Things to Know Before Buying a Table Saw
The table saw (aka bench saw, saw bench, saw table or even table saw bench) is an extremely powerful and versatile cutting machine. Most table saws work by using a circular saw blade, driven by a motor, and mounted on an arbor secured with trunnions, protruding through a slot in the saw table top.
Types of Table Saw
There are different types of table saw. The cabinet table saw and hybrid table saw are stationary. A jobsite table saw (aka contractor table saw) rests on a portable stand whilst a portable table saw sits on a benchtop.
Stationary table saws tend to be quieter than portable ones because the motor is enclosed within a cabinet. Stationary table saws use an induction motor and the blade arbor is driven by a belt or pulley system. On portable table saws the universal motor drive shaft itself behaves as the arbor so vibrations are transmitted back to the unit itself, resulting in greater noise levels.
With portable table saws you do have to make separate provision for dust collection. Dust collection ports are built in, but they need to be hooked up to a standalone vacuum system.
Cabinet Table Saws
Cabinet table saws are the best-engineered, largest, heaviest, most powerful, and accurate of table saws. These are stationary table saws. They consist of a cast-iron table top, most likely with table extensions to each side. The table saw itself sits on top of a heavy cabinet that encloses a belt-driven motor. The cabinet protects the motor and stops dust from escaping. This would be the table saw of choice for a professional workshop and costs many hundreds of pounds.
Hybrid Table Saws
Hybrid table saws are a ‘cut-down’ version of the cabinet saw with similar features. They too are stationary table saws but smaller, lighter, less powerful, and less costly.
However for most people, the best table saws will be the portable ones. These are the contractor table saw (aka jobsite table saw) and the benchtop table saw. They are smaller and lighter than the cabinet and hybrid table saws, but significantly cheaper and much more versatile.
Contactor Table Saws
Contractor table saws are designed with portability in mind and come fixed to a stand, often with wheels. In general, these portable table saws are larger and more powerful than benchtop saws with larger motors and more robust components. Most can hook up extension tables and come supplied with them. They may also come with induction motors and are belt driven, so are quieter and more comfortable to use. In general, the design of this type of table saw is more generic so you can for example swap out fences and mitre gauges and replace them with aftermarket versions.
Benchtop Table Saws
The benchtop table saw is the entry level saw in the portable table saw market and can be operated from any flat work surface. It does not come with a stand (although you can purchase one separately). Apart from the hobbyists mini and micro table saws they are the smallest, lightest, and most portable table saws, and can be carried by hand from one location to another.
To achieve this versatility their components are made from lighter material (the main table top is often made from aluminium rather than cast iron for example), but this does not detract from their durability. The saw table size would obviously be a constraint when attempting to work with larger stock. Unlike contractor table saws table extensions are not really an option with a benchtop table saw.
Also with portable table saws the saw blade is usually positioned towards the front of the table so there is less room to manoeuvre a mitre gauge for example. Rip fences are usually made to fit the table according to the manufacturer’s specific design so you can’t replace them with more generic aftermarket versions.
Correct Table Saw Blade Selection
Apart from the table the most important feature of the table saw is the saw blade itself. For vertical cuts the table saw has a handle to raise or lower the saw blade. For angled (bevelled) cuts another handle can tilt the table saw blade up to 45 degrees to the left or right. A throat plate surrounds the saw blade to ensure dust does not fall past the blade’s edge through the slot in the tabletop to the arbor or driveshaft (if direct drive motor). A blade guard – ideally made of clear plexiglass – hinges to the saw table to protect the user from the table saw blade.
Most table saws come with a generic table saw blade designed to work to that saw’s specification. That may sound obvious but there are so many variations of table saw blade that if you ever wanted to replace one you need to be very sure you choose the correct type. A mistake could not only spoil your workpiece but also cause you serious injury. For example, both table saw and blade are designed to work to a maximum operating speed (rpm). If the former exceeds the latter the centrifugal force created by the mismatch will destroy the saw blade.
Apart from operating speed the next thing you need to consider is the blade size – specifically its diameter, width, and hole size – to ensure compatibility with the table saw. The most popular blade size is 250mm, equating to a maximum cutting depth of about 80mm.
Next up you need to think about the materials you will be cutting and how coarse or fine you want your cut. For example, a rip blade is more suitable for ripping softer woods. It has fewer larger teeth, will feed more quickly, but will leave a coarser finish. Conversely crosscut blades have more smaller teeth, leave a finer finish but the cut takes longer.
Most of the time however you will want the option of both cuts (and more) and not wanting to change blade, so a combination blade is a better choice. This could also be used for cuts into other softer materials. For regular cutting into hardwoods and metals you would be better off with a blade dedicated to that purpose. For more specialist joinery tasks, such as cutting slots, you would need a dado stack (check the arbor is long enough to accommodate it).
Finally consider the composition of the saw blade teeth. Steel tipped teeth are the norm, but for cutting metals tungsten carbide tipped teeth are more suitable and for brick and masonry diamond tipped blades are best.
Rip Fences for Keeping the Cut Straight
The rip fence is a metal gauge that is fixed towards the edge of the saw table and aligned parallel to the saw blade. It acts as a fixed guideline against which you offer up your workpiece when making a rip cut. The more accurately the rip fence is aligned the truer will be the cut. It is particularly important to ensure you are able to fine tune the rip fence’s alignment accordingly and that the sliding / adjustment / locking mechanisms are smooth, precise and well machined. If you get this wrong, then the workpiece is likely to bind in the table saw and cause kickback.
Mitre Gauges for Angled Cuts
In the same way a rip fence acts as a straight edge for rip cuts along the grain so does a mitre gauge act for cross or angled cuts against the grain. The mitre gauge is made up of a guide and an adjustable half-moon section. The guide sits inside and moves up and down a slot or track in the table surface that is set parallel to the saw blade. The half-moon section pivots on the guide up to an angle of 45 degrees either side of the vertical.
You select your cutting angle, lock the half-moon section into place, position your work piece against it and slide the gauge and workpiece together towards the saw blade. As with the rip fence, look for a well machined smooth gliding mechanism and avoid any play or wobbling between the guide and the slot. More sophisticated versions have an upside down T-slot profile (instead a plain slot) to accommodate the guide and provide a tighter fit.
Dust Collection for Lung Protection
The collection and removal of sawdust, debris and any other burr from the table saw is essential to having your table saw run efficiently. A dust collection system also helps maintain the table saw in peak working condition and most importantly keeping it safe. Why keeping it safe? Because any build-up of debris coming into contact with a fast-spinning table saw blade will cause friction, heat and eventually the table saw could catch fire.
On cabinet table saws the problem is relatively easily solved since dust collection takes place within the cabinet itself and the dust falls onto a slanting shelf that funnels it into a dust extraction port (usually 4″ diameter) to which a hose is attached. You then just apply suction from a vacuum.
Contractor table saws and benchtop table saws however are obviously not designed in that way. Even though most of their debris will also be diverted into dust collection ports (usually 2½” diameter) onto which you attach a vacuum hose, more saw dust will collect naturally due to the more ‘open’ design of the portable table saw (and fall from the base of the table saw to the ground). So further vacuuming will be required to keep your work area pristine.
Table Extensions for Working with Larger Materials
An extension table comes in very useful when you want to work with and support material significantly larger than the original table size. Some table saw extension tables are standalone and need to be attached to the main saw table via supports before use, whilst others come already attached to the table via a hinge or telescoping mechanism.
Safety Features to Look For
Most people consider the table saw the most dangerous of all power tools because you are guiding the material towards the table saw rather than guiding the saw towards the material. You are essentially faced with a thin metal blade with incredibly sharp teeth spinning at thousands of revs a few inches away from your body. The saw blade is your number one enemy! But you also have a number two enemy and that is kickback. Kickback happens when your workpiece binds and buckles during the cutting operation (because it is not correctly aligned) and is then projected at force back in your direction.
To protect yourself you need to take all the safety precautions you can think of!
In this next section we’ll discuss the most common safety features that are built into or come with the table saw. Then we’ll consider the common sense things you should be thinking about as the operator of this potentially dangerous piece of equipment. If your table saw does not come with the following features maybe you should look for another one which does.
On-Off Switches that Keep You Safe
The On-Off switch is of course an essential item on any electrical appliance but on a table saw there are some extra features of the switch to look for.
Since you could often be working with large pieces of material, you’re more than likely to be using both hands. What if you need to hit the power off button in a hurry? The table saw switch needs to be as large as possible. And with the possibility of no hands free you’ll need to engage your knee, so the switch should be as close to knee height as possible. If you’re working with a table saw that sits on a bench, then the knee might not work so your elbow would be next best (the switch would be higher anyway).
These days, the best table saws come with a magnetic switch. This is a great idea because in the event of a power cut the magnet automatically stops the table saw starting up when power is restored from the mains supply.
And finally, if the on-off button is recessed behind a protective flap that mechanism protects the button from being accidentally pressed.
Blade Guards Keep Your Hands Away from Danger
A blade guard system is probably the most obvious safety feature a table saw should have. The blade guard sits over the blade and protects your hands and fingers from it. Clearly the guard should be applied as often as possible but there are times when it does need to be removed. For example, if you are not cutting completely through some material, when you want to change the blade, or when material has got stuck. ALWAYS PUT THE GUARD BACK AFTERWARDS! Also try and look for a transparent (as opposed to opaque) plexiglass guard as you have more control and visibility over the cut.
A Riving Knife to Keep the Workpiece Split Apart
The riving knife is a fin-shaped piece of metal that sits very closely behind the saw blade. The riving knife is not only designed to protect the operator from the blade, but also to prevent kickback by keeping the two sawn pieces separate as they move past the saw blade, preventing any binding against it.
Anti-Kickback Pawls Might Just Save Your Fingers
Anti-kickback pawls are small spring-loaded metal arms attached to the blade guard to which downward facing teeth are attached. The arms hover over the 2 cut pieces so if kickback occurs the teeth bite into the wood to keep it in place.
Automatic Braking and Flesh Detection, the Magic Finger Saver
A very clever relatively recent innovation is the automatic brake. This feature can detect when flesh meets a spinning blade and then stops the blade almost instantly (within 5 milliseconds)! It relies on the fact that wood is a poor conductor of electricity and flesh is a good one. If a small amount of electric current is applied to the blade, that current can be monitored, and if there is a change in the current’s level due to the proximity of flesh, an aluminium brake block is forced into the blade to retract it.
There are a couple of provisos, however. This won’t work with wet wood (since wet wood is a better conductor than dry) and you will need to replace the blade and braking mechanism if the feature is used. On the plus side you retain your thumb or finger!
Further Safety Precautions
Before you even think about using the table saw, take some time to give yourself the once-over! Check you’re not wearing anything that can get tangled up in machinery, such as loose clothing or jewellery. Always wear suitable clothing. Protect your eyes from dust particles and debris with certified safety goggles. Protect your ears from the high noise levels table saws emit (especially direct drive table saws) with a good pair of ear defenders. Where you can, protect your hands with a quality pair of workman’s gloves. Even protect your head with a hard hat and your mouth with a face mask.
Safety When Using the Table Saw
You’ve read the instructions, right? This is blindingly obvious but if you don’t make time to do this and then proceed to make a rookie mistake you only have yourself to blame! The instructions will also contain a section describing how to keep your table saw in good working order. It should be cleaned from its previous use and the components checked for readiness. If you are using a table saw on a work surface, make sure it is secure.
Set the rip fence or the mitre gauge, position the workpiece against it, offer the workpiece up to the blade and switch on the table saw. Take your riving knife (supplied as an accessory with the table saw) and guide the workpiece through the blade with it. Never use the riving knife to PUSH your workpiece onto the saw blade. It will feed through under its own inertia. Be patient – if you try to force it through it could kickback. One other tip – if you are making a cross-cut do not use the mitre gauge and the rip fence together – that too will result in kickback as the workpiece will bind against the rip fence – so just remove the rip fence.
And that’s it! Follow these precautions and you should come out unscathed!
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