10 Things You Didn’t Know About Scroll Saws

foot powered saw

  1. Two countries were involved in the earliest scroll saws—Germany and France.
  2. Scroll sawing evolved out of European fretworkers and clock makers.
  3. Original “scrollers” (i.e., fretworkers) practiced in Sorrento, Italy which is why most fretwork was called “Sorrento” in the mid-1700s.
  4. Foot-powered scroll saws became extremely popular in Europe and the US in the 1800s.
  5. The original scroll saw was invented by the “father of inlays,” André Charles Boulle.
  6. Hobbies Limited, a British company, was the first company to mass produce the hand-held scroll saw.
  7. Scroll saws as we know them were not manufactured until the mid twentieth century.
  8. Electrical scroll saws differ in designs by the number of pivot points making the saw function.
  9. Rigid arm scroll saws are rare these days because their cast bodies were just too heavy for common use.
  10. The parallel link system is still the most popular saw design, and can have either two pivots or four.

What Came First?

The scroll saw is thought to have developed in Germany during the 1500s with the growing popularity of fretwork—a method of producing complex and precise woodcuts. Before the development of the scroll saw, intricate cuts are believed to have been made with handheld devices (e.g., knife).

Some of the most complex woodworking in Europe in the 1500s came from clock makers. As demand for attractive wooden clocks grew so did an interest in variously designed wood cases for the clocks. It’s believed that for this purpose, a clock-maker in Germany (1500s) invented a design for thin blades capable of making the more popular, intricate designs.

But, that was just the blade.

What Came Next?

The development of the scroll saw from this single blade to the complex table saws we use today wasn’t really a straight line. (Unless you draw a straight line from Germany to France, I guess.)

A craftsman in Paris, André Charles Boulle (1642-1732), was one of the premier woodworkers in Europe at the time. He’s also known as the “father of inlays”—using multi-colored pieces within one whole piece. Boulle designed a U-shaped frame for the German early scroll saw blade. The combination of frame and blade was first called a fretsaw at that time, and the name is still in use today for many handhelds.

The German’s called the new saw Buhl saw (their spelling of the French name). The saw increased in popularity across Europe as more and more craftspeople were able to fashion intricate designs in the Boulle style. The first hand-held fretsaw that later evolved into the scroll saw was mass produced with steel by the British company, Hobbies Limited.

What about the machine?

The scroll saw really started taking on its modern shape in the late 1700s with foot-powered saws being found in Europe and the United States. The saw was literally “larger-than-life.” These saws could be found up to 10 feet in height and used a foot-lever to operate the vertical blade. Many historians cite this foot-powered saw as the earliest version of the jig and scroll saws.

By 1860, many foot-powered and hand-cranked jigsaws were available in the US. In Patrick Spielman’s book, The New Scroll Saw Handbook, he states that historians have “documented over 300 home and industrial jig or scroll-saw machines that appeared in the United States between 1800 and 1960.”

The popularity of the mechanical scroll saw was unprecedented. By 1920s term “scroll saw” was in common use. Multiple brands offered mechanical scroll saws to the public in Europe and the United States. Brands like: W.F. & John Barnes, New Rogers, Star and Lester all produced treadle scroll saws.

1900 scroll saw

 Photo Credit: Dr Junge

How Did We Get Here?

The general idea of the scroll saw, from its earliest invention to now, is a vertical blade that moves up and down to saw materials. Scroll saws began changing quickly in the 20th century.

What made them so popular was that craftspeople could cut a number of materials in a number of ways with a broad range of control. Scroll saws were used for rip cuts, cross cuts, duplicates, compound cuts, and even joints.

Woods being used were as thin as veneer and as thick as 2 inches. Materials spanned thin, thick, soft and hard woods; and even some metals and plastic. Suddenly, woodworkers were able to deliver a higher level of skill and quality with a simple, versatile machine.

One of the key functions of the scroll saw was the pierce cut. A pierce cut is an internal cut (e.g., in the center of a piece of wood) that can be made without cutting through the sides or edges. This simple saw was capable of some advanced and highly desirable woodworking techniques and accounts for its popularity among woodworkers.

By 1970, our modern saws began being produced. There have been two major categories of scroll saws manufactured since that time. The first is the “rigid arm” and the second is the constant tension which includes all parallel link systems.

One of the earliest motorized scroll saws was the rigid arm saw. It was a rigid arm saw because the blade was fixed to a single, “rigid” frame. The fixed arms of the saw looked much like scroll saws do today. The difference is that they did not move. Typically, these saws were made of a cast material which was extremely heavy, but the weight helped reduce the vibration. The blade was held in place by a spring in the upper arm. The bottom of the blade was attached to a rotor in the lower arm that rotated and moved the blade vertically.

The rigid arm blade was an extreme advancement in scroll saws, but the blades were broken easily due to the lack of flexibility in the cut.

The next iteration of the scroll saw was the constant tension saw. These were also called C-arm saws, and really began to resemble our modern saws and their curved shape. The arms pivoted at a single point at the back of the frame. While the cutting action of the C-arm was much easier and effective, the single pivot could keep the cut from being truly vertical. As a result, these saws were used more for production work than fretwork.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that we started to see parallel arm scroll saws. Instead of the single pivot at the back of the saw frame, the parallel link scroll saw had two pivot points at the back—one for the lower arm and one for the upper arm. The design optimized the vertical cut and offered multiple tensioning points. The arms moved by a drive link attached to a motor pushing them up and down. Of course, the improvement to the design was enormous and parallel arm scroll saws are perhaps the most common in the market, but there was one more version on the way.

The fourth type of saw is the double parallel link saw. This design makes use of four pivot points and instead of using a drive link to connect to the arms the rotor connects to a rocker and connecting rod attached to the top and bottom arms. The rocker assemblies at the front of the saw cause the blade to move up and down.

The double parallel link saws offer the most controlled and effective cuts available today, but they are also the most expensive on the market.

Cutting it Down to Size

The history of the scroll saw is one to be appreciated. From a single blade invented in the 1500s, to Boulle’s invention of the bracket and handle, to the foot-powered scrolls, and all the way through the multiple designs of the electric scroll saw, the history is complex and interesting.

Most innovations today are feature-adding like LEDs to light the work, air ports for clearing the workspace, and electrical dials to control the strokes-per-minute.

It’s a history worth knowing, and can help woodworkers think about the tools they use, where they come from and how the saws have improved the craft.

Take a look around the site and see how these designs have transformed woodworking, and your own craft!

Thanks for reading, and happy scrolling.