Thinking about buying a table saw but don’t know where to start? Then keep reading, as this guide will explain the most important details new woodworkers need to know about table saws before buying one!
One of the biggest challenges for new woodworkers is deciding which power tools to buy. Once you know which tools you want in your shop, figuring out the particular types of those tools to buy can be even more overwhelming.
This guide will provide you with information to help you become more familiar with the main parts found on table saws, the types of table saws, and how to select the best type of table saw for your woodworking needs.
Types of cuts you can make on a table saw
A table saw is a floor or bench mounted tool that allows you to make many types of cuts to lumber or sheet goods. Because of its versatility, a table saw is the workhorse of the woodworking shop. For that reason, a table saw should be the first major purchase for your shop.
The types of cuts you can make with a table saw include:
- Rip cut – Cutting down the length of the workpiece
- Crosscut – Cutting across the width of the material
- Miter cut – Cutting at an angle in relation to the board or sheet good’s long side
- Bevel cut – Cutting at an angle through the board’s thickness, along its length, or along its width
You can also use your table saw to cut several types of joints. Some examples are:
- Grooves – A slot cut along the length of the workpiece’s surface
- Dados – A groove cut across the width of the material
- Rabbets – A groove cut along the edge of the workpiece
- Tenons – The “male” portion of a mortise and tenon joint
- Lap joints – Made by removing an equal amount of material (half of the material’s thickness) from two workpieces of the same thickness so that, when joined, a flush surface is created. Used to make shiplap joints.
- Dovetails – An interlocking joint with one workpiece having angled tenons resembling “tails” that fit into mortised holes or recesses on the second workpiece
- Finger or box joints – An interlocking joint where alternating square or rectangle-shaped tenons on one workpiece are fitted in spaces between the fingers on another workpiece
- Miter joints – Angled joints, usually cut at 45 degrees, joining two workpieces
- Bridle joints – A joint made by slipping one workpiece that has an open mortise cut on the end over a recessed area made on another workpiece by removing equal amounts of materials from both faces
Parts of the table saw you need to be familiar with
In order to select and use an appropriate table saw for your needs you need to be able to identify the major parts and what they do. The quality of the individual parts affects the overall quality of the saw. Let’s examine each of the major parts.
The base is what supports the saw and encloses some parts. Bases range from short, plastic enclosures for job site saws, stands with legs for contractor saws, or a box-like metal enclosure for cabinet saws. We’ll discuss the type of bases commonly found on each saw type later in this article.
Adjustment wheels are typically found on the front and right side of the table saw and are used to raise and lower the blade height and to adjust the cutting angle of the blade. Adjustment wheels can be made of plastic or similar synthetic materials, aluminum or steel. Some adjustment wheels are chrome-plated.
The table is the top surface of the saw that supports the workpiece as it’s moved into the blade. Tables are typically made of cast iron, stamped steel, or aluminum. The table should be as flat as reasonably possible, especially in the reference surfaces around the blade.
Many table saws have tabletop extensions, called wings or leaves, to increase the crosscutting capacity by providing more support for the workpiece. These extensions may not be as flat as the main table, but this is not a major concern as the purpose of the leaves is to support the wood and not to offer a reference surface to the blade.
The rip fence is an extremely important part of the table saw as it is used to guide wood into and through the blade during ripping cuts. A fence that is out of square to the table can result in out of square cuts. A fence that is not aligned parallel to the blade can create dangerous kickback of lumber. When buying a saw, you want to get one with a fence that locks down tight and straight. The fence should not flex or be easy to move when locked down.
The rails are mounted on the front and rear of the saw and guide and support the rip fence. Table saw rails are usually made of steel and are hollow. They come in various lengths, such as 24”, 30”, and 52”, to allow for wider extension tables. The length of the guide rails dictates the maximum width of rip cuts you can make on the saw. Therefore, you should consider the type of material you plan to be cutting with your saw when deciding which table saw to buy. Some saws can be upgraded with longer rails and extension table, so you may get by just fine with a shorter rail set at first, then install a longer set later.
Miter gauge and miter slot
Miter gauges have short fences mounted on bars that run in miter slots in the table’s top. The face of the fence is perpendicular to the blade and supports the workpiece as it is pushed into the blade when making crosscuts. You can set the miter gauge at various angles, such as 90 degrees for square cuts and 45 degrees for mitered cuts.
The miter slot is a groove that runs from front to back on the table. Two miter slots, one on each side of the blade, are usually present. The standard miter slot is ¾” wide by 3/8” deep, but some saws, especially off-brands or small job-site saws may have odd sized miter slots.
The throat plate is a metal, wood, plastic, or phenolic insert recessed into the tabletop surrounding the blade. The saw blade protrudes through a slot cut into the plate. The plate is removable to allow access for blade replacement, adjustments, etc.
Zero-clearance throat plates are made by clamping down a solid plate made of a non-metal material while the blade is slowly raised through the plate from the bottom. The resulting slot is nearly equal to the blade’s thickness.
Zero-clearance throat plates help to reduce tear-out on the back of workpiece as the material is supported underneath all the way to the blade’s cutting edge. The zero-clearance plate also prevents small pieces of material from falling into the gap between the blade and a regular throat plate.
A dado throat plate has a wider slot to accommodate the width of a stacked dado blade set.
The motor, of course, is what makes it all work by turning the blade. The type of motor and drive system varies from one type of saw to another.
Universal direct-drive motors are found on bench top saws and some contractor saws. According to an article in Popular Woodworking magazine, these motors “have a shorter life span, are smaller, make more noise, and “operate at very high speeds”. The magazine claims that these types of motors “offer the most horsepower per pound of any [AC] current motor, and…are very difficult to stall.”
Induction motors turn the blade via belts. Popular Woodworking says induction motors are “rugged, quiet, large, heavy, turn more slowly and can be stalled under heavy use”. The magazine says these motors are “great for the long haul”. The photo below shows the 3 HP induction motor on my SawStop Professional Cabinet Saw. At the risk of sounding clichéd, this beast can slice through hardwood like a hot knife through butter.
Trunnions, cradle, arbor, and rack gears
These components form the “guts” of the table saw and contribute significantly to a table saw’s accuracy and quality.
Trunnions are u-shaped metal components located at the front and back of the saw that support the motor and arbor assembly. Trunnions on bench top and contractor saws are attached the to bottom of the table, while they are bolted to the cabinet itself on cabinet saws. Trunnions are a very important part of the saw as they keep the blade aligned with the miter slot and rip fence and help to absorb vibration from the motor. Because of their important role, trunnions in better saws are usually wider and beefier.
The cradle assembly rides in channels on the trunnions and supports the arbor assembly.
The saw blade is mounted to a threaded end on the arbor assembly, which is a metal shaft. On smaller table saws, the motor is connected to the other end of the arbor. For belt-driven motors, one or more pulleys are attached to the other end of the arbor. These pulleys are connected to the motor via belts. Saws that use 10” blades have a 5/8” diameter arbor.
Rack gears on the cradle assembly and arbor assembly allow the motor to be raised and lowered and to be tilted. The adjustment wheels rotate rods with worm gears that engage the rack gears and thus provide the needed movement. Adjustable stops at either end of the rack gears restrict the movement so the blade can be tilted to exactly 45 or 90 degrees.
Table Saw Safety Features
Table saws are dangerous tools, and you must respect them. A split-second of inattention can result in maiming injuries. Therefore, you should look for table saws with adequate safety features. Once you have the saw, you should use all guards and wear eye, ear, and dust protection.
Here’s a rundown of the most common safety features available on table saws:
The blade guard surrounds the blade and protects the user from accidental contact with the blade. Many woodworkers remove the blade guards as they feel they get in the way or take too long to take off and reinstall when they make a non-through cut such as a dado.
However, my opinion is that you’re asking for trouble and serious injury by not leaving your blade guard in place unless necessary to remove it for the type of cut you’re making. You can also buy after-market guards that are not attached directly to the saw and swing out-of-the-way when needed. A few minutes of inconvenience is not worth losing your fingers or hand.
Riving knife or splitter
The riving knife or splitter sits directly behind the saw blade and keeps the workpiece separated as it exits the back of the blade. This prevents kickback caused by wood distorting after it is cut and closing back up around the blade. A riving knife rises up and down with the blade, always maintaining the same distance between it and the blade.
Riving knives can be kept in place for non-through cuts like dadoes. A splitter, however, remains at a fixed height behind the blade. As the blade is lowered, the distance between the splitter and blade increases. This larger gap results in a higher chance of kickback as the workpiece can pinch the blade. Splitters also have to be removed when making dado or other non-through cuts.
These are spring-loaded metal extensions with teeth that are mounted just behind the riving knife or splitter. The aggressive teeth are angled in such a manner that they bite into the wood should the saw back attempt to throw the workpiece back toward the user. The spring mechanism keeps the pawls tight against the wood, but not so tight that they damage the workpiece during normal operation.
The power switch turns the saw on and off. The switch is usually on the left side of the saw, under the table.
Some table saws have magnetic power switches. You have to manually pull the switch forward to start the saw. Magnetic switches offer an important safety feature over manual switches. A saw with a manual switch left in the “on” position when the power went out would automatically start when the power was restored. You don’t want to be changing the blade when that happened!
A knee switch has a large paddle that can be tapped with a knee to quickly turn the motor off. The switch has to be pulled out to start the saw in order to avoid accidental startups from bumping into the large switch.
Flesh detection technology
If your hand or fingers get pulled into a table saw blade, the chances of losing them to traumatic amputation are very great. But what if your saw could detect contact with flesh and, in a fraction of a second, stop the blade’s rotation and drop it below the table surface?
The Saw Stop brand saws all have technology that does those very things as a standard feature. Supposedly, contact with the blade on one of their saws will likely result in nothing more than a nick that won’t even need a band-aid. That’s not a license for you to use unsafe cutting methods or to be careless around the table saw.
Your safety is still your own responsibility when working with cutting tools. However, such safety features can offer peace of mind for new woodworkers (as well as older codgers like me) who are not as experienced with working with table saws.
This YouTube video demonstrates how well Saw Stop technology works in stopping a dado blade set.
Table saws generate a lot of dust that is harmful to your health and creates fire and explosion hazards. Dust collection is tricky with benchtop and contractor saws because of their open bases which allow the dust to be ejected all over the shop. These saws may have a dust collection bag or dust port to which you can hook a shop vacuum or smaller dust collection hose.
Cabinet saws do a better job of containing the dust because of their enclosed bases and larger dust collection outlets that accept larger 4″ hoses. Some cabinet saws offer optional blade guards with secondary dust collection ports that can be connected to the main cabinet dust port or connected separately to a vacuum or dust collector.
Types of Table Saw Blades
Even if you buy the highest quality table saw on the market, you will not get the results you expect if you do not use a good quality saw blade. The majority of table saws use a 10” blade with a 5/8″ arbor hole, although you can find commercial saws that require a 12” blade. A saw with a 10″ blade has a maximum depth of cut of around 3″ to 3-1/8″ at 90 degrees. This capacity is reduced to 2″ to 2-1/4″ for 45-degree cuts.
Typically, table saws come with a standard combination saw blade. In most cases, these standard blades do not offer as much quality as a good after-market blade. However, as a beginning woodworker, you may want to try to use the blade that came with the saw as long as you’re happy with the cut quality or until your budget allows you to buy a better one.
If you do decide to upgrade the blade or need one for a specific task like cutting dadoes, it’s important that you understand the various types of saw blades and which one is suitable for your situation. Let’s discuss the kinds of blades available and the recommended use for each type.
Carbide vs. metal saw blades
Table saw blades are made of high carbon steel, steel with carbide blades, or all carbide. High carbon steel blades are still available but are no longer as popular as they used to be. Carbide-tipped blades are what you are likely to find in most woodworking shops.
The carbide tips are made of tungsten carbide, one of the hardest synthetic materials ever made. This hardness results in carbide blades staying sharp longer and making smoother cuts than steel blades.
A couple of disadvantages of carbide blades are that the tips can chip, requiring replacement, and are not easily sharpened. Diamond grinding wheels are needed to sharpen the carbide teeth. Therefore, most woodworkers must take the blades to a local sharpening business or ship them to the manufacturer to be sharpened.
Full kerf vs. thin kerf saw blades
The space left after a saw blade cuts through wood is called the kerf. In order for the body of the blade not to rub or be pinched by the workpiece, the kerf has to be wider than the blade’s body.
This is accomplished with carbide blades by having the cutting tips to be wider than the body. The teeth on steel blades have an alternate tooth set where the teeth are bent to one side to the other in an alternating pattern.
The width of the kerf determines if a blade is a “full kerf” or a “thin kerf” blade. Most standard table saw blades create full kerfs, which are 1/8” wide. Thin kerfs are 3/32” wide.
While they are usually a little less expensive than full kerf blades, thin kerf blades are more susceptible to flexing when cutting very hard or thick woods. Full kerf blades, on the other hand, are not as likely to flex but do remove about 1/32” more material, which should not be a concern.
Table saw blades come with one of four grinds, or shape, of their teeth. These grinds impact the type of cutting operation each blade is best designed for:
- Alternate top bevel (ATB): Found on all-purpose blades; 40 teeth are set at an angle across the top of the blade with every other tooth angled the opposite direction. These blades cut cleanly but dull more quickly than blades with some of the other grind types.
- Flat top grind (FTG): Found on rip blades, the teeth are square to the blade and are called raker teeth. These blades cut faster and last longer, but the cuts may not be as clean. Rip blades usually have 24 teeth, resulting in fast, aggressive cuts that may not be clean compared to cuts made by other saws.
- Alternate top bevel raker (ATBR): ATBR refers to four ATB teeth followed by a fifth raker tooth and is the tooth set used for combination blades. These blades usually have 50 teeth and are useful for both ripping boards and crosscutting them.
- Triple chip grind (TCG): The teeth on TCG blades have raker teeth with a chamfered tooth. The raker tooth makes a rough cut while the chamfered tooth refines it to make a final smooth cut. Blades with these grinds are used to cut laminates, solid surface materials, and soft non-ferrous metals (brass, aluminum, copper, etc.).
In addition to standard combination, rip, and crosscut saw blades, manufacturers have developed several types of specialty blades that can make cuts for joinery a breeze. Let’s take a look at the major kinds of specialty blades.
Dado blades are used to cut dado joints across the grain. Two types of blades are available, stacked and wobble sets.
Stacked dado blades come in sets consisting of two ¼” thick blades and several 1/8” thick chippers that are installed between the blades. The dado width can be fine-tuned by use of thin disc-shaped metal shims. Shims can be found in thicknesses ranging from .0004” to .020”. The final width of the dado is determined by the number of chippers and shims used with the blades to make up the stack. The cuts made by stack dado blades have flat bottoms and allow for tighter fitting joints.
Wobble, or adjustable, dado blades have a single blade that wobbles as it spins. The blade is attached to a hub to which the blade is mounted to a hub and which is adjusted to vary the angle that it spins. This angle dictates the final width of the cut. Wobble dado blades make slight coves on the bottom of the dado. The cove gets larger the wider the cut, which can cause a loose-fitting joint.
Wobble blades can also create chipping and tear out of the work piece. The only advantages to wobble blades are that they are less expensive and take less time to set up.
Special ground blades / dovetail / box joints
The teeth on table saw blades can be set and ground in such ways to allow them to be used to make cuts for joinery such as dovetails and box or finger joints.
While a regular saw blade can sometimes be reground to match the slope of dovetails, at least two companies, Forrest Manufacturing Co. and Ridge Carbide Tool Co., sell new saw blades specially ground for cutting dovetails. You specify the dovetail grind angle when you order the blade.
These companies and others also sell finger joint and box joint blades with flat teeth that are excellent for cutting finger joints, box joints, rabbets, and flat-bottomed grooves.
Molding cutters allow woodworkers to use the table saw to make architectural moldings and trim. These cutters consist of a thick disc that is mounted on the table saw arbor. Replaceable cutters ground to various shapes used in making trim are attached to the cutter head with set screens. Up to 70 cutter profiles can be purchased for some molding cutters.
Types of table saws
Woodworkers use four main types of table saws most often: job site or benchtop saws, contractor saws, hybrid saws, and cabinet saws. Let’s discuss the differences, advantages, and disadvantage each type has in comparison to the other types.
Job Site / Benchtop Saws
Job site saws, often called benchtop saws, are lightweight tools that are popular with carpenters who must frequently transport their saw to and from the work site. Job site saws can be purchased run between $200 and $600 dollars.
Job site saws may come with a collapsible or folding mobile base with wheels or may simply be carried and set on a bench or saw horses. This type of saw typically has an universal-type motor that is connected directly to the blade and does not use belts. The motor is enclosed in the saw’s housing.
Job site saws have limited power that is measured in RPM instead of horsepower and so are typically used to cut ¾” to 1” thick material. The typical blade size for this kind of saw is 8” or 10”.
The smaller table size also reduces the cutting capacity, although extension wings may be purchased for some of these saws to increase the size of material that can be cut. The smaller size is an advantage for woodworkers who have limited shop space.
In spite of the limited power and cutting capacity, a job site or benchtop saw can be a great choice as a first table saw for a beginning woodworker. This is especially true if you are testing the waters to see if woodworking is right for you and don’t want to invest $1,000 or more in a larger saw. Just understand that you won’t be ripping wide pieces of plywood on a benchtop or job site saw.
Contractor saws, while not as heavy as cabinet or hybrid saws, are left in a dedicated workshop and not hauled from job site to job site. These saws are also the most popular saws for home woodworkers because they offer more cutting power and capacity than a job site saw yet are not as expensive nor take up as much space as a cabinet saw.
The motors on contractor saws are usually 1-1/2 to 2 horsepower that are mounted outside of the saw’s base and hang off the back of the saw. The motors are large enough to allow cutting of most dimensional lumber but may slow when cutting harder and thicker woods like 2” oak or ash.
Contractor saw tables are full size, and extension tables can be added, as well as rails up to 52” long. These features allow for cutting full sheets of plywood or other sheet materials.
This type of saw is fairly mobile as it usually comes with an open stand that can be mounted on a mobile base to allow easy movement around the shop. Most contractor saws use standard 10” blades and have belt-driven induction motors. Several accessories can be used with contractor saws, such as tenon jigs and crosscut sleds.
Prices for contractor saws vary from about $715 to $2,000.
Cabinet saws are the most often used type of table saws by professional cabinet and furniture makers. Many woodworkers also own these saws because of the increased power, accuracy, and cutting capacity they offer over other types of table saws.
Cabinet saws feature beefier components, such as cast iron trunnions, and are generally more powerful and accurate than job site and contractor saws. These saws use induction motors with belts and pulleys to rotate the blade. These motors are usually 3 to 5 horsepower. Plowing through a 2” thick piece of white oak or hard maple may stall most contractor saws, but cabinet saws chew through the wood like it was butter.
The tops of cabinet saws, as the name suggests, are mounted on metal cabinets that house the motor and internal mechanisms. The cabinet increases the stability of the saw, helping to reduce vibration and noise from the motor and blade. The tops on cabinet saws are usually cast-iron and flatter than those on smaller types of saws.
Fence and rail systems that come with cabinet saws are also beefier and more accurate than those on some contractor saws and cannot even be compared to the smaller components of job site saws.
You can expect to spend from $1,750 to $4,400 for a cabinet saw. The Powermatic PM2000, 5HP cabinet saw with 50-inch fence system pictured below can be purchased for around $3,200 to $3,000.
Hybrid saws, like the Jet Proshop JPS-10TS pictured below, are a smaller, lighter, and more affordable version of cabinet saws. They have either an enclosed base like a cabinet saw or a shorter enclosure with legs. The motor is usually 1-1/2 to 2 HP and is completely enclosed within the base.
Hybrid saws offer advantages over contractor saws in that the internal parts such as the trunnions are better quality and mounted to the base of the saw so you can easily make adjustments to the alignment of the blade with the miter slot.
Hybrid saws are priced below a high-end cabinet saw and above a mid-priced contractor saw. You can expect to see prices in the $950 to $1,500 range, depending on the rail length and tabletop material like cast iron or steel.
Additional things to consider when deciding which table saw to buy
Now that you’re familiar with the various table saw features, let’s talk about what you need to focus on when deciding which table to buy.
- Cost: You should buy the best saw you can afford. However, money to buy woodworking tools can be tight. While in a perfect world you might buy the most expensive saw on the market, you really need to consider if you will get your money’s worth out of the saw. This is especially true if you are just testing the waters with the hobby or just intend to make small craft items that don’t require a lot of power or cutting capacity. You can always start with a job site or contractor saw and use any extra money to purchase other tools you’ll need to start your hobby.
- Mobility: If you woodwork in your garage or other small areas, space is a premium commodity. You will want to think about whether you plan to leave your table saw in a fixed location or will need to move it aside for your family cars when you’re not in the shop. Fortunately, even the largest, heaviest table saws can be outfitted with mobile bases to allow you to easily move the saw out of the way when needed. I have a dedicated shop but, even still, I have my cabinet saw on a mobile base. That really helps with being able to clean the shop or to re-arrange it without having to ask buddies to come over and move a 450-pound beast. If you have no or very little floor space, then you could go with a job site saw that sits on a bench top when being used and under it when you’re done.
- Cutting capacity: If you plan to use sheet goods like plywood for your projects, you should consider buying a contractor saw or cabinet table saw. You can add extension wings or tables to these saws, along with a longer set of rails for the fence, and be able to crosscut full sheets of plywood.
- Motor horsepower: The size of the motor will impact your ability to cut thick hardwoods. If you will be using 2-inch thick lumber in your projects, you will want a saw with enough power to chew through the wood. In this case I recommend a 3 HP motor. On the other hand, if you intend to build birdhouses and other types of crafty items with ¾” pine, poplar, or similar thinner woods, then a contractor saw with a 1-1/2 HP motor should be enough for your needs. You can even make do with a job site saw, as I did when first starting out.
Workshop setup for table saws
In addition to the features and quality of the saw itself, you should consider some other factors relating to your workshop when choosing a table saw.
- Workflow: This goes back to the mobility factor discussed earlier. You need to think about where the saw will be placed, whether that will be a permanent location, and if the saw will be in the way of other tools.
- Lighting: Do you have plenty of lighting directly above the saw? If not, can you have lighting fixtures installed there?
- Wiring: Do you have the proper electrical circuit needed to power your saw, such as 240V if required? Will you be able to plug in the saw without having to use an extension cord that will be a trip hazard?
- Dust collection: How will you deal with the sawdust created by the saw? Do you have a shop vacuum or dust collector that is capable of handling the volume of dust spewed out by a table saw?
I hope this article has provided you with some useful information to help you choose the table saw that’s right for you. Now go buy that saw and make some sawdust!