There are a couple of techniques I use to sort out thorny and complicated issues; follow the money and check the math. I also try to remember that my little corner of the world is just that, it isn’t necessarily a reflection of the world at large. Like most serious woodworkers I don’t want to see any one get hurt, and at the same time I don’t want my personal choices limited by someone else, so I’m concerned about the petition before the Consumer Product Safety Commission to mandate “flesh detection technology” on new table saws.
The general public is being presented with this issue as one of dangerous machinery, numerous injuries and an affordable easily adoptable solution. Yes, there are a lot of accidents every year to users of table saws, and these accidents can have a devastating effect and cost us all money. But is the proposed solution really about improved safety for everyone? If you dig below the surface there is a lot more to this issue, and a lot of things we assume to be true because of our particular point of view turn out to be just the opposite.
Last Friday, we received a letter and a four page statement from the Power Tool Institute, an industry group representing several major machinery manufacturers. At the end of this post, you will find a link to a copy of this document in PDF format. Rather than pull out bits and pieces, we encourage you to read everything that PTI has to say, follow the money and check the math. Until now, PTI has been relatively quiet on this issue. As a group, they have a lot at stake, and no matter which side of the debate you’re on, there is some surprising and interesting information in their statement. This and following posts will look at different aspects of this information and we can try to sort this out together. Please leave a comment or send me an e-mail if you’d like to weigh in.
We like to think that we, and our readers represent the woodworking community as a whole. The last time we checked, most of our readers owned what we consider to be serious table saws; about 60% own contractor type saws, about 30% own cabinet saws and less than 10% own benchtop or portable saws. In the real world, it’s just the opposite. Yearly cabinet saw sales number in the thousands, contractor saw sales in the tens of thousands, and benchtop saws in the hundreds of thousands. Benchtop saws are where the money is in the table saw business, and this segment of the market could well disappear if CPSC steps in.
So if most of the saws in use are the value-engineered benchtop saws it makes sense that they account for most of the injuries. That was my assumption; I tend to agree with those that think these low-end saws are inherently dangerous. But most of the reported injuries happen on contractor and cabinet saws. As a group, we need to take responsibility for our own safety, and stop putting our hands into the path of our table saw blades. The cheap saws on the market aren’t ruining things for those of us who are more serious about the hobby and better equipped. The numbers suggest it to be the other way around.
The question of the day is this. Is it possible to equip benchtop saws with a SawStop-like device for anywhere near the $100 price we hear quoted so often? There is a lot of energy involved in stopping a table saw blade, and the saw itself must be able to absorb that. I doubt that a typical benchtop saw, as configured today would survive. It would be like setting off an automobile air-bag in a toy car, there wouldn’t be much left.
I was at the AWFS fair when the first SawStop prototype was unveiled. At the time, the cost was estimated to be $100 more than the typical cabinet saw. When production models first appeared, the difference in price was much higher, and today the SawStop industrial cabinet saw costs about $1000 more than a comparably equipped Powermatic 2000 table saw. Price a SawStop contractor’s saw against a similarly equipped Jet contractor’s saw, and the difference in price is about $800 with the SawStop costing about twice as much as the Jet. As the debate over regulation continues, this $100 cost per saw figure is still being used.
That figure makes it sound sensible to require a brake on every saw. I’d like to see a prototype of a small saw at somewhere near that price, but I think I’d stand as far away as I could for the hot dog test of such a saw. If CPSC requires brakes on all table saws, and a brake-equipped benchtop saw is possible to engineer, the cost will likely be around $1000. Will casual users of tables saws decide to spend five times more for an entry level saw, or will they start bolting circular saws upside down to any handy surface with a cobbled together fence? Which of those scenarios would be safer?
Heartless as it may seem, adoption of government regulations comes down to a cost/benefit analysis. In a comment on an earlier post a reader pointed out that recent media coverage of this issue makes it sound quick and easy; slap a $100 gizmo on every saw and no one will ever get hurt again. Let’s take a realistic look at the numbers, and ask the media and CPSC to do the same.
Click the link below to download the statement from the Power Tool Institute