Jewelers Saw

A very large part of jewelry work requires the use of a saw. Although there are a variety of different saws that you may need to use for your work, the main saw in your tool cabinet will be the jewelers piercing saw, more commonly known as the jewelers saw. I’m sure if you have reached this point in your research you already know what it looks like; if not, here are a couple of examples.

Jewelers Saw different types

The characteristics are: a round handle attached to a D-shaped frame where a saw blade is strung between the tips of the frame forming the D.

Over the years different attempts have been made to try to improve the design with different materials, larger frames, smaller frames, different shapes of frames, more or less elaborate blade-holding mechanisms, different handle materials and shapes, but at the end of the day the base tool has really not changed over the last few hundred years, which must indicate that it is pretty well suited for the job.

That said, it is not exactly the easiest tool to master, with the very skinny blade and the strangely unbalanced hold when trying to get the saw started. And once you get started, actually trying to follow the line is…well, it’s not easy at all!

Hence many people have a somewhat mixed relationship with the humble jewelers saw. The thing is, no matter how you approach it, you WILL HAVE to have a jewelers saw and you WILL HAVE to master the use of it, too; there is simply no practical alternative.

On this page I’ll look at the anatomy of the saw and what to look out for when picking one for your own tool box. I’ll only lightly touch on how you use the tool, as there are plenty of excellent sites and videos covering the usage.

First things first, let’s look at what to consider when getting a saw:

Size, i.e. the depth of the curve of the “D.” The actual span of the blade and the length of the blade is pretty much standard so it’s really only the curve depth that changes. Although you can get really tiny sized saws they still just use a standard blade.

Handle size, shape and material: there are more options here than one cares to worry about. I’ll examine some of the most popular / functional ones.

Blade fastening system, this is probably where the most improvements have been made. We look at the good, the great, and the not so good ones.

The blade, probably the most important part to get right. I’ll have a look at what to use when and the overall quality of the different blades.

Size, i.e. the depth of the curve

As you can probably imagine, the depth of the curve will determine how far you can saw into a piece of metal before the metal hits the back of the saw. The depth also determines how far into a sheet of metal you can cut out shapes without the back of the saw hitting the metal when you turn it around.

So when choosing your saw you need to think about how you may use it, i.e. if you are going to cut out large shapes or shapes cut out of large sheets of metal then you may need a deep curve version. In most applications, though, the standard depth of the curve it quite sufficient for most types of work.

One of the things that you may have seen is that the classic jewelers saw has a frame where the overall blade span can be changed.

Jewelers Saw Variable frame

I’m sure someone can correct me if I am wrong but to the best of my knowledge the variable size frame is more so you can use parts of a blade or create a shorter blade span that will be less prone to breaking.

When I say use part of a blade what I mean is this: say your blade breaks at the end of the blade, leaving a lot of blade in one end. You can slide the frame together and reuse that portion of the blade as opposed to having to change to a new blade.

I have a couple of this type of saws but to be honest I have not really used the partial blade method much; I am generally lazy and just go for a new blade.

Handle size, shape and material

Traditionally the handles were made of wood that was either painted (mostly black), unpainted or varnished. Wood is nice to the touch and relatively easy to form into a handle. In the time before plastic all tool handles were pretty much formed out of some sort of wood.

Nowadays the wood handle obviously still exists but there has been a lot of development in synthetic material like plastic and rubber. It’s hard to pick one as better than the other; both wood and synthetic handles have pros and cons and it is much a personal preference as anything. I have both in my collection of saws and I don’t find there is a lot of difference beyond maybe the grippiness (if that’s a word). With some of the synthetics, when you start sweating your hands can maintain their grip a little better, but overall either will work well. You can see a sample of a wood and a synthetic handle in the image above.

I have two of the saws that are usually called the Swiss model jewelry saws fixed frames and one of the traditional shape with a variable frame. I must admit I favor the synthetic handles mostly for comfort (they are a tad soft) but also because they are fully symmetrical and the same thickness from top to bottom, making them really comfortable to use.

It’s important you try out a few different types of handles before deciding which handle is the right one for you. But be aware that just holding a saw in the shop is rather different from working with one for a couple of hours. So whenever possible, try to actually work with the saw in the position you would normally be sitting in when sawing in your own workshop.

There is hope even if you can’t find a saw with a handle that fits you perfectly. You can get a malleable plastic material that can he molded to the exact shape you prefer. You simply heat it up (or in some cases mix the material with a tiny bit of hardener), form it around your saw’s handle and let it set.

If you are totally keen and a bit handy with wood you could turn or shape your own totally custom handle.

Blade fastening system

As mentioned, the fastening system is possibly the most “high tech” part of the tool. Well it’s really not that high tech, I guess. The fundamental principle is a screw that somehow locks the blade so a certain amount of tension can be achieved without the blade slipping out of the holder.

The traditional holder is quite basic and easy to comprehend. It consists of two parts besides the frame itself: a finger screw and a small piece of metal to clamp over the blade.

The way it works is you slide the flat end of the saw blade in between the frame and the flat piece of metal. You then tighten the finger screw until the blade is secured and can’t slip out. The tension on the blade is achieved by pushing the ends of the frame together, tightening down the finger screw on the other end of the blade and then release the tension, making sure the blade is not slipping at either end.

There are lots of permutations on the concept. For example, the Swiss saw uses a small cylinder you stick the blade into, securing it with a small finger screw on the side of the cylinder.

Jewelers saw blade lock 2 Jewelers saw blade lock 1

Some saws like the Knew Concept saw use a quick-release tension system where a small handle is flipped up or down to loosen the blade.

Knew Saw Blade lock

In principle all operate in the same fashion: secure the blade in one end, apply tension, secure the other side and the saw is ready for use.

There are some saws that have a fastening system that can be rotated (The Knew Concept saw is one of them). The logic being that it is possible to saw “sideways” along the side of a piece of metal, thereby being able to cut further than the depth of the saw would otherwise allow.

The option of rotating the blade can definitely be useful. The only thing to be aware of is rotating the top and the bottom holder exactly the same amount so you don’t end up with a twisted blade.

The Blade

Looking at arguably the most important part of the saw, i.e. the blade, you literally have an endless array of possibilities. You can choose between different size of teeth, the cut of the teeth, the angle and tilt of the teeth, the hardness of the blade and a flock of other options. Some options are pure spin and marketing gimmicks and some options are essential to determine what blade to use for what, but more about that later.

There are several rules of thumb that can be applied to determine what size blade is needed for the different types of cutting jobs you may come across. I’ll examine that part in a sec. I found that the most cost effective option was to invest in a mixed bundle of blade sizes from a good quality blade company. That way you will be able to start out having a blade that will theoretically fit any job and you can quickly establish which blades you use most and then simply buy more of those separately.

Jewelers saw blade organiser 2

I got a blade mix that came with a holder which is basically just a block of wood with holes where the blade bundles can stand. The nifty part of the commercial version was that the sizes were stamped on the block so it is easy to remember the sizes of each blade.

The blade sizes in the selection I got from Otto Frei come from 7/0 (smallest) to 6 (largest), which I have found to be more than adequate to start with.

It is with saw blades as with anything else: you generally get what you pay for, so the better the blade the higher the cost.

Choosing the right blade for the job

The official rule of thumb to use when picking the size of blade goes something like this:

You need to have a minimum of 3 teeth “in the material.”

I have added a small table that shows the relationship between material thickness, the blade #, and the drill # that you need to drill a hole large enough for the blade to fit through.

Jewelers saw blade to metal thickness

I guess that rule of thumb works best if we are talking about sheet metal. Once we start cutting rods, round, half round, square or any odd profile shape, the rule becomes a tad harder to manage. Also the amount of teeth in the material will depend greatly on the angle at which you are sawing, i.e. 90 degrees to the material or, say, 45 degrees.

In the ideal world you will always use the saw at a 90 degree up-and-down motion on your bench pin or sawing plate. Reality is totally different though: you will end up sawing in weird and wonderful angles, up and down, side to side and even like a totally normal chop saw, from above and across an item. So in many cases you just have to make a judgment call on the toughness of the blade required, i.e. you can’t cut a 5mm solid piece effectively with a finest blade in the range. Likewise, cutting a 0.05 piece of bezel strip using the roughest blade you can dig up isn’t the best idea.

So what I do is I look at the job at hand make a judgment call on speed of cut, thickness of metal and how fine I want the cut to be. The feedback from that decision process is very direct and quite easy to understand: if you chose too fine a blade it will break at the first sign of load. If you chose too coarse a blade you will have difficulties starting the cut, the surface of the cut will be rough and at worst you will bend or break the item you are cutting..

I know it’s not that scientific, but to be frank I struggle to remember teeth per inch, exact thickness of the item and the math to get the combo right, hence the gut feel approach.. A bit costly in blades at the beginning, though but after a while the blade choice becomes second nature.

There is one little hint I picked up online: get more than one saw frame and load it up with different grades of blade. It will save you a lot of time in changing blades.

Sawing Technique:

One thing that I glossed over when mentioning the process of loading the blade was how it should actually be turned.

The jewelers saw works in the opposite fashion to a timber chop saw that cuts on the push stroke. The Jewelers saw cuts on the pull stroke…well, that is the intention, but obviously if you decide to turn the blade around it will be the other way. However, that will probably be frustrating and costly in blades as the saw is not really designed for a push stroke.

So when you mount the blade, make sure the teeth are pointing down towards the handle. Use a loupe if the blade is so fine you can’t tell.

When mounting the blade (not in a piercing situation, I’ll explain in a sec) I secure the end at the handle first I the put the top part of the saw into the V groove on my bench pin and press on the handle to create tension on the blade before securing the top fastener. When releasing the tension nothing should slide or spring back.

And here is another one of those rules of thumb: the blade should give you a clean note if you strike it like a guitar string. I am hopelessly tone-deaf and found that method somewhat difficult to follow, but each to their own I guess. I simply feel the tension on the blade and once I start cutting I can easily see if the blade starts flexing backwards into the bow of the saw. In that case I either have too little tension or I am pushing the saw instead of making it work for me.

“So what is piercing?” I hear you say. Well it is really what the saw is designed to do and named after. You have a template pattern glued to the sheet metal work piece. There are areas that need to be cut out i.e. the cut is in the middle of the object and you can’t get to it from the outside edge. You drill a tiny hole in the center of the cutout, loosen the top blade screw on your saw, thread the work item onto the saw blade, tense the saw and secure the top part of the blade again. You can then cut out the shape and when done loosen the blade again and move on to the next cutout. That is piercing for you. Check out Youtube, there are a gazillion different videos on the subject.

Sawing accessories and gadgets:

There is a very large selection of gizmos and gadgets out there to help you with all sorts of sawing tasks, some really useful some not so much.

A couple of the more useful once are:

The Mitre Joint Cutting vice

Jewelry Mitre Joint Cutting vice

Used to guide the blade to cut perfect 45 degree cuts on tubes (this is incredibly hard freehand!).

Tube Cutting Jig

Jewelers tube cutting jig

Perfect if you are cutting many pipes or rods to the exact same length

The Benchmate Cutting plate

GRS Sawing Plate

Perfect flat and stable surface to do your sawing on, but obviously you need to have the Benchmate attachment installed on your bench. Check my “BenchMate Installation guide” for more on this.

One of the less useful items is the clamp-together bench pin. Some people like the way it locks the work piece in place when sawing. But since I always keep the saw still and move the work piece when doing piercing work. I don’t really like those types of pins.

Clamp together bench pin

Better wrap this up now: so in short, get a comfortable saw in a good quality. If you can afford it, get multiple frames and load them with different blades, use experience and gut feel when choosing the right blade and always saw up and down and move the item not the saw. Well except for when you break that “rule” of course.

All in all, as my dad always said when I started out using the piercing saw on wooden boat models: “Let the tool do the work, never push or force it through the material.” It doesn’t matter if it is timber or metal, the same rule applies. My dad is a very wise and experienced man, the son of a cabinet maker, so he knows his stuff!