Reflections on band saws

After making about five red oak board bows with your handy dandy sureform rasp, you're probably thinking, "Man, you know, I could probably really crank these things out if I had a band saw." But is it worth it? Can you afford it? Do you have room for it? What kind of band saw should you get?

In an ideal world, you'd get that super cool 14" bandsaw from Grizzly with the 1 HP motor and ball bearing blade guides. In fact, if you're so enclined, I welcome you to purchase this beauty for me. But if you're poor like me, then you can't afford it. And if you live in an apartment like me, you don't have room for it. But I'll make room for it somehow if you feel like buying it for me.

You should definitely get the best band saw you can afford. For me, that meant getting a bottom of the line 9" band saw from Ryobi. The advantage of having such a small band saw is that I can pick it up and move it to my balcone when I want to use it, and bring it back inside when I'm done.

"They" say you can't make bows with a dinky little 9" band saw, but "they" are mistaken. Now granted, it's not the most ideal situation, but it can work. I've had my 9" band saw for over a year now, and I've made lots of bows with it. It cost me $89 at Home Depot. But before you go off and buy one of these, there's a few things you should know.

When you get this band saw, it will come with a useless 1/4" wide blade on it. Remove the blade and take it to a machinery shop and say, "I would like to get two new band saw blades this size [showing your blade] except that I would like them to be 3/8" wide [which is the widest you can use on your 9" band saw], and I would like them to have four teeth per inch." Or find a place on the internet to order new blades from. Do not get any band saw blades from Home Depot or Lowes. Once you have your new blades, throw the other one away. It is useless. If you try to use it, you'll get really depressed and start thinking you made a big mistaken by getting that band saw.

If you've never used a band saw before, you need some practice. The first thing you should do is tune it up. Tuning includes adjusting the blade guides, getting the blade to track correctly, tensioning the blade, and squaring the table to the blade. Your owner's manual should tell you how to do all that. It's very important that you get it tuned, and it isn't difficult. If your owner's manual isn't clear about how to do this, there's plenty of information on the internet about it.

Next, get some scrap wood from a construction site dump, and practice on it. Try using the rip fence. Draw some lines and try to cut along the lines. Draw curved lines and try to cut those. You may find that the blade wanders a bit. That can be fixed by proper tuning and practice. I remember I had a devil of a time getting to where I could cut where I wanted. Amidst all the advice I was given on the leatherwall, one thing somebody said clicked. Somebody said, "Drive it like a car." For some reason, those five little words made all the difference for me. Go slow and make minor adjustments as you go.

Once you get competent with scrap wood, then you can use it to start making bows. You don't have to master it, though. While you're still struggling, cut outside the line, and then either use your sureform rasp or a belt sander to get closer to the line. The better you get at using the band saw, the closer you can saw to the line without worrying about cutting through it with a wandering blade.

Your dinky little 9" band saw does have its weaknesses. It isn't very powerful, so you have to go slow. Although the cutting depth says 3", in reality, you can't cut anything thicker than 1.5". You can try it, but you'll be in tears by the end of it.

The hardest thing to do with your dinky band saw is cutting laminations for fiberglass laminated bows. You need those laminations to be about 1.5" wide, and you have to cut a lot of them, thin, using the rip fence. The only way you can do that is with a brand new blade. It is possible, but it is very difficult. Luckily for me, I have a good friend with a 12" band saw that it much better for cutting laminations.

If you plan to make any fiberglass bows, there's something else you should know. The first time your blade touches fiberglass, it will be ruined. Some people say you should use a bi-metal blade, but don't waste your money. They won't work any better. What you should do, then, is use one blade for cutting all your fiberglass, and a different blade for cutting wood. That way you won't ruin your wood-cutting blade, and you won't have to keep buying new blades all the time.

Don't let the temptation of purple heart lure you in. It can be pretty if you can master it, but it will greatly shorten the life of your band saw blade, and it will cause you much grief.

At this point, you're wondering if it's worth it to get a 9" band saw. It's true that a 12" band saw is a whole lot better. Perhaps after struggling with a 9" band saw for a year, you're going to get a 12" anyway. Why not just get one now? That'll save you $89 in the long run. But if it looks like you're going to be poor for a really long time, and you know good and well a 12" band saw isn't going to be feasible in the foreseeable future, it is worth it to get a 9" band saw.

First, consider the work you put into those five red oak board bows you made with your Stanley sureform rasp. Did you break a sweat? Well you really can crank those things out with a band saw. You'll save hours of work, and not even break a sweat.

Second, a band saw will open lots of new opportunities for you. You can cut out different kinds of handles for your bows, and you can cut laminations, and you can flatten bamboo easier, and you can cut out tip overlays, and all kinds of things you haven't even thought of. Even a 9" band saw will make your life a lot better. After a year, I'm sure you'll be glad you had one, even if it goes kaput after a year. I mean think about how many cokes you buy in a year and how much that costs. $89 is really not that much. But it's your decision. I'm certainly glad I got mine. I don't know how I ever got along without it.

Upgrade your browser for a better viewing experience »