Learn what you should know when choosing a table saw, and how to evaluate the options when you are choosing one of these indispensable power tools
Elation is what you feel when you first discover a good tool, and table saws certainly are good tools. In March 1982, I switched off my first table saw and, as the blade spun to a halt, I couldn’t have been happier.
Table saws allow you to cut all kinds of lumber and plywood with great accuracy, safety and ease. I’ve owned three over the last 20 years, and used a half-dozen other machines while working professionally as a cabinetmaker and carpenter.
Table Saw Basics: Straight, True and Square
If you’re planning to build or remodel your home, make furniture or cabinets, or maybe begin a small-scale woodworking venture, you should consider making a table saw your first major tool purchase. Table saws are extremely useful because they create straight, smooth and accurate cuts in lumber, wood-based sheet materials and even some types of plastic. Radial arm table saws, which have the saw mounted above instead of underneath the table, make straight cuts, too, but not in as many different ways as a regular table saw.
Table saws (sometimes called bench saws) have three main parts: a horizontal table that supports wood during use; a circular saw blade that extends up through a slot in the table; and a rip fence that guides the wood over the spinning blade.
The spinning table-saw blade remains stationary during use while the fence slides the wood over it, allowing you to safely cut everything from small, narrow strips of solid wood, to full-size sheets of plywood and particleboard. This means that table saw results are more accurate than anything you can conveniently produce with a hand-held circular saw. And while accuracy has been a hallmark of stationary table saws, the mid-range, portable table saws have become more versatile, powerful and safer in the last 10 years. A wide range of sizes are available, from small, ultra-lightweight models costing less than $100, to heavy-duty, non-portable cabinet saws that weigh 500 pounds.
Differences in quality, size and design mean that some table saw models perform better than others on a variety of tasks. The trick, as is usually the case, is “separating the wheat from the chaff” when you prepare to tool-up with a handy table saw.
Choosing a Table Saw: Buy a Quality Tool
Buying tools that are too small or underpowered for the job is a common mistake. This is especially a concern when selecting a table saw because of the proliferation of small, inexpensive saws (less than $100 and 50 pounds). Typical cheap-saw problems are inadequate ripping capacity, insufficient power, flimsy controls and small work surfaces. These limitations lead to short-lived saw performance: Either the saw breaks or you get tired and frustrated with pushing a ma chine beyond its design capacity. Small table saws generally are not as safe to use as larger saws. Plan to spend at least $250 for a quality saw.
Which Kind of Table Saw?
If you haven’t yet realized that there’s never enough room in a workshop, you probably will someday. That’s why a portable saw is ideal in many situations. It frees up floor space between uses and al lows you to take cutting capabilities on the road. Many companies now offer excellent, professional-grade table saws (weighing from 75 to 150 pounds) that are fairly affordable.
The issue of size and weight brings you to the first pre-purchase question: Will your saw be used most frequently in a workshop, or will it always be on the move to different areas of building activity? If stationary use will be the norm, consider buying a heavyweight, contractor table saw. These semi-portable machines usually come with a stand or casters. They weigh about 100 to 150 pounds, include cast-iron work surfaces and offer a heft that ensures a stable work platform.
The latest breed of contractor saws do a great job with routine homestead projects and fine woodworking. A growing number of models include the same kind of rip fence and work surface normally found on the best 500-pound, stationary, cabinetmaker table saws.
For the nomad sawyer, working in the shop one day, in the back yard the next, and at a buddy’s place on the weekend, a lightweight, bench-top table saw is an ideal choice. These smaller contractor saws are designed to operate on top of an existing bench or the tailgate of your pickup. Typically weighing in at about 75 pounds, bench-top saws pack a lot of cutting power into a compact machine, and that’s their biggest virtue.
Table Saw Performance
Don’t let their small size confuse you. Although high quality bench-top table saws look similar to those cheap models destined to disappoint, they are different. And price is a powerful clue to what’s inside the shipping carton.
Choose a saw with a 10-inch-diameter blade, a sliding guide (called a “fence”) that’s capable of guiding cuts to the center of a 48-inch-wide sheet of plywood or particleboard, and enough power to handle a full range of cutting challenges. Saws with motors drawing 12 to 15 amps of current, and spinning a full-size, 10-inch blade offer the zest to slice through 2-inch-thick hardwood in a single pass.
Optional accessories worth considering are a folding support stand, enhanced cutting jigs and fixtures.
Table Saws and Dust Control
Most wood gives off a pleasant aroma when it’s cut, but wood dust is more than just fragrant — it’s also hazardous to your health. Invisible, ultra-fine dust particles generated by power tools like table saws are especially hazardous.
Unless you’re using a table saw outdoors, you need some kind of dust control or personal dust protection. At a minimum don a dust mask in addition to the eye and ear protection you need to operate a table saw safely. A mask will protect your lungs, though your workshop still will get coated in fine dust. To avoid this, you need some additional equipment. Manufacturers sell dust collection bags that attach directly to the table saw. As the wood is cut, the heaviest sawdust is sucked down into the small bag.
For more extensive dust collection, a wet/dry vacuum that moves 175 to 200 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of air with a 21-inch outlet is a relatively inexpensive, compact and portable option. It will capture most but not all of the fine particles. That’s why manufacturers offer whole-shop dust filters that purify ambient air. The filter sits in a box attached to the ceiling. A small fan moves the shop air through the filter, capturing the smaller dust particles. Choose a filter rated to remove dust particles as small as 0.5 microns. A whole-shop filter that moves 600 to 800 cfm of air is ideal for most workshops.
The ultimate dust device attaches directly to the saw. It uses a 1- or 2-horsepower motor, and gathers and filters large amounts of air through a cloth filter bag. Select a unit with a filter bag made of felt. (Thin cloth bags allow a lot of fine dust to escape and could make the dust hazard even worse by broadcasting the contamination.) For more information, read Woodshop Dust Control by Sandor Nagyszalanczy.
Tools for Self-Reliance
On June 23, 1891, a man named Ernest Taylor was the first person to sign his name on a deed to the 100-acre parcel of land that is my farm today. He settled with his family, cleared fields and began a relationship with the land that’s now mine to preserve and enhance. Every so often I find evidence of the tools associated with the relationship started by Ernest Taylor: a bit of old chain; a rusted horse-shoe turned up in the middle of a field; a remnant of horse-drawn machinery. Regardless of time or place, self-reliance depends on the same three things: know-how, initiative and tools. Implements of self-reliance might look a little different in the 21st century, but despite power cords, fancy colors and brand names, they still help you achieve this same lofty goal.
Contributing Editor Steve Maxwell has been helping people renovate, build and maintain their homes for more than two decades. “Canada’s Handiest Man” is an award-winning home improvement authority and woodworking expert. Contact him by visiting his website and the blog, Maxwell’s House. You also can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook and find him on Google+.