Woodworking Essentials: Table Saws
There are two types of limitations to consider. The first are common-sense items such as your physical limitations and the limitations of your shop space. Everyone has difficulties handling a sheet of plywood or cutting heavy or long wood. And small shop space can sometimes require a lot of planning and strategy before making a cut. As I mentioned earlier there is nothing wrong with asking for help.
The other type of limitation, which is definitely the most important factor in understanding any machine, is to know when that machine is not capable of safely performing an operation. At some point you have to determine when the table saw has reached its limits. My rule is simple: I use the guard as my determining factor. If the guard on my saw will not permit me to make the cut that I desire or if I can’t effectively make or obtain a guard that will work, then the table saw is not the machine for that operation. There is nothing wrong with walking away from the table saw when it’s the wrong machine. Actually, I find the challenge of figuring out a second approach to be a great learning experience and believe it has made me a better woodworker – not to mention it’s helped to keep me out of the emergency room.
Understanding Guarding and How it Relates to Through and Non-through Cuts
Guarding simply is the act of positioning barriers or other safety methods so that hazards are inaccessible to the user. I’m probably going to take a hit for this next statement, but I think that most table saw manufacturers make guards that are inefficient and not very user-friendly. Yes, they do meet the provisional requirements by OSHA (1917.151 (c) (1,2,3)) for having an enclosure, splitter and anti-kickback fingers, but they lack real design ingenuity.
What makes a table saw so versatile is it can make both through and nonthrough cuts. Standard “off-the-showroom- floor” guarding doesn’t make it easy to move between these two actions and worse yet, most manufacturers have attached all three guards together to act as one unit. If you remove one, then you’ve removed all three. It can be a lot of work to remove a guard – followed by a lot of work to put it back on. After doing this a time or two, frustration sets in and it won’t be long before it becomes a habit to just leave the guard off altogether.
Ask any woodworkers today if they still use their guard and watch how quickly they look at the top of their loafers and say, “… uh, no.” Then ask them if they even knows where their table saw guards are and they usually don’t know that either.
I truly believe that everyone who uses an American-made table saw today would use their guard system, no questions, if the guard systems were user-friendly. This is why aftermarket guarding is becoming so popular today. Aftermarket guards separate the enclosure from the splitter, which allows you to remove one and leave the other in place.
Plus, most aftermarket guards have a degree of adjustability, which gives them a better range of protection and they can be taken off and put back on in a matter of a few seconds. But even with that, aftermarket guards can’t accommodate every possible cutting action on a table saw – but they sure are better, and I definitely recommend that you look at upgrading your standard guarding.
Every table saw that I’ve owned over the last 15 years has had the standard guard replaced by aftermarket guarding systems. Make sure the aftermarket guard you purchase has at least the blade enclosure and a splitter. More than likely the splitter will come with anti-kickback fingers attached to it.
In order to fully understand guarding on the table saw you have to understand the differences between the three guards, their purposes and how they function during through and non-through cuts.
The blade enclosure, which is sometimes referred to as a shield, hood or top guard, is the most visible part of the guarding system on a table saw. A good enclosure should either rest on top of the wood or be set as close to the wood as possible. It should not allow your fingers to get between it and the wood or near the blade and should not have pinching forces. Enclosures that do not pivot act to a small degree as a way to help hold the wood in control and to limit any potential lifting of the stock just in case it grabs or catches on something. It should provide good coverage on all four sides of the blade.
I use the enclosure as a starting point for my 3″ rule (see Popular Woodworking November 2007, issue #165). A good enclosure should not obstruct your view through the point of contact and must aid in deflecting chips away from the user and direct them toward the dust collector, or at least down toward the table. One of the biggest drawbacks to conventional or standard enclosures is that they are not adjustable from side to side or front to back, which can cause problems when trying to rip narrow or short stock. Although aftermarket guards do allow some adjustability, they also have limits before the guard obstructs the path of motion. If the cut requires that the enclosure be removed, remember my simple rule: If the guard on my saw will not permit me to make the cut or if I can’t effectively make or obtain a guard that will work, then the table saw is not the right machine for that operation.
When making non-through cuts, enclosures or top guards can sometimes be more of a hindrance than asset. They can limit the motion, restrict control and create binding. Nonthrough cuts will require creative ways to protect yourself from unnecessary exposure to the blade.