What to Look for When Choosing a Bandsaw for a Small Woodshop
In two previous posts, we looked at how the bandsaw can change how you use wood and your creative approach to designing in wood. Now, let’s sort through the choices in choosing a bandsaw for a small woodshop.
A question of priorities
Whether mustering a first set of machines, or upgrading, I recommend woodworkers place high priority on the bandsaw. Indeed, I suggest the bandsaw ought to come before the table saw, which usually gets top billing by most accounts.
Surprised? While the table saw is unmatched at clean, straight ripping and crosscutting, the bandsaw is much more versatile. It will broaden your design palette early in your development. Furthermore, it will also engender an approach to woodworking that combines machine efficiency with hand tool skills that add an incomparable personal touch to your projects.
A properly tuned bandsaw can rip surprisingly cleanly, especially with a carbide-tip blade, and crosscuts can be cleaned up accurately with hand plane shooting, a very powerful technique discussed in earlier posts.
Yes, get a table saw at some point, but consider putting a bandsaw higher on the list. The late James Krenov, who inspired countless woodworkers, wrote in The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking: “Of all my machines, the bandsaw has done the most to help me use wood the way I really want to.”
How big? What kind?
A bandsaw is nominally sized by the diameter of its wheels. The throat width is then immediately recognizable as about 1 inch less, and defines the widest board that can be passed between the blade and the column. The resaw capacity is the maximum height (thickness) that can be cut.
For the small shop furniture maker, I recommend 14″ as the minimum for a bandsaw, 16″ is better, and those doing a lot of larger work might consider 18″ or 20″ machines. I further recommend a minimum resaw height of 12″ for versatility.
The main choice in frame design is between cast iron and welded steel. For many years, the classic 14″ stand-mounted machine with a cast iron frame and 6″ resaw height was the most popular machine in small shops. Though the height can usually be expanded to 12″ with a “riser block,” these machines typically have a motor rated at 1 horsepower, or at most 1.5 HP, which is underpowered for resawing 12″ of hardwood.
Increasingly popular, and far preferable in my opinion, is a bandsaw whose frame is made from heavy, welded sheet steel. These are recognizable by their elegant rectangular frames as in the example pictured at the top of this post. I would not buy a machine with less than a legitimate 2HP motor, and another half horse or more is better.
One of the great things about these bigger saws is they take little or no more floor space than their cast-iron cousins. Mobility kits are available for any saw so you can move it as needed to accommodate longer work pieces. The practical limit may be the height of your shop and the weight of the machine.
A quality steel frame saw will have heavy, cast iron wheels, which, in operation, create a powerful flywheel effect that contributes to a strong, steady cut. A bandsaw blade tracks on rubber “tires” on the rims of the wheels. The tires on most steel frame machines are flat or nearly flat, which helps to track blades 1″ or more in width, which are useful for heavy resawing. The “crowned” wheels of the classic 14″ cast iron bands do not do this as well.
Visible behind the wheel, in the photo below, near the top of the frame is the thick spring that is adjusted to maintain proper blade tension. Though the buyer cannot normally directly assess its quality, the inclusion of a well-made spring is one of the subtle but important reasons to invest in an excellent bandsaw.
Another important component of a bandsaw is the guidepost, shown below, that contains the upper blade guide assembly and blade guard. It is adjusted by means of a rack and pinion to accommodate the thickness of wood being cut. The precise setting of the guides in relationship to the blade must be maintained by the post assembly throughout the height range.
Blade guides comprise a large topic but here is a brief overview. Bandsaw blades are big beasts (12 feet or more in length) and they are moving very fast, yet we expect them to cut precisely. As the blade engages the wood, it wants to drift, distort, and otherwise become errant. So, above and below the worktable are pairs of guides that are set very near, or against, the sides of the blade to help keep it on a true course.
Shown below are “Euro” style guides, which are a pair of roller bearings (the round gray steel objects sandwiching the blade) that are adjusted by screw mechanisms (here, colored bright silver) to nearly meet the blade. Other types of roller bearings meet the blade on their outer round edges. Another general type of guide consists of a pair of blocks made of steel, phenolic, or ceramic material that sandwich the blade and are adjusted with various mechanisms.
Accompanying these guides is another bearing behind the blade, called the thrust bearing, that limits the backward displacement of the blade from the feed pressure of the wood during cutting. The most common type is a roller bearing whose flat face meets the blade. It is partially visible in the photo below, above and to the left of the guides, with lettering on it.
Most woodworkers seem to have preferences in bandsaw blade guides, but in most cases, quality is probably the most important distinguishing factor.
I get good results with the Euro guides on my saw, though edge-bearing rollers are probably more popular. Most important, guides must be easy to adjust accurately, and they should maintain their positions.
Table size is not a big issue for most woodworking. I find the 16″ x 20″ table on my saw to be adequate even for large work, for which a separate support stand should be used in any case. The table should be heavy cast iron set on stout trunnions, and should be easily adjusted to different angles with a stop at 90°.
A heavy fence with a simple adjustment mechanism will suffice for most work. If desired, aftermarket fences with microadjustable mechanisms are available for most saws. I use a shop-made tall fence for resawing.
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