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6/6/2007

Band Saws


Band Saws
12/1/1995

The thing that impresses us about a band saw is how easily it handles difficult jobs. Like resawing thick stock into thin boards. Or cutting curves and irregular-shaped pieces. You can even cut precision joinery with a good-quality band saw. No matter what type of work you do, selecting the right band saw is an important decision.

The only problem is there are dozens of saws to choose from. To help make that decision easier, we tested six medium-duty band saws. Here they are (in alphabetical order):

Bridgewood PBS-320 $659 800-235-2100
Delta 28-283 $759 800-223-7278
Grizzly G1148 $425 800-541-5537
Jet WBS-14CS $549 800-274-6848
Powermatic 43 $600 800-248-0144
Sears 2493N $700 800-290-1245

CRITERIA. Besides the price, each saw had several things in common. We tested all the medium-duty band saws that met the following criteria: 13" to 15" wheels, 3/4 hp-1hp motor, $500-$800 (At $425, we also wanted to take a look at the Grizzly.) By the way, the only thing that isn't reflected in the price is the shipping charge. And that made a considerable difference in some cases. Delta, Jet, Powermatic: no freight charge; Bridgewood: $55.20; Grizzly: $66.86; Sears: $215.95.

TEAM. Like our other tool tests, we rounded up three people with different woodworking experience to test each band saw. Cary is just getting started in woodworking. Steve is an experienced woodworker and has used band saws extensively. And Ken is a professional carpenter and cabinetmaker. Of course, with three people testing them, it's easy to end up with more than one "best" saw. But that's great if you're in the market for a saw. After considering the type of work you plan to do, you can use one of the three different viewpoints to help steer you in the right direction.

BLADES. To keep the test on an equal footing, we installed new Lenox blades on each saw. This ensured we tested the performance of the saws--not the blades. Finally, we asked the same person (Steve) to assemble each saw and talk about what he found.

Q: What were your overall impressions of the way the saws were packaged?

Steve: Except for one saw, they were all packaged very securely. But the Bridgewood was boxed up like a load of scrap metal. This saw was stuck in an oversized (open) cardboard box with no packing around it. And the metal base was strapped on top with a band that held everything to a pallet. Fortunately, the only casualty was a bent tension rod that I was able to straighten out.

Q: Did any parts get lost in the process?

Steve: Surprisingly, not one. And the saw went together without a hitch. In fact, along with the Jet, the Bridgewood was one of the easiest saws to assemble.

Q: What were you looking for as you assembled each saw?

Steve: One thing is how the wheels and guide system are supported. To provide an accurate cut, there has to be rock solid support. That's no small job when you consider the tension placed on the wheels. The Delta and Jet have a sturdy cast iron arm to keep the saws extremely rigid. But the welded steel frames on the other saws are a mixed bag. Of these saws, I liked the beefy frames on the Bridgewood, Sears, and Powermatic. But I'm a bit skeptical of the lighter gauge metal on the Grizzly saw.

ADJUSTING THE BLADE
Q: A blade that has the right tension is the first step to getting an accurate cut. Any problems applying blade tension?

Cary: The problem I had is knowing how much to crank the tension knob. Since there's no scale on the Sears, Grizzly, and Bridgewood, it's a guessing game.

Steve: Even though a scale isn't always accurate, at least it gives me a starting point. I particularly like how easy it is to read the bright orange indicator on the Delta scale. The scales on the Jet and Powermatic don't have an indicator, so they're not much use.

Ken: One thing that bugs me is having the tension assembly on the inside of the saw cabinet. That can be a real finger-slicer when I spin the wheel to track the blade.

Q: How hard was it to get a blade to track evenly on these saws?

Cary: It took me awhile to get the hang of tracking a blade on the Grizzly. That's because instead of a singled threaded knob that tilts the top wheel in or out, it has two separate adjustment knobs. So there's more trial and error getting both knobs adjusted just right.

Ken: Even so, it was easier for me to track a blade on the Grizzly than the Powermatic--especially with a 1/8" blade. It wandered all over the wheel when I tried to adjust the tracking.

Steve: I agree. Tracking an 1/8" blade is trickier than a wide blade. But overall, I was impressed with how quickly I could get different size blades on each saw to track right on the money.

Q: Getting a blade to track evenly is half the battle. What about the guide system that keeps it cutting in a straight line?

Cary: The thing I noticed right off the bat is there are two different types of guides to keep the blade from twisting side to side. At first, I thought the bearings on the Powermatic would provide a more accurate cut. But once I got the guide blocks on the other saws adjusted just right, there wasn't any noticeable difference. There is a difference in the guide blocks though. Several saws use a softer material which will end up requiring more maintenance.

Q: What about the thrust bearings that keep the blade form shifting back as you make a cut?

Ken: They all work fine--once they're adjusted. And some thrust bearings are considerably easier to adjust than others. That's because the shafts that hold the bearings on the Delta, Jet, and Bridgewood are made of hard metal. So they don't scar when you tighten them down. But with use, dimples form in the softer metal shafts of the Powermatic, Grizzly, and Sears. So the shafts "creep" when I tighten them down. That's a pain when I'm shooting for 1/64" opening between the bearing and the blade.

Q: What else are you looking for in a guide system?

Ken: I change blades a lot, so I want a guide system that's quick and easy to adjust. That's why I liked the Jet. Except for removing the blade guard, you don't need a single tool to change a blade. Just loosen a thumbscrew to set the guide blocks. Then turn another thumbscrew to adjust the thrust bearings.

Cary: Using an Allen wrench to loosen the guide blocks on the Delta isn't quite as handy. But once I set them from side to side, there's a knurled knob that lets me "micro-adjust" the guide blocks from front to back. Even the upper and lower thrust bearings are micro-adjustable.

Ken: With the Jet saw, only upper guide blocks and thrust bearing are micro-adjustable. Besides not having a knob to fine tune the lower guide assembly, it's not as close to the bottom of the table as the one on the Delta. So the guide blocks don't support the blade as well during a cut.

Q: How so the other guide assemblies stack up?

Steve: Compared to the Jet or Delta, setting the guide blocks and thrust bearings on the other saws is like going back to long division after you've used a calculator. And not just because I have to fiddle with a bunch of wrenches. The guide assemblies (especially the ones below the table) are so hard to get at, trying to make an adjustment is a real circus act.

Q: Does raising or lowering the guide post affect the adjustments?

Steve: Not with the Bridgewood, Powermatic, and Delta. These guide posts move straight up and down. So I didn't have to mess with the adjustments again. But changing the height of the guide post on the other saws threw off the adjustments just a bit.

Cary: Another thing I noticed is that some of the manufacturers "fudged" a bit on the maximum cutting height of the saw.

Steve: Besides the vertical adjustment, I also want the guide post to lock down square. This way, it doesn't put a kink in the blade when I lock down the guide post.

Q: When it comes to a "muscle job" like resawing, how do these saws measure up?

Cary: One saw that particularly impressed me was the Bridgewood. Even though the manual describes it as a "hobby saw," it slices through hard maple like a much heavier tool.

Steve: The Sears saw has that same solid feel--like it could cut all day long. Probably because both saws use heavy, cast iron wheels.

Ken: But the saws with cast aluminum wheels were also able to resaw with no trouble. The Jet saw ran especially strong, and I was able to feed stock at a surprisingly fast clip. When I took a look under the hood, I found out why. Besides the Bridgewood, it's the only saw with a 1 hp motor. (All the rest have a 3/4 hp motor.)

Cary: That reminds me. The Bridgewood is also the only saw of the bunch that requires a 220 volt outlet. So I'd have to run a new line to hook it up in my shop.

Q: What about the "bread and butter" cuts--cutting irregular shaped pieces and curved parts?

Ken: When cutting right up close to a line, it's hard to beat the accuracy of the Delta, Bridgewood, Jet, and Powermatic. And when it comes to making curved cuts, these saws handle like a sports car with a tight suspension. But I couldn't make as controlled a cut with the Sears and Grizzly. Even though I adjusted the guide blocks carefully, the blade still wandered a bit during the cut.

Cary: That became even more of a problem when I made a scroll cut with the narrowest blade each saw can handle (3/16" on the Sears, and 1/8" on the Grizzly). The flex in these blades made it harder to cut to a line. I also had some trouble getting a precise cut with an 1/8" blade on the Jet.

Q: The quality of cut is also affected by vibration. Do some saws run smoother than others?

Cary: The Bridgewood is so smooth it's hard to tell whether it's running or not. That's probably because it's the only direct-drive saw of the bunch. But when they're tuned up, I found that the belt-driven saws ran smoothly too. The only one that had a problem with vibration was the Powermatic. With this saw, the nuts that held the stand together vibrated loose. And the table rattled and shook when I made a bevel cut.

Steve: The trunnion system that supports the table (and allows it to tilt) has a lot to do with that. The trunnions on the Grizzly, Jet, and Delta are cradled by a heavy, cast iron "saddle". So the table tilts smoothly--like you'd expect from a well-machined tool. But the only support on the Powermatic is a metal pin that passes through slots in the trunnions. The play between the pin and the slots makes for a rough adjustment at best.

Q: Any other telltale indicators about the quality of the saws?

Ken: It's just a small thing, but I liked how the knobs on the Delta and Jet fit tightly into the spring steel clips inside the saw cabinet. And since they don't some off in my hand like the knobs on the Powermatic, I'm not nearly as apt to lose them.

RECOMMENDATIONS
Cary: Picking the best band saw was a tough decision. That's because two saws consistently kept coming out on top--Delta and Jet. But when it comes right down to it, the saw I'd want in my shop is the Delta. I like its heftier wheels and the guide post that slides perfectly straight up and down. And since the lower guide assembly supports the blade closer to the bottom of the table, the Delta gave me a more accurate, controlled cut.

Steve: I chose the Jet for a number of reasons. First, assembly is simple. The saw just bolts to the stand. And even though the manual is clear about setting up the saw, it ran well right out of the box. Besides that, I liked the excellent fit and finish of the Jet. And it makes blade changing more convenient. Combine that with its strong running motor and this saw is tough to beat.

Ken: Adding a better blade guide system would make the Bridgewood an easy choice. But changing blades is too much of a nuisance. So I picked the Jet. I can switch from one blade to another in minutes. And once the blade is mounted, that powerful motor can handle any job I expect to do. Besides being a solid performer, the Jet is one of the least expensive saws we tested. For my money, it's a darn good buy.

(c) 2002, August Home Publishing Company. All Rights Reserved.

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