Studio Notes: How to Saw a Straight Line

Problem: Do you hate sawing? Do you break your blade with the very first downward stroke? Does the blade wander all over the place as if it has a mind of its own? Worse, are your blades dull right out of the package?

ABOVE: Jake Idema in his home studio.

The solution? Make friends with a professional bench jeweler (the kind who does repairs in a jewelry store on a full-time basis). Time after time, these people are a treasure, because they know all the tricks. And they’ve learned to work quickly and efficiently.

Jake Idema is my go-to pro. He works at Bolenz Jewelers in Alpena, MI, and over the past four years has been an invaluable problem solver for me. A metalsmith of 17 years, he also knows how to teach, because he has trained other bench jewelers.

Jake critiques my magnification hood.

Jake critiques my magnification hood.

See Better, Saw Better

I ask him to coach me on sawing a straight line through sheet metal. The first thing I do is sit at his home jeweler’s bench overlooking Lake Huron across the street. I put on my high-power magnification OptiVisor and peer intently at the fine line I have drawn on a piece of 20-gauge sheet silver. My jeweler’s saw is properly strung with a 4/0 blade. The noise I produce as I cut is a head-rattling “klunk, klunk, klunk.”

Jake watches silently until I am done. Then he provides me with real gold.

“Your saw is bumping into your OptiVisor,” he says. “Instead of using a #7 lens, switch to a #5.” Once I do this, I have to back away from the sheet metal in order to focus, and the klunking sound disappears.

Saw Easily and Efficiently

“The only obstacle is pushing yourself into thinking something is hard,” he says. Especially if you are always breaking saw blades.

Big hint: Saw blades always break. Buy a gross of blades and some will break immediately while others last for days. That is the nature of saw blades, he says.

“I’ve probably sawed a mile of silver stock, and I still break blades,” he says. “You’ll get one blade that lasts for a week, then one dull blade after another for a while from the same pack.”

Practice also is important (even the new techniques you learn here) until you get a feel for it. So put in the time, he says.

Then we go back to the beginning, sawing Jake’s way.

Pro Tips for Sawing Metal

Drawing a line on metal:
  • Plan the area you want to cut out close to one edge or corner of your sheet stock. Don’t cut out your piece from the center. This wastes metal.
    Jake uses a Pro Sharpie to coat a section of sheet sterling silver.

    Jake uses a Pro Sharpie to coat a section of sheet sterling silver.

  • Instead of using a fine point Sharpie and straight edge, use a jumbo chisel tip Sharpie Pro black permanent marker to black out the entire section you plan to saw.
Holding a super sharp scribe, Jake draws guide lines through the ink.

Holding a super sharp scribe, Jake draws guide lines through the ink.

  • Once dry, use your straight edge and a sharp scribe to etch your line through the dark metal. It will then be highly visible. I think this also helps to create a path for the saw blade to follow.
The front edge of the bench pin makes the first down stroke cut easier when sawing.

The front edge of the bench pin makes the first down stroke cut easier.

Positioning the metal on the bench pin:
  • Think of the saw and the bench pin as two parts of the same tool, he says.
  • Before you start cutting, align the sheet at the edge of your bench pin. This basically thickens the surface of the metal with wood, and will make your first down stroke easy.
  • Next, align your etched line along the right or left side of your bench pin, depending on whether you are right or left handed.
Lubricate the blade:
  • I use Pepe Lube. I cut the blade through it once.
  • Jake uses beeswax on the back and sides of the blade, then wipes off the excess with his fingers before cutting the metal. He repeats the process when he begins to feel resistance in the blade.
The side of the bench block serves as a straight-line guide for sawing.

The side of the bench block serves as a straight-line guide.

Saw the metal:
  • Start the first saw cut at the beginning of the scribed line as described above.
  • Move the sheet to the side of your bench pin and continue cutting along the line. The thickness of the bench pin will keep the blade from wandering.
Watch your speed:
  • “There is no fast way to do it,” Jake says. “Cut a little slower, because the blade gets hotter and hotter.” When this happens, metal expands and the blade gets stuck.

More Pro Sawing Information

  • Jake buys Pike blades by the gross. Check out Esslinger.com or OttoFrei.
  • The saw is a rough-out tool. It doesn’t create a finished edge. Files and sand paper do that.
  • Practice and get to enjoy sawing. Like the time Jake found a steel bolt and decided to saw it in half the long way “just for fun. It’s important to do things just to keep yourself sharp, in tune with what you are doing.”
  • RioGrande.com offers several videos on sawing.
  • Check out this blade-sizing chart and more sawing information.

Betsy Lehndorff has been writing for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist since 2010. You can reach her at betsylehndorff@gmail.com.


Master sawing and other essential metalsmithing skills with these expert resources.

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