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. A circular saw blade, driven by a motor, and mounted on an arbor secured with trunnions, protrudes through a slot in the tabletop. There are 5 major categories of table saw. The first two – Cabinet and Hybrid – are stationary, and the last three – Jobsite/Contractor/Compact and Benchtop – are portable.
The cabinet saw is the best-engineered, largest, heaviest, most powerful, and accurate. It consists of a cast-iron tabletop, most likely with table extensions to each side. It sits on top of a cabinet that encloses a belt-driven motor. The cabinet protects the motor and stops most dust from escaping. This would be the table saw of choice for a professional workshop and costs many hundreds of pounds. Next up is the hybrid table saw. This is essentially a ‘cut-down’ version of the cabinet saw with similar features but smaller, lighter, less powerful, and less costly.
However, the best table saw, or bench saw for most people will be the portable version. Although smaller and lighter than the cabinet and hybrid table saw, it is significantly cheaper and much more versatile. Proximity to a power source is usually its only constraint. But, of course, these days battery technology is becoming more and more advanced. Cordless versions are now providing serious competition to their mains powered counterparts. Yes, compared to a cabinet saw you sacrifice a degree of build quality and precision with certainly the cheaper portable models, but for most day to day tasks the finish is perfectly acceptable.
Stationary table saws or bench saws are quieter than portable ones as well. This is due to the obvious fact that the motor is enclosed within the stationary saw’s cabinet. This improves noise absorption, and secondly the saw blade drive mechanisms are different. The stationary table saw uses an induction motor and the blade arbor is driven by a belt or pulley system.
On most portable saws the universal motor drive shaft itself behaves as the arbor so vibrations from working with the stock piece are transmitted back to the unit itself, resulting in greater noise levels. Also, with portable units you do have to make separate provision for dust collecting. Dust outlet/collection ports are built in, but they need to be hooked up to a standalone vacuum system.
The benchtop version 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 saws it is the smallest, lightest, and most portable of the table saw family, and can be carried by hand from one location to another. This is its main selling point.
To achieve this versatility the components are made from lighter material (the main table is often made from aluminium rather than cast iron for example), but this does not detract from its durability. The square area of the table would obviously be a constraint when attempting to work with larger stock, and unlike compact / jobsite / contractor saws table extensions are not really an option with a benchtop table saw.
Other considerations include the fact that the blade is usually positioned towards the front of the table so there is less room to manoeuvre a mitre gauge for example. Also, the 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.
Taking all this into account, these are perfectly acceptable constraints. When you consider how relatively inexpensive a benchtop table saw is, how versatile it is and all the functions it can perform, especially for most hobbyists and significant numbers of professionals too. There is more on how it can be used later in this guide.
Standing table saws (aka Jobsite/Contractor/Compact) are the next level up from benchtop table saws. They are still designed with portability in mind and come fixed to a stand with wheels. In general, they 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 saw is more generic so you can for example swap out fences and mitre gauges and replace them with aftermarket versions.
Main Components and Features
Blades Come in Many Shapes and Sizes for Any Job
Apart from the table the most important feature of the table saw is the saw blade itself. For cutting vertically to different depths there is a handle to raise or lower the blade. For angled (bevelled) cuts another handle can tilt the blade up to 45 degrees to the left or right. A throat plate surrounds the blade to ensure dust does not fall past the edge of the blade down through the slot in the tabletop to the arbor or driveshaft (if direct drive motor). A blade guard – ideally it should be made of clear plexiglass – hinges to the table to protect the user from the blade.
Of course, the other most important feature is the blade itself. Most table saws will come supplied with a generic blade designed to work to that saw’s specification. That may sound obvious but there are so many variations of blade that if you ever wanted / needed to replace it you need to be very sure you choose the correct one, since a mistake could not only spoil your workpiece but also cause you serious injury. For example, both saw and blade are designed to work to a max speed (rpm). If the former exceeds the latter the centrifugal force created by the mismatch will destroy the blade.
Apart from blade RPM the next you need to consider is its size – its diameter, width, and hole size – to ensure it is compatible with the saw itself. The most popular diameter is 10” and that equates to a vertical cutting depth of about 3-½”. Cordless saws, more recently introduced, generally take a 8-1/4“ diameter blade. The hole size is typically ⅝” and the width xxx.
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 leave a coarser finish. Conversely crosscut blades are better suited for – you guessed it – crosscuts! They have more and smaller teeth, leave a finer finish but the cut takes longer. A lot of the time however you will want the option of both cuts (and more) and not wanting to change blade, so a combination blade may be a better choice. This could also be used for cuts into other softer materials. For regular cutting into harder materials (e.g., hardwoods, metals) you would be better off with a blade dedicated for 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 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.
Fences are Essential for Keeping the Cut Straight
The 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. It is set parallel to the saw blade. Clearly the more accurately the fence is aligned the truer will be the cut. It is particularly important to ensure you are able to fine tune the 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 and cause kickback.
Mitre Gauges Help Cut at Angles
In the same way a fence acts as a straight edge for rip cuts along the grain so does a mitre gauge 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 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 wok piece against it and slide the gauge and workpiece together towards the blade. As with the 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 to Keep it Out of Your Lungs
The collection and removal of sawdust, debris and any other burr from the table saw is essential to having your table saw run efficiently. It also helps maintaining it in peak working condition and most important of all keeping it safe. Why keeping it safe? Because any build-up of debris coming into contact with a fast-spinning blade will cause friction, heat up and eventually catch fire. On cabinet saws the problem is relatively easily solved since the debris is collected within the cabinet itself and 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. Portable saws however are obviously not designed in this way. Even though most of their debris will also be diverted into dust ports (usually 2-½” diameter) onto which you attach a vacuum hose, there is more that will naturally collect due to the more ‘open’ design of a portable saw (and fall from the base of the saw to the ground). So further vacuuming will be required to keep your work area pristine.
Table Extensions for Working the Biggest Sheet Materials
Table extensions come in very useful when you want to work with and support material significantly larger in square area than that of the original table size. Some extensions are standalone and need to be attached to the main 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 / bench saw / saw table the most dangerous of all power tools because you are guiding the material towards the saw rather than the saw towards the material. Essentially you are faced with a thin metal disc with incredibly sharp teeth spinning at thousands of RPM a few inches away from your body. The 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 itself. Then we’ll consider the common sense things you yourself should be thinking about as the operator of this potentially dangerous piece of equipment. If your 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 safety-related features of the switch to look out 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 switch needs to be as big 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 benchtop saw, then the knee might not work so your elbow would be next best (and the switch would be higher anyway).
These days, the best table saw models will all come with a magnetic switch. This is a great idea because in the event of a power cut the magnet automatically stops the saw starting up when power is restored from the mains.
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
The blade guard is probably the most obvious safety feature a table saw should have. It sits over the blade and protects your hands and fingers from it. Clearly it should be used as often as possible but there are times when it does need to be removed. For example, if you are not cutting completely through the material, when you want to change the blade or when material has got stuck. My advice is ALWAYS PUT IT 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 blade. It 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 blade so they cannot bind against it.
Anti-kickback Pawls Might Just Save Your Fingers
These 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 and 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 then 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 and the blade gets retracted. 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 best table saw, take some time to give yourself the once-over! Check you’re not wearing anything that can get tangled up, such as loose clothing or jewellery. Always wear suitable clothing. Protect your eyes from dust particles and worse 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 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 saw in good working order. It should be cleaned from its previous use and the components checked for readiness. If you are using a benchtop saw, make sure it is secure.
Set the fence or the mitre gauge, position the workpiece against it, offer the workpiece up to the blade and switch on the saw. Take your push stick (supplied as an accessory with the table saw) and guide the workpiece through the blade with it. Never PUSH your workpiece onto the 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 fence together – that too will also result in kickback as the workpiece will bind against the fence – so just remove the fence.
And that’s it! Follow those precautions and you should come out unscathed!
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