Are Table Saws "essential"?
A couple years ago I wrote an article on hand sawing strategies. The punch line was the fastest way to saw by hand is not to saw at all. I still feel this is the best lesson you can learn by switching to only hand saws (for at least a little while). If you can design around the stock you have, no saw, no matter how much horse power it has, can beat not sawing at all. And when the choice is breaking out the dew rag and rip saw, or designing the piece around the stock you have, it’s amazing how inventive you can become! I hope you read the article. It included tips on how to saw, and if I recall correctly, tips on choosing saws that will work for you and your work.
But what about the times when you can’t design around the stock you have and you must saw? And what about the times when you need a couple parts that are all the same size? I imagine both of these tasks are simple work on a table saw. You set the fence and push the stock through. In a shop without a table saw, you could potentially perform these cuts on a band saw, or a track or circular saw. I don’t know much about any of these tools and would appreciate someone enlightening me.
With hand tools, accurate saw cuts are generally reserved for only those cuts where accuracy straight from the saw are absolutely required OR where adjustment of the saw cut is onerous. Let’s examine some specific examples:
I shoot for perfect cross cuts because I don’t enjoy planing end grain. Planing end grain poses a host of technical challenges that deserves a blog entry at least. When cross cutting narrow stock, I typically knife all around. I saw the corners out, flipping the stock as I go. The knife line helps guide the saw.
The power tool alternative to this seem to be the radial arm saw or chop saw. Some guys even use a sled on their table saw. The chop saws I’ve seen aren’t always as accurate as my square. The fences are sometimes a bit dodgy, out of square with their table, and they aren’t easy to square to the blade. I think if accuracy alone were the criteria, you could probably do a better job with a hand saw than a power saw for this operation. The only downside of the hand saw is there’s a chance you’ll screw it up.
This is exactly the point of David Pye’s “The Nature and Art of Workmanship”. He identified operations like this as “the workmanship of risk”. Simply put, the greater the risk, the greater the reward, which comes (at least for me) in a satifying sense of personal satisfaction. I wanted to mention that, but let’s put that aside. Certainly there are a whole host of reasons to choose one tool over another. I just want to look purely at the technical aspects.
When cross cutting wide stock, the end of a long table say, I do the best I can with a panel saw. This cut typically doesn’t need to be perfect, only good. The power tool alternatives I have seen haven’t looked that attractive. A circular saw, possible with a make shift fence is one choice. Cleaning up the cut with a beltsander may be a typical approach. I don’t have enough experience to say with certainty, but I don’t think this alternative is necessarily faster than the hand tool approach. If the table top is a work bench and the top is 4″ thick, that certainly would be a bigger job with hand tools. Failing that, most jobs would be comparable.
If it were faster and easier to rip wood by hand, commercial saw mills would still have pits. Of course ripping is where the table saw shines. The question I have is: how often is a rip cut a final surface? If you have to clean it up anyway, and if that clean up operation either introduces variation in the surface or provides you with the opportuntity to refine the accuracy of the surface (and most do), then why is the accuracy of the rip saw relevant? So specifically, if you need a 13″ wide board for something (assuming you can’t simply use whatever you have), I imagine you’d be foolish to set your table saw’s fence to 13″. In my shop, I’d mark the 13″, leave the line with my hand saw, then plane down to it. Planing edges is so quick and easy (for thin stock at least), it’s almost a no brainer. Everywoodworker, regardless of how plugged in he or she is, should have a good long plane for edge work. I would pick a S#7 as the best “first plane” for every shop and every woodworker.
Once you get passed the sense that the rip saw is producing the accuracy for you, the door opens to different ripping opportunities. You could rip with a hand saw as I do. But that can be hard work. You could rip with a circular saw, leaving the line as I do with my hand saw. You could rip with a band saw.
Guys make different apparatus for their table saw to cut different sorts of joints. They can cut miters wider than most chop saws can cut (not sure when the last time I needed a really wide miter was, but okay). They cut tenons. What I’ve seen are guys who set the fence, run the work thru vertically, to form one side of a tenon, then flip it over to form the other. The problem I have with this is that it requires accurately sized stock (thickness wise). The control of the tenon width is what I would call “indirect”. A mortise/tenon gauge is direct. So while the cut goes quickly, there’s more layout and prep time involved. The shoulder too is indirect. It becomes a function of the accuracy of the cross cut of the end of the piece (which is otherwise irrelevant in a M&T joint). Sawing tenons by hand, or sawing them with a band saw to marked lines seems a much simpler and more straight forward task.
Guys do other sorts of cuts- dadoes, tongue and grooves, rabbets, with their table saws. All of these joints can be cut with hand tools fairly quickly and there are (in my opinion) less attractive power tool alternatives to all of these (most involving a router table).
Power tools with fences do repetition very well. After all, industrial production is what these a tools were developed for and what their true essense is. Let’s put aside the notion of whether any of us are actually involved in industrial production, whether that is something to be valued etc etc. Part of craftsmanship is dealing with “non-conformances”, which is a nice word for mistakes. Over the years woodworkers have come ith with clever ways to make things fit. Special planes like shoulder planes for example were likely purpose designed to correct surfaces. So if we are in a situation where repetition is important, the question becomes who much custom fitting will we be doing. There certainly will be some. Will 90% of the components be perfect? 95%? Invariably you will have to be able to make corrections. So once you buy the shoulder plane or learn to sharpen the chisel, do you really care if you have to plane one board or five? Do you care if it takes 30 seconds to fit a joint or a minute thirty?
Believe it or not, I’ not trying to talk you into dumping your table saw or power tools in general. I just feel there’s a default sense that they are required. My response is “for what”? Tell me specifically what the table saw does that I can’t do in an 18th c shop? Before we say it’s essential, don’t we have a right to know why? Plywood springs to mind. And MDF. I’ve cut both with hand saws and I wouldn’t want to do it again. So is that the reason to buy a table saw. Because you want to cut plywood? I think table saws can do all sorts of wonderful (and some not so wonderful) things. They are amazing tools. So are Electrical Discharge Machines (EDM). But I don’t have one of those in my shop either because I just don’t have enough need for what it does.