Of all the articles here, I would argue that this is the most important. While it doesn’t provide you with much in terms of technical knowledge, it will teach you about the most important aspect to using a table saw: safety. Now, I am usually the first person to roll their eyes at various health and safety measures, which sometimes border on ridiculous. Believe it or not, I had a job where all employees were required to take a health and safety course on how to properly open doors. I am not kidding. A man came around carrying his little clipboard, told us to stop laughing and take the course very seriously, showed us how to open doors, and left. Mind you, there was never a safety course on how to close doors and we barely got through winter, since all the doors remained open, as we had no knowledge of how to close them properly.
All kidding aside, yes, many safety measures are ridiculous and will insult your intelligence, but when you’re operating a table saw which sports a 10 or 12-inch laser-sharp blade spinning at 3 or 4 thousand RPM, and your fingers are only inches from it, you can use all the safety you can get, and then ask for seconds. I am going to assume you are using safety equipment, so I’m not going to get into that. Instead, I am going to discuss some of the safety options you want your table saw to have. Let’s check them out.
The most noticeable and probably the most important safety feature is the blade guard, because it’s very effective at keeping your fingers away from the danger zone – the saw blade. Truth is though, that many woodworkers don’t like the blade guard because they can’t measure and see the cuts if it’s attached, especially if the guard is not made out of plexiglass. They also complain that things like changing the blade or removing stuck wood take more time, so they often decide NOT to use the blade guard.
That said, it’s easy to understand how blade guards can help safe your fingers, and using them should definitely be your starting point. Manufacturers continuously make improvements to the design and some of the table saws I reviewed now have very clear and flexible guards, so the arguments against it slowly lose their force.
One of the leading causes of table saw related accidents is kickback, which occurs when a piece of wood gets ejected at high speed, back toward the operator. This can cause some serious injuries. This happens when the wood binds between the fence and the blade, and then gets caught by the teeth on the back on the blade. In order to prevent that from happening, many table saws are fitted with a splitter. A splitter is basically a small vertical blade made of metal or plastic, which holds the kerf open behind the table saw blade. It’s a simple solution that works, up to a certain point.
Attached to the splitter are usually two anti-kickback pawls, each protecting one side of the wood. Their job is to keep the wood from catapulting in the event of kickback, by sticking their “claws” in it. This works fairly well, although you may have to remove them when making crosscuts because the anti-kickback pawls often get in the way with the wood.
An even better option would be to consider a table saw with a riving knife instead of a splitter. While both do roughly the same thing, there are some key differences between the two. The disadvantage of having a splitter instead of a riving knife is that the splitter is fixed, which means it doesn’t move along with the blade. Because it’s fixed, a splitter needs to be removed when making cross, non-through, and dado cuts. Unfortunately, many people tend to forget to put the splitter back in place when they start making rip cuts. So if you have a table saw which uses a splitter to prevent kickback, always remember to double-check that the splitter is in place.
A riving knife, on the other hand, is attached to the same mechanism as the blade of the saw, which means it’s able to move along with the blade. It’s also safer because the operator can’t come into contact with the back of the blade, and the riving knife is mounted closer to the blade, so the wood has much less space to get caught by the back of the blade. Additionally, it doesn’t get in the way of other table saw features such as the blade guard, dust collectors, and so on.
According to the data I was able to gather, one table saw accident occurs every 9 minutes, and they are responsible for as many as 10 amputations every day. In order to prevent that from happening, SawStop came up with a unique safety system which stops the blade as soon as it comes into contact with human skin. How does it do that? Well, wood won’t trigger the sensor because it’s a very poor conductor, but since human skin has much better conductivity than wood, it triggers the sensor which activates the aluminum brake which, in turn, stops the blade immediately and causes it to drop below the table.
The entire action takes only 0.02 seconds and the operator will only end up with a scratch or a shallow cut, instead of losing a finger. The resulting jerk is so strong, both the brake mechanism and the blade will need to be replaced afterward, but it’s a small price to pay in order to keep all your fingers intact, wouldn’t you agree? You can go on YouTube and find the video where the creator of this safety system demonstrates the effectiveness of this system using his own finger. There wasn’t a scratch on him. Truly a game-changer.
Another useful safety feature to look for when choosing a table saw is a magnetic switch. This will protect the motor from overload, but what a magnetic switch also does is set the saw to the “off” position in the event of a power outage, or if the power is interrupted for some other reason. Just imagine being in the middle of adjusting the saw and the blade, and the power comes back on. With a magnetic switch, the saw will be automatically set to the “off” position when it loses power, which is a far safer option. You can power up the saw once you turn the switch back to the “on” position.
If you are not the lucky owner of a saw with the SawStop safety system, you are going to need a push stick, which comes in handy when you need to slide the wood through the blade. Having your hands too close to the saw blade is never a good thing, so it is a wise idea to rely on a push stick. You can get one at just about any shop that sells woodwork supplies, or make one yourself. There are plenty of tutorials online to teach you how to do so.
I would advise you to read this article several times because safety is crucial when operating a table saw and that kind of knowledge is something you just can’t get enough of. Now that you know more about the safety features you should be looking for, you can choose the right table saw for you based on your needs and budget. The only thing that won’t cost you anything is focus and common sense while operating a saw, and you’re going to need those at all times.