One of the easiest ways to become acquainted with table saws is to learn their basic types. This was a lesson I wasn’t aware of when I started my research, so I had my work cut out for me.
First of all, based on their portability, there are two basic types of saws: portable and stationary. As you may have already read, the majority of the table saws I reviewed here are portable, to a certain extent. Now, within each of those two types, there are further classifications, which is what this article is all about. I don’t want to waste any more of your time, so let’s get straight to the point, shall we?
The three basic types of portable saws are bench top, compact, and jobsite table saws. Since they are designed to be portable, they tend to be smaller and lighter. The use of heavier and sturdier materials in their design is also significantly reduced to keep their weight down. Most portable table saws come with direct drive 15-amp, 120V motors which produce no more than 2hp. Now, there are still some misconceptions regarding portable saws, and I will address them a little further along in this article.
Bench top saws are designed to be as compact as possible, very light, and very affordable. They are mostly aimed at users who want to get some light-duty work done in their garage or workshop. Even though they don’t have a stand or transport wheels, they are still considered portable because their small weight allows them to be carried around by almost anyone. For that, they rely on generous usage of lightweight materials such as plastic, aluminum, or other composite materials. Their tables are smaller and their rip capacity is very limited. Still, if you plan on cutting some plywood or softer woods such as pine, and don’t plan on working with full-size material sheets, these little saws will rise to the challenge.
Compact table saws are a step up from bench top table saws. They feature some of the same characteristics, such as direct drive universal motors and lightweight construction, but they will have additional features like stands, or even table surfaces made of cast iron. Some of them can even resemble full-size table saws, but their tables and rip capacity are a lot smaller.
Jobsite saws are a lot more robust and rugged in their construction than either bench top or compact table saws. They are often the table saws of choice for many contractors when they need a portable table saw, which is why you will often find they are referred to as “contractor table saws”, even by some manufacturers. However, even though this term has become widely accepted and common, true contractor table saws are an entirely different beast, but more difficult to come by on today’s market. I will discuss that issue later. Today, the terms “jobsite table saws” and “contractor table saws” are synonymous.
Jobsite, or “contractor”, table saws are still relatively compact and portable, but feature more robust components and produce more accurate results. They still have direct drive motors, but they are more powerful and durable, which makes them suitable for heavy-duty use. They also come with better fences and alignment adjustments, 24″ rip capacities, and some even come with extension tables. Another trademark of a jobsite table saw is the presence of a stand. I say trademark because these stands usually feature some sort of clever design which allows them fold-up to take up less space. In most cases, these stands also feature transport wheels. Features like riving knives, dust collection ports, and onboard storage space are usually considered standard for this type of table saw.
The three basic types of stationary table saws are: contractor, hybrid, and cabinet table saws. Compared to portable saws they are much larger and heavier, more accurate, and more powerful. They are not really portable, although they can be mounted to a mobile base for transportation around the workshop. They also rely on belt drive motors for their power, and have heavy, cast iron tables. You may also encounter some with granite or aluminum table tops. Their tables tend to measure 27 x 20 inches, with the extension tables usually measuring 10 x 12 inches. More advanced stationary table saws can feature outfeed tables, extended fence rails, router tables, and so on.
Contractor saws, true contractor saws, used to be the go-to table saw for professionals, featuring belt drive and large outboard induction motors. Envisioned as an alternative to full-size cabinet saws, they were initially more portable. As their design progressed, their motors became more powerful and the units themselves became heavier, weighing as much as 200 to 300 pounds. Also, their outboard motors required longer belts, which increased the amount of vibration produced, and their dust collection abilities were generally poor.
With the emergence of new, portable table saws, these contractor saws continued their lives as stationary saws in the workshops of hobbyists and enthusiasts because they were a lot less expensive than the equivalent cabinet saws, and a lot more powerful than the new portable models. As I’ve pointed out earlier, contractor table saws with outboard motors are extremely rare, and those you may encounter will be old models.
Hybrid saws are the most difficult to categorize and there is a lot of confusion online about what they really are. Whereas old contractor saws featured huge outboard motors, saws which have the same characteristics as the old contractor saws, but have inboard belt drive induction motors, are usually referred to as hybrid saws. In reality, they are more of a middle ground between the old contractor saws and full-size, industrial cabinet saws. Hybrid saws usually have open leg stands, but there are some models which have full enclosures, which further increases the confusion and makes it even more difficult for buyers to tell the difference between hybrid saws with full enclosures and industrial cabinet saws. The similarities are mostly skin-deep.
Cabinet saws are the most powerful of the whole bunch. In fact, every single one of their characteristics is superior to those of other types of saws. As far as looks are concerned, they don’t look much different than cabinet-enclosed hybrid saws, but most of the similarities end there. Each component of a cabinet saw is designed to be durable and robust, and to withstand heavy-duty use. Cabinet saws are extremely precise, heavy, bulky, and made to last for decades. That’s why they have found their way into most factory shops, specialized schools, and workshops of nearly all professional contractors.
As for individual components, the fences found on cabinet saws are vastly more accurate and robust than those on other types of saws. Once you make all the necessary adjustments, you won’t need to continually readjust every so often, as is the case with all other table saws. Their motors are generally more powerful, as they run on 240V and produce between 3 and 5hp. Needless to say, there is literally nothing a cabinet saw can’t cut through. Hardwood, pressure-treated lumber, large material sheets, pine, plywood, and so on. Their tables are massive and feature extensions. Their weight often surpasses 500 pounds, which adds to their stability but does very little for their portability. Still, if you really need to move them, they can be mounted to a mobile base.
And there you have it. I have tried to make this as comprehensive as possible, which was not an easy feat, since the classification of table saws is really sketchy. As you have seen, the term “contractor saw” has adopted a new meaning. Also, it is sometimes difficult to discern which type of saw you are actually dealing with, and the manufacturers don’t really help with monikers like “hybrid cabinet saw”. Still, I hope you have learned what each of the saw types have in common and what they don’t have in common, as well as some of the specific features you can find on each of them.