Are Table Saws "essential"?

A couple years ago I wrote an article on hand sawing strategies. The punch line was the fastest way to saw by hand is not to saw at all. I still feel this is the best lesson you can learn by switching to only hand saws (for at least a little while). If you can design around the stock you have, no saw, no matter how much horse power it has, can beat not sawing at all. And when the choice is breaking out the dew rag and rip saw, or designing the piece around the stock you have, it’s amazing how inventive you can become! I hope you read the article. It included tips on how to saw, and if I recall correctly, tips on choosing saws that will work for you and your work.

But what about the times when you can’t design around the stock you have and you must saw? And what about the times when you need a couple parts that are all the same size? I imagine both of these tasks are simple work on a table saw. You set the fence and push the stock through. In a shop without a table saw, you could potentially perform these cuts on a band saw, or a track or circular saw. I don’t know much about any of these tools and would appreciate someone enlightening me.

With hand tools, accurate saw cuts are generally reserved for only those cuts where accuracy straight from the saw are absolutely required OR where adjustment of the saw cut is onerous. Let’s examine some specific examples:

Cross cuts:
I shoot for perfect cross cuts because I don’t enjoy planing end grain. Planing end grain poses a host of technical challenges that deserves a blog entry at least. When cross cutting narrow stock, I typically knife all around. I saw the corners out, flipping the stock as I go. The knife line helps guide the saw.

The power tool alternative to this seem to be the radial arm saw or chop saw. Some guys even use a sled on their table saw. The chop saws I’ve seen aren’t always as accurate as my square. The fences are sometimes a bit dodgy, out of square with their table, and they aren’t easy to square to the blade. I think if accuracy alone were the criteria, you could probably do a better job with a hand saw than a power saw for this operation. The only downside of the hand saw is there’s a chance you’ll screw it up.

This is exactly the point of David Pye’s “The Nature and Art of Workmanship”. He identified operations like this as “the workmanship of risk”. Simply put, the greater the risk, the greater the reward, which comes (at least for me) in a satifying sense of personal satisfaction. I wanted to mention that, but let’s put that aside. Certainly there are a whole host of reasons to choose one tool over another. I just want to look purely at the technical aspects.

When cross cutting wide stock, the end of a long table say, I do the best I can with a panel saw. This cut typically doesn’t need to be perfect, only good. The power tool alternatives I have seen haven’t looked that attractive. A circular saw, possible with a make shift fence is one choice. Cleaning up the cut with a beltsander may be a typical approach. I don’t have enough experience to say with certainty, but I don’t think this alternative is necessarily faster than the hand tool approach. If the table top is a work bench and the top is 4″ thick, that certainly would be a bigger job with hand tools. Failing that, most jobs would be comparable.

Ripping:
If it were faster and easier to rip wood by hand, commercial saw mills would still have pits. Of course ripping is where the table saw shines. The question I have is: how often is a rip cut a final surface? If you have to clean it up anyway, and if that clean up operation either introduces variation in the surface or provides you with the opportuntity to refine the accuracy of the surface (and most do), then why is the accuracy of the rip saw relevant? So specifically, if you need a 13″ wide board for something (assuming you can’t simply use whatever you have), I imagine you’d be foolish to set your table saw’s fence to 13″. In my shop, I’d mark the 13″, leave the line with my hand saw, then plane down to it. Planing edges is so quick and easy (for thin stock at least), it’s almost a no brainer. Everywoodworker, regardless of how plugged in he or she is, should have a good long plane for edge work. I would pick a S#7 as the best “first plane” for every shop and every woodworker.

Once you get passed the sense that the rip saw is producing the accuracy for you, the door opens to different ripping opportunities. You could rip with a hand saw as I do. But that can be hard work. You could rip with a circular saw, leaving the line as I do with my hand saw. You could rip with a band saw.

Joinery:
Guys make different apparatus for their table saw to cut different sorts of joints. They can cut miters wider than most chop saws can cut (not sure when the last time I needed a really wide miter was, but okay). They cut tenons. What I’ve seen are guys who set the fence, run the work thru vertically, to form one side of a tenon, then flip it over to form the other. The problem I have with this is that it requires accurately sized stock (thickness wise). The control of the tenon width is what I would call “indirect”. A mortise/tenon gauge is direct. So while the cut goes quickly, there’s more layout and prep time involved. The shoulder too is indirect. It becomes a function of the accuracy of the cross cut of the end of the piece (which is otherwise irrelevant in a M&T joint). Sawing tenons by hand, or sawing them with a band saw to marked lines seems a much simpler and more straight forward task.

Guys do other sorts of cuts- dadoes, tongue and grooves, rabbets, with their table saws. All of these joints can be cut with hand tools fairly quickly and there are (in my opinion) less attractive power tool alternatives to all of these (most involving a router table).

Repetition:
Power tools with fences do repetition very well. After all, industrial production is what these a tools were developed for and what their true essense is. Let’s put aside the notion of whether any of us are actually involved in industrial production, whether that is something to be valued etc etc. Part of craftsmanship is dealing with “non-conformances”, which is a nice word for mistakes. Over the years woodworkers have come ith with clever ways to make things fit. Special planes like shoulder planes for example were likely purpose designed to correct surfaces. So if we are in a situation where repetition is important, the question becomes who much custom fitting will we be doing. There certainly will be some. Will 90% of the components be perfect? 95%? Invariably you will have to be able to make corrections. So once you buy the shoulder plane or learn to sharpen the chisel, do you really care if you have to plane one board or five? Do you care if it takes 30 seconds to fit a joint or a minute thirty?

Believe it or not, I’ not trying to talk you into dumping your table saw or power tools in general. I just feel there’s a default sense that they are required. My response is “for what”? Tell me specifically what the table saw does that I can’t do in an 18th c shop? Before we say it’s essential, don’t we have a right to know why? Plywood springs to mind. And MDF. I’ve cut both with hand saws and I wouldn’t want to do it again. So is that the reason to buy a table saw. Because you want to cut plywood? I think table saws can do all sorts of wonderful (and some not so wonderful) things. They are amazing tools. So are Electrical Discharge Machines (EDM). But I don’t have one of those in my shop either because I just don’t have enough need for what it does.

Adam

14 thoughts on “Are Table Saws "essential"?

  1. Adam Cherubini

    Ryan,
    I think the point of WWmag was to proove we don’t need ads to run a successful magazine. I’m not sure how much the big manufacturers pay for ads or how much influence they really wield. My guess is, your letters to the editor and ww Forum posts are more influential than you might think.

    Otherwise, I agree with you. What I do seems foreign to normal woodworkers. I don’t even talk about it to non-woodworkers. If I get caught in my period clothes coming home from the museum, it’s impossible to explain what I do or why. So I just lie and say I was killing redcoats all day.

    Adam
    Adam

  2. Rick

    Adam,

    There are a lot of things we use today that are not really essential. Cars aren’t essential… we can walk. The kitchen stove isn’t essential… we could build a nice cooking fire in the back yard. Etc.

    That doesn’t mean anyone wants to live without them.

    Sure, my table saw isn’t really essential… but pity the fool who tries to take it away from me.

  3. Bruce Jackson

    Ryan, why does it have to be a full-blown magazine when the new hand-tool pub could get its start as an 8 or 12-page quarterly newsletter / electronic newsletter with a few core forums? Including a forum dedicated to the "blended woodworkers" or to woodworkers whose arsenal of power tools includes at most a band saw in place of a bow saw and / or a circ saw-and-foam board combination in place of a rip saw?

    I happen to see myself as a budding artisan rather than production woodworker. My interest lies mostly in the realm of Arts and Crafts, but more in the Danish / contemporary / Asian / studio vein than that of the classic Stickley / Craftsman / Mission / Prairie. Consequently, I really don’t look to do any more than pieces by desire / necessity / request and don’t even look to serialize my body of work as, say, No. 50 of 275 (where a production tool like a table saw / jointer / planer, with its hefty outlay of funds to boot, might begin to be more appropriate).

    Anyway, just a thought … for Adam? For Jim Tolpin? For you?

  4. Ryan McNabb

    Great post Adam. Thanks. Woodworking is usually an older demographic, one that generally likes gadgets in and of themselves not for the work they produce. (How many traditional woodworking and early industry societies are nothing more than tool collectors clubs?) It’s a hobby and consumes discretionary income. Manufacturers bankroll magazines and television shows and buy thousands of full page ads. You’ll never see a hand tool magazine a’la Roy Underhill because you could never find enough ad revenue, and subscription and single copy sales wouldn’t make it profitable. I feel like the woodworking Amish: "Therefore go out from among them and be ye separate." I refuse to play in their sandbox. Thanks for your diligent observations, and keep it up.

  5. james

    Are Table Saws "essential"?
    For a professional woodworker that does production work, yes. For almost everyone else, no, it’s not essential. Ditto CNC machines.

  6. Mario

    Hi Adam, I see what you mean regarding commercial needs establishing guidelines for the non professional woodworker. To clearly explain why I believe the table saw to be the workhorse of the modern woodshop let me go back a few years when my woodworking was done entirely by hand. I learned handsawing with a panel saw and sawbench: crosscutting, ripping, joinery, etc. Rough lumber had to be foursquared with plane and straightedge, resawing with a bowsaw, you name it. Even though I learned to do all this reasonably well, I can say that some of these procedures were not particularly enjoyable after a while and by the time fine work was to be done all my energy was gone and so the quality of my work. Then I got my first table saw; now rough lumber could be squared in no time, crosscutting, ripping, rabetting, dadoes, boxjoints, every basic operation could be done efficiently with an acceptable degree of accuracy that gave me the time and energy to develop the fine skills required for precision handtool work. This efficiency in terms of speed, accuracy, repeatability, and versatility is what makes the tablesaw in my opinion the essential tool in the modern woodshop specially with so many projects and techniques readily available today. Once all my basic core operations are done in the tablesaw I will definitely turn to handtools to work all kind of refinement and for some parts will exclusively use them: firing up the tablesaw brings with it a lot of noise and sometimes more preparation than I am willing to spend, but when justified either by the size, complexity, or number of parts, I will definitely turn to the tablesaw in order to take those basic procedures out of the way and be able to enjoy the rest.

  7. Adam Cherubini

    Mario,

    I think PW’s, FWW’s and other pubs readers deserve to know why you think the table saw is "the workhorse of the modern shop".

    See, I suspect that for 90% of the ww mags’ readers, the potential time savings associated with a table saw probably isn’t worth the risk. But guys use these tools, buy these tools, because the ww mags sought out pros to provide ww mag content and they brought with them their commercial sensibilities.

    In retrospect, this was probably a disservice. We needed to rethink the wood shop with the goals and sensibilities of our readers in mind. It’s not too late to do this. I think this would be an excellent topic for a FWW "Tools and Shops" issue.

    By the way, big industrial ww outfits (that I’m familiar with) are rethinking and retooling their shops and the resulting tools look little like our tools. CNC pin routers and other CNC technologies are becoming more and more popular. I wonder when these technologies will get pushed our way.

    Adam

  8. Mario

    Adam, there is something that a tablesaw does, at least for the full time woodworker: it helps you stay within a deadline and by doing so you stay afloat. It might never be 100% accurate, I agree, and many times I have to run parts through the hand saw and shooting board in order to get that last bit of precision, or even skip it completely being more practical for a specific part. But I still believe the table saw is the workhorse of the modern woodshop.

  9. Adam Cherubini

    Julian, I like your "cult of end grain". I’ve written about limiting reference faces on several occassions. I think my article about try squares probably discussed this issue more than any other. I’ll write more about end grain (as I eluded earlier) in an upcoming blog post.

    Glenn, I love your desk.

    Adam

  10. Julian

    Adam, more fascinating stuff. I think that if you want to help people use hand tools you might consider writing about creating one or two reference faces and using those to layout from, not from the ends. As I learn more hand tool skills I realize that I’ve got to learn to disregard the ends! I still find it hard to believe that one rarely needs an accurate cut-off. Those flat, square, smooth expanses of end grain are what good power tools produce so easily, it’s very easy to try and use them. I call it the "cult of the endgrain."

  11. Dietmar Streck

    Adam,
    I injoy reading your posts. My thoughts, why people think they must have powertools is the fact, that every (almost) woodworking magazine employs powertools for their projects. I was lulled into the same mindset until about a year ago. All my woodworking is purely recreational. I do not make money with it, just a hobby. Nothing beats listening to Mozart and the swoosh of a plane. So I am only working with hand tools. What a joy it is. And as a benefit at times it is a great workout. (no gym memberships required).
    Best regards
    Dietmar

  12. Glenn Thompson

    Adam,

    A great post! I just finished my first project that I built entirely by hand (check out: Standing Laptop Desk).

    There were lots of rip and crosscuts and they were exhausting (and I’m pretty fit so that’s saying something) but at the end, I have never been more satisfied with a project than I have for this one. It’s not that it’s got tighter joints or better design or a finer finish. It’s that I put my hands, muscles, and brain to work and designed, built and finished a nice piece of furniture.

    I expect that I will continue to use power tools but I have gotten rid of my table saw (as much for space as part of my move to hand tool use).

    Thanks for the tips.
    ———- Glenn

  13. Liz

    Adam,

    I am a novice woodworker setting up a mostly hand tool shop. My interest is in making modern interpretations of Shaker/Craftsman/Danish Modern furniture. I’ll also be doing much of the finish carpentry on my family’s house remodel.

    I decided not to get a tablesaw, for the reasons you stated above. Plus, I see woodworking as a relaxing art, something to put me in a creative "flow" state, and dealing with large, dangerous power tools is not my idea of relaxation.

    However, as I will be doing some work with large panels of manufactured boards, I bought myself a track saw. With this, and the occasional use of my husband’s band saw (set up for metal, but will make a rough cut in wood), I have my power tool needs covered.

    One thing I have noticed is that the vast majority of book and magazine projects are optomized for power tool use. Not only are the joints used best made with power tools, but even the design is done for power tool use. I don’t yet have the knowledge to redesign plans for hand tools, and I doubt many other woodworkers can do this.

    Thanks for opening this topic. I know there are many woodworkers who feel any post about the weaknesses of power tools if flame bait, but you are discussing an *alternative*, not a *substitution*.

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