Woodworking Essentials: Table Saws
It is estimated that nearly 80 percent of all woodworking requires some type of sawing. The power, accuracy and control of the table saw has made the process of sawing wood a lot more productive and a lot less physical. It’s arguable as to who first invented the circular saw, but one thing is certain – it has revolutionized our craft. I’ve often wondered if plywood as we know it today would have ever been invented if we didn’t have a way to productively cut it. I also think about the skill shifts of the traditional apprenticeships. At one time it took years of practice and great skill to handsaw wood accurately. The table saw changed that process to an almost rudimentary procedure.
Table saws can make myriad cuts including rip cuts, crosscuts, coves, mouldings, dados, kerfs, rabbets, miters and bevels. It is a precision-cutting tool that requires that the machine be set up accurately, maintained properly and be used competently. Small problems can have huge consequences. R.J. DeCristoforo summarized using a table saw better than anyone when he said, “measure twice, saw once” and “think twice before sawing.”
My goal with this article is not to review the different types of saws available today, or discuss their characteristics. I’m not going to explain the difference between blades or how to make fixtures to cut tapers or tips and tricks or troubleshooting or maintenance schedules, and I don’t want to compare European to American saws. All that information already exists in myriad books and articles.
I have decided to stay away from the topic of dust control because we all know the dangers of dust and the importance of controlling it and, again, there are volumes of books and magazine articles on the subject. My intentions with this article are to focus on the techniques, methods and mechanics of safely using the table saw. After all, it is very well documented that more accidents occur on table saws than any other machine in the shop.
In Ian Kirby’s book “The Accurate Table Saw,” there is a brief introduction written by Les Winter who is a forensic engineer. He explains the essence of danger by defining two components: hazard and exposure. A hazard has the potential to cause injury. Exposure is the likelihood of coming into contact with the hazard. It is the combination of hazard and exposure that make something dangerous. If you can reduce the exposure then the hazard becomes less dangerous. In my very first article in this series, “Learn the Skills to be Safe” (November 2007, issue #165). I set the stage for the rules that apply to using all power equipment by defining control, exposure and limitation. These three factors are exactly what the user needs to know to reduce the hazards of a table saw.
At the table saw, you must always be in control of the work. Control occurs through a combination of sequences and involves both managing the material and understanding how the machine is designed to give the user as much support as possible through the point of contact. The following is a list of six factors that are important to gaining better control at the saw.
First, you as the operator must have a firm stance at the machine. Your starting position will vary depending on the size of material and type of cut being made. I definitely recommend that you stand to the left of the blade with a pushing vector toward the fence and away from the back of the blade. I like to firm up my stance by placing my hip against the saw itself; this gives me better support.
Never stand directly in front of the blade or in direct line of potential kickbacks. It is not uncommon to see both novice and experienced woodworkers standing to the right of the fence. Although this does protect you from being in the direct line of a kickback, it causes you to have to reach over the fence, which could put you off balance. The natural tendency when pushing wood is to push it in the direction that you are leaning. Leaning toward the blade from the fence side could cause the pushing motion to be directed more toward the back of the blade, and nothing good comes from the wood making contact with the back of the blade. Plus, your hand position for pushing from this side of the fence is awkward.
Second is how to maintain control while pushing the stock through the saw. Never cut freehand on a table saw. A freehand cut can deprive you of most of the protection a table saw affords. For most of us, pushing wood through a table saw is instinctive. However, there are real mechanics to the pushing process. The wood must remain flat on the table and tight against the control surfaces, such as the fence or miter gauge.
When ripping wood, I dedicate my hands so that my right hand provides the forward push and my left hand pushes the wood against the fence – make sure to maintain 3″ of clearance from the guard with both hands. When ripping wood, I also like to hook a finger or two on the top edge of the fence to keep my right hand from accidentally being thrust toward the guard. It is OK to stop feeding a board during the middle of the cut to reposition your right hand or to pick up a push stick – but you must never let go of the stock with your left hand during this transition. Once the cut is complete you need to make it a rule and habit to not reach over the saw blade to pick up and bring the stock back to the front of the saw – even with the guard in place. Never clear scraps away with your fingers while the blade is rotating; always let the blade come to a complete stop first. Make sure that you always push the stock that is between the blade and the fence so it is beyond the back of the blade; always use good follow-through after the cut.
Third is maintaining good eye contact. Learn to keep your eyes in tune with the fence and the guard (instead of the blade). Most people want to stare down the blade as it’s cutting the wood, but with the guard over the blade the cut is obscured and will tell you very little. As long as you keep pushing the wood the cut will take place. You must be aware of the entire work area; be alert and keep your eyes moving over the entire table but concentrate mostly on the control between the work and the fence. Visualize where the 3″ rule is and develop a good awareness of this zone. Be aware of where your hands are at all times; watch to make sure your fingers stay way beyond this zone.