again, these motors are not suitable for resawing and cutting very thick stock, but they are sufficient for most beginner woodworkers’ needs.
The tables on benchtop models will not support very large pieces of stock as the most popular saws have tables that are 11-3/4” x 11-3/4” or 13-3/4” x 12-1/2” square. Tables can be made of cast alloy or cast iron.
Wheels on benchtop units are often made of cast-alloy, and blade lengths range from 59-1/2” to 70-1/2” on some of the more popular models.
Rip fences on benchtop models are often not as accurate as those on larger band saws, so you will want to look for a saw with a fence that will lock securely to the table and square to the blade.
14″ Band Saws
The 14” model mounted on a stand is the most common size of floor model band saw found in home woodworking shops. These saws provide all the power and cutting capacity you are ever likely to need for your woodworking hobby.
Until recently, 14” band saws most often had cast iron frames. However, some models are now offered with welded steel frames.
Fourteen-inch floor models come with a resawing capacity of about 6”. However, the resawing capacity can be increased to 12” or 14” with the addition of an accessory riser block that will be discussed later in this article. Cutting capacity between the blade and column is typically 13-1/2” to 13-5/8”.
Cast iron tables are the norm and offer plenty of support for workpieces. Most floor models also come with cast iron wheels, which are better than aluminum wheels because of their extra weight increases blade momentum and reduces vibration.
Common motor power ratings for floor model units range from 1HP to 2HP. If you plan to resaw very wide boards, you should consider getting a saw with at least a 1-1/2HP motor. Even better is a 2HP motor, but that will likely require you to have 240V electric outlets in your shop.
Rip fences on 14” models are usually better quality than those on the smaller saws. They may have T-slots to allow you to attach accessories like feather boards or resaw guides and have better locking component.
Larger Band Saws
Woodworking band saws are also available in even larger sizes, such as 16” or 18”, like the Powermatic PM1800B 18” band saw pictured below. This saw comes with a 5HP motor that requires 230V power. The maximum cutting capacity for both width and height is 18”. This saw has a massive 24” x 27” table and can handle up to a 1-1/2” wide blade. This saw is on my dream list of tools to own, even though I will likely never need such a large saw!
What Kinds of Cuts Can You Make With a Band Saw?
The band saw’s versatility is reflected in the wide range of cuts you can make with one.
Cutting curves and circles on the band saw
Band saws excel at making curved cuts. The thin blades allow you to pivot the wood as you follow a curved layout line. The radius of cuts you can make depends on the width of the blade. Narrow blades are best for making the smallest radius cuts
Please see the Blade Types section below for more information on selecting blades for radius cuts of various sizes.
Just as you can make curved cuts, you can make perfect 360-degree circles on a band saw. A circle-cutting jig can be purchased or made to achieve this task. The jig contains a pin on which the square or rectangular shaped rough workpiece is rested. The pin is attached to the jig one-half the desired diameter of the final circle from the blade. The workpiece is then rotated in a clockwise direction, resulting in a circle as it pivots around the pin and through the blade’s cutting path.
This video from Fine Woodworking magazine gives a great overview of cutting curves on the band saw.
The second most often use of the band saw is resawing lumber. Resawing is where a board is cut into two or more thinner pieces by slicing it through and through the edge.
To resaw lumber, the board is stood on one long edge and advanced into the blade end first while being guided along a standard band saw fence or a resaw fence. A thinner board or slice off the original board is created when the cut has been made all the way through the length of the board.
Resawing is a great way to make your own veneers that are more substantial than commercially produced veneers. Veneer sheets that you purchase from a woodworking supply company or other retailer are often .018 to .027 inches thick. It can be tricky to sand such thin material without sanding a hole through it. Resawn veneer you cut on your band saw can be as thick as you like it.
Resawing allows you to stretch your wood supply by not forcing you to plane down thicker boards, wasting most of the wood in the process.
I made the book-matched curly koa veneer for the sofa table top pictured below by resawing two ¼ inch slices from a single board then gluing them together side by side before finally gluing them to an MDF substrate. The veneered center is framed with a mitered wenge wood border. Notice how the grain patterns match on each side of center.
Not only was I able to get beautiful book-matched grain by resawing, but I also saved a ¼ inch thick piece of the expensive hardwood by not having to thickness plane the original thicker board to make the table top veneer. I will be able to use the wood I saved for another project such as a jewelry box.
What is a Resaw Fence?
A resaw fence can be either a taller version of the standard fence, a round bar, or curved plate with or without rollers attached to the main fence. The curvature of the bar or plate allows the woodworker to adjust the angle the board is entering the blade to adjust for the band saw’s drift.
Drift is the tendency of a band saw blade to cut off center or away from the cut line. Drift can be cause by several reasons such as if the blade is not properly tensioned, if the band saw wheels are not coplanar, if the blade is misaligned from where it rests on one wheel to another, if the blade is dull, or if the blade guides are not properly set up to fully support the blades during the cut.
Click here for a great article from Woodworkers Journal explaining how to make book matched panels by resawing on a band saw.
Ripping on a Band Saw
Band saws are often used for ripping lumber down the length of the board. This can be much safer than ripping a board on a table saw. The band saw must be adjusted very carefully and precisely to get straight lines during a rip cut because of the drift discussed earlier.
Because band saw tables are smaller than those on table saws, you will need to provide in-feed and out-feed support when ripping long boards. You can also have another person support the wood as it exits the blade. Band saw blades also do not produce the cleanest cuts, so the edges of a ripped board will have to be cleaned up on a jointer or with a hand plane before they are ready to be edge glued.
Crosscutting on the Band Saw
Band saws can be used to make crosscuts on small workpieces. These cuts can be accomplished using a standard miter gauge or a shop-built crosscut sled that supports and guides the wood through the blade.
However, you’ll still need to rely on your miter saw, table saw, or other tool to cross cut larger pieces. One of the reasons is because the most common size of band saw has room for only 14 inches from one edge of the board to the saw’s throat. It can also be very tricky to support a long workpiece and advance it through the crosscut.
Using Band Saws to Cut Round Workpieces
A band saw is a good choice of tool to use if you need to cut a round workpiece in half. A v-block can be built out of scrap wood to support the round piece and keep it from shifting during the cut.
Cutting Dovetails and Other Joints on the Band Saw
Did you know you can cut great looking dovetails and other woodworking joints like tenons with a band saw? Being able to cut snug-fitting dovetails is a hallmark accomplishment for woodworkers. They are very strong and beautiful joints that, if properly done, scream craftsmanship.
However, it takes most new woodworkers a while to feel comfortable and able to produce nice fitting and attractive dovetails. So they often resort to using a dovetail jig that produces joints that look machine made. The band saw can be a better option to help achieve a hand-cut look. Cutting dovetails on a band saw entails adjusting the table to the proper angle or using a jig to angle the workpiece.
This article at Fine Woodworking magazine shows how to make an angled table jig for cutting dovetails on the band saw:
It’s also possible to cut tenons for mortise and tenon joinery on a bandsaw as shown in this video.
PARTS OF THE BAND SAW
Knowing how to properly use a woodworking tool requires you to be familiar with the individual parts and their functions. This holds true for band saws as well.
No matter the size, all band saws have the same basic parts. Let’s examine those parts and a few optional accessories you may want on your saw.
The frame is the internal structure to which all the other parts are attached. The frame may be constructed of cast aluminum, cast iron, or welded steel.
Die cast aluminum band saw frames are not as strong or rigid as cast iron or welded steel frames. These frames are usually found on some inexpensive bench top band saws.
Many benchtop models also have steel welded frames, however, so don’t discount buying a bench top band saw until you have considered all of its features. Because cast frames lack the rigidity and strength of other frame types, they are better suited for narrow blades and certainly not for any blade larger than 1/2” wide.
Cast iron frames weigh more than the other models of comparable size. This extra weight helps to reduce vibration and provides more stability than the lighter machines. Cast iron frames are most often found on 14″ band saws and older larger units.
Welded steel frame band saws are lighter than cast iron saws, which means they may be prone to more vibration. However, they are often less expensive than the heavier cast iron models. Welded steel band saw models, even in the benchtop line, are becoming more and more common in home woodworking shops.
Band saw wheels are housed in metal enclosures, called wheel houses, located above and below the table. Wheel houses have doors on the front that protect you from the blade and wheels. They can be separate parts attached to the saw or are an integral part of the frame, such as in the case of welded steel frame band saws.
Some floor model band saws, especially the typical 14” models, are attached to a metal cabinet that serves as the base. The base not only supports the main body of the saw but also encloses the motor. A pulley and belt guard on the back of the saw covers the drive belt and pulley that power the wheels where the belt exits the top of the base.
The post, sometimes called the column, attaches the top portion of the saw to the bottom half and is either attached as a separate part or is an integral part of the frame
A taller accessory riser block can be mounted in place of the original post on some saws to increase resawing capacity. Of course, the standard size blade will no longer fit and have to be replaced. A 14” band saw will usually require a 93-1/2” blade. But after installing a riser block, the saw will need a 105” blade in most cases. Actual blade sizes can vary by brand of saw so you should consider these measurements, while typical, as examples only.
The table holds the wood as it is being cut on the band saw. The table is rectangular in shape and usually made of either cast aluminum, steel or, more often, cast iron. The size of the table varies with the overall size, brand, and type of the saw. For example, some 14 inch saws have tables that are 15” x 15”, while others have tables that are 15” x 20”.
Because the blade must run through the center of the table, the table is split to allow for blade changes. A metal pin is inserted into openings on each table half to ensure the table remains in alignment. A throat plate covers the opening in the table around the blade.
Band saw tables usually have the ability to be tilted 45 degrees to the left and 10 degrees to the right to allow for beveled and mitered cuts. A table tilt knob locks the table into place at various angles.
Most band saws come with a miter gauge as a standard accessory. Miter gauges are used to support the stock during crosscuts or miter cuts. They ride in miter grooves in the table’s surface. Better quality miter gauges have cast iron or thick steel heads and fit in the miter groove with no slop (sideways movement).
Just as fences on table saws are designed to do, band saw fences support and guide the wood into the blade for rip, resawing, and bevel cuts. However, not all band saws come with fences as standard equipment. The fences that do come with some less expensive saws may be inferior and should be replaced with an after-market upgrade.
Fences should lock securely and not deflect once locked down to the table. A fence should also be tall enough to provide sufficient support for the types of cuts you intend to make.
Other features to look for include T-slots to allow accessories to be attached to the fence. Specialty resaw fences are available that will make resawing much easier than trying to guide a wide board on edge through the blade.
Trunnions are u-shaped components often made of cast iron. The table is mounted to two trunnions, which also make up the tilting mechanism that keeps the table’s surface from moving sideways in relation to the blade as it is titled.
Cheaper saws may have cast metal (sometimes referred to as “pot metal”) trunnions that are not as strong and durable as the other types.
Band Saw Wheels and Tires
Most modern-day band saws have two wheels, which are enclosed in the wheel houses above and below the table, and that support and turn the blade. The motor is connected to the bottom wheel, either directly for smaller saws, or by belt and pulleys on larger saws.
Wheels can be manufactured from cast iron or aluminum. Cast iron wheels are preferred as their weight assists the motor by achieving momentum on their own as they are turning. Cast iron wheels are also less likely to warp than aluminum wheels.
The wheels can be crowned in the center to keep the blade in its proper tracking position, which is with the deepest part of the blade’s gullet slightly behind the center of the wheel. Alternatively, the wheel has a flat edge around the outside diameter to accept a crowned tire.
Band saw tires can be found made of rubber, urethane, or neoprene. The tires are attached by stretching them onto the wheels and held in place by friction. Sometimes, an adhesive is used to more securely affix the tires to the wheels.
Tires sometimes wear out and have to be replaced. Many woodworkers choose to replace rubber tires with urethane ones, but it’s debatable if this provides any additional benefit.
Guides and Guide Post
Two sets of guides consisting of two side guides and a thrust bearing are found on band saws to support and keep the blade from flexing during cuts. One set of guides is attached to the guide post, which is mounted to the top portion of the saw and extends down toward the table surface. The second set of guides is attached below the table.
The side guides are mounted very close to, but not touch, each side of the blade while the motor is off. Their purpose is to prevent the blade from flexing laterally as pressure is applied during cutting operations.
The thrust bearings sit directly behind the blade and stop it from being pushed back during cuts.
Guide blocks can be made of metal, plastic, ceramic, or graphite impregnated phenolic resin laminate. These graphite infused blocks are claimed to be cooler and present less friction, allowing blades to last longer. Some woodworkers replace the guide blocks with guide rollers or bearings. Many swear by these upgraded guides, stating they improve their saws’ performance, reduce friction on the blade, and allow more accurate cuts.
Another option to guide blocks are ceramic blocks, which many consider superior to other guide blocks as they can withstand more than eight times the heat than the phenolic resin blocks. NASA used the same process used to manufacture these blocks for the ceramic tiles that protected the space shuttles from the tremendous temperatures caused by re-entry into the atmosphere.
Check out this article on SpaceAge Ceramic’s website for more information about ceramic guide blocks: Cool Blocks Vs Ceramic Guide Blocks
Blade Tension Adjustment Rod and Knob
Band saw blades must be properly adjusted in order to make accurate and straight cuts. An improperly tensioned blade will flex, resulting in the blade drifting badly off layout lines. On the other hand, a band saw blade that is properly tensioned has greater rigidity and is less likely to flex during the cut. The blade tension is adjusted by turning a tension adjustment rod with the adjustment knob, which compresses a tension spring to create the needed amount of tension.
A tension scale indicates the amount of tension applied. However, these scales are usually inaccurate, resulting in over-tensioned blades that can put excessive stress on the band saw frame, reduce the life of the tires, and may even lead to the blade breaking at the weld.
Rather than relying on the inaccurate scales, many woodworkers test the blade tension by applying moderate pressure to the side of the blade. The thought is a properly tensioned blade will not deflect more than ¼ inch. Any deflection greater than that indicates the blade does not have enough tension, while any less deflection indicates possible over-tensioning.
However, band saw manufacturers recommend the “flutter test” to set the correct blade tension. This method involves reducing the blade tension while the saw is running until the blade starts to flutter between the wheels. Tension is then increased for an additional ¼ to ½ of a turn of the tension adjustment knob after the fluttering just stops. This video from American Woodworker magazine demonstrates how to use the flutter method.
Quick Release Tension Levers
Band saw manufacturers recommend you remove the tension from the blade after use to avoid shortening the blade life as result of the constant stress on it and to prevent flat spots from developing on the tires.
However, whether to de-tension the blades is a hotly debated topic in some online woodworking forums. Some woodworkers say they remove the blade tension as the saw manufacturers suggest, while others say they haven’t reduced the tension on their saws in years with no detrimental effects.
My personal opinion is that the manufacturers, who have engineers to help design their products, know more about this issue than I do. Therefore, I follow their advice.
The only problem, though, is that my saw requires me to turn a small knob several times in order to reduce or increase the tension. Some saws come with quick release tension levers that make releasing the tension a quick, one-step process.
You can also purchase an aftermarket quick release tension lever and install it on your saw, like I plan to do soon. I’ll be posting an article in the near future about the unit I buy and how it works.
Blade Tracking Adjustment Knob
In order to make straight cuts without wandering, a band saw blade must track properly on the wheels. A blade that tracks forward too far can actually slip off the wheels while it is rotating. A blade tracking adjustment knob or thumbscrew, located on the tension adjustment scale housing, is turned to adjust the blade tracking as the top wheel is slowly rotated by hand.
WARNING: To avoid injury, never adjust blade tracking while the saw is running!
Band saw motors come in various horsepower ratings. The most common band saws used by hobbyist woodworkers will have motors ranging from ¾ to 2 HP. These saws operate on 115 volts but some can be rewired or require 240V
Whether you need a saw with a larger motor depends on the type of wood you plan to cut. If you’re cutting thinner stock and don’t plan to resaw lumber, then the smaller motors will be plenty large enough. But if you intend to resaw wide boards, then a larger motor will be needed.
TYPES OF BAND SAW BLADES
Band saw blades come in various lengths, widths, and thicknesses. They are made of various metals and alloys, and are available with differing numbers of teeth and teeth styles and sets.
The type of blade you need depends on the saw’s requirements in terms of length, the thickness and type of wood you intend to cut, and the type of cuts, whether straight or curved, that you intend to make with the blade. You will likely need several blades in order to switch between making straight cuts on thick lumber to cutting curves in thinner stock.
Band saw blades are made in a range of materials including spring steel, carbon steel, silicon steel, bimetal, and carbide-tipped.
Spring steel blades are the most inexpensive types of blades but dull very quickly. Some spring steel blades are available with hardened teeth. These blades have minimal amount of set and are sometimes called thin kerf resaw blades. While they are very sharp when new, they also dull very quickly during use.
Carbon steel blades are general purpose blades that can be used for a wide variety of cutting tasks. They are relatively inexpensive and dull slower than spring steel and silicon blades but at a faster rate than bi-metal blades.
Silicon steel blades are advertised as requiring a lower amount of tension than other types of blades, thus resulting in longer blade life and increase life of band saw wheel shafts and bearings by using less horsepower. These blades are more expensive than some other types of band saw blades. Some woodworkers state these blades are very sharp initially, but dull quickly.
Bimetal blades are made with a strip of high speed steel welded to a carbon steel back. These blades are very durable and will stay sharp longer than all blade types other than the carbide blades. These blades are economical
Carbide-tipped blades have carbide teeth brazed onto a steel backer. They are very durable and long-lasting blades and are an excellent choice for cutting very hard and dense or abrasive woods or materials like MDF or plywood. The downside is that they are more expensive. However, the extra-long life spans make these blades worth the extra cost in the long run.
Your saw will require a particular length of blade. Most 14” band saws without riser blocks take a 93-1/2” long blade, but this can vary from one brand to another. Check your owner’s manual to confirm the correct length.
You should use the widest blade possible for the cuts you intend to make. Choose a wider blade for resawing or straight cuts. For curved or radius cuts, you need to select the blade based on the radius you intend to cut.
The chart below shows the smallest radius you can cut with each blade size. Remember the radius is equal to one-half the diameter, so if you’re cutting circles, the smallest circle you can cut with a one inch blade would be 14 inches in diameter.
|Blade Width||Min. Radius|
The pitch of a blade refers to the number of teeth per inch (TPI). Blades with more pitch cut more smoothly, but also at a slower speed (the “feed rate”). Blades with higher TPI cut faster but will not leave as smooth of a surface.
The stock’s thickness and hardness play an important role in deciding which blade pitch is best. Harder wood is best cut with a finer pitch than softer wood, which can be cut better with a coarser pitch.
When cutting at least three teeth must be in the wood. That means thinner woods should be cut with blades with a higher TPI. A coarser tooth blade with three TPI is best for resawing and cutting thicker woods. On the other hand, a blade with 14 TPI is recommended for cutting 3/4” wood. The table below shows the minimum thickness of material suitable for each TPI count shown.
|TPI||MINIMUM STOCK THICKNESS|
Teeth Styles and Sets
Band saw blades come in different teeth styles, widths and sets. The style refers to the teeth configuration, while the set indicates the direction the teeth are bent in relation to the teeth above and below it.
Basic tooth styles for band saws are:
- Regular tooth blades – The teeth are space proportionally. These blades are best suited for general purpose use in thin materials where a finer finish is desired.
- Skip tooth blades – The teeth are spaced farther apart and have a zero degree rake angle. These blades are good for cutting softer woods, non-ferrous metals, and plastics.
- Hook tooth blades – The teeth are larger and have larger gullets (and a positive 10 degree rake angle. These blades cut more aggressively and are an excellent choice for resawing or cutting thicker stock.
- Variable pitch blades – Alternating sets of different sized teeth give a fast and smooth finish. These blades are recommended for cutting joinery and curves.
The set of a blade creates the kerf or cut. Thick blades have more set than thin blades, so the kerfs they create are larger. If a blade set is too little, that is the teeth are not bent a distance of about a quarter of the blade’s thickness, the kerf is very small. As a result, saw dust gets trapped between the blade body and the side of the cut material, which can cause excessive heat build up. This heat creates burn marks on the wood and reduces the life of the blade. Therefore, blades with more set, i.e., thicker blades are required for thicker materials.
The most common blades for cutting wood have the following teeth sets, although additional options are available.
- Raker tooth – Two teeth are set in alternate sets in opposite directions, left or right, followed by a tooth (the “raker”) with no set.
- Modified rake – Similar to the raker tooth set but with two sets of alternating set teeth before the straight raker tooth.
- Alternate – Every other tooth alternates set direction left or right.
Recommended Band Saw Blades
To be prepared for typical cuts you will likely make with your band saw, you will want to have a few different band saw blades on hand. Here are my recommendations:
- 3/16” or 1/4” hook or skip tooth blade with 6 to 10 TPI for tight curved cuts
- 3/8” hook tooth blade with 6 TPI for general purpose ripcuts, crosscuts, and larger radius curved cuts
- 1/2” hook or skip tooth blade with 3 teeth per inch for heavy resawing and ripping stocker more than 2” thick.