Sabre Jig Saw

Saber saw vs Jig Saw

Last week, I delved into the history of the tool we know as the jig saw. Now some of you may know this saw as a “saber saw”. I have heard many theories to explain the differences: “A saber saw can rotate its front while a jig saw’s is stationary”, “A jig saw is bigger and more powerful than a saber saw”, and even “saber saw is the correct term; jig saw actually refers to a scroll saw”. Are any of these correct? Just what is the difference between a jig saw and a saber saw?

Scroll Saw or Jig Saw?

Before answering that question, we need to look at the difference between a jig saw and a scroll saw. If you remember from last week’s article, the term “jig saw” predates the introduction of a handheld portable tool by almost a century, and was used to refer to what we now think of as a “scroll saw”.

Both terms began appearing in the mid to late 19th century. As with “jig” and “saber”, some sources tried to differentiate between “jig” and “scroll” saws, while others treated them interchangeably. An 1889 encyclopedia declares, “A jig saw for light work is commonly called a scroll-saw.” 1 An 1862 patent for “Improvement in Scroll-Sawing Machines” does not differentiate between them at all, captioning one picture as a “double-acting scroll or jig saw.” 2 The same can be found in an 1864 patent where the image is titled “scroll saw” but the text refers only to a “jig-saw”. 3

The reason for the confusion is that each term refers to a different aspect of the tool. “Jig” means the saw blade moves up and down, while “scroll” means the saw is intended for cutting scroll-work and other intricate details. Neither is technically incorrect. We can see the stationary saws referred to as “jig saws” up until the late twentieth century. Below is a page from the 1983 Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog:

1983 Montgomery Ward Christmas Catalog
1983 Montgomery Ward Christmas Catalog

Even in 1990, you can still find references to stationary scroll saws being called jig saws: “A scroll saw, also known as a jig saw, is stationary. A saber saw or router is portable.” 4

What is a Saber Saw?

So if the terms “jig saw” and “scroll saw” began appearing around the same time for the same machines, what about a saber saw? “Saber” refers to a thicker blade meant for cutting heavier material. They were originally mounted in scroll saw machines. The term itself begins appearing in the 1930s. One patent applied for by Delta in 1931 and awarded in 1934 was for a scroll saw chuck which could hold “pin blades, jewelers’ blades, saber blades, machine files, and sanding devices” [emphasis mine]. The patent further differentiates saber blades with the following sentence: “When using saber blades, machine files, and sanding devices, the upper chuck preferably is not used.”  5

We can see such a device in use at this time period. A Popular Science article states, “One of the small jig saws in common use may be converted into a saber saw by substituting the attachment shown for the saw frame.”  6 The illustration from this article is below:

A Saber saw in Popular Science, June 1933.
A Saber saw in Popular Science, June 1933.

Thus, a saber saw is distinguished by using a thick reciprocating blade (known as a “saber” blade) attached at one end and free at the other. It only makes sense that when you turn such a machine upside-down and make it portable, the resulting tool should also be called a saber saw, right? Indeed, a patent issued in 1956 for just such a device calls it a “Saber Saw”. 7

Saber Saw, 1956
Saber Saw, 1956

So, it would appear that it is only natural for all such saws to be named saber saws, right? Not quite. The answer is a bit more complicated.

Portable Jig Saws

Recall that the first tools of this kind were Scintilla’s “Lesto” saws, made in Sweden starting in 1944. These were originally referred to as “portable hand saws”. Forsberg’s “Whiz-Saws” were the first American tools of this type, and they were originally described as “portable electric key hole saws”.

Whiz-Saw ad, Popular Science, May 1949.
Whiz-Saw ad, Popular Science, May 1949.

Neither were referred to as either saber or jig saws. In 1956, though, a book called Welding and Metal Fabrication referred to the “Lesto model GEB 11 portable electric jig saw, marketed by Scintilla, Ltd.” 8 [emphasis mine]. Last week’s post on the history of the jig saw also included this 1958 quote: “Scintilla had been attempting to develop a ‘portable jigsaw'”. 9

While Bruck’s patent above, filed in 1954, seems to make “saber saw” predate “jig saw” in regards to portable saws, I also found the following ad from 1953:

Popular Mechanics, April 1953.
Popular Mechanics, April 1953.

Which term appeared first? In the end, it is close enough to be considered a tie.

So, Saber or Jig Saw?

It would appear that both “jig saw” and “saber saw” (or “sabre saw”) are equally correct, appeared at the same point in history, and refer to the exact same tool. “Jig” refers to the motion the saw makes, while “saber” refers to the style of blade used. It is understandable where the confusion comes from; endless variations of these tools exploded on the market during the 1950s through 1970s, and manufacturers named them all sorts of things. Some even combined the two terms:

Sabre Jig Saw
Sabre Jig Saw

This 1977 quote sums it up perfectly: “For one thing, with a scroll saw (sometimes called a jigsaw) you will be able to do all the curved and intricate sawing you would like to be able to do with a saber saw (sometimes also called a jigsaw), but can’t.” 10

The press also contributed to the fluidity of the terms. I’ve found reviews and comparisons of these tools in Popular Mechanics in the 1980s and 1990s that refer to all of them as “saber saws”, even though the manufacturers call them “jig saws”.

It would appear that most tool makers today call these saws either “jigsaws” or “jig saws”; those that called theirs “saber saws” have long gone out of business or been bought by larger companies. Of the sixteen most popular brands I looked up, only Craftsman still sells a sabre saw. With the boxes and labels all saying “jig saw”, the term will probably become more and more common, with “saber saw” fading into distant memory.

Notes:

  1. Whitney, William Dwight. The Century Dictionary; an Encyclopedic Lexicon of the English Language,. Vol. 11. New York: Century, 1889, pg 3233.
  2. Stover, H. D., and Wright, Edward S. Improvement in Scroll-Sawing Machines. Patent 35492. 3 June 1862.
  3. Berry, Lewis M., and Graves, Nathaniel S. Improvement in Jig-Saws. Patent 41116. 5 January 1864.
  4. Umstattd, William D., and Charles W. Davis. Modern Cabinetmaking. Tinley Park, IL: Goodheart-Willcox, 2005. Goodheart-Wilcox Co. 1990, pg 63.
  5. Tautz, Herbert E. Scroll Saw Chuck. Patent 1969827. 14 August 1934.
  6. “Heavy Stock Cut on Small Jig Saw”. Popular Science. Jun 1933,  pg 65.
  7. Bruck, John P. “Hand manipulated power operated saber saw”. Patent 2737984. 13 March 1956.
  8. Welding and metal fabrication, Volume 24. IPC Scientific and Technology Press, 1956. pg 317.
  9. Gallager, Sheldon M., and Ralph Treves. “Electric Handsaw: Year’s Most Exciting Power Tool.” Popular Science Mar. 1958: 168-73.
  10. Jones, Thomas H. “Scroll Saws can they take the place of saber, hand, radial-arm, and table?” Popular Science. October 1977, pg 138.

3 thoughts on “Saber saw vs Jig Saw”

  1. Thanks for the discussion of scroll vs jig vs saber saws. I think I’ve won a bet — saber saws and jig saws ARE the same thing. A friend insists that a saber saw is a PORTABLE jig saw. I make the distinction that a scroll saw has a finer blade and can make much tighter curves.

    Now that that’s cleared up, let’s get confusing again. Rockwell has a “Blade Runner” saw that’s essentially a saber saw mounted under a table. It also has a miter guage that doubles as a rip fence. So it’s sort of a jig/saber saw, sort of a scroll saw, and sort of a table saw.

  2. P.S.: The bladerunner isn’t an especially good substitute for a scroll or table saw. But it’s portabe, and great to take to the set for adjustments and small tasks.

  3. Yes, I’ve seen those Blade Runners in the store (and similar tools to it). The table-mounted saber saw is how the tool originally appeared. Many table-mounted jig saws (scroll saws) in the 1930s-1960s allowed you to remove the overarm and use a thick saber blade which was only attached to the machine on the bottom.

Comments are closed.