Avoiding Table Saw Accidents: Ask the PTR Pros
Table saws can help finish carpenters get lots of work done. However, be very focused and intentional in how you go about using one. They can instantly turn from “helpful tool” to “unforgiving devourer of thumbs.” We enjoy having all of our fingers intact and where God intended them. We reckon you do as well. We invited some of our Pros to give us their key tips on avoiding table saw accidents.
Avoiding Table Saw Accidents
PPE (Personal Protection Equipment)
The first step in avoiding table saw accidents begins with the rule: always protect your eyes. Most table saws work well with dust extractors. There’s still a chance an errant wood chip will get rifled back at your eyeballs. Throw on those safety glasses just in case.
Work gloves also provide a benefit since they can help you avoid splinters. Our Pros have commented that gloves simplify wood-handling since you can just grab material and work with it. Finally, consider wearing some hearing protection. You’ll find any sort of hearing protection useful, as the table saw likes to make a ton of noise.
Types Of Cuts
The type of cut you’re looking to make also dictate how to avoid accidents when using a table saw. The three primary cuts are cross-cuts, rip cuts, and dado cuts.
Cross-cuts—appropriately named—cut across the grain. You use the miter gauge or sled for these types of cuts. Use the included split guard and riving knife and slide your miter gauge into the appropriate slot. You want the gauge on the side that has more material.
With both hands supporting the material around the miter gauge, slide it forward until your cut is complete. Keep your hands and any forward pressure away from the cut side.
Safety Tip: Never put one hand on each side of the blade when you push the miter sled forward. Apply forward pressure to only one side to avoid injury.
A rip cut entails cutting down the length of the board. This is the classic cut where you’ll use the fence to provide support, accuracy, and a square edge. Avoiding table saw accidents while ripping lumber means you understand where to stand and how to properly use both the guard and fence.
Keep the board both level to the table and square against the fence. You can make some practice cuts using scrap pieces of wood to get the feel of a new saw.
Safety Tip: Rip cuts force your hands closer to the blade than cross-cuts. As you feed the board through, use a push stick when the end of your board reaches the table edge to keep your hands clear. If you lost the push stick that came with the saw—make a new one from a scrap of 1/2-inch plywood or similar material.
You’ll use a dado cut when you need to make a wide or trenched cut. This style forces you to switch out the blade for a dado stack. You must also slow down the feed speed to achieve quality results. The blade height determines the depth of the dado.
Safety Tip: As much as you might want to, don’t use both the miter gauge and the fence at the same time. Doing so causes the blade to bind up in the wood. Also make sure the saw supports the dado stack you want to use. You need the correct throat plate width as well as proper clearances on the arbor.
Setting Blade Height
Not everyone agrees on what height to set the blade. For a nicer finish, set the blade height to where the teeth fully extend past the top of the board. For a safer cut, keep the teeth closer to the top of the workpiece.
A higher blade height reduces tear-out from the bottom of the workpiece and forces the teeth of the blade to travel through less material, making it easier on the motor. However, it exposes more of the blade, so be aware and mindful of the teeth at all times.
If safety outweighs a marginally better finish, you’ll set the blade height to expose only about 1/8″ of an inch of the blade while ripping the material. You might wind up with a bit more tear-out at the bottom of the board, but you reduce your risk of severely cutting a digit during the cut. You also typically need to reduce feed speed when the blade is lower.
Some Pros have accused this method of welcoming kickback. The pinching action around the back of the blade causes kickback—regardless of the tooth angle or blade height.
A lot of seasoned Pros like to ditch the blade guard and anti-kickback pawls. We don’t recommend anyone do this—seasoned or not. The blade guard protects you from debris and provides one more layer of protection for your fingers.
We don’t know of a single case of someone losing fingers while using a blade guard. 100% of cases seem to be people who have removed the guard for one reason or another.
The anti-kickback pawls protect you from the board jumping back at you when cutting. They have teeth set opposite to the direction your board moves. If kickback happens, these teeth bite into the wood, keeping it from launching back at your body.
Safety Tip: Make sure the waste piece winds up on the opposite side of the blade than the fence. When the waste piece gets sandwiched between the blade and the fence, it can bind and kick the wood back.
Use the Riving Knife (or Splitter in Older Saws)
Even if you opt-out on the blade guard, you’ll want to ensure you use the riving knife. We can’t overstate how much this one device helps reduce kickback. Sometimes fences fall out of alignment, forcing the waste piece toward the backside of the blade. Other times, natural stresses in the wood grain cause the material to spring back. Either situation causes the wood to pinch the rear of the blade. This can result in kickback.
While splitters (older saws) and riving knives (newer saws) keep the wood forced apart to reduce the chances of kickback, their design differs. A splitter remains fixed in position, no matter the blade height. A gap can form between the blade and splitter, which can become problematic with thinner stock. A riving knife always stays in a fixed position to the blade. This eliminates any gaps between the blade and the riving knife.
Unless you enjoy the thrill and suspense of your work material possibly flying back on you at 200 miles per hour, you should definitely keep the riving knife installed at all times.
Sometimes, with short or narrow boards, you’ll need to make cuts that won’t leave your hands a whole lot of room to work safely. When you find yourself in this situation, grab that push stick. Every Pro-level table saw comes with one and they give you some distance between the blade and your hand. As noted above, you can quickly make one out of scrap material should yours go missing.
Despite all of the safety and anti-kickback features in place, you never want to tempt fate by standing directly behind the saw blade. Instead, step to the side slightly. If the saw kicks your board back, it will go past you or deflect off of you instead of striking you in the gut.
What do you Think?
If you’ve got any other tips, tricks, or ideas about how to use a table saw safely, feel free to leave a comment below!