EXERCISES: Practice patterns and methods for the non-expert scroller, to instill some good scrolling habits
I'm sure all this practice thing sounds like a demanding drudge. But it is, or can be, an enjoyable discovery experience. Learning can be fun and discovering skills is exhilarating, so settle in!
I didn't find anything like the following practice sheet, or these helpful hints until a couple of years after I started scrolling in 2000. It would have saved me immense tribulation in learning by trial and error.
The first thing to be aware of: You will make mistakes. We all will and do.
When it happens you may think it's a disaster. The whole project is ruined. The world will end. And on and on. That seldom is true. There are ways to fix most problems. Neither you nor I will ever be perfect scrollers. We have to accept that and relax. Most people won't be looking at our finished projects with a magnifying glass!
The following are practice patterns. After that are suggestions for learning how to scroll without the bad habits that should be corrected. Objective: To become comfortable with scrolling basic patterns of straight and wavy line, making sharp corners and turning in place (180° turn).
Scroll Saw Practice Exercises
Scrolling is supposed to be relaxing. Do the above patterns make you want to lean back and contemplate; appreciate?
Probably not. But ease off, unwind, do yoga, be calm; practice breathing exercises, whatever helps you. Take your time before you really get into things. Start slowly until that calm is part of your scrolling, then increase speed. For example, don't start your scrolling for the day with the delicate difficult cuts. Do 15 minutes of easy scrolling first, until you're relaxed.
Then do the most difficult parts of your project. If you mess it up, you've only lost an hour. If you leave the tough part for last you may lose a couple of days.
Scroll only when well rested and (if you are doing it right) you will stay rested while scrolling. Don't try to watch a TV tennis match while scrolling. Listen to a radio. Watching baseball is OK. Nothing happens for forever. When the crowd yells, stop the saw and watch the replay. Don't look up before stopping the saw.
Suggested materials: 3/4" thick by approx. 5"x8" scrap wood pieces, both soft and hard woods.
Scrap plywood approx 5"x8", two pieces 1/4" and 1/8" thick

First: Go through the exercises as described below with a 3/4" soft wood such as poplar using a #4 or 5 skip tooth (normal) blade. The saw should be at max speed. Change blades every 20 minutes.

Second: After getting used to the soft wood, do the more difficult exercises in a 3/4" hard wood such as oak or plywood with a #7 blade, again at max speed.

Third: Do exercise 4 or 5 cutting 1/4" plywood with a #2 blade at a speed of about 900 SPM. Then see how much more difficult it becomes if you try the same thing on 1/8" or 1/16" plywood using a #0 blade. Don't try to become comfortable scrolling the thin plywood. When cutting thinner wood, slow the blade stroke (saw speed) down to 1/2 or less.
Make 4 copies of the exercise pattern. Use spray glue to attach one copy to the soft wood. Drill 1/8" access holes at the beginning of each exercise where shown. If you don't cut in from the edge, you will have the wood to hang onto for steering. As instructed in your owner's manual, thread the blade into the access hole for Exercise 1.
Exercise 1: OK, now if you're ready, all relaxed, stand or sit directly in front of your saw table. Sight down over the saw arm for centering yourself. Using pattern 1 you'll cut a straight line, but with the purpose of determining if there is a deflection in the blade you're using and if so, how much. Begin the cut slowly and continue it, making corrections until you're following the line quite well. You may have to move your body around the table to your right in order to do this.
This first part of Exercise 1 is to determine the amount of deflection in the blade you are using. For an explanation, go to FAQ and search 'deflection' or 'manufacturing'. Since this problem pertains to milled blades only, you may be able to skip this step if you are using stamped or ground blades.
Turn off the saw but don't move the wood being cut. Mark the saw table at the end of the wood, in line with the exercise straight line. The saw blade has been sprayed red for additional photo clarity, which can help when sawing also.
Connect the mark you made with the saw blade. Then lay a straightedge along the blade, down the centerline of the saw. This demonstrates the amount of deflection in the blade. To help you orient yourself, you will probably want to yourself line up with that deflection line when you begin scrolling, not with the saw centerline.
I have found it highly useful, almost necessary, to align myself at the saw table so that line points right at me. It gives me the orientation so I will have the wood at the proper angle, no matter what the pattern is doing. It soon becomes automatic.
Just know that the next blade you put in may be slightly different. And the blade changes as it dulls, but not a lot. If you are starting to cut something important, do a quick blade test first.
I'm embarrassed to admit that I had a couple of blades that deflected to the left instead of to the right. I found another like that just recently. Then realized that if I put the blade in upside down it would deflect to the left. I had put the blade in upside down! And blaming the manufacturer (in my head) for a bad blade. That didn't cut worth a darn either.
Don't get discouraged. You will soon no longer need the line. You will automatically line your body up at the proper angle to the saw arm when you get ready to scroll. I had to consciously look up at the arm of my saw because the round table doesn't give me orientation. I did it often until it became automatic.
You will also adjust yourself to the differences in the blades you are using. This isn't a differential equation problem. Unlax.
If you are right handed, put your left index finger near and just to the left of the blade. The blade teeth are facing you and that is the only place the blade can cut since we are not using a spiral (twisted) blade.
The right index finger will be on the pattern where it comfortably falls, as the thumb is on the edge of the wood. The thumb and other fingers will rotate the wood (steer) and control the feed rate into the blade. Both index fingers will hold the wood down. At least the little fingers of both hands should be on the saw table, giving you a subconscious measurement of how far and fast you are moving the wood.
Now finish the straight line exercise with that deflection line aimed at your midchest. Or draw a new line alongside the first one and do it again. Of course, reverse it all if you are left-handed. See the Search box in FAQ and type in 'feed'.
If you have used your saw for awhile you may already have removed the hold-down attachment. It is seriously in the way for many scrolling applications, so you probably will want to remove it if you will be doing much scrolling. If so, you need to practice without it, and it is not wise to come to depend on it to hold down your wood.
As stated, you will automatically (as with so many other things) always hold down your workpiece so the blade won't lift it. But you'll only do so after the blade has lifted your work and slammed it down. Many times.
Now take a deep breath and relax again. Don't worry about being exact. You are getting the feel of your saw, how fast to feed the wood, learning to steer so the blade follows the line, holding the wood down and a couple of other things, all while not being tense. You will later become almost automatic in steering, in hearing the motor which tells you if you are feeding too fast and also in relaxing.
I haven't mentioned getting used to feeding your workpiece directly in line with the centerline of your saw. You can't have sideways pressure on the wood which will bend the blade out of vertical. It takes some practice to do this while cutting curves in the pattern. For more information on this go to FAQ and search 'sideways'.
You want to have the saw running at max speed for 3/4" wood.
Review in your mind the steps in cutting a straight line: relax, deep breath, align the blade, the pattern line and the table line you drew. Lightly begin feeding the wood. Let the blade do the work. Remind yourself to relax. Don't push the wood sideways into the blade. If you get out of line, gradually, keeping a smooth curve, steer back into the pattern line.
There may be times when you want to get back to the line as quickly as possible. But most often this will only result in an obvious jagged correction, while a smooth curve back to the proper line will be very much less noticeable. Don't expect immediate perfection. Be realistic. No one will ever be a perfect scroller, or perfect at anything else.
After completing the cut of exercise 1, back out of the cut instead of cutting to the edge of the board. Do this to practice backing out and also to leave the whole board to hang onto. At the access hole, disconnect the blade as per instructions for your saw. If you are not satisfied with your progress, draw another straight line on the pattern board and cut it again. Thread the blade into the access hole for exercise 2, reconnect the blade clamp and reset the tension as in your owner's manual.
Exercise 2: Curved lines. Get ready by relaxing again. The purpose of this exercise is to concentrate on cutting smooth lines, rather than trying to exactly follow the pattern. You will become much better at following the pattern, but you want to develop the habit of making smooth flowing cuts.
Your turning of the wood to follow the pattern, the rate at which you feed the wood into the blade, your shifting of your fingers on the wood, pausing in feed rate, will begin to correlate. The feed and steering will coordinate (become automatic) so you will steer by both turning the wood and changing the feed rate. When cutting a sweeping curve you will stop feeding automatically when you have to shift your grip to steer differently, keeping all movements smooth and coordinated. Amazing, but true.
When you're on a curve you never want to turn the wood except in the direction of the curve. In other words, if you turned the wood a little too fast, so you can see you are cutting too sharply, don't turn the wood backwards. Just continue in a straight line until the blade is again coming back on line and you can start turning again. Make the correction as gently as it began to wander from the line. Keep your eyes looking ahead of the blade, not at the blade. When done, back out of the cut again.
Exercise 3: Sharp corners. This is just a series of straight lines. As you come to the first turning point, relax and stop feeding. If it isn't a full 180°, you'll turn in the direction of the intersection, as if driving a car.
In making the turn, pivot the wood against the back of the blade to keep the blade teeth from cutting any more wood while you're turning. But only put light tension against the back of the blade, because if you pull very hard the back corners of the blade will cut or burn the wood. Learn to make your turns swiftly and without jerking, always with the saw running. For related info, search 'whetstone' in FAQ.
For this practice you don't need it, but you could try pulling on the wood too strongly, just to see how the blade can cut where you don't want it to. But there will be virtually no problem if you keep the tension minimal while turning, and do it quickly, smoothly. After some more practice and when you are comfortable with making sharp turns, you will seldom leave a hole larger than the blade width.
The last 3 turns have a line extending beyond the turn. Cut to the end of the lines, then back out to the intersections to make your turns. This method will leave the turning hole at the intersection of lines, rather than at the end of the line. The hole will be much less noticeable.
At the end is the 180° turn, called an on-the-spot turn, which may be made in either direction. No matter how carefully this is done a hole will be left that is at best twice as wide as the fret (width) of the line you've just cut. Compare the hole at the end, the on-the-spot turn, to the last 3 you made when you backed up to the intersections.
When you finish that last turn, cut back to the beginning. In other words, don't back out, but return to the beginning, trying not to widen the kerf, nor the corners. About 1/2 way back, stop and reduce the saw speed to minimum, then continue to the access hole. Easier isn't it?
Think about having to reach up to turn off the saw, letting go of your wood with one hand, sometimes when letting go may ruin your project. This will give you a small idea of the advantages of using a foot switch. Search 'foot switch'.
Exercise 4: Corners and curves. Start at the access hole and again, make your turns in the direction of the intersection of the lines. Make smooth, flowing curves. The purpose is to become used to recognizing the direction of the blade cut when coming out of a turn, and keeping the curves rippleless. At the end of this exercise practice cutting back out with the saw running slowly.
You may notice that your blade cuts differently if cutting with the grain or across it. The terminology is ripping or crosscut. The blade will tend to follow the grain of some wood, especially if ripping at a slight angle to the grain. And most especially, if the blade gets dull.
Exercise 5: Tangents and curves.
The best place to start and stop any cut that intersects another line is at a sharp intersection, but sometimes there are none. It is virtually impossible to end on a curve without leaving a clump of wood, for example when cutting a circle. You can use the saw blade to smooth it by lightly going over the junction a couple of times, putting slight pressure against the side of the blade. After you get used to doing so, the cuts can blend fairly well. You will still want a piece of 220 grit sandpapter to smooth the spot.
If the spots are too rough or you can't smooth the spot with your blade, it's probably too dull. Then taking off from a curve on a tangent, or on a slight slant from a prior cut, if the blade doesn't start the new cut smoothly, if it just slides along the previous cut, again it's too dull.
In this exercise make the cut around the first curve to the end, then back out to the tangent. Cut in on the tangent and cut to the end. Then again back out to the beginning of the next curve. Begin scrolling that curve. Finish the exercise the same way. Of course, you are trying to make the tangent connection smoooooth.
When done, cut into all the access holes from the edge of the board. The wood, where the blade cut it, should shine and feel like glass. Feel your cuts, the ripples, noting where they are not smooth, where they would need sanding if this were a project you were working on. You may want to sand the bottom edge of the cuts in places to remove the fuzzies.
Please keep in mind that for many patterns you don't have to stay on the lines. As you, if you are a beginner, become more comfortable with the saw you will become more self-demanding for accuracy when it counts, but more at ease about straying from the lines when it makes no difference.
In fact, you will begin to critique the pattern designer, wondering why it wasn't drawn this way, because it would look better. So change it! But double-check your thinking first. You may soon be designing your own patterns.
Note: The drawing of the last 5 exercises has not yet been done in final form.
This second part of the scrolling exercises gives practice in variety patterns that will be found in some wildlife plans and others, such as my Paleo Pets.
Exercise 6: Y cutting. (series of straight lines extending beyond the intersections with other lines. Some will require small turns, others near 180°. Remove this description after the above drawing is put in.)
The idea here is to cut to the end of the line you are on, then back up and turn onto the next line. If you make a 180° turn at the end of the line, you will leave a hole at least as wide as the blade. Turning at the intersection can render the hole almost invisible. The lines and intersections will be complicated, requiring planning the route of cuts.
Exercise 7: Feathers. Each intersection is to be a sharp angle, not rounded. In making these repeated turns you will begin to automatically turn them using the back of the blade as a pivot, but without putting excess pressure on the back of the blade. You will quickly become adept at it. In addition you will have to look ahead to plan the best routes and methods to accomplish the cuts.
Exercise 8: Fur. (a series of wiggly lines as used for hairy animals.
As the practice in exercise 7 was to make all corners sharp, this time you will want them curved, as in crinkly or wavy hair. And again, you want to look ahead to where you want to make your turns: always at interior intersections if possible.
Exercise 9: Fret. (A smoothly curving figure composed of intersecting curves) This is a type of cut you will run into many times in doing detailed fretwork. Fret is a type of scrolling that has many interior cuts; where the blade is threaded into a drilled hole in each of the design openings.
The turns should be made where they will show up the least, in the V interior intersections, not at the end of points. Therefore, you will practice looking ahead, backing from a point to the last interior intersection to reverse direction. You can then back to the point and easily take off on the next curve.
Exercise 10: Bevel. Set saw table at 7° and make a variety of cuts on the bevel. Cut some of the prior exercises with the table set at varying degrees. This will give some practice on the feel of bevel cutting. This is used for various projects, such as relief, inlay, marquetry et al. See p.212 of The New Scrollsaw Handbook.


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