More on Table Saw Safety

I suspect anyone even tangentially involved in this industry has been through this issue before. My feeling is that this is a complicated issue, which has some fairly significant consequences and implications for the entire ww industry. Finding the truth here isn’t easy.

Of course manufacturers don’t want to discuss the safety of their tools openly. And I’m not convinced woodworkers always ensure that their accidents are reported correctly. Sorting out the beginning woodworker with the new craftsman saw from the low paid factory worker, to the retired, experienced woodworker with a $4000 saw isn’t easy or clear to me. Folks who collect reports may also be slanted. I have no idea about this website’s veracity.

Though I’ve only met him a few times, Glen Huey is the sort I would look to for truth on this issue. Glen reminds me a bit of my brother Steve. I suspect Glen, like Steve, has done it all, seen it all. Both men have spent their entire lives in woodworking. There’s a lot of wisdom that comes with that. What they haven’t done, they’ve very likely seen. Here’s what Glen has to say.

While you digest that, I’ll type up some of my thoughts about alternatives from my point of view. I hope other woodworkers will do the same.

Adam

12 thoughts on “More on Table Saw Safety

  1. Gary

    My goal is to make this short, one I find difficult to achieve. My concern about ts safety is much more about new users than experienced ones. The experienced ones may not have good alternatives and ought to know the types of risks associated with use. Assuming age and experience are at least partially correlated, experienced users are responsible for a substantial number of injuries. (Based on a study on ER visits summarized by the Consumer Products Safety Commission in 2003.) I’m sure inexperience and lack of knowledge play a role in ts injuries, but there’s still plenty of injuries to experienced users.

    Why do newbies take up the ts (and other power tools) to begin with? I’d say tv, advertisement, knowledge, and availability. Excluding Roy, what do you see on tv? I’d say many take up ww in order to do home improvement projects (the gateway drug), like it, and move on the furniture and such. How many home improvement shows on tv show a person using a hand saw, chisel, or plane? You might see a snippet. Nearly all I see are portable table saws and miter saws. A newbie can run down to HD or L and pick up a saw just like on tv and be ready to go in a manner of hours (I speak from experience.). Other than safety glasses and hearing protection, very little safety is discussed, and no alternatives. A man showing up with a set of chisels, planes, and hand saws would be viewed as a football player showing up for a modern day game with a 1940s style uniform. Funny, but a little off his rocker.

    Next up is the larger, more powerful equipment. Education and experience has focused on power tools. Few want to fight the learning curve associated with hand tools or incur the monetary costs of shifting over. Plus, your friends and neighbors think you’ve kind of lost it. You can explain it but it takes a while.

    The lure of power tools is precisely the reason I backed off encouraging my two grandsons to take up woodworking. They are 9 and 7. Over the past couple of years, I had been purchasing a few extra hand tools for them to start using at a appropriate time. Recently, I changed my mind and have now sold the extras. I’m 100 percent that they will not use ww equipment in their occupation, and about 95 percent certain that the loss of a finger(s) or hand would not just be a huge personal loss, but will also be detrimental to their careers. I’d hate for someone to ask one of them somewhere down the road how he lost his finger and realize that I was responsible for getting them started. My garage shop is now off limits to them and I don’t work when they’re around. Life is full of risks, but some are more avoidable than others. As much as I hate to say it, I’d rather see them take up golf.

  2. Adam Cherubini

    I’m not convinced it’s ignorant amateurs who are cutting themselves. In fact, I think the more time you spend with this tool, the greater the chances are you will cut yourself. And it’s statistically likely that when that day comes, you may have had a great amount of experience.

    I think our natural tendency is to convince ourselves that we are safe because the other guy was stupid, untrained etc etc. But that’s just denial.

    I cut myself less with my chisels now than I used to. But it still happens. And I think I know all there is to know about chisels and chisel safety. Accidents happen. My thinking here is that if we are going to make mistakes, and we are, maybe we’d be better off with the consequences of a track saw or band saw, where the chances of dismemberment are less. I don’t know that to be a fact, btw. I don’t have any of these tools.

    Adam

  3. James Watriss

    I read the Huey Post, and all of the comments that followed.

    The persistent analogue that keeps coming up is SawStop as an airbag. It’s a safety device that works.

    There’s also a big cloud of anti-lawyer, anti-government involvement, industry conspiracy, blah blah claptrap. I get the arguments, and I do feel the feelings that the points are designed to evoke. But for the sake of the safety discussion, I’ll simply say that I was always taught not to do woodworking when I was in an emotionally disturbed state. So back to the discussion at hand.

    I think the airbag analogy is huge, because it highlights a major issue. We have to be licensed to operate a car. For good reasons: a car can kill anyone who’s walking around nearby if the person driving is impaired or unskilled. The table saw will only injure the user… typically… but there’s a dearth of actual, in-person when it comes to table saws. I sold tools for 3 years, I never had to ask anyone if they knew anything about whatever they were buying. There was no requirement for me to know if the person knows how to operate these things safely. But most of the folks I sold to had either learned from a guy who figured it out on the job, or had read a few magazines that never showed the techniques that involved using a guard.

    Table saws get sold every day across the country. But how many classes are actually being taught? How many people are injuring themselves from sheer ignorance? I caught my aunt using her benchtop saw without a guard or a fence or any kind of work holding anything. She says it’s just easier. She doesn’t even know where the fence is anymore. wtf.

    Add that to the fact that the plaintiff in the case was admittedly using massively unsafe working practices, and the case is pretty clear from my standpoint that there’s a real need for more real, in-person education.

    Stupid, careless, brilliant idea, F#$%ing patent lawyers and their government interference, Air bag, millions of saws…

    But everyone in here remembers learning how to drive, and being tested for their license.

  4. Stephen Hallsworth

    Hey Peter

    Thanks for your encouragement! Hand sawing seems to be the main hurdle for me – so I am going to shape my own handle on a dovetail saw that I am about to order. I’ve read that band saws are relatively safe so I think I’m going to opt for one of those – also they take up less shop space than a table saw which is handy since my shop is a small spare room in my flat! Adam’s blog on this topic has influenced my decision here – I might well have gone for the table saw since I read that it is top of the list of tools to aquire for a cabinet maker. Thinking about it more though, the band saw could be more versatile for the work that I’m planning to do.

    Steve

  5. Adam Cherubini

    Greg,

    I think the Europeans are doing cabinet work with Festool/track saws of some sort. I don’t know much about these except that they are expensive, and my guess is they can be dangerous also. Like everyone else in woodworking, I’m not sure what reasonable alternatives to the table saw there are, thus this series of posts.

    Otherwise, I agree with you. I think table saws are probably essential for guys building plywood and mdf kitchen cabinets and would like to see that noted in magazine articles.

    Not looking to put these guys down or brand them with a scarlet letter. But I think they should disclose what they are doing, why they have the answers they have. All too often, guys paint themselves as fine furniture makers, I think because of some perceived cachet associated with reproduction work. I don’t plug into any of this. But this has the effect of blurring things a bit. Certainly makes it harder for me to get away with saying things like "you don’t need a tablesaw". For the work I do and any sort of related work, you don’t need a table saw. I’m not sure about other sorts of work and I’d like to hear more about it.

    I may need to say this in every post and comment; This isn’t about hand tools versus power tools. I’m just wondering when we are going to start talking frankly about the table saw. I appreciate the discussion that’s been taking place here.

    Adam

  6. Peter Cobb

    Hey Steve,

    keep the shavings flying! As yr condition is congenital you did what every child does which is make do with what there is. As hand tools (and most appliances) are made for the average user you may benefit from "adapters" or modification to the handles/grips to accomodate your hand shape/size/movement capacity.
    Cheers and keep the work going!

    Hey Adam,
    maybe Bill is right and you’re flogging a dead horse, but the stance is admirable. Keep the good work up.

    Cheers,
    Peter

  7. Stephen Hallsworth

    Adam

    I’ve just completed a workbench designed primarily for hand tool use. I used mostly hand tools and a circular saw and drill press to build it. I’m very new to woodworking but I’m loving it so much that I spend all my free time doing it or thinking about it. So what’s drawn me to comment on this topic? Well I’m missing most of three fingers of my right hand and my right thumb has no middle knuckle. No middle knuckles on two fingers on my left hand either – they only bend where they attach to my hand. Not an accident but a congenital condition – bands in the womb apparently.

    I like using hand tools but it’s quite hard doing lots of sawing by hand.
    So lack of digits was a main reason to consider purchasing a table saw – which is funny because digit loss is what you are looking to prevent! I’m open to alternatives – I can’t really afford to lose any digits that I do have.

    Steve

  8. Greg M

    Let’s accept for the moment that this discussion excludes professionals – those who need to use a table saw to make living – and focus on the avocational or hobbyist woodworker. It seems to me that there may be somewhat of an idealized and narrow view of just who is included in this group. For me (and presumably many thousands of others) obtaining ALL of the "essential" machines is completely financially unnattainable – so we make do with "generalist" choices. I think the table saw trumps the bandsaw for versatility. While it would be handy for the very occasional deep resaw (I seldom have the privilege of working with wide, thick boards), my tablesaw can perform rip, crosscut, rabbet, dado and bevel cuts – and a good handheld jigsaw does a pretty good job at curves.

    On the other hand, any kind of non-through, beveled or angled cut is impossible (or very difficult) on a bandsaw. Anything larger than a 14" model is prohibitively expensive which means my maximum rip AND cross-cut capacity would be around a foot or so – and that’s really limiting.

    I know that many of these operations can be performed with alternate tools – such as routers or perhaps hand saws, plow planes or even chisels – but my point is that the tablesaw has the versatility to accomodate all of these, and that makes it pretty handy in my shop.

    Another aspect that seems to have been missed is the type of work done by the hobbyist woodworker. I would guess that many of us got started out as I did with a utilitarian project such as kitchen cabinets or the like. As Adam knows from his own experience, putting together 34 plywood boxes isn’t really the same as making a period highboy. Any while I’d like to spend my shop time building fine furniture from wide, even-grained, solid hardwood boards, the reality is that about 60% of what I do is still little more than basic plywood boxes.

    In conclusion, I’m not disputing that table saws are horribly dangerous and absolutely unforgiving beasts that can inflict life-altering injuries in the blink of an eye. I do however challenge Adam’s assertion that we can all simply get by without them.

  9. Bill

    Adam:

    You are one brave dude for wading into the table saw safety debate. My take on the debate is it a dead end. The arguments have taken on an ideological or political foundation. Woodworkers, among others, are drawing lines in the sand and thronging logic out the window in an all out effort to support their ideological standard. In essence this has become, for many, like the left vs. the right, or choice vs. right to life, or regulation vs. free will.

    As a matter of fair disclosure, I own a SawStop table saw and I think it is a fine machine. I would not trade it for any other table saw. And, I will continue to keep it in my shop. Yet, as the months go buy, I use it less and less and I find myself using a band saw, track saw, jig saw or hand saw more and more. That is a personal choice I have made in part because I have several relatives who have lost fingers to table saws or circular saws.

    My philosophy is to use power tools were power tools make since but avoid using a table saw (or radio arm saw) whenever possible. And, use hand tools when they make sense but not when power tools are a better choice. Nevertheless, I also know that I would not be comfortable without a shop full of power machines because, for whatever reason, I feel an emotional need for the machines (like a car with a big engine) even though intellectually I know that I could get buy quite will with fewer power machines—go figure.

    Nevertheless, I agree that a table saw should not be thought as the quintessential shop tool. And, I agree with at least a limited war on table saws. Meanwhile keep teaching and spreading good ideas. One never knows which good ideas will stick. There is always room for the good idea. A rigorous, if not total war on table saws is a very good idea. Keep up the good work.

    Bill

  10. J. Griffin

    Regarding the last pie-chart on the "tablesawaccidents" web page: ~20% is not an insignificant number of accidents, by far. I’m involved in public health, and that percentage is alarming for any kind of health-related concern, including occupational injuries and injuries related to machine operation in general.

  11. Adam Cherubini

    When I visit a woodworking club, show, event, I ALWAYS shake hands with at least one person who is missing finger tips or more. Always. In a group of 30, there will be at least one.

    In my world and at my age, my friends have begun to get cancer. This is a regular topic of conversation; "so and so was just diagnosed with lung cancer". The immediate response is always "yes but he smokes like a fiend". I think this is a coping strategy. We view cancer as a threat, but lessen it in our minds by trying to rationalize it.

    To my thinking, table saw accident statistics are similar. That’s just us looking for a way of convincing ourselves "that won’t happen to me". Chances are, it won’t. But in my mind, the effect of loosing my finger tips, even if remote is so bad, I’m not willing to roll those dice. I enjoy playing guitar. I’m not willing to give that up so I can save 5 minutes sawing a board. Cancer doesn’t kill every smoker.

    That’s my sense of it, anyway.

    Adam

  12. Bryce

    It would be interesting to know the real numbers for people interested in woodworking. I wonder if we put a call to the woodworking clubs (through your blog or maybe through the magazines) to poll their people, we would get at least an order of magnitude estimate.

    What if they ask:
    How many have had a table saw injury in the last year? and
    How many have used a table saw in the last year?

    If we could get several woodworking clubs to contribute, we would at get a rough number that would directly relate to the interest here. (Now that I think about it, didn’t PW do poll like this too?)

    Just from my experience, I’ve been to the ER more times for hand tool mishaps then power tool injuries. (2 vs. 0 — probably shouldn’t mention that…)

    Bryce

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