perhaps the most common question i’ve encountered other than “what handsaw should i buy?” is “should i get a tablesaw?” — and this question has always confused me a little. isn’t the answer obvious? i mean, unless you’re a handtool-only woodworker or simply don’t have a workshop to put it in and are relegated to a picnic table in the backyard, the tablesaw is the heart of the modern hybrid woodworker’s flow. but that might not be as obvious if you don’t have one. so let’s take a look at tablesaws from a very basic perspective — what’s it for, what’s it not for, how to use it safely and which one to get. this is realistically for people just starting out so if you’ve already got one, you’re not likely to find much value here. if you’ve been wondering about the basics, though? let’s begin.
actually, hold on a second there. i know this is in the general disclaimer for all my writing but it might stand repeating here because we’re on the topic of dangerous machinery and beginners. if you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t. just don’t. take a class or get someone who knows to help you. there are many places in woodworking you can experiment. using a tablesaw isn’t one of them. all physical crafts are inherently dangerous, woodworking perhaps more than most others. but you don’t need to be stupid about it and a nearly-thirty-centimeter spinning-blade will, if you’re not careful about it, fuck up your life in a moment given the opportunity. so keep reading at your own risk but get someone to help you if this is your first time — there’s no shame in learning from an expert, especially when it might mean you don’t lose a hand.
ok, back to our regularly-scheduled program.
what’s a tablesaw for?
there are two things a tablesaw does extremely well — long ripcuts and predictable crosscuts. if you have a board that’s too wide, a tablesaw is the easiest and most controllable method to get it narrower. if you have a bunch of parts you need to cut to a particular length, get out your crosscut sled (yes, i wrote an article about how to build a simple one of these fairly recently), stick on a stop-block and you’ll have all the parts cut in no time.
but there are other things you might not have thought of. build a tapering jig and you can easily cut predictable, repeatable tapers on parts like table legs or carcass sides. if you make it big enough, your tapering jig can double as a replacement for a jointer to cut a straight edge on boards without all that repetition or the spinning cutter-head of doom and destruction (i hate jointers, by the way, if that’s not clear yet and i avoid using them whenever possible — mostly by using a tablesaw and a planer but sometimes through the diligent application of a heavy-set jack). if that’s not enough, you can easily resaw boards up to nearly twice the width of your maximum blade height — depending on your saw somewhere between about 150 and 180mm (with the usual 250mm blade). there are many people who say this is a task better done on a bandsaw and that it’s not as safe on the tablesaw. yes, it’s safer on the bandsaw but it’s more accurate on the tablesaw. use your own judgment. and if you’re doing it, do it in multiple passes, raising the blade slightly with each pass. use push-pads/push-sticks. be careful. when you hear someone say “that’s not safe to do on the tablesaw”, ask yourself if it’s that the task is unsafe or just the typical way of holding the wood makes it unsafe — it’s often the second. and that doesn’t mean you should do it that way. it means you should find a safe way to do it. if you can’t figure out a safe way, don’t do it. it’s that simple. seat-of-the-pants workholding is fine if you’re using a handplane. on the tablesaw, we have a word for that — amputation.
there are other things the tablesaw is great for, too. flushing edges of parts using a jig like that tapering jig with just the edge hanging over the side is fast and easy. and you can cut grooves (using a dado-set or even the stock blade, though it’s best if it’s flat-bottom so you don’t get little undulations from the blade at the bottom of your grooves) or make notches using repeated cuts. one of the most common uses i have for a tablesaw is cutting tenons. this is best done with a tall fence on a simple sled and you can safely cut the cheeks and shoulders of a tenon on dozens of boards in a matter of minutes. (if you’ve never seen the “speed-tenon method”, it’s worth watching a few videos and, though a little advanced, once you master it it will mean you’ll never cut tenons on your bandsaw again, i suspect. i haven’t.) you can use it to cut dovetails, too, if you like, though i’ve done few using this method as i can cut them very quickly by hand and the setup is tedious unless you’re cutting a lot of drawers — perhaps a few dozen, which is something i rarely find i need as i make mostly contemporary-modern furniture.
of course, people have built jigs to do everything from spindle-turning to mitering on the tablesaw. and they work. but some of the question comes down to whether it’s the best, most efficient or safest tool for the job. in the case of cutting splines, i generally find it is as long as you have a stable jig to hold the parts. for miters, i usually just cut and shoot those by hand because dialing in the tablesaw takes me longer — but i have a dozuki at the ready all the time and i don’t make many picture-frames. if you’re framing a few rooms of art, you might want to take the time and get it setup. it’ll save you lots of time if you’re making more than a couple of frames.
what’s a tablesaw not for?
curves. in a word, straight. the tablesaw can, in some cases, be jerry-rigged to cut curves. don’t do it. it’s not worth the effort, the risk or the annoyance. there are tools in the shop meant for this (hey there, bandsaw!) and they do it better. if you want a fast, accurate, straight cut on something, it’s very hard to beat a tablesaw. if you want a curve, the bandsaw is your friend. they are not interchangeable tools.
if you’re doing a lot of resawing, while the tablesaw can do a piece 150mm no problem, i’d say it’s not worth all that effort if you have to do more than one or two slices. so if you’re making veneers, for example, again the bandsaw is your tool of choice. wider boards? rough lumber? yes, use the bandsaw. the tablesaw is designed for premilled, flat, at-least-somewhat-surfaced lumber (that’s dry — let’s say that again for the people in the back — don’t run green wood over your tablesaw or you’re going to end up with a dangerous, soggy mess and that mess will be you). if you’ve got wood that’s not quite dry yet, take it to the bandsaw or wait for it to be dry. honestly, sticking wet wood on a tablesaw is an invitation for the grim reaper to start their apprenticeship in your shop.
even with a thin-kerf blade, you’re going to lose some wood. people often neglect this — a standard blade on a tablesaw is a little over 3mm thick. that’s not trivial if you’re dealing with a limited amount of wood to start with. do four cuts on a piece and it’s narrower by the width of a sheet of plywood. four more and you’ve lost the equivalent of a tabletop. this isn’t usually a serious problem but it’s something that can come out of nowhere to bite you in the ass if you forget it.
the important thing to remember about the tablesaw is that it’s really a batch-production tool. it’s meant to do things repeatably. and as most furniture has many identical or at-least-similar parts with shared dimensions, this is great. if you’re expecting variation, this isn’t the tool for you. if you want four legs that don’t look like they were experimenting with alternative lifestyles before they came together to be married to your case-on-stand, this is probably the tool for you.
this isn’t an exhaustive discussion of all safety related to tablesaws. but it’s a start. if you haven’t spent much time with one in a classroom setting or with a professional woodworker, you might want to look into at least a weekend course at a local college to make sure you’re doing things safely — the techniques for getting the best out of your saw are far easier to pick up along the way. but you can’t put the fingers back on so get the precautionary basics before you power the thing up on your own. you’ve been warned. there are more dangerous tools in the shop (jointer, router) but just because it’s not an exposed cutter-head doesn’t mean it can’t take off a limb in short order.
let’s start with the most obvious thing. the tablesaw blade is spinning in one direction all the time. that’s with the back coming up and in your direction. if something dropped on that blade, it would throw it directly at your face. if you remember that fact, it will probably save you from some painful experiences. look at the saw from the side. walk around the left side of your saw and the blade is spinning clockwise. with the saw off (of course), trace the line of where the momentum of the blade will send anything that comes loose and i suspect you’ll plot a line directly to where you expect to be standing while you use the saw. this isn’t a flaw. this is by design. it’s the only way the saw can work. when the blade continues that arc, it’s cutting down through the top of the table and pressing against the wood as you feed it to the blade. that’s why you get the results. it’s an unfortunate side-effect of the physics of a rotary-blade tool, though. so if you have a small piece that’s going to come loose when it’s cut, be aware it’s about to become a tiny missile unless you’ve figured out how to get it out of the way. so figure that out before you run the board through the saw. after is too late and during isn’t going to happen.
the next thing to be aware of is that the tablesaw is a powerful tool. it will do its best to lift the wood off the table and toss it back at you. if you’re using your fence and a board gets trapped between the fence and the blade, it really can lift off the table and hit you in the face. this is called “kickback” and, while that sounds like a 90s console football game, it’s extremely dangerous. ask a professional if they’ve experienced it and watch their face drain of color. it’s scary af. we’re not talking about a piece of wood the size of your hand. it can take that two-meter, 200mm-wide board and pitch it like … well, like that football. it can (and i’ve seen this) drop a grown human on their ass, stunned and barely-conscious. there are ways to prevent this. for example, you shouldn’t be running anything against both the blade and the fence at the same time. use an offset fence and there’s nothing for it to be pinched between. use a riving knife — this is a little device that sits right behind the blade to make sure the cut can’t close on the blade from both sides and end up thrown back in your face. honestly, if a tablesaw doesn’t have a riving knife, i refuse to use it. a splitter might sound like a good idea but that can, on shallow cuts, be centimeters from the blade and that gives me no real comfort. all modern tablesaws come with riving knives. if yours doesn’t have one, there might be an aftermarket option. but using a saw without it is a recipe for kickback and that won’t just ruin your day — it’ll ruin your year.
there’s one other thing about kickback and torsional forces i should probably address separately — workholding and pressure. don’t run boards across a tablesaw with your hands unless your hands are going to be far, far, far from the blade. there are some professionals who get so close i start shaking when i watch them. they know what they’re doing. so do i but i don’t take that risk. it’s not that taking risks is stupid. it’s that taking risks is unnecessary and i like my hands where they are. you can use push-sticks and push-pads to keep the board flat against the table. there’s no need to use your precious fingers. tear up a push-stick and you can make a new one. i can’t build a new hand. can you?
there’s another ingenious tool for holding work against the table and the fence, by the way — a featherboard. this looks like a fan made of plastic or wood and it simply means the wood is held firmly in one axis and can move only in one direction in the other. brilliant. get a few of these. they’re cheap and you can even make your own (using a tablesaw, too!) but you’ll use them all the time. i rarely make a cut without either clamping the board to a sled or using a featherboard. can’t remember the last time i made a through-cut on a board that wasn’t secured using one or the other, sometimes both.
while we’re on the subject of things being thrown back in your face, though, there’s one other thing to keep in mind — your eyes. even the smallest woodchip can destroy your vision in an instant. it’s a risk not worth taking. i suggest you get a bunch of pairs of safety goggles and keep them around your shop. before you turn on a powertool, put them on. every time. doesn’t matter if it’s just one cut or it’s only a sander — your eyes are precious and it’s two seconds to put them on. i’ve seen some brutal accidents take away someone’s sight when they were “just ripping this one little board” or “flushing up the end of a tenon”. it takes one slip and you’re blind. better safe, right?
while we’re on the subject of faces, you probably breathe through yours, too. so wear a dust-mask or respirator, depending on what you’re cutting. sure, you can get by without one but how much wood dust do you really want in your oxygen supply? spend your twenties ripping boards and breathing in the dust and you’ll spend your thirties kicking yourself for it and your sixties truly livid at the folly of youth. be smart. don’t breathe in all the dust. you’re already breathing in more than is healthy just by being in the shop so try to keep it to a minimum when that dust is being actively thrown in your face as you cut boards. you don’t have to look like you’re suiting up for a mars mission but i usually tell people eye and air protection are the basic minimum for standing at a tablesaw.
your ears are useful. the saw isn’t going to cut them off but it might be loud. this is far less significant from my perspective and i simply don’t bother with them but if you’re worried about hearing loss (i’m really not and i can explain why if anyone’s curious) there are many hearing-protection options. i suggest looking into them, especially if you use loud equipment regularly. i know a few who have suffered significant hearing degradation over the years from constant machine use. it’s definitely real and you can pick up protective hearing covers for just a few bucks. actually, all these safety tools are extremely cheap — even a good reusable dust-mask won’t set you back much cash so you really have no excuse not to take precautions.
of course, we’re also talking about a high-power electrical tool so all the usual precautions about wiring, moisture and physical stability apply. if you haven’t had an electrician look at your shop, i’d suggest it, especially if you’re thinking about a 220v saw with a big motor. the last thing you want is an electrical fire, right?
now that we’ve got the what, what not and be careful sides of things out of the way, the real question everyone asks is what tablesaw they should buy. and the answer isn’t as simple as you might think. most of it comes down to price. of course, if you have a serious budget, there’s a clear answer. get a sawstop. why? it’s a beautiful piece of equipment that can cut precisely and effectively and it has a wonderful safety feature — if you touch the blade it instantly drops below the table to save your hand. it’s more expensive than other competing tablesaws. but reparative surgery on your hands is expensive and rarely successful. take your pick. we can all make mistakes. i’d rather mine don’t leave me limbless.
on the entry-level side of things, though, that’s not really the answer. so let’s look at the different price options.
in the sub-thousand-dollar range, you have what are called “jobsite tablesaws” — these have a flimsy base and are relatively portable. if you have the money to go higher than this category, do it. this is a place you don’t want to be for long. if you keep going in your woodworking passion, you’ll upgrade from a jobsite saw to a cabinet model as soon as you can. but sometimes finances really are the issue. there are a few serious tools in this category to consider. they’re made by dewalt, bosch, grizzly and rikon. there’s one other you might want to think about, though, which is a really unusual recommendation for me — ryobi. i generally tell people to buy quality powertools that will last and be reliable. and while ryobi is all those things, they’re at the lower end of that market (and obviously priced for that purpose). in this case, though, i consider jobsite saws to be for only two purposes. either you’re using it on an actual jobsite and that’s what it’s for but you’re not aiming for precision because you’re probably not duplicating krenov’s work out there in the middle of the vacant lot where your house will go someday. or you’re using it because you haven’t saved enough money for a serious cabinet model yet and you’re going to get rid of it in the near future and start using the saw of your dreams. either way, the ryobi is the only one you’re likely to get under four-hundred dollars and it’s what i’d suggest if you’re using it temporarily. think you’ll be stuck with it for years? probably get the grizzly at closer to seven-hundred. they’re all quality equipment.
a cautionary note. benchtop models are a disaster. just don’t even go there. if you can’t afford the ryobi floor-standing model, just keep using your circular saw until you can. you won’t be happy with the results of a benchtop tablesaw. there’s no question here. you might get one for a hundred dollars less but it’s not worth the pain. and the safety… well, let’s just say if you’re not working on an integrated stand, you’re definitely increasing your risk.
i don’t do affiliate links. you can check out this stuff at your local hardware dealer or directly from grizzly. i don’t have a horse in this race.
the next step up is where the real debates start. in the sub-two-thousand range, though, where most people are looking to start, there are a few competitors but i have a clear recommendation if you want my opinion. grizzly makes what they call a “hybrid” cabinet-saw that sells for about $1400 that is leaps and bounds better than just about anything else available in that price range. yes, there are definitely far better saws out there. but for the money it’s awesome. in this category, though, you will want to look at the entry-level models by laguna, jet and powermatic. each of these make a quality model under two-grand that will treat you well from now until the end of your career. you may never want to upgrade. seriously, this could be your last tablesaw purchase. so this is a huge step up in all cases from the contractor/jobsite-saw. it’s an investment. so make sure you do your homework and that will depend on what you can get in your area and local pricing. these are all solid brands. i would definitely think twice before buying anything from another manufacturer, though. there are a few other grizzly models in that under-two-thousand range, by the way, so don’t just compare one from each brand. the more you spend, the better the saw will be. got a few hundred extra to drop on the tool? that will reward you in stability and ease-of-use.
once you get to the three-to-four-thousand-dollar range, my advice is crystal-clear. buy a sawstop. whether it’s the cheapest $3500-ish professional saw or the far-more-than-that industrial models, the safety features of the sawstop make the teacher in me smile enough to say it’s unquestionably worth the cost. yes, you’re paying more for it. but compared to health, it’s not that much more. yes, you can get an awesome saw from any of the manufacturers i listed above — grizzly, laguna, jet, powermatic. and it will do exactly what you need with similar levels of precision to the sawstop. but you’re more likely to slip and cut your fingers off. if that’s a risk you’re willing to take, it’s your body. for mine, the sawstop is the only option i will seriously entertain once i get to this price-range.
a note on used saws
my note on used tablesaws is simple — don’t buy one. if it’s new enough to have the basic safety-features (a modern blade-guard and a riving-knife), it’ll be selling for something close to the cost of a new one. so get a new one. if it’s not new enough to have those safety-features, that’s a hard-no in my books. can you get a good deal on the used market? maybe. is it worth looking? probably not. there’s always a chance you’ll find someone who’s too stupid to know what their tools are worth and a quick look at craigslist never hurt anyone. but if you’ll be tempted to save some money and get a 70s delta unisaw if you see one out of sheer nostalgia? just walk down to woodcraft and introduce yourself.
while you’re at it, check out local classes on tablesaw safety and basics. i know i’ve said it before but if there’s one tool in the shop you want to make sure you know how to use well, this is it. it’s the one you’ll spend most of your powertool time at so it’s where most of the risk is by sheer statistical logic. do it right. you’ll thank yourself later.
so you want a tablesaw. we all do. it’s a vital component of any modern powertool (hybrid) woodworking shop. you can do most of the tasks you’ll want to do every day with it. and it does them well. get a good, quality saw and it’ll treat you well for decades. anyway, i don’t normally write these introduction-to-a-tool articles very often but this one seemed to be much in demand so i made an exception. if you’ve got any questions, let me know. thanks for reading!