Perhaps when you think of table saws, the names that first come to mind are ones such as Delta, Jet, Grizzly and so on. Perhaps you’re unfamiliar with brands such as Rojek, Felder, Mini Max, Laguna or others from Europe. Or maybe you’re unaccustomed to the look of the European machines, the features or the price tags.
How are European table saws different than U.S.-style table saws? In this article we take a look at the real differences between these types of saws so that we can understand our choices. We will consider differences in the features that affect efficiency, effectiveness, user-friendliness, safety and cost. By understanding which table saw features are possible and which ones are desirable to woodworkers, we may encourage table saw manufacturers to make changes that benefit the end users – you and me.
General Differences: Electrical Safety Specs and Table Saw Power
There are many power-tool accidents that happen when the cutter runs longer than necessary. There are a couple of regulations for table saw electrics required in Europe that we don’t have pertaining to table saw safety. On European saws the blade is required to stop in less than 10 seconds from the time the stop switch is engaged. The saws accomplish this by either an electronic or a mechanical stop to the motor.
The power and stop switches are required to be positioned at the front top-left corner of the cabinet. On larger panel saws they can also be on the top-left side or above the saw. We have no such requirements and until recently many saws had the switches on the right front. We typically work at the left side of the saw so it makes sense to have the controls in easy reach. I always felt vulnerable when I used an older Unisaw and had to reach over the machine with my face in line with the blade at table height. Additionally, European table saws are required to have a separate power switch that cuts all power to the tool and can be locked with a key or a lock. The off button is fairly standardized as a largish round red button and once it is depressed it has to be intentionally released before engaging the start button. These requirements aren’t inconvenient and they help protect the user.
In Europe 220 volts (v) is standard, as is more-efficient three-phase power. In the United States, 110v is the standard voltage for contractor and portable saws that are typically under 1½ horsepower (hp). The 220 voltage is the minimum for over 2 hp. A table saw user benefits from having the additional power for the larger motor that 220v offers and the added cutting power that such voltage allows, particularly when cutting hardwood stock.
Safety at the Blade
European table saws have a workable guarding system at the blade that is standard issue. U.S. table-saw regulations call for three devices for our safety at the blade. They are a blade cover, anti-kickback pawls and a splitter. U.S.-made table saws have chosen to implement these regulations into one device that is commonly known as “the guard.” The guard comes on all U.S. table saws. As readers of this article may know, many woodworkers don’t use this device. From my years of teaching about the table saw, anecdotal feedback has informed me that the overall average for woodworkers using the guard on U.S. table saws seems to be around 5 percent. The necessity to remove the guard for many cuts and then reinstall the device means that many people just don’t bother. Even though the guard is not the most workable design for everyday woodworking, it does work for its intended safety purposes. (I believe that most woodworkers don’t use the guard because they have been conditioned not to do so through seeing examples in many settings of professional woodworkers using an un-guarded table saw. But that is another discussion.)
The European table saw has a more workable blade-safety system. It consists simply of a riving knife and a blade cover. Let’s clarify some misunderstandings about the purposes of splitters and riving knives. The first is that there seems to be a need for clarification on the actual job that these devices do. It is widely believed that the sole purpose of the splitter and riving knife is to keep the kerf open after the cut, therefore keeping the wood from closing on the blade. This purpose is even described as such in the regulations that govern the manufacturing of table saws. In reality, the main job of these pieces of metal behind the blade is to deny the workpiece access to the back of the blade. Without a roadblock the back teeth of the blade can – and often do – bite into the workpiece, pick it up, and throw it toward the user at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour. Many woodworkers have experienced kickback and the number of accidents from this one phenomenon is astronomical. The use of a riving knife or a splitter makes kickback a non-issue.
What is the difference between a riving knife and a splitter? A splitter is attached to the carriage assembly behind the blade. The carriage assembly on U.S. table saws does not rise and fall with the blade. Two problems arise with this arrangement. A splitter is designed to be very close to the back of the blade when the blade is raised to its full height. The distance between the back of the blade and the splitter increases as it is lowered. The usual working height for cutting 4/4 stock leaves about a 2″ gap between the blade and the splitter. This unprotected gap isn’t ideal, but it is still better than no splitter. The second issue is that a splitter stands above the top of the saw blade thereby forming a barrier when making non-through cuts. Therefore the splitter, along with the rest of the device, needs to be removed from the saw when performing non-through cuts.
In contrast to the splitter, a riving knife is attached to the arbor assembly so it moves along with the saw blade. This means that once the riving knife is adjusted close to the blade, it always stays in this same relationship. Typically, a European riving knife can be adjusted in its closeness to the back of the blade and also in relationship to the blade height. When the riving knife is adjusted the least amount below the top of the blade, it is not an impediment for non-through cutting.
The first industrial table saws made in the U.S. had riving knives. American table saws are just beginning to come back to using a riving knife. A Standards Technical Panel at Underwriters Laboratory, one I have been a member of for a number of years, recently passed a proposal for new safety regulations for the table saw. The new regulations specify that, starting in 2008, all newly designed table saws will incorporate a riving knife in the design of the saw. Additionally, after 2014, the regulations require a riving knife on all table saws of the designs currently being manufactured. In both cases the riving knife is required to be below the top of the blade.
A few U.S. front-runners now offer table saws with their versions of a riving knife. The SawStop, Powermatic PM2000, and a Grizzly 12″ are the first. On these saws, one difference from European riving knives is that instead of having one adjustable knife, two riving knives are offered. One of the riving knives, when attached, is taller than the top of the blade and holds the blade cover. The other, shorter, riving knife is offered without a blade cover for non-through cuts. The regulations call for a knife that is lower than the top of the blade, and so Powermatic added a second riving knife to the PM2000 after realizing the need. Powermatic has made the blade cover come off easily from its taller knife, but I do not see that there is a need for this. All three of these new table saws offer a quick release for the riving knife that makes the changes effortless.
The blade cover is a necessary part of safety at the blade. It is a barrier between our hands and the blade, whether or not the blade is running. On European table saws there are a couple requirements for the blade cover. The maximum outside width of the cover is 40mm (1 1/2″) when it is mounted to a riving knife. The narrower the blade cover the less intrusive it is on your work. The amount of space between the fence and the blade cover becomes especially precious when ripping narrow work.
You cannot make non-through cuts on the table saw when a blade cover is attached to the riving knife. European regulations therefore made it mandatory for the blade cover to be able to be removed or reattached in less then 10 seconds. Compared to current U.S.-made saws, the ease of removal is significant. On U.S. saws the blade cover is permanently attached to the three-in-one guarding assembly. There are no size requirements for the blade cover and consequently they vary widely. When a non-through cut is needed, the whole guard assembly is typically removed.
Anti-kickback pawls are placed on both sides of the splitter on U.S. saws as a purported safety feature. The addition of the pawls is an attempt to address wood ejection problems. However, the only time wood can be ejected straight back is when you are cutting narrow strips less than 2″ and the strips are not pushed beyond the back of the blade. Otherwise the pawls do not serve their intended purpose and, in fact, are a reason some people remove the entire guard system since the anti-kickback pawls actually get in the way of making narrow cuts.
There are no anti-kickback pawls on European table saws. In eliminating the requirement for anti-kickback pawls, European design reflects that the minor benefit that may accrue from the addition of pawls is not a good trade-off for the awkwardness of their use.
The new regulations will still require anti-kickback pawls and the regulations will also require that the pawls be able to be removed or reattached in less then 20 seconds without the use of a tool.