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If you never learn anything else about a table saw, there is one thing anyone should know about this piece of equipment. In a fight between a rapidly spinning blade and your soft fingers, your fingers will lose every time. In this guide, we will give you the basics of how to use table saw…safely!
Make sure you are using a well tuned and good quality table saw for your cuts. Once you know how to use a table saw properly and safely, you’ll find it to be one of the most versatile and accurate saws available. We go through the safety considerations and then a step-by-step approach to using your table saw.
What is a Table Saw Good For?
A table saw is often considered the most versatile of saws, and is often the workhorse for any woodworker. With a table saw, you can do the following:
- rip cut
- cross cut
- miter cut
- square cut
- dado cut
- rabbet cut
Beyond all of the different types of cuts you can make, a table saw is also probably the most accurate saw at all of these cuts. The only saw that might be close in accuracy to the table saw is the band saw.
However, yet again, this is where the table saw separates itself. It is much faster than any other saw. Once you have your measurements made and the table saw fence set, you’re off to the races.
It goes without saying, but this is not the saw to use on woodworking projects with your kids. Before we get into how to use a table saw, lets review a few safety requirements.
Table Saw Safety Requirements
In a recent survey by NewWoodworker.com, it was found that woodworkers with years of experience, 18 years or more, were experiencing injuries at a higher rate than the beginners. How could this be? In every case, the woodworker injured knew what they were doing, and had performed the task before. The answer is complacency.
Bad Habits and Complacency
Woodworkers sometimes develop a bad habit. They cheat a little too close with the fingers. Contractors and experienced woodworkers using table saws on the jobsite get rushed. They’ve been able to get away with it, so they keep doing it until the injury occurs. Complacency is the major factor in these injuries.
The unfortunate truth is that nearly all these injuries sustained by veteran woodworkers may have been avoided. Using simple, established techniques, properly designed push devices, and the saw’s own safety equipment would have prevented the injuries.
Rules number one, two, and three are to keep your fingers away from the blade. The only reason your fingers should be near the blade are either bad technique, bad judgment, or (usually) both. Which means your fingers should never be near the blade!
If you make it a point to operate your machines safely and correctly from the beginning, you can avoid complacency and develop good habits.
The good news for you is that a table saw is actually very safe to use, when it is used correctly. By learning the basic techniques of the table saw, and being consistent in the application of those techniques, you can get the most from your equipment while also staying safe. Let’s cover the basics of how to use table saw, starting with safety.
Beware of the Danger Zone
As we have said, there is never a reason to put your hands close to the blade. But, how close is too close? The area around the blade is designated the danger zone, and there are not universal dimensions for it.
A general rule of thumb is to place your fingers within two inches of the blade. That’s plenty of room to keep safe. With proper technique and good push devices, you should be able to stay farther away than this without a problem.
The biggest problem with even the best of all push devices is convincing a woodworker to use them every time. Make it a habit. Keep those fingers safe.
Blade Guard and Splitter Assembly
We’ve seen many woodworkers opt to remove the blade guard and splitter assembly from their table saw. It’s so common that if you have ever used someone else’s machine, chances are it was already missing these pieces.
To make matters worse, some commercial table saw jigs require removal of this assembly. Take it from us: your table saw will be far safer with the blade guard and splitter installed as intended.
We hear a lot that the only reason for a blade guard and splitter to be included is to protect the saw’s manufacturer from litigation. There may be a little bit of truth to this, but not in the way you might think. If a table saw were to be sold without these pieces, the manufacturer would definitely be sued.
Many how-to guides on the internet on how to use table saw picture a saw with the blade guard and splitter removed. In photographs this can be helpful. It makes it easier to see how the blade and wood interact with each other, and that is important to understand how to perform a task.
However, don’t take clarity of photos as an indication that you can remove your own blade guard. Don’t become complacent!
Push Devices are Key
One of the most important tools to accompany your table saw is a good push device. Many woodworkers will make their own push sticks or push blocks. These are wooden pieces which allow you to push wood across the blade itself, while keeping your fingers at a safe distance.
Push sticks are very common and simple to make. Even a short piece of 2×2 will do in a pinch. But, they offer little to no directional control.
- For best results, invest in a good push handle that will grip your wood firmly. This enables you to have total control over the wood as it moves across the blade.
- Push blocks are best for wider stock and will give you plenty of grip while staying safely out of the danger zone.
Push devices have two primary purposes:
- First, of course, they keep your fingers far away from the blade. All table saw blades are dangerous, but some are even more so, like dado blades are potentially hazardous.
- Second, they put materials between your hand and the blade which can be sacrificed.
The idea here is that should something go wrong, the push device contacts the blade long before your hand or fingers ever will. This gives you a much better opportunity to react and get your still-uninjured limbs safely clear.
Its not uncommon for table saws, especially cheaper options with lower-powered motors, to jam and “bind” when making long rip cuts. You don’t want your fingers anywhere near the blade when this happens.
It is important to note is that even though experienced woodworkers experienced a higher incidence of injury, those who consistently used a good push device saw no blade related injuries at all. Some were bruised or injured by the push device being kicked.
This could perhaps break a finger if the movement is sudden and severe enough. But, even the rare chance of a broken finger is a far better fate than the alternative of your fingers making contact with the blade.
Many push devices are available commercially, and many can be made in your own shop. There are no shortages of instructional resources on how to make these devices.
The other ‘best’ choice in a push device is a push block with a rubber sole, usually used with joiners. The rubber sole of the block provides excellent grip, even better than your hand, while still keeping you safe and far away from the whizzing blade.
Now that we’ve gotten the safety features discussed and handled, lets move into the instructions for using a table saw.
How to Use a Table Saw
1. Make Your Measurements
There is an old saying in construction and woodworking: “measure twice, cut once.” You don’t want to rush through measuring your wood and cuts, as then you’ll just have to redo the project, along with wasting valuable wood (and money). Its easy to do, so slow down and take your time with the measurements, even if they are routine.
When using a table saw, your measurements are important for several reasons:
- You need to measure what cuts you want to make to ensure you set the table saw fence accurately.
- You need to measure the depth of the cut, so you can adjust the table saw blade to the correct height.
Once you’ve measured your wood for the cuts, measure for the depth of the cut, and then move on to set the blade height.
2. Set the Blade Height
Blade height on a table saw is not a matter of “set it and forget it.” There are many opinions about the best way to set blade height. The one we hear the most, especially from manufacturers of blades, is the one that makes the most sense.
You should set your blade just high enough so the lower edge of the gullets are at, or barely below, the top of your wood when the gullets are at their highest point. This helps the blade itself to control sawdust and helps move cooling air across the cut.
The only real exception to this rule in setting blade height on a table saw is when one is making a stopped cut. This is where you will cut part of the way across a piece of wood, and then, as the name implies, stop.
Many woodworkers will raise their blades all the way when doing this. The edge of the stopped cut is not sharply angled, as it would be if the blade were set just tall enough for the material.
Pro Tip: Some woodworkers raise the blade when cutting veneer plywood or laminate. The idea here is that the teeth impact straight down onto the surface, and that this will reduce chipping. This has not, however, been our experience. Instead, use a blade that is specifically designed for laminates and veneers.
Set the height properly – it will save you in the long run.
3. Set Your Table Saw Fence
Once you have the blade height properly set, move on to set your table saw fence for the cut. This isn’t difficult, but essential to the accuracy of the cut.
Either way, spend the time to get the saw fence exact. This will ensure your cut is precise. If you don’t have a fence with your saw, you can always make your own.
4. Feed the Wood
When making a cut on your table saw, the blade is always spinning toward the user. This means you will need to “feed” the wood to the saw and apply constant pressure. The speed at which this wood is guided across the saw is called the feed rate. It is important to both safety and to the quality of your cut.
- Pushing the wood across the blade too rapidly can result in excessive splintering, chipping, or other such unsightly results across the cut edge.
- In addition, a fast feed rate can make the wood feel like it wants to rise up, riding over the top of the blade.
- Finally, the saw bogging down during the cut can be a sign that you’re feeding too quickly. Pay attention to these conditions, and slow down if necessary.
A feed rate that is too slow, on the other hand, can be seen in burning of the wood where it makes contact with the saw, and a diminished feeling of the blade cutting through the wood.
A few more key observations:
- Different types of wood can make a difference in the optimal feed rate, and this is especially apparent in too slow feed rates. Some species of wood that you use in your projects, like maple, will burn more readily than others.
- When you are feeding your wood at the proper rate, across the proper blade, set at the proper height, the cut surface should have very little splintering, chipping, or burning.
- When feeding your saw, apply just enough pressure to feel the blade’s resistance. Don’t push against it, and don’t ease off too much.
Your feed speed is something that comes with experience, and will be different for every piece of wood, every cut, and every DIY project you make. There is no way to learn proper feed rate for your table saw other than cutting wood, and paying attention to the results you get.
We hope this guide on how to use table saw has been helpful to you as you learn how to use table saw. Stay safe, and may you have happy home improvements!