Table Saw Face-Off

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This article is from Issue 31 of Woodcraft Magazine.

With few exceptions, cabinet saws come in many different flavors, but most are derived from the original Unisaw, designed by Delta in 1937. Since then, piles of pages have been written and mountains of sawdust made in the quest to discern significant differences between the many descendants.

Having tested and used cabinet saws ranging in price from less than $1,000 to more than $2,000, I’ve learned a few things. First, quality tends to have a direct relation to the price tag, so pitting a bargain brand with a top-shelf saw isn’t a fair fight. Second, calling a winner solely by the numbers—measured in thousandths of an inch—guarantees a rematch. In truth, even testers have a hard time discerning if that deal-making (or -breaking) difference can be attributed to manufacturing tolerances or some lucky break during the production run.

In this never-ending battle royal, it’s refreshing to find two brand-new contenders. In one corner, Delta’s new Unisaw: a redesign of the original workshop workhorse. In the opposite corner, the SawStop Professional: a classic cabinet saw that offers the exclusive protection of a blade-stopping brake. Weighing in at around $3,000, each offers features you won’t find in the other competition. Either has the potential to be the last one you’ll buy.

Not surprisingly, both saws make the cut, but I found that each invests your $3K differently. Following is an above- and below-the-hood look at these new models and advice to help you decide which one’s right for you.

Two Evenly-Matched Saws

I began the test by checking the critical numbers: top flatness, blade-to-slot parallelism, and rip-fence deflection. The numbers were all good.

Power and cut quality were excellent with both. Outfitted with 40-tooth Forrest Woodworker II saw blades, the 3-hp motors did not have any problems ripping or crosscutting 2"-thick red oak. Next, I checked the arbor flange runouts (runout at the flange can translate to wobble at the edge of the blade which affects the cut quality). Both measured in at less than .001".

Multi-source, free-floating vibration can also contribute to rough cuts or a saw that’s simply annoying to operate. Loose change served as my layman’s vibration test. Nix the nickel—both saws had what it took to stand a penny on edge through multiple on/off cycles.

With these issues basically equal, I focused on the features and innovations that would make a difference in a real workshop.

Blade adjustments

I started where most of your time is spent—at the front of the saw. Both proved to be smooth operators, but here’s where some noteworthy differences emerged.

The SawStop employs the tried-and-true front and side handwheel placement. It wasn’t necessary to adjust the bevel stops, but when the time comes, you can easily access the pair of color-coded stop nuts via a small door on the right side of the case. The traditional-style bevel angle indicator reads clearly and can be fine-tuned at the front by a pair of 4mm locking screws. Simple and straightforward.

The Unisaw cranks things up a notch. Delta’s new one-piece trunnion puts both handwheels up front. Adjusting the bevel angle from the front isn’t significantly better than reaching to the side, but the design creates a more airtight case for improved dust collection. (According to Delta, the one-piece casting also makes for a smoother-running trunnion.)

The dial-style bevel gauge scores major points. Delta claims that the dial provides 1/4° accuracy. In truth, you’ll still make test cuts when homing in on an angle, but compared to the smiley-face bevel gauges on other saws, the dial makes hitting your mark easier. And you can tune in the dial indicator by popping off the magnetic cover on the front. The bevel stops for the Unisaw were accurately set, but in keeping with the up-front theme, adjustments for 0° and 45° are made via a pair of recessed nuts.

Dust collection

Both saws use similar hose- and blade-shroud systems to capture dust at the source, but the SawStop’s bi-level system gave it the dust-collecting edge.

SawStop built a port into the guard itself to catch the dust that’s thrown upward by the blade. While effective, the extra hose takes getting used to. When ripping wider sheet goods, it sometimes gets in the way.

The Unisaw doesn’t catch the upward-thrown dust, but the cabinet’s overall design (small holes for the handwheels and gasketed doors) seemed to improve the airflow at the insert and draw more dust into the cabinet. In addition, the case’s ramped bottom directs sawdust to the back where it’s collected via vents located under the main dust port. You’ll still need to sweep your shop at the end of the day, but come month’s end, you won’t need to crawl around and clean out the case with a shop vacuum.

Blade covers and riving knives

Both saws come equipped with tool-free blade covers integrated with riving knives that you’ll want to use. Keep in mind that the riving knife is just as important as the blade cover.

SawStop includes two riving knives. One, a true riving that sits just below the height of the blade, enables you to make non-through cuts, such as grooves. The second knife sits above the blade, serving  as a base for a permanently- attached blade cover. Changing from the true riving knife to the guard takes only about a minute. Simply remove the insert and then throw the lever behind the blade to unclamp one and insert the other.

With the Unisaw, the adjustable knife works as a true riving knife and as a base for the kickback pawls and blade cover. The two-position knife easily slides from low to high, using the hood-release front lever.

Riving knives make saws safer

Even if you keep your hands clear of the blade, a board can sometimes rotate out from the fence and touch the back teeth, or the wood on each side of the kerf can close in on the blade. In either case, the board can kick up and back toward the operator. A riving knife prevents the board from touching the rising teeth.

Blade changing

SawStop’s traditional two-wrench approach works perfectly well. Switching from saw blade to dado set requires switching brake cartridges. A bit tricky at first, but with a little practice it takes only a few minutes. 

Delta’s made blade-changing a little easier. First, there’s the arbor-lock. By pushing the button with one hand and loosening the nut with the other, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever skin your knuckles again. Unisaw’s arbor nut/washer combo is a minor, but appreciated improvement, if you’ve ever spent time sifting through sawdust.

Tabletops

Using a test-quality straightedge and feeler gauges, I checked the tops for dips or crowns. Averaging multiple measurements, both were satisfactorily flat (derivations less than .001"). Both earned points in the quality of the surface grind. Cast iron is tough to keep showroom shiny for long, but super-smooth tops made stock easier to feed, and jigs run more smoothly.

The SawStop’s table measures 27" long, average for most cabinet saws. Unisaw’s top extends to 31" long. Additionally, Delta moved the blade farther back from the front (15" compared to the SawStop’s 101/2"). Although accustomed to feeding stock on standard-sized tables, the extra front room made it easier to steer long boards and sheet goods, and proved particularly good for balancing a large crosscut sled. This feature might be a disadvantage if you routinely run jigs over the blade, because you’ll need to lean more to make the cut.

Fence

Despite the fact that the fences shared the same design, I found a few differences. First, the quality of the facings: the Unisaw’s Biesemeyer is made with a 13-ply plywood, the Sawstop’s, 5-ply, with visible voids. Upon closer inspection of the rip-side facings, I found a slight dip in the center of the SawStop’s fence. This makes a difference if using the fence for crosscutting, as when cutting tenons. I straightened the fence by loosening the screw securing the faceplate to the fence, but this isn’t what I’d expect to see on a premium saw.

I got both fences to slide smoothly and lock securely, but at first the SawStop’s fence shifted slightly to the left when locked. In comparison, the Biesemeyer needed no adjustment. The reassuring click used to indicate that the lever is locked and the magnet that secured the fence handle when unlocked were two additional details that, when combined with the rest, gave the Unisaw the winning edge.

Extension table and legs

Both tables arrived flat, and since they are laminated on both sides, should stay that way. There the similarities end.

Delta’s extension table serves double duty, functioning as an assembly table or back-up bench. Built with a frame of wide 14-gauge steel, the table stands solidly, with rigid legs that won’t fold in when bumped. The extension table bolts securely to the rails and top, so that it remains flush with the top even after being dragged around the shop.

The SawStop’s extension table is serviceable, but in comparison, the pine frame seemed lightweight. The extension table bolts only to the rails, not the top. In lieu of table-to-table bolts, SawStop employs a bracket with a screw at the middle of the tables to level the cast-iron top with the laminate. It seems likely that you’ll need to make periodic leveling adjustments, especially if you move the saw.

The top-mounted legs have been an Achilles’ heel on previous SawStops. In response, the legs are more firmly attached to the rails with brackets. Better, but still not as rigid as the Unisaw’s leg system. If you plan on moving this saw around your shop, you’ll want to make sure not to bump the legs.

Detail Done Right:

SawStop’s Mobile Base

This nicely-priced option ($199.99) is a small-shop necessity. The saw’s base easily accommodates the four-wheeled base. Positioning two wheels within the case provides better maneuverability than other aftermarket systems. The foot pedal not only makes it a cinch to lift the saw, but also allows you to gently lower the saw to sit solidly on the floor.

Delta’s Drawer

Kudos to Delta for including a drawer midway between the top and floor. This accessory provides a convenient home for the guard, a few spare blades, and a pushstick. For additional items, such as dado sets, jigs, and measuring tools, you can buy additional drawer units ($159.99) that can be attached under the first.

Final verdict: it depends

Looking for an Editor’s Pick? I’m still working on it. Add up the details, and it appears that the Delta wins, but the answer’s not so easy. Both saws have the potential of becoming lifelong shop companions, but for slightly different reasons. Your choice comes down to weighing the attributes of each machine and then taking a look in the mirror.

If you’re a woodworking novice, or if you share your shop space with less-experienced woodworkers, I’d suggest the SawStop. For parents or teachers, SawStop’s exclusive blade- and dado-stopping system may be your best bet. In addition to the brake, the machine offers the power and precision to do any imaginable sawing task. But while the brake protects you from blade lacerations, it’s important to note that it may not defend you from kickback-related injuries any better than the Unisaw’s blade cover and riving knife.

The Unisaw may not have the hot dog- and finger-saving brake, but it has a cover and riving knife system that’s not only effective, but also user-friendly. In addition, the Unisaw offers several unique features that I’d use every day, starting with its readable bevel gauge, self-cleaning cabinet, and an extension table that can be used as a work table.

Considering the other tools (routers, jointers, and even chisels) that lie in wait to bite, the only surefire safety device is the one between your ears. By accepting responsibility and learning to listen to that “internal brake,” it seems you can get more saw for the same price by going brakeless. 

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