One of the most exciting purchases a beginning DIYer – actually any DIYer makes – is a new table saw. It can also be a nerve wracking tool for beginners. I’ve created a video tutorial to walk through table saw basics, from safety through making that first cut.
For convenience, I’ve written out the information that is in the video. It’s nearly word for word, but if you want specific information it is here in text form.
I am also including links to a couple products I use and recommend.
Before that, let’s spend a moment talking about that first table saw purchase. To simplify things I’ll give you my top two choices:
The SawStop just has to be the top recommendation because, simply put, it’s the safest. SawStop saws feature flesh detecting technology that stops the blade should you ever come into contact with it. I discuss this in the video. That said, it comes with a higher price point. The jobsite saw will run you about $1400.
If that is out of the question the Dewalt jobsite saw is a great value that performs exceptionally and is durable as heck. We have had ours for a good 7 years now, and keep it around despite having upgraded to a cabinet saw. This saw will run you about $400.
As with any tool, you get what you put into it. There are some very inexpensive table saws on the market, but personally I cannot recommend them. There may be issues such as blade wobble that are just not worth it safety wise.
Let’s move on to other recommendations mentioned in the video:
*As an Amazon affiliate I earn from qualifying purchases. This disclosure pertains to all the links in this post. You can learn more about affiliate links here.
Here’s the basic text of the video, more or less:
Getting your first table saw is really exciting. It can also be somewhat nerve wracking. As you probably know, the table saw accounts for more accidents than any other tool in the shop. So I want to walk you through the basics of your table saw, as well as a few best practices that should always be followed and that will keep all of your fingers intact, as well.
If you are new to a table saw you are probably starting with what is called a jobsite, or contractor saw. These small saws are portable and more affordable than their larger conterparts. If you follow woodworking videos online you have probably seen people using larger versions called cabinet saws, like this.
Regardless of the size of the saw, the basic functions are the same. This is the throat plate or insert. The first thing I recommend is to get a zero clearance plate. You will still need the original plate if you are doing any sort of bevel cuts, so I’m not saying this plate is not good. A zero clearance plate simply has less room around the blade so that thin slices of wood cannot jam into the spaces between the blade and the plate. This won’t matter much for larger pieces, but in general I just fine that less space is better.
The second part I want to talk about is this little piece here. The riving knife – sometimes called a splitter. This small piece of metal sits behind the blade, and it is a big deal. The riving knife helps prevent kickback and twisting that can easily lead to major accidents.
Here’s how it works: When the blade is spinning it cuts downward at the front, where the wood is introduced. But in the back those teeth are spinning in an upward trajectory. As the material passes through between the fence and the blade it needs to remain straight to bypass those teeth. The smallest movement toward the blade can result in those teeth catching the wood and throwing it.
A table saw blade spins at somewhere around 3-5,000 revolutions per minute. That’s a rough number, some are higher, but let’s break it down. At 3000/rpm we are talking about 50 spins PER SECOND. At 5000 rpms that’s 83 rotations per second. It is far faster than you can possibly react, and the results can be devastating. Fortunately, a riving knife is a simple solution. Its function is the keep the material the side of that blade. The riving knife should always be on. You’ll need to remove it if you are using a dado stack, but for pretty much everything else, keep it on. It is probably the single most important safety feature of your saw.
The blade cover is also there to protect your fingers. To be honest, you’ll probably see people removing it. Sometimes it does get in the way of the cut, such as when cutting a thin piece of stock. I’ll say that when you can, leave it on. You should use every safety device you can, and the blade guard is one of them.
Next: Blade height. Your blade should not be more than about ¼” above your stock, or one full blade tooth. I’ve been guilty of this when ripping stock of varying thicknesses, but you should lower the blade so that it is not sticking out way above your stock. That’s a great way to protect your fingers, and to prevent the wood from catching.
Pushsticks and Featherboards
You have probably heard of kickback. The riving knife will help with kickback as a result of drift. Another thing you will want to do is to make use of a good pushstick. There are lots of these on the market. The one that came with your table saw is basically worthless for thinner stock. This type works well. In terms of gripping the stock, I like the microjig, which has these holder—-things. The basic concept, of course, is to keep your fingers well clear of the blade. Any of these tools will help you do that.
I also recommend the use of a featherboard. It sits down in the miter slot, which is what these grooves are called. It is adjustable so that it sits against the material, allowing the stock to move forward through the bade, but not backward, where it catches. There are various versions of this on the market. I like this because it is easy to adjust one handed.
Other Safety Tips
Two last pieces of advice: When feeding stock through the blade stand just left of the blade so you are clear should any kickback happen. And finally, keep your eyes on your work. What most accident stories have in common is that someone let their guard down for just a brief second.
Keep your blades sharp. You’ve heard this before. A dull blade means you will push harder, and that can result in accidents. Use sharp blades. Replace them when they need it.
Don’t reach over the blade. It is very tempting to simply reach over and grab a piece of cut wood. Turn off the blade. Oh, and certainly never attempt to fish a piece of material back through a spinning blade. Ever.
That covers the basics of table saw safety. Hopefully it is helpful. The purpose is not to make you scared of your saw, but to help you know how you can safely operate one and act in ways that will ensure the longevity of your fingers. Once you know and follow those things, there is SO much you can do with your table saw.
I do want to say that if budget allows the safest thing you can do by far is to purchase a SawStop. These saws feature technology that senses flesh and will stop the blade in less than 5 milliseconds. How it works is that the blade carries an electrical signal, and if any part of your body, which is conductive, touches that blade while it is spinning it triggers the aluminum brake, which grab the blade, pulls it down into the cabinet, and shuts off the motor.
You may have seen this system featured using a hot dog. If not, google it. We were saving for this saw when I had a scary near miss and decided it wasn’t worth putting off. SawStop does have a jobsite saw, with the same technology. Yes, they are more expensive. However, the cost of replacing a brake and blade doesn’t even begin to compare with a finger or fingers. And, they are simply great saws, as well. All that said, no matter what saw you have, follow the best safety practices I’ve talked about here. No, I have never set mine off, but I’m human, I make mistakes, and I can’t think of any reason I would ever regret having invested in this saw.
Let’s talk about what you can do with a table saw!
To my mind, the first thing to understand is the different types of cut. A rip cut is a cut that goes along the grain. The table saw excels at rip cuts. A cross cut is one that goes across the grain. These sorts of cuts can be done on the table saw, but there are additional safety measures that you’ll want to take. Another type of cut is called a resaw, where the board is cut parallel to the face. The table saw is limited in what it can do with this type of cut.
This is probably what you will use your new table saw for the most. What I want to spend a moment on here is understanding how to use the fence. A board will only be as straight as the side this against the fence. If you have a board with uneven or non parallel sides you can fix that with a simple sled, but in the interest of time that’s beyond the scope of what I’m going to cover here.
Make sure your fence is parallel to your blade. Do this by checking the distance between the fence and blade and the front and back. This is something that you’ll need to check more with less expensive table saws. Also, be sure to check that the gauge is accurate. Again, less expensive saws will need more checking. But over time all saws need minute adjustments. I will say that I have had this Dewalt saw for a good 7 years now, and it does a fairly good job. Still, if we take this one somewhere I check it before starting work.
As far as making the actual cut, begin by turning the saw on so the blade begins rotating before introducing material. Guide the wood through the blade keeping it firmly against the fence. Do not force wood through the blade quickly, but use slow, steady pressure to feed it through. Use your hands to get the piece started, but as you near the backside of the board use a push stick to guide the lumber while keeping pressure toward the fence as well. I like to use another guide to do this. Power off the saw, then grab your cut piece.
The miter gauge that comes with the saw is a basic tool you can use to cross cut. It slides into the miter slot and allows you to hold the material against the gauge so it doesn’t twist. I recommend clamping or screwing a piece of sacrificial wood to the miter gauge to help support the piece and to prevent tear out, which is when fibers are torn from the wood resulting in a splintered cut.
Also, when using the miter gauge do not run the stock against the table saw fence, as this can result in twisting and binding. Smaller pieces can be clamped to the gauge to keep them even. There are other miter gauges you can buy that will do much better than the one included with the saw, such as the Incra gauge, but I don’t have one of those to show you as I prefer to use a sled. Like this.
This is a cross cut sled. This type of sled slides along the miter slots and allow stock to be fully supported, making them a much safer option. They are also great for repeat cuts.
The gauge or a sled are the only way that I like to crosscut on the table saw. Otherwise there is just too much risk of a piece twisting, which, by the way, is what I was doing when I had my near miss and something I have not done unsupported since.
Resaw cuts are cuts that are parallel to the face, and I don’t really recommend them on the table saw. For one, the table saw blade extends only about 3” above the surface, and that’s a lot for a blade to push through as is. Also, a table saw blade is generally 1/8” thick, and that’s a lot of wasted stock. There are times you might find it necessary, but in general, other saws do a much better job. The band saw is the champion of resawing, and is a much safer way to do so.
Now, it’s outside the scope of this video to cover all of the things you can do with a table saw, and I would fail miserably if I even tried.
I have used my saw to make box joints, tenons, miters, dadoes, rabbets, half laps, tapers, splines, and tongue and grooves.
The bottom line is that the table saw really is the heart of a power tool workshop. Treat it right, and you will find so many uses for which it will excel.
I hope this has been a useful introduction to the table saw. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask. And enjoy your new table saw!