Scroll saws and rotary tools are both popular for doing intricate woodworking projects.
There is a lot of overlap in the kind of work these tools can do.
New woodworkers often wonder which is better, or if there is even a difference between them.
Neither tool is “better” than the other, but each has strengths and weaknesses.
What are the strengths of each tool?
Scroll saws are best for cutting complex patterns in flat sheets of wood. Rotary tools are best at 3-D carving and general DIY work. If you want to make wall hangings, nameplates, or other flat cutouts, check out a scroll saw. If 3-D carving or general DIY projects are in your future, get a rotary tool.
Knowing how each tool works will help you decide which tool is right for you. Read on for the details.
Note: Rotary tools are frequently called “Dremel tools” or just “Dremels” after one of the leading brands of rotary tool makers.
Since Dremel is a brand name, we’ll stick with calling them rotary tools here.
How the Tools Work
As you would guess from the names, scroll saws are specialized cutting tools, while rotary tools spin at high speeds.
The different modes of operation give each a unique set of abilities.
Let’s start by checking out the scroll saw, and then we’ll move on to the rotary tool.
Scroll Saw Basics
Scroll saws use a blade stretched tight between two metal arms that oscillate rapidly up and down.
The tension on the blade keeps it straight and allows the saw to use a very small blade – often less than a tenth of an inch (0.1) thick and about that deep.
The thin, shallow blade allows scroll saws to cut very tight turns. The saw has a flat table with a blade slot to hold your workpiece.
Scroll saws can work in spaces inside the center of a project without cutting the edge.
To cut the center of the board, you start by drilling a small hole in the center of the piece.
You remove one end of the blade from the arm, slip the blade through the hole, and re-secure the blade.
Presto! You are cutting in the center.
Once you finish the cut, loosen the blade again and remove the project.
The combination of a stable worktable and a thin blade means that you can trace a pattern on your wood, lay it on the scroll saw table, and just follow the lines with the blade.
As long as you work slowly and have patience, you can cut just about any scroll saw patterns with a scroll saw.
The workpiece doesn’t move unless you move it, so it’s hard to accidentally slip and mar your project.
The biggest limitation on scroll saws is the throat depth. The throat is the distance from the blade to the back of the arms where they meet.
The throat depth limits the size of the project you can cut. Small scroll saws might have a throat of sixteen inches, meaning that you can only push a piece sixteen inches from the blade before you run out of the room.
Since you can work from both sides, this limits you to pieces no bigger than thirty-two inches across.
High-end scroll saws offer deeper throats, bigger tables, and even tilting tables. Deep throats and big tables are good for working with larger projects.
Tilting tables let you do some 3-D work. High-end scroll saws also offer such features as lights to help show your work and blowers to keep sawdust from piling up around the work area.
Related Content: How to Cut Small Pieces on a Scroll Saw, useful tips and tricks!
When the Scroll Saw Beats a Rotary Tool
A rotary tool does not offer the same stability as a scroll saw. It’s a hand-held tool that relies on your steady hand to get precise cuts.
If you slip, or get bumped, or get startled by something, a rotary tool can gouge a chunk from the surface of your project.
When you need precision and stability, choose a scroll saw.
You can read more about how to choose a scroll saw here!
Scroll Saw vs. Other Saws
There are three other saws that work in a similar fashion to scroll saws. Those saws are the band saw, the jig saw, and the coping (or fret) saw.
Bandsaws use a blade that is a band, always working in one direction. Jig saws use a stiff oscillating blade that is fixed at just one end.
Coping saws work the same way as scroll saws but are hand-powered.
Band saws can handle bigger lumber than scroll saws, but it comes at the expense of detail. Band saw blades are deeper than scroll saw blades.
The deeper blades can’t turn as sharply when cutting, but they resist breaking better in thick stock. Band saws also can’t work on the interior of a piece.
Since the blade is a hoop, there is no way to insert it into the center of a project.
Jig saws are hand-held reciprocating tools. They sit on top of the wood and you guide them through the cut.
The thicker blade suffers from the same limitations as a band saw blade without the advantage of extra strength that a single-direction blade gives. Jig saws can cut in the center of a project, though.
Coping saws can do everything scroll saws do, but you must power the blade yourself. It is a lot slower than a scroll saw.
It’s best for little bitty projects, or for people who want big biceps.
Rotary tools are hand-held machines that spin at extremely high speeds.
Adjustable tools spin at a range from 5,000 revolutions per minute (RPM) all the way up to 35,000 or more.
Fixed-speed rotary tools generally run at speeds between 20,000 and 25,000 RPM.
You can put a wide variety of heads on the rotary tool to perform different tasks.
Most rotary tools are sold as a kit with a variety of different heads so that you can cut, grind, polish, sand, and even sharpen other tools.
You can probably do more different jobs with a rotary tool kit than just about any other power tool available.
With a cutting head or a grinding burr, rotary tools can make the same kind of cuts as a scroll saw.
Cutting heads are metal or abrasive wheels that work like tiny circular saws.
Grinding burrs have little teeth on a wheel or a cone. These teeth grind wood away from the work surface.
Compared to a scroll saw, rotary tools are more flexible but less precise. Since the rotary tool is hand-held, you can use it to work on things that wouldn’t fit into a scroll saw.
You can customize a piece of furniture or even work on trim that’s fixed to the wall.
The downside is that the quality of the cut is limited by your ability to work freehand rather than working with a piece resting on a table.
Rotary tools are also able to do many more jobs than scroll saws. You can sharpen garden tools, cut a new slot in a stuck screw, polish metalwork, or engrave flat surfaces with a rotary tool.
You can even cut through a problem pipe fixture without damaging the pipe it’s attached to. Scroll saws won’t do any of that.
If you are interested in fine woodworking, rotary tools shine for carving.
You can use a grinder burr for relief carvings that leave the surface of the wood at different heights to show an image or pattern.
You can also use a rotary tool to rapidly carve 3-D statues.
Rotary Tool Types
There are three basic types of rotary tools: cordless models, corded rotary tools, and flex-shaft machines.
Cordless rotary tools can work anywhere. It’s also nice to be able to work without getting tangled in a cord.
Like all cordless tools, the limitation of these tools is battery life and charging time.
Corded rotary tools plug into a wall outlet. The cord makes it harder to freehand work – imagine using a pencil with a string connected to the eraser end – but it gives you limitless power.
As long as you have electricity, your rotary tool will work. (If you don’t have power, you should probably be working on a different project anyway.)
These tools also tend to be less expensive than cordless models.
Flex-shaft machines are the big daddy of rotary tools. Flex-shaft machines use a bigger motor that can run longer without overheating.
The motor hangs from a stand, and a flexible shaft runs from the motor to a handpiece that holds the bit. The handpiece is lighter than a rotary tool and gives the user more control.
These machines are used by professional woodcarvers and jewelry makers.
Where the Tools Overlap
Scroll saws and rotary tools are both good for projects that require cutting the middle out of a piece of wood, and for projects that require lots of intricate curves and shapes to be cut out.
If you are working on a single project like this, either tool will work well.
Your decision should be based on what other kinds of projects you like to work on.
Which One to Choose?
When it comes to choosing between a rotary tool and a scroll saw, there is no right or wrong answer.
Neither tool is better than the other. It all comes down to what you want to do and how you like to work.
If you are serious about crafting and want to make detailed images, signs, wall hangings, and other flat projects, the scroll saw is better.
You can get as creative as you like and make all kinds of intricate cuts. Scroll saws are also better than rotary tools for cutting thicker pieces of wood.
It’s tough to cut wood more than about ¼ of an inch thick with a rotary tool, while scroll saws can cut stock up to two inches.
On the other hand, choose the rotary tool if you do lots of DIY work and only occasionally make decorative projects. The rotary tool is like a swiss army knife.
You can find different bits that will help you make a sign, cut smaller pieces of metal, sharpen garden tools, and deal with stuck screws.
A rotary tool is rarely the best choice for a particular job, but it will handle a variety of different jobs that specialty tools won’t.
The rotary tool is also better for creative folks who want to work with 3-D carving or jewelry making.
If you are doing lots of this kind of work, the expensive flex-shaft tool may be the ticket.
If you are just dabbling, some rotary tool kits come with a flexible shaft attachment that won’t break the bank.
Scroll Saw Projects to Try
Trace the letters of a name on a piece of wood and cut them with the scroll saw.
You can paint and post the letters, or cut the letters out and post the original board with the spaces that spell out your name.
Laminated State Cutting Board
Cut pieces of different colored wood into strips as long and deep as your cutting board.
Glue alternating strips of light and dark wood to the width you desire.
Trace the outline of your state on the board and cut with a scroll saw. (Note: this isn’t a great project if you live in Kansas, Colorado, or Wyoming.)
3-D Topographic Map
For your favorite hilly park or other areas, get a topographic map that shows the hills and valleys.
Use your scroll saw to cut layers of ¼ inch plywood that correspond to the contour lines.
Stack them up and glue them together to get a 3-D map of your location.
Check out the 3D Topographic Map project here!
The classic project for scroll saws. Cut detailed pictures or just decorative bric-a-brac.
The scroll saw lets you get that classic Victorian gingerbread look in sheets of plywood or other lumber.
You can use a scroll saw to cut custom jigsaw puzzles on a stiff cardboard or even plywood backing.
This ancient art uses specially shaped pieces of different-colored wood to form picture mosaics. Scroll saws make cutting the oddly-shaped pieces a breeze.
Rotary Tool Projects to Try
The rotary tool lets you engrave names or words (or pictures) on a flat workpiece.
With the right bit, rotary tools can engrave wood, metal, plastic, or anything else.
Trace a picture on a flat piece of wood. Imagine the different depths that are shown in the picture.
Use a grinder burr on your rotary tool to carve the deeper parts of the picture out while leaving the near items tall.
Make a chain
It won’t be as strong as an actual chain, but carving a chain from wood is an impressive feat.
A grinder burr will bite through the wood in a breeze, giving you a fancy chain to show off.
The grinder also makes it easier to cut inside the links of the chain to separate them.
Cut curves in tile
With the right grinder, rotary tools can cut tile. Since the tool is hand-held, you can cut curves and bends instead of just straight lines.
If you need to expand a hole in your bathroom tile to accommodate a new fixture, a rotary tool is a great asset.
Polish and clean
With the right bit, a rotary tool can polish metal or glass. It can also clean baked-on gunk off your stove or oven.
You can get narrow cleaning bits that let you get in and clean mildew and gunk off the grout between tiles.
While it’s not a heavy-duty chop saw, you can use a rotary tool instead of a hacksaw to cut nails, screws, and other small pieces of metal.
It is a little bit faster than a hacksaw, and it’s sure a lot easier to let the power tool do the work for you.
Like all power tools, rotary tools and scroll saws can be dangerous if you’re not careful. You should always wear eye and ear protection when working with power tools.
Eye protection is very important when you are using a rotary tool – the fast-spinning bits really throw stuff around.
There’s not much control on the direction the bits go, either. Keep your goggles on.
You also need to be very, very careful with your fingers when working with these tools. Both require you to get your hands close to the blade or bit.
There are no safety guards or protective equipment that can help you here – you must use your brain.
Always know where your fingers are and know where the blade is.
The only protection is to pay attention and avoid cutting yourself.
Scroll saws and rotary tools can do a lot of the same work, but the overlap is limited.
Scroll saws are a fine woodworking tool that lets you do amazing things with sheets of wood.
Rotary tools are a jack-of-all-trades that can handle just about any light-duty cutting or grinding task.
The choice comes down to the style of work you prefer and what kind of projects are on your horizon.