Table Saw Safety: Why the British Think We're Crazy

Table Saws: Why the British Think We’re Crazy

 In Shop Blog, Table Saw Safety, Woodworking Blogs

British Style Table SawOver the holidays, I saw the same question asked on both an American and British woodworking forum. The poster had received a new table saw for Christmas, had no experience and wanted to learn how to use the saw safely. One of the responses on the British forum was this:

Whilst the risk of kickback is real, good sense and technique, as with any tool, is the key to safe usage. Just don’t read any American magazines or books on how to use them.

While it’s easy to poke fun at the British for their quaint use of our language, their fondness for strange-flavored potato chips  and their inability to make a car that doesn’t leak oil, it’s hard to argue with their approach to table saw safety. The picture at right is one of the least expensive “Saw Benches” (table saw to us) available at Axminster Tools. Take a look at the fence and guard and you will see some significant differences.

Unlike Americans, where we generally remove the guard the first time it gets in the way (and rarely put it back), the British tend to leave their guards in place, and find other ways to do things – making grooves in particular – rather than work with an exposed blade. One of the reasons for this is that their guard systems are well-designed and useful. There aren’t any anti-kickback pawls to get in the way, there is a simple attachment of the guard to the riving knife and the guard includes dust extraction.

Fence on British Table SawThe other feature that is noticeably different is the fence. This style of fence was once available on this side of the Atlantic from Delta, but it never really caught on. The biggest difference is that the fence is adjustable from front to back, with the normal position for ripping seen at left. The far end of the fence is set so that it doesn’t go beyond the gullet of the saw teeth. That effectively prevents kickback – the work can’t be trapped between the fence and the back of the blade. The fence extrusion is used in a low position when working with thin stock to allow room for the operator to better control the push stick. The fence can also be pulled back behind the blade and used as a stop when crosscutting.

The British Health and Safety Executive has some interesting publications regarding the safe use of table saws and other woodworking equipment. Here is a link to WIS-16 a pamphlet titled “Circular Saw Benches-Safe Working Practices.” It’s short and to the point, easy to understand and it gives reasons behind the rules as well as safe methods to use a table saw. It was easy to find in an Internet search, so I decided to compare it with what OSHA, the American equivalent to the HSE, has available. Not so easy to find, and clearly not as useful. It basically lists some equipment but makes no mention of specific tasks that might be more dangerous than others, or how to assess and avoid risks. Here is a link to the OSHA “eTool Table Saw” page.

Sometimes the British get things right.

– Robert W. Lang

All the things the Brits don’t think you should read are compiled in our digital publication The Essential Guide to Table Saws. Learn how to set up and use your table saw safely and efficiently.

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Showing 39 comments
  • DR_Labut

    It is nice to know we Brits may sometimes get things right, and I would like to compliment you on your clear and succinct article, but I was a little confused as to WHOSE language it was written in. Actually, joking aside, did you know that all books originating from the UK or other English speaking countries are ‘translated’ into American English before publication in the USA. ‘Quaint’ it may seem, but it represents a hell of a lot of people – the UK’s 60 million being only a small fraction.

    Keep up the really good work

    Ray Swann

  • abecedarian

    Besides the other differences in woodworking practice between our two great nations divided by a common language, do Brits always cut safe bevels with the blade tilted toward (or towards) the fence (see Fig 2(b) of WIS-16)?

  • oldshutterdog

    OK Boys and Girls;I have never done this before so I hope I do it right.What I have done is use a table saw,alot.if I make it to July I will be sixty and I first started using powertools when I was eight,and yes I have ten fingers.I am a proffesional carpenter so I use it almost every day.On the jobsite I use an old mid-fifties Craftsman castiron 10 inch table saw.It is my favorite powertool period.No saftey devices except a shut off switch and a push stick.My rule? Work in a secure area,understand what you are attemting to do, and how the mach is going to react.Have a sharp blade,keep your mind focused;no beer warm or cold.If you are using a table top saw make sure it is on a table and secure.not on the ground.Now for the saw stop technology;If my Craftsman had been equipped with a saw stop when it was new,do you think it would still work correctly?I don’t.I don’t think if even was alot newer,I think if they are made like all the other junk today.I think it would instill a false sense of confidence that would lead to worse injuries and alot more lawsuits.If you don’t know how to use it safely,LEAVE IT ALONE!If we let the Government run any more of our lifes soon you will need a permit to poop.Alot of people would not be able to afford the saw and any wood for aproject.I think that would be a tradgedy.One more thing;I’m American and I speak and spell yankee.So far that’s my choice as an American.My Father was an English Major and never biult a bird house

  • Nick Gibbs

    As editor of British Woodworking magazine I have written extensively about tablesaw safety, though I hope not rudely about American methods. Each to their own. It is surely up to individuals to make their choices. Perhaps our more cautious approach comes from the mixed blessing of shared healthcare funding! Personally I just want people to feel safe enough to get involved and have a go, and want to keep going, and develop the skills and the understanding of when operations are likely to be dangerous or not. I fear that too much reliance on safety features isolates woodworkers from that learning process, while lack of awareness of safety issues is likely to compromise the enjoyment of our amazing craft.

    Nick Gibbs

  • oldestboy

    RE: Table Saw (Sawbench)use, it is my least favorite power too. It doesn’t have any guards. It is an early ’50’s 1st generation contractor’s saw. I stand to one side and use push sticks. Do it and get it over with. Total concentration.

    Umm…Before anyone gets to worked up about whose language it is (and its proper use), ‘English’ is pretty much a mongrel tongue. Something more than half of it is of Anglo-Saxon origin with many additions and influences from Norse, Scots and Irish Gaelic, the Romance languages and Latin directly, as well as other sources from across the globe as the British empire exerted its influence. Another factor is that ‘English’ takes in new arrivals lock, stock, and barrel without extruding them through the colloquial and grammatical die that, for instance, the French do. This gives rise to the many exceptions to the rules (e.g. ‘i before e except after c’). That and the sheer number of words (2-300,000 vs. ~60,000 for Finnish) are what make it so hard for others to learn as a second language.

    A final note. Youse shouldn’t use youse unless youse use it in the proper use.

    Safe sawing everyone.

  • shannonlove

    There are several major factors that contribute to the differences in woodworking equipment design between North America and Britain/Europe.

    1) Historically, European woodworkers were usually specialized tradesmen’s who study their craft since childhood. In North America, woodworking was just on of the vast array of generic skills North American acquired in settling the continent. The pre-1950s American farmer/rancher types could do almost anything: woodwork, carpentry, plumbing, electronics, welding, machinist, engine repair, pumping and irrigation, etc. My grandfather and uncles of the pre-WWII generation could do almost anything because at some point they had to.

    Specialist pay good money for fine tools. Generalist have to buy a wide array of tools, sometimes just one off for a specific job. Historically, European tools are finely designed for high skilled use. Historically, America tools tends to be “good enough”, rugged and requires less specialized skill.

    2) Labor cost in Europe have historically always been higher than in America and that has increased in the 20th century. Higher labor cost mean its more cost effective to sink capital into tools so that fewer workers can do more work.

    3) Historically, vastly more Americans were self-employed than in Europe. People who work for themselves are more tolerant of issues like safety or inconvenience than people working for others because they feel in control of the issue. By contrast, the literature of design in Europe is full of references to the tools and machines that are forced upon workers by employers and guilds. European designers began to emphasize safety at least in part because of the high degree of class conflict in European monocultures.

    4) Americans are highly anti-elitist. No matter how much money he might have, no American man wants to convey the impression that he is afraid to get his hands dirty. Culturally we associate fineness with effete elitism. We don’t like tools that look to fine or “prissy” for no particular reason.

    This sometimes becomes comical with toolmakers putting cosmetic bulges, ridges etc to make the tool look more rugged and utilitarian.

    My first impression of the saw pictured at the top of the post was that it was one of those “toy” miniature saws used by model makers. All the dimensions are wrong. It doesn’t look like any saw you would see being used to build a house in Texas.

    I imagine one could right a book about how culture and history influences the design of woodworking tools around the world. Might do that when I retire.

    • English2

      Tip: Don’t bother.

    • almartin

      “My first impression of the saw pictured at the top of the post was that it was one of those “toy” miniature saws used by model makers. All the dimensions are wrong. It doesn’t look like any saw you would see being used to build a house in Texas.”

      If you’re building a house in Texas, English wouldn’t be much of a concern to the crew, either. 😉

    • tensace

      Actually I thought your comments were “spot on” and well reasoned. Thanks!

  • Marty

    Those of you with Beismeyer style fences should check out Very Super Cool Tools, a new company that makes a replacement fence (using your existing rails) that allows you to do everything that this article talks about.

    • Stetwood

      Your replacement fence don’t look anything like the one in the illustration, stopping at the end of the blades gullet. Something like that would help prevent kickback. I made my own Beismeyer style fence and may just take a hacksaw to it.

      • snoopy

        If you’ll look more closely, the fences for Very Super Cool Tools may be adjusted forwards or backwards, so the end of the fence can be aligned with the blade.

  • smorreltork

    Uh, Mr. Lang, the Delta Unifence has the slide back feature and the half length fence attachment. It also has the thin stock feature of a rotating fence as pictured above. In my opinion the Unifence is far superior to the more commonly seen Beisemeyer or most any other stock table saw fence.

    • Clay Dowling

      Delta may be shipping such an advanced fence on their saws, but if you buy a unifence independently and retrofit it to an older saw, as I did, there are no such features. These retrofit fences look for all intents just like the Beismeyer fence. Still a great improvment over most stock fences.

    • Robert W. Lang

      The Unifence was referred to, but not by name in the post. I checked the Delta website before posting and it doesn’t appear to be available any more.

  • tpobrienjr

    I have no argument about the safety of table saws, but I wonder about router safety. How can a router endanger my fingers if I hold it by the handles? The scariest way I can think to use a router is in a router table. Many router tables have cutter guards and guide pins, and using the router without those aids is risky.

    • Stig

      A friend of mine had a plunge router accident. He worked on the edge of a (probably poorly fastened) cabinet door on a workbench. Probably working on an overhang too. Yes, he did all the wrong things. The piece came loose, and the router swung down and hit him in his thigh, close to his groin. The doctor said that the wound was 3 mm. away from damaging one of the main arteries in the thigh, which would probably have lethal outcome, draining his blood in seconds.
      Maybe fingers isn’t the greatest concern when using plunge routers?
      Anyhow, the most efficient universal safety device rests on top of your shoulders. Use it always, and all tools will be safe.

  • Mark W

    Rolls Royce, owned by the Germans but British made, I don`t think they leak oil!

    • Chuck the Wise

      Proof that you get what you pay for.
      Too bad your sports cars won’t run across the parking lot without an overhaul. I hear you drink your beer warm because the same companies that make their ignition systems also make refrigerators.
      All kidding aside, you guys build some of the most beautiful cars in the world, and some amazing aircraft engines. RR engines turned the P-51 Mustang from a good ground support bird to an amazing high altitude, long range air superiority weapon.

    • mdgarnett

      I lived in the UK for 4 years from 1987 through 1990 but spent a lot of time in the country before that. I was very surprised how often I did see a disabled Royce by the side of the road relative to the number I saw being driven. I can say that the new Austin I had was a reliable car that didn’t leak oil.

      But to further the stereotype, I guess you know that the Brits drink their beer warm because the folks who make their cars also make their refrigerators.

      • mdgarnett

        sorry for the redundant warm beer comment. I should have read ahead before replying.

  • Bernard Naish

    The best things we gave you was the English language but you seem determined to destroy it. It is not a dado but a groove and if you are a woodworker rather than a machine setter you generally cut it with a grooving plane or carcase saw,chisel and router plane (A tool that will not take your finger off and can be used without eye or ear protection.). It is a rebate not a rabbet… always was pronounced as rebate unless you came from Norfolk. Its not a shuting board but a “strait as an arrow” shooting board. It is not “in a pinch” but “at a pinch”. A pinch is a narrow gap in a wall that a man or a dog can slip through but cattle cannot. You keep leaving out words such as “of” and putting words like “also” in the wrong place. Leverage is pronounced as “leeverage” and not as you spell it. I could go on as it is always amusing to make fun when people get my language wrong.

    HOWEVER I have generally learnt to translate automatically. The problems arise when you use trade names of products that have never been seen here and then we simply do not know what you are talking about. Similarly an 8 x 4 or 8/4 piece of wood here would be 8″ wide by 4″ thick so we get a little confused.

    More seriously the cost of shipping between us has been allowed to get out of hand. Even small things such as books cost more in shipping charges than the item itself. That seems to be the problem……we are not using shipping but aircraft. OK it might take ten days to get here but I can be patient. The USPS and the Royal Mail need to get their act together. Or should that have been acts?

    • Ron 1

      You didn’t give us anything. We took the English language in 1776 and made it our own. Obviously we didn’t care for your langugae.

      • rorynidaho

        No wonder there are wars – we can’t even allow each other small differences!!! Really?

    • Chuck the Wise

      Spoken like a true dado bird.
      However, you are on the mark when it comes to shipping costs. In an era when global shipping isn’t a big deal, I don’t know why sending something across the Big Pond involves coughing up a lung.

    • Chuck the Wise

      Spoken like a true dado bird.
      But you are right about the shipping situation. In a day of global shipping, it is impossible to ship across the pond without coughing up a lung.

    • blindleader

      Bernard, you may be fooling some of us but not me. I’ve been all over Britain and find that no two of you people can agree on any terminology, usage or pronunciation unless they were born, raised, and never journeyed more than five miles from the same spot. And without a dado, you’re stuck forever going with the grain and can never go across.

      And to clear up some of your confusion:
      There’s no such thing as an 8 x 4. The closest thing would be a 4 x 8, which is nominally 8 inches wide and 4 inches thick. After milling (planing), dimensional lumber is normally a half inch less than nominal. 8/4 is something else entirely. That would be rough (not milled) lumber 2 (eight quarters) inches thick and of no specified width.

      It’s all in good fun. Don’t get too serious or you’ll end up like the French, who deny that any dialect of their language that is not Parisian, is not French at all, and are killing their language as a result.

    • BrianLee

      “Leverage is pronounced as ‘leeverage’ and not as you spell it.”

      Spot on. Why anyone would want to pronounce a word based on it’s spelling is beyond me. 🙂

  • RogerP

    It is NOT illegal to fit dado heads to saws in the UK.

    The HSE state it is perfectly acceptable to use saws fitted with a dado blade if the saw table is designed to accept it.

    Most amateur/hobbist saws sold in the UK are purposely fitted with a spindle that is too short – but there are others which will take a dado set.

    See here (if you have the time 🙂 )


  • Harry

    Hey, Robert, whilst I appreciated the article very much, I must comment on your ‘throwaway line’ – “While it’s easy to poke fun at the British for their quaint use of our language”, I consider it necessary to remind you just whose language it was, and is. Language in all places is always dynamic in change, but ‘correct’ use of English is as important as avoiding a badly cut dovetail. Thanks for a well written magazine!

    • Chuck the Wise

      Hey Harry, “whilst” is a quaint use of our language. I’m guessing he comments more on the idea that “just whose language it was, and still is” gives you some control over how it is spoken all over the world. Or, at least the impression you might believe that.
      But I hesitate to poke at you about your quaint use of the language without sharing a couple of Newcastles or Guinesses at the same time, so I offer this: at a high level international conference, the French representative demanded to know why he had to speak English. The busboy sidled over, leaned in and said it was because “the Brits, Americans, Scots, Canadians, Welsh, Irish and Aussies fixed it so you don’t have to speak German.”
      Cheers, my friend.

  • evolutionkills

    I don’t get it; I was taught table saw etiquette once, as a teenager, in passing and I think I’ve experienced the dreaded and much-spoken-of kickback once with a table saw. On the other hand, every single time I use a router I’m afraid I’ll take my fingers off. I’ve pored over safety manuals, tips, tricks, and have picked the brains of woodworking colleagues, but I’m convinced that routers will never feel like a safe tool. I have no idea why brits would feel it better to cut dadoes with a router rather than a ts.

    • Stig

      Just look at the statistics. Table saw accidents are the most common, and the most serious in a workshop.

  • Clay Dowling

    Just looked at some of the Jet offerings through Axminster. Shipping cost is probably outrageous, but there are a lot of really nice features on some of those saws that aren’t offered at all to the U.S. market.

  • Dazzzle

    Having been present at a nasty accident featuring an unguarded saw bench, I’m all in favour of good practice and I think I’m correct that here in the UK you cannot fit dado sets to the arbor on newish saws due to safety regs so there is not really a good case for removing the guards apart from fitting a crosscutting sled which you can protect by overhead means

    • switzforge

      No dado sets? That is one of the main reasons I haven’t tossed the table saw in favour of a band saw. What are your preferd methods for cutting dados then?

      • lawrence

        They generally use routers- I’m moving to England in about a year and a half (and lived there for 8 years in the past) so I’ll just have to get used to it.

        …no dado blades are worth it for the beer IMHO though…


        • Clay Dowling

          If you can’t find good beer in the U.S. you aren’t looking hard enough. Then again, I live in a city where there are half a dozen breweries, and most of them have tasting rooms within a block of each other.

      • Clay Dowling

        Chris Schwarz has a few good videos out there about how to cut a dado by hand. If you aren’t going to be cutting a lot of identical dados, the hand method is faster because of the lack of machine setup. I tried it for a book case and was pleasantly surprised by how fast it was.

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