What Makes a Great Jigsaw?

Published: 11th June 2012
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All jigsaws are the same, right? Actually, this is very far from the truth. As with cars, planes, TV's, and speakers, all jigsaws are NOT created equal. If you own or have used a jigsaw that costs less than $50 new, you may not have a great impression of jigsaws because the budget jigsaws simply lack the build quality and careful engineering that good professional quality saws offer. Simply put, if you have a jigsaw you purchased from a Walmart, Target, Kmart, or Big Lots, chances are you have a poor performing saw…and you may not even know it. Until you use a great jigsaw, you simply won't understand the difference.

When you look at a jigsaw it looks fairly simple, right? However, as Steve Jobs once said, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

So don't let the outwardly appearance of jigsaws fool you; great jigsaws are packed with complexity which, ironically, makes using them much more simple. With cheap jigsaws you get a less-complex tool that makes getting clean and accurate cuts more complicated and difficult. I don't like to waste money, and I have been guilty of buying cheap tools in the past to save money. I had the mindset that the expensive big name brand tools were only expensive because of the brand name they are labeled with. While the cost of the expensive tools might be inflated a little due to the brand names on them, they are by far worth the extra money.

In relation to saving money, what is more economical: Buying a $150 to $200+ jigsaw that you use for 10+ years or buying 5+ cheap jigsaws over the course of 10 years? Also, aside from the basic long-term savings, a great jigsaw will help you to make much better cuts with a lot less frustration, which is a valuable benefit in my eyes. Avoiding 10 years of frustration from inaccurate cuts should be motivating. Now, don't get me wrong; not everyone needs a professional quality jigsaw. A occasional DIY'er may not need a tool that makes precise cuts with ease, and cheaper jigsaws can be fine for rough cuts. I personally have a cheap jig saw that I prefer for quick rough cuts sometimes, but I would never use it for more important cuts.

So, back to the question in the title above, what makes a great jigsaw? I'll assure you it isn't necessarily the brand, and not necessarily the price; it is the engineering and quality components used as well as the features and quality assembly. Just looking at the specs of various models, such as motor power or weight, does not differentiate between a poor quality and a high quality jigsaw. Great jigsaws are capable of making clean, accurate, and nearly effortless cuts. Let's take a look at the specific features found in great jigsaws that allow for consistently great performance.

Electronics: You might be asking what electronics has to do with a power tool that simply moves a small blade up and down. The short answer is: a lot! To be more specific, the electronics in various models allow for different performance benefits. High quality jigsaws often have electronics that can sense when the blade speed decreases during difficult cuts and will automatically increase the motor's power output to maintain a consistent blade speed. Also, the high quality jigsaws have more robust electronics that are capable of taking a beating without damage. With a tool like the jigsaw, which may experience a few hard knocks, having robust wiring and electronics is very important. Yet another characteristic of high quality jigsaw electronics is the design of their adjustment dials and knobs, such as the speed adjustment dials on variable speed models. The dials and knobs won't easily develop "shorts" or break. More advanced electronics also allow "soft-start" in some professional jigsaws, which is a nice feature to help ensure smooth and accurate starts to cuts.

I would suggest that you don't let options such as LED lights or laser cutting guides mislead you into thinking a cheap jigsaw is better than it actually is. Laser cutting guides on cheap jigsaws are rarely accurate or useful. An LED light to help illuminate the cutting surface is helpful, but this feature alone does not indicate a jigsaw is great. Many poor performing jigsaws have a LED light.

Motors: Many things factor into a jigsaws cutting ability. One such factor is the motor. Simple power ratings, noted in amps or watts, is not the only variable by which jigsaws can be compared. Many low quality jigsaws have around 3 to 4 amps, which is generally considered inadequate for heavy and some moderate-duty cutting. Some budget jigsaws may claim to be 5.5 or 6 amp, but these could be easily outperformed by higher quality or professional saws. Having a 6 amp motor, or even higher, can be great for using longer blades and cutting thicker stock. However, if the jigsaw vibrates excessively or has poor cutting guide mechanisms, the extra power can just make it more frustrating to use for accurate cuts. Therefore, motor power ratings should be only one consideration in rating or choosing a high quality jigsaw. The heavy-duty and extremely durable motors in professional quality jigsaws are worth a little extra money.

Blade Guide Mechanisms: Professional quality jigsaws do a much better job of keeping a blade cutting true and accurate. Some incorporate small metal guides on either side of the blade near the base of the jigsaw, and nearly all have stronger arms to which the blade is secured which minimizes any flex in the jigsaw itself. Heavy duty metal rollers behind the blade are designed better too and last longer while better guiding the blade. The blade holding mechanism plays a role here too, as blade locks that don't hold the blade firmly and securely can lead to poor cuts, early blade failure, and potentially injuries. Orbital cutting saws have become the standard for jigsaws. Very few high quality jigsaws will lack this feature, which allows for more efficient cutting in a variety of materials with various densities. At least three orbital cutting settings are common. While orbital cutting can be a great feature, the orbital systems designed into budget jigsaws can make the saw less accurate and rougher cutting than it might be otherwise.

Vibration Dampening: One huge difference between a budget jigsaw and a professional jigsaw is the vibration felt during use. Some people think their $35 jigsaw is good and doesn't vibrate all that much until they use a good professional model. Great jigsaws are designed to be balanced and have dampening systems built-in that make them run much smoother. Their casing is also designed to minimize vibration. When a jigsaw runs smoothly, getting true and clean cuts are much, much easier. This is something a person has to experience to understand.

Jigsaw Base: Better quality jigsaw generally have cast based rather than formed steel bases. They also usually have some sort of "shoe" or protective cover that fits over the surface of the base that ensures protection to the surface of the material being cut. Bases made of formed steel may be OK, but are more prone to flexing or being bent upon accidental drops or bumps. Sheet metal bases can also contribute to vibration issues.

Accessories: Be weary of jigsaws costing less than $100 that come with a number of accessories, such as parallel cutting guide or circular cutting guide. These guides may be useful IF the jigsaw itself is smooth running and engineered to cut straight accurately. Many budget jigsaws tend to wonder a little and require more effort and attention to get a good straight cut. Adding a cutting guide to one of these will make you think that a straight and parallel cut is certain, but a jig saw that doesn't cut perfectly straight will fight the guide and cause you significant frustration. Many professional jigsaws won't even come with such guides. This is usually due to the fact that the saws cut smoothly and accurately making such a guide less important, and also to the fact that most people who purchase professional jigsaws will use other more advanced guide systems or use other tools that are meant for long straight cuts, such as table saws.

This is not an all inclusive description of the differences between a budget jigsaw and a high quality jigsaw. However, you certainly have a better understanding of some of the key aspects to look for in a jigsaw. All jigsaws are NOT created equal, and much of the time you truly do get what you pay for. There are exceptions in that there are $100 jigsaws that perform better than models costing $100+ more, but unless you are buying refurbished or used, a great jigsaw will cost you at lease $150. The better quality will be evident upon your first use. The brands associated with making great jigsaws are: Bosch, Dewalt, Festool, Milwakee, Metabo, Hitachi, and Porter-Cable. Of these brands, Bosch and Festool tend to get the highest praise and ratings, but Festool tends to be the most expensive of all of these brands. Also, keep in mind that while each of these makers of jigsaws make great saws, their lineup of available models will include some less expensive models to appeal to the budget minded. Occasionally even a great brand can have a dud model.

If you intend to use a jigsaw for rough cuts that don't have to be precise or smooth, a basic budget model may be fine for you and spending the extra $100 or so may not make sense. In fact, a bare-bones jig saw with 4 amps of power without orbital cutting ability may minimal needs and cost you less than $35. Such a jigsaw won't be very accurate or smooth, but it will probably cut acceptably and hold up OK with care and general use. A decent jigsaw made by Skil, Black and Decker, Ryobi, Craftsman, Master Mechanic, or Rockwell may suffice. Besides, if you start off with the best you may not appreciate the quality of a great saw as much as you might if you upgrade from a cheap jigsaw.

So, what makes a great jigsaw? A great jigsaw runs and cuts smoothly, cuts straight and true when needed, has heavy duty and durable electronics and motor, can take a beating, and last for many, many years. Oh, and a great jigsaw will make you smile instead of grimace when you use it. Of course, your personal skill level will play a role and even an awesome jigsaw may not compensate for terrible cutting skill. Nevertheless, a person will certainly find a great jigsaw easier and more enjoyable to use. If you plan on using a jigsaw regularly, a professional quality jigsaw should seriously be considered.

More helpful information at Tools Needed to Make a Bar.

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