How to Safely Use a Table Saw
Using a table saw will allow a wide range of special cuts you couldn’t otherwise accomplish in your workshop or woodworking project. The main thing to remember when working with a table saw is this: Spinning blade + fingers = BAD. If your fingers ever get near the blade you have made an error in judgment or your technique is wrong. Like anything else, learning proper techniques can save you time—and in this case, fingers. A table saw is a very safe device to use if it is respected and you follow some basic guidelines.
How Do Accidents Happen?
According to surveys done by people who do this for a living, the number one cause for table saw accidents was familiarity and complacency with the tools. While fear is never good in the workshop, a healthy respect for your tools and conscious adherence to basic safety procedures is a must. Surveys found that most accidents happened with veterans, NOT with novice users. While correlation doesn’t always equal causation, the survey did indicate that these veteran users were injured while doing something incorrectly – and not for the first time, either. Continuing to use bad or risky techniques could eventually land you in the hospital. Let’s learn from their mistakes and be sure to follow proper safety procedures regardless of how long you’ve been using a table saw. Also, the presence of products like the Sawstop table saw system or the DeWalt DWE7499GD Table Saw with Guard Detect shouldn’t make you any more careless, it should be a last line of defense for a mistake. A safer user makes for a safer table saw.
There is never a reason to have your hands close to a spinning blade. Several different push devices exist on the market to help you, should you require assistance pushing a piece of wood through a spinning blade. In all honesty, you can buy one of these “push sticks” or simply make one yourself. In either case, it’s important to use a push tool rather than your fingers for pushing a piece of wood past the blade. Note that devices with an actual handle will allow you to have greater control over the wood. Simple push sticks may not offer this and as a result are less helpful than their more robust counterparts.
A push device keeps your hand farther away from the blade, placing itself between your hands and the spinning meat monster that would seek to devour your appendages. In all seriousness, I’d rather sacrifice a piece of wood or plastic to my hand any day. Things go wrong, you just don’t want to be near the blade when they do. Let’s face it – there is no such thing as a “minor” accident when you are dealing with a table saw. Your fingers are too important – get some type of push stick…and use it.
The Guard & Splitter
All table saws come with a device that includes a splitter and a blade guard. The splitter keeps the wood aligned with the blade after it passes through the cut, preventing one of the more common reasons for wood kickback (where the wood comes flying back towards the user and ruins their whole day). The other thing the splitter does is prevent the wood from closing back around the blade after it passes through. Some wood is naturally stressed and so it tends to come back together after passing the blade. The blade guard serves a few purposes. First and foremost it marks an area of “safety” around the blade which should not be violated. Secondly, it keeps sawdust from flying back at the operator – something that comes in handy when cutting MDF or particle board. Lastly, it prevents a piece of wood from falling or dropping onto a spinning blade – an event that has nearly 100% chance of resulting in a kickback.
Ask or observe many woodworkers and you’ll find that they will admit to removing the blade guard and splitter from their table saws. It is sometimes necessary to do this (such as when cutting dados or using certain jigs), but it’s important to replace this safety device when you’re finished. Don’t forget, because a blade guard and splitter may be the only thing preventing a kicked-back piece of wood from launching itself straight at you. If it sounds like the table saw is a very scary tool – it’s not. It’s just that the occasional accident happens and you want to make sure you’ve followed proper procedures and guidelines so that when it does you don’t get injured.
Modern table saws are starting (more and more) to come with riving knives which raise and lower along with the saw. In fact, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) has indicated that they will now be required in all table saws manufactured after 2009 in the United States in order to pass certification. This is good news for consumers. This protective device keeps wood from being able to close around or otherwise contact the back side of the blade – preventing the most common reason for kickbacks. A riving knife differs from a traditional splitter in several ways:
- It doesn’t need to be removed for cross cuts or blind cuts (cuts which don’t extend all the way through the wood). Because of this it isn’t something you have to “remember” to put back
- A riving knife is positioned much closer to the blade than a splitter, providing even more kickback protection by keeping wood away from the back end of the blade.
- The knife moves with the blade and so provides the same amount of protection regardless of the height of the blade
There are several schools of thought on setting table saw blade height. The thing is, there are two methods for setting blade height. A basic visual setting is sufficient when you plan on cutting through a piece of wood entirely. A precise setting is important when you want to make an exact depth of cut that doesn’t penetrate all the way through a piece of lumber. For basic cuts that go all the way through, set the blade height so that the “gullets” those curved troughs in between the blade teeth, are at or just below the top of your wood. This will afford the blade the best opportunity to cool itself during the cut and the blades will consistently make full contact. Exceptions to this rule are for when you are stopping the cut before you run the wood all the way through. In this scenario you may want the blade all the way up, so that the angle of the wood at the end of the cut is as steep as possible.
For precision depth cuts you’ll want to grab a 6″ combination square. This will allow you to set a measurement and then run the square over top of the blade until the highest part of the blade just contacts the square. After doing this run a test cut and use the square to test the depth of the cut. In this way you will do much better than setting the blade depth by eye.
Speed of the Feed
The speed at which you send the wood through the blade will contribute to the ultimate quality of your cut. Go too fast and you risk chipping or splintering the end of your wood since the blade doesn’t have enough time to naturally finish its cut. You can also task the blade too much and generate a kickback. Go too slow and you can actually burn the wood. Using a sharp, quality blade will help make any cut better, but ultimately you will need to develop a feel for the speed at which to feed wood through your saw. Keep in mind that different wood has different characteristics and softer wood will require more speed than the same dimension of hard wood.
Let ‘er Rip
Ripping is done by placing the wood against a fence and guiding it through the blade, ensuring that it doesn’t twist or rock against the fence. This results in an extremely accurate cut, perfectly parallel to the opposite side. Rip cuts are easy, but if you don’t use the provided blade guard and forget to replace the splitter, you take greater risk of a kickback accident. In general, you don’t want to cut pieces of wood smaller than 12-inches. This is because smaller pieces of wood are more difficult to control and can have unpredictable results. When you near the end of a rip cut, be sure to use a push tool to complete the cut. Never let your fingers get near the blade under any circumstances.
Where this is most typically a problem is when operators fail to use an “outfeed table” to catch a longer piece of wood. This is crucial as it prevents the user from having to apply a large amount of downward pressure to the remaining piece of wood still on the table in order to complete the cut. This also removes the temptation to put your hands near the blade to guide the wood all the way through. You want to spend your time working on the cut itself, not how to support the piece after it passes over the table. Using a proper support after the cut can save you lots of hassle.
Miter gauges are never big enough for adequate cross-cutting in our opinion. As a result, we recommend adding a block of wood to the miter gauge, preferably with some sandpaper (100-200 grit) covering the wood. This is a commonly used trick to give you some traction as you make the cut. Before making the cut, with the saw off you can line up the piece and ensure that it will properly contact the blade at the exact measurement needed for the cut. You want to make absolutely sure that the wood doesn’t move, shift, or rock against the miter gauge when you make your cut. Provided you keep everything secure, this can be one of the easiest cuts to make on a table saw. Avoid crosscutting long pieces of wood (that’s what miter saws are for) and NEVER use a miter gauge and a rip fence at the same time. This is a sure-fire recipe for a kickback and most manufacturers clearly warn against this in their user manuals.
One tip for making repetitive cuts is to clamp a short gauge block to the rip fence on the operator’s side of the blade. The idea is that you can line up the wood with the block, but the cut happens after the block, so the piece never comes in contact with the rip fence/block AND the miter gauge at the same time. Since the block stops before the blade, the cut wood is allowed to fall easily onto the table without wedging between the fence and the blade following the cut.
Miter & Bevel Cuts
Miter cuts involve simply securing the wood at the appropriate angle using the miter gauge. Adding a gauge block/fence with a sandpaper cover will greatly aid in controlling the piece of wood and keeping it from slipping. If you are making a particularly steep miter cut, it will greatly reduce the drag on the wood if you first make a 1/16th inch cut and then re-cut the wood along the same line.
For bevel cuts you can safely use the rip fence or miter gauge if you are sure to control the wood and ensure edges are straight against the fence and/or miter gauge. Waste can shoot off the table unexpectedly. It is also important to ensure that the waste side fo the wood is never towards the fence. This means that the blade should always tilt away from the fence, ensuring the waste doesn’t get trapped against the fence and cause a kickback. We also recommend positioning your body, when possible, behind the fence while performing a bevel cut. Continue to use your push tools to ensure that your hands never come in contact with the area around the blade.
When using a miter gauge to make bevel cuts, ensure the blade tilts away from the side you are controlling and that the waste end is falling under the shallow side of the blade. Never use a fence when using a miter gauge and making bevel cuts. When making bevel cuts you’ll find the blade behaves a little differently. This is due to the fact that it is cutting through more wood than it would through a vertical cut. Remember this as you feel your way through the cut and adjust speed accordingly.
Dados & Rabbets
We heartily recommend avoiding the wobble dado blades. These are special blades that curve around in order to provide a dado cut from a single blade. You can vary the angle to vary the width of the dado cut. The problem is that when you mix a wobbly blade with a fixed saw you get massive vibrations and general instability. It’s simply not a clean solution and doesn’t play nice with practicing how to safely use a table saw. Stacked dado blades provide a cleaner cut, are more predictable and are worth every penny provided you intend to use them on multiple projects.
Because the arbors on table saws vary, not every saw will be able to handle the full width potential of every dado blade set. Remember, to be safe you need to have at least one full thread exposed over the nut after the blade is fully seated on the shaft. Benchtop and portable saws are the most likely to have reduced-size arbors, but we’re seeing this improve with contemporary models.
If you are going to cut a dado or rabbet near the edge of a piece of wood, be sure to use a “sacrificial fence” that is clamped to the metal fence. This will ensure that the blade never contacts the metal fence and instead guides along your sacrificial fence during the cut. This trick also allows you to cut narrower dados on the edge of a piece of wood without changing the stack. Making a sacrificial fence is as easy as clamping a piece of 1x material to your fence and allowing the dado blade to cut 1/4-inch or so into the fence up to its full height. You can also add a featherboard to keep your wood tight to the table as you run it through the dado. If you use a featherboard, be sure your sacrificial fence is tall enough to allow the featherboard to be securely clamped. You can read more about featherboards here.
Keep the speed steady when making rabbet cuts. You want the blade to do the work, and do it evenly. Forcing the wood through can tear your edges and result in an uneven depth of cut. You also want to test the cut on a scrap piece of wood and measure (or test fit) it to be sure you are getting the exact depth and width you need.
The Final Word
The best thing you can do when learning how to safely use a table saw is take your time and think about what you are doing. If you sense you are doing something dangerous, you probably are. You should never have the board come in contact with both the ripping fence and the miter gauge at any time, and never put your fingers anywhere near the blade – always use a push device. A table saw will give you many years of service and allows accurate cuts to be made which cannot really be done as well by any other tool. Once you get the hang of it, and treat the tool with the respect it deserves, you’ll be more than happy you bought it.