Last summer we made a decision to move to the left side of our country. Part of the decision involved a commitment to get rid of a large collection of power and hand woodworking tools. We agreed that we would use some of the funds to purchase a scroll saw so I could still enjoy the smell of fresh-cut wood. We chose to drive across this great land. A stop was made in Harrisonville, Missouri, at the factory of Hawk Woodworking Tools. This company started in 1929 as RBI Industries. They flourished as the first manufacturer of a portable wood planer. Since that time they have added steadily to their line of top-end woodworking tools. One of these is the Hawk G4 Scroll Saw.
Recommend this product?
Update: Since this review was written, RBI ceased operations and their product line was sold to Bushton Manufacturing in Bushton, Kansas. They continue to build the Hawk scrollsaw line and support older machines with parts and information. Their current equivalent they say is improved is the Hawk BM26.
Why the Hawk?
My first scroll saw was a toy from Sears. It vibrated and went through blades which were very hard to replace. My honey upgraded me to a Dremel scrollsaw. This was better but still far from what professional scroll sawyers used. I had plenty of time to consider which of the upscale saws was best for me and even some experience with lower quality tools. The choices were between Delta, DeWalt, Diamond, Excaliber, Hawk, Hegner, and S.A.G.E. Each had some positives and some negatives. The Delta has great reviews by some of the best known fret sawyers. Its 16 inch depth limited it compared to most of the others, however. DeWalt is used by many who scroll professionally. Its 20 inch depth was better and the price was attractive. The saw from S.A.G.E. is a beautiful hand built tool made in the Missouri Ozarks near Branson. It is made of wood mostly and we wanted the more durable metal construction. Excalibur has an interesting twist of tilting the blade and its associated hardware, rather than rotating the table as the others do, for angled cuts. Hegner is one of the older top-end saws and has many adherents.
We decided to take a look at the Hawk, play with it at the factory, and either get it or order the Hegner after we arrived at the left coast. After a pleasant couple of hours in America's heartland with some very nice folk, we made the order and had it shipped to meet us. Total cost with accessories, some birch plywood, and shipping was under $1500. It is made in the good old USA by people who have the Middle America work ethic. It has a lot of features and few drawbacks. It just felt solid when we used it and we liked the warranty and the people we met.
The Features We Like
For those less familiar with what a scroll saw is used for, we will start with a brief description of its intended uses so that the features that make that intention better or easier might make a little more sense.
What is a scroll saw for?
The intent of a scroll saw is to make very complex cuts like curves and other cuts with rapidly changing directions both around the outside of relatively thin materials like wood, plastic, or soft metals, and to make those same types of cuts to remove parts of the inside of the material. If you have ever seen things like a wooden clock that looks like lace or a jig saw (an older name for scroll saw) puzzle you have seen the results of a scroll saw in use. The lace-like work is called fretwork. The scroll saw uses very thin, narrow blades that are held under tension between two arms that move up and down to make very narrow cuts with very tight turn radiuses possible. One end of the blade, with various levels of ease, can be temporarily released to allow the blade to be inserted through small drilled holes in a work piece to allow those intricate inside cuts that define fret work. Most blades depend on just the pressure of the holders to hold them steady during cutting. Some blades have pins in each end, but most upscale scroll saws do not accommodate this limiting type blade that is usually considered for rank amateurs. The blades are standardized at five inches long. They come in many sizes and types of saw tooth edges to allow many types of cuts in various types and thickness of material. Luckily these blades, even the really good ones, come cheaply by the dozen or gross. They wear out quickly and you need lots of different styles for different cuts.
Although scrolls saws, with the proper blade secured, can cut through wood thicknesses up to two or more inches, most use is with much thinner stock. How large a piece of material can be handled with the saw is partially determined by the throat depth. You can generally only cut to the center of a board that is a little less than twice as wide as the throat depth. This is because the blade teeth are oriented to the front of the saw so that it cuts as you push the material back toward the throat. There are special spiral-tooth blades that can allow cutting in any direction. These can sometimes be used to increase the effective size of material handling.
Scroll saws, because of the narrow blade kerf and the rapid stroke action, do not need to be particularly powerful like, say a saw driving a ten inch circular blade. What is nice is torque control that keeps the blade moving at a constant speed under changing material conditions, like encountering a knot buried in plywood. Variable speed is handy and widely available for scroll saws. Cutting at a slower speed reduces the melting action of the cut in plastic, for example. Since the blades need to be frequently changed and needs to not slip when you are cutting, a very well designed holding system with easy release feature makes the saw more useful. For the same reasons easy tension release and easy blade tension adjustment is valuable. We talked about making inside cuts. To do this holes are drilled at various strategic places on patterns affixed to the materials. Each independent inside cut has one or more very small holes drilled before the fret work is started. Each of these cuts starts by threading a small blade through a small hole. If you have ever threaded a needle you know this can be frustrating to do when the light is low and the needle eye is hard to see. Many scroll saws assume you will release the top of the blade requiring the blade to be threaded from the bottom of the material where the light is the poorest and the visibility least. Think of threading a needle with your eyes closed. A few of the best saws allow release of the blade from the bottom holder so the threading can be done thorough the top of the material. Allowing this presents special design problems in the bottom holder because it is below the table and the blade must be fitted back into its holder pretty much by feel. Since blades might be changed frequently during a project, anything that makes this easier and faster is a plus.
So what we looked for in our new tool was: good and consistent speed control, low vibration, good and easy blade tension adjustment, quick tension release, easy blade change and easy blade insertion for inside cuts. Quick and reliable blade holding, deep throat for large piece handling, overall ease of use, and quality of design, materials, and construction was also important.
The Hawk G4 and why it met our criteria
First is that it is built in the USA by people in a relatively small shop using top materials and automation where it makes sense with the touch of skilled, caring craftsman where that is important. The fact that the company took the time to make us comfortable on our tour and that the people who did the work actually talked with pride about how and why they did it added to this comfort. The overall design and material selection is based on an assumption that it will be used in a production environment eight or more hours a day, five or more days a week. This belief is backed by a six year limited warranty. They have found that, for their saws running in a production environment, first maintenance is usually required at around 20,000 hours of operation. This was confirmed to us by long-term users of their saws, including one nice fellow we encountered at Silver Dollar City on our trip who has been using his saw to make wooden signs and toys for well over ten years with only one repair needed so far.
Part of the basic design builds in, or preferably out, vibration. You have a relatively large mass driving a blade up and down with stops at each end of travel hundreds of times a minute. You want to be able to briefly release your work occasionally to reposition your hands with that blade still running. Vibration makes this action hard to do as well as reducing the clarity of the lines on the pattern you are trying to follow. It also adds to fatigue during long scrolling sessions. When the legs of the saw are solidly positioned on the floor, preferably concrete, you can easily balance a dime on the table surface and it won't even shimmy. This is at any speed or even as you dial in various speeds. They have done a great job of using the heavy construction, 97 pounds, to eliminate even a hint of vibration.
Most scroll saws make a compact footprint and this one is no exception. Floor space needs are a width of 19 ½" and a length of 39 ½" sitting solidly on its included 10 gauge steel legs. It has a throat depth of 26". That is a full 10" more than the typical Sears saw and means you can easily handle the full width of a sheet of plywood. Its 14" round table that can tilt to 45 degrees either left or right gives you a solid surface to hold these larger pieces. We saw some examples at the factory of huge slices of log with bark edges that had been turned into wall art.
But what makes or breaks a scroll saw is the blade handling. You need two arms to hold both ends of the blade. One of the arms is below the table and the other above it. You have to turn the rotating motion of a motor into an up and down motion to get the sawing action of the blade going. You have to be able to properly tension various different blades and to hold those blades securely during the cut while still allowing them to be easily changed when they break or you need a different blade style. These blades are going up and down several hundred times a minute and they need to do this for many hours. Converting rotary motion into perfect up and down motion without oscillation of the blade during travel is a complex process. In fact, having a little oscillation is nice sometimes and bad other times, depending on what you are doing.
The Hawk G4 uses the most popular method for blade holding and movement, called parallel arm. Both the upper arm and lower arm are parallel to each other and move up and down together to get the blade to cut. For thin stock you want the path of the blade to be at an exact right angle to the stock that is lying flat on the table to get the smoothest cut and the straightest curves. If it moves back a little during the non-cutting up stroke this is good to allow the sawdust to get out of the way. For thicker stock it is good if the blade cuts at an angle to the plane of the stock like when you are using a handsaw. This makes the cutting more aggressive with some loss of vertical cuts in turns. The Hawk G4 allows you to set the cut angle from a true vertical to pretty aggressive angle cut easily with the provided Allen wrench and a set screw in the bottom blade holder. You want the longest reasonable stroke so that more of the blade is used, extending blade life, and you want as much space as is practical vertically so you can cut thicker material or stack several layers for making multiples of parts.
The Hawk G4 has two very heavy and well constructed parallel arms that allow a cutting thickness of up to 2 5/8" and a stroke length of 7/8". It is powered by a DC motor that is totally enclosed and permanently lubricated to eliminate the concerns of dust and debris entry. All pivot points use commercial grade thrust ball bearings. The electronics allow the number of strokes to be varied from a low of 30/minute to a high of 1,725 with a simple twist of a dial easily reachable on the side of the table next to the on/off switch. Positive feedback also assures the selected speed is maintained regardless of the effort required to cut. There is s slight delay built in when starting to allow the user to get hands back on the material for positive control at the beginning of the cut. When I first used this saw I was asked to put pressure on the top arm to try and slow or stop it. It won't happen. It just works harder and the speed stays constant.
When doing complex sawing, you will often need to insert the blade through pre-drilled small holes and change blade types for different kinds of cuts. This is one place where we believe the Hawk G4 excels and was a major decision point for us. Both the top and bottom edges of the blade are held by pressure. This pressure is applied by turning a small thumbscrew until it is tight. You get the feel of when it is tight enough quickly. The entrance holes of both are wider at the entrance, tapering in a smooth cone to the vise part, to allow the blade to slide in by feel and center well. We would have preferred the quicker change of the lever action of a couple of competitor's blade holders, but this one works okay. Many saws, most in fact, are so hard to work with below the table that the only practical way to thread a blade through those small holes is by releasing it from the top holder and threading the blade through the work piece from the bottom. With the Hawk G4 you can easily release the bottom of the blade, thread it through from the top where you can see, then use a holder on the auxiliary arm to hold the top arm so that you can easily reconnect the bottom of the blade by feel. A quick release on an auxiliary arm that can be placed on either side of the upper arm assembly, to accommodate southpaws, removes all blade tension while you make blade changes. It is located right up front where it can be quickly activated. A thoughtful touch is that when you reapply tension it pushes the top arm holder away if you have forgotten to do that.
The bottom blade holder is removable by simply pulling it down and out. With some spare holders, readily available, you can pre-load multiple blade types and very quickly change blades. Setting tension for different blades is pretty easy. There is an eccentric lever at the end of a long bar at the back of the arm assembly. There is a label on the base near there that has recommended positions for the arm just before tension starts. These points are related to clock position. The rod, that is a little hard for me to maneuver with my largish hands, is rotated to vary the length of the rod throw and thus the clock position the eccentric lever is in when you start to feel tension. After setting that nut you then flip the lever to its fully engaged position and the tension is just right for the blade. In practice I find the numbers a little off and tighten just a little less than recommended.
To tilt the table for angled cuts, you simply turn a knurled knob, tilt the table to the indicated position on the large and easy to read protractor, 45 degrees in either direction, and tighten the knob. The dial is pretty accurate, but I usually check the angle anyway to be sure when that is important. The table is dead flat and is made of aluminum to eliminate the rust problems of steel tables. I use a thin coat of paste wax (no silicone in it) to make it very easy to slide material over the surface.
There is a hold-down on the auxiliary arm that can be used to help keep the material flat on the table. Frankly it is more bother than it is worth to use most of the time. It can be removed or held up out of the way with a thumbscrew when not being used. There is a very good bellows assembly and an articulated arm that can direct a stream of air at the cut point to keep visibility good. It works well. There is a hole drilled in the auxiliary arm to accept a lighted magnifier that can be purchased separately. We got it as part of an upgrade kit that included a foot activated on/off switch, some extra blades, a side table with holders for extra blades, and holes to hold extra blades already in the three extra lower arm blade holders. We also added the optional wheels that allow this heavyweight to be moved easily.
The surface of the table sits at a comfortable working height for either standing or sitting on a shop stool. It overhangs the main table to both allow closer body positioning and easier access to the under the table adjustments. When a blade breaks or is removed, the front part of the upper arm automatically tilts up to allow a full 7" of access. As a safety feature, the saw also stops when this happens, to protect you when a blade breaks. It can be held in its near horizontal position for blade installation by an easy to use swivel lock.
Although we tried to include all the important specifications in the text, we will include a compact list from the manual here for easy reference.
Maximum Width...............................................19 1/2"
Maximum Depth...............................................39 1/2"
Maximum Cutting Thickness.............................2 5/8"
Cutting Strokes Per Minute.........................30 - 1,725
Stroke Length........................................................ 7/8"
Work Table..........................14 1/2" Round Aluminum
Mounting.....................................10 Gauge Steel Legs
Manufacturer's Warranty.................................6 Years"
So Tell Us What You Think
When we arrived on the left coast the saw was waiting for us. The boxes looked like they had been handled by the proverbial 600 pound gorilla and we were apprehensive. The overall packaging was so good, however, that DHLs best efforts had no measurable impact on the contents. Assembly was simply a matter of attaching the legs and the extra pieces we had ordered. A 28 minute DVD accompanied the package with very complete assembly instructions for the saw and major accessory pieces as well as initial tune up and uses instructions. A well-written manual was also included. One of the bolts holding the table tilting mechanism had vibrated out, but it was found in the packaging and reinstalled easily. We had a thirty day return privilege, but it was never seriously considered since we had already tried the saw at the factory. If you would like a pretty thorough preview of what this saw can do, there is a free 90 minute video on DVD available from their web site for the asking. Excerpts of the video are available for viewing directly with Quick Time.
It has taken a while to get the feel of what blades works best when, how much to tighten the blade holder thumbscrews (the tighter the better, but the knobs leave indents in your fingers), and how to set the tension for the various blades. After six months of use, these setups as well as feeding the blade to the lower holder by feel is natural to us. We have used mostly thin birch plywood and thin hardwood so far to make several toys, puzzles, and things like trivets. I would judge we have moved from pre-beginner to near-rank-amateur now. We have moved from frequent blade breakage to only changing when they start to dull.
One of the things we have found is that when properly set up and used, there is very little sanding needed on the cut edges. This is a great thing for us. With a good blade the polishing action of the stroke does a lot of that for you. This saw is a treat to work with. The light is a necessity and the kerf blower a blessing. The forward position of the table and the lack of vibration make it a joy to use. We have not yet done many inside cuts, but the ability to thread through the top, after a little practice at lower blade holder re-insertion, makes it easy and fast.
There are a couple of things we miss and wish were there. One is a place for dust collection. It isn't too tough to clean up, but it would be nice if there were a place to attach a shop vacuum that would scavenge the sawdust from under the table. We mentioned that the thumbscrews used to tighten the blade vises are a little small and tend to discourage real tightening. It is tempting to use a pair of pliers. Although holding a piece down on the table with just hand pressure is usually enough, we would appreciate a better hold-down for those occasions when using one would be an advantage. Maybe it is just our lack of skill. But when making cuts where we have to frequently change hand positions the wood sometimes does catch on the blade and jump up. The articulating arm that directs a stream of air is pretty effective, but seems a little fragile and can get in the sight lines sometimes.
Even with these few shortcomings we are very happy with our decision and cannot imagine any professional sawyer who would not be happy as well. Like we said earlier, several said they were before we bought. We would probably have also been happy with most of the other top end choices. We have had little occasion to need the full 26" throat depth, but we do like threading the blade through those tiny holes from the top.
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