Choosing a Table Saw

The central tool in almost all cabinetmaking shops is the table saw, probably the most useful single tool the average woodworker is going to have, because the work it does serves as a base for all that comes afterward.

Used for sizing wood, the table saw may be seen primarily as a ripping machine, but it does so much else any woodshop without one can seem badly under equipped. Ripping boards to width is one job that is exceptionally important in most projects, but the table saw goes on to cut sheets of plywood, make crosscuts, do miter and bevel cutting and a host of other jobs, just as it comes from its maker. With jigs, the table saw works to make tenons, crosscut wide or very long lumber, make repetitive cuts, cut grooves and slots and molding and much else, including cutting raised panels.

Primary Table Saw Categories

There are three basic table saw categories suitable for home and small pro shops (not all models in each category are suitable for pro use). 

Bench top table saws are the lightest, and are those most often used by contractors and others who have some need for lightweight job site saws. These easy for one person to toss in a truck bed, or to remove from its nest in that truck and set up quickly for use. Most benchtop saws weigh under 65 pounds, use universal motors (with brushes), with direct drive, and are many decibels louder than more powerful saws using induction motors. Depth of cut for a specific blade height is reduced because the motor interferes mildly because the arbor usually is the motor shaft. Such reduction is in the 1/8" range, thus may not be critical for most sawing--if you're not cutting material 3" or more thick, then that's of little importance. Most bench top saws will not readily cut hardwoods that thick anyway, and have lots of problems with softwood 3" thick. These saws come with fences ranging from mediocre to excellent (the excellent fences are on the saws, generally, that are over $350). The fences are not usually changeable for aftermarket versions because of two things: table size; table construction. The tables are usually too short (front to back) to accept most aftermarket fences; the tables of many bench top table saws are constructed of aluminum, or composites, and molded to accept only the fence made by the saw's manufacturer. Amperage at 115 volts is 13 to 15, depending on the maker. Motor horsepower of such saws tends to be an irrelevancy, as almost all manufacturers rate the saws at maximum brake horsepower, something that is not usable on a day-to-day basis. There is no free lunch, and, by the same token, you're not going to get five horsepower out of a 115 volt 20 ampere circuit, even if you allow for 100 percent efficiency.

Contractor saws are heavier than bench top saws by many pounds, usually a lot heavier duty as well, and generally have larger tables. Their induction motors do not use brushes. The motors are also quieter, though when wood is actually being cut that may be hard to tell. Contractor saw motors typically produce 1-1/2 to 2 horsepower, with a 115 volt amperage draw ranging from about 11 to 18. Almost all contractor's saws have motors that can be converted to 230 volt use with reasonable ease, in situations where that might be helpful. The contractor saw weighs from about 280 pounds down to 220 pounds, with different kinds of extensions (cast iron, either solid or waffle pattern, or laminate covered manufactured wood, or pressed sheet metal) and at least the availability of top grade fences.

Many come with superb fences as a standard feature. Contractor's saws are lighter than cabinet saws, but still four to six times heavier than bench top models; the motor drives the arbor through a single belt, which increases the possible depth of cut by as much as 1/8" (over direct drive saws) on many models. Such a mounting also isolates the arbor/blade assembly from much vibration, making the saw more comfortable to use, while it also produces smoother cuts. Fences range from mediocre to excellent, but in all cases, fences may be changed for aftermarket models that are designed to increase the utility and accuracy of table saws. Trunnions--the arc shaped supports for the arbor--are attached to the table from the underside, and are usually of cast metal. The best contractor's saws have cast iron trunnions, but other metals, such as aluminum, have over the years proven sufficiently durable, too. A good contractor's saw will serve a woodworking hobbyist in almost every way necessary for a lifetime, assuming minor or no abuse. The saw has limitations: the ability to cut thick, heavy hardwoods is the primary one. If you're planning to work materials over 6/4 (1-1/2") thickness with frequency, the contractor's saw is mildly underpowered, but for all other hobby uses, it is definitely suitable.

The next step up in table saws is the cabinet saw. Cabinet saws have a smaller footprint than do contractor's saws (because the motor is enclosed in the cabinet), but table size is the same or a little larger. Generally everything is more heavily built, designed to last and last and last and last. 

Cabinet saws come in a nearly bewildering configuration of fences and support tables at the sides and back, but center around a very heavy (450 and more pounds) basic saw, with an enclosed base cabinet that encases a single phase 220 volt three horsepower or stronger motor. (single phase five horsepower is also available, though not as common as the three horse units) The motor drives the arbor through three belts (there are a few lower horsepower two belt versions available, too). The trunnions mount to the base cabinet, not to the top, making cabinet saws very easy to adjust for blade parallelism to the miter slots, and, ultimately, the blades to the fences. Trunnions are truly massive, cast iron, and the arbor assembly is more massive and carries a stronger bearing assembly then do contractor's saws. These are lifetime plus saws, designed for heavy use, with very few problems. The massive weight also makes these saws smooth in operation, so that cuts are even more accurate and smoother.

What Do YOU Need?

Regardless of what type of table saw you decide to buy, look for several features, in addition to the above basics of type: the table must be flat (generally, the acceptable figure is 0.005" deviation, plus or minus--this is more likely to be the actual case in cabinet saws), and extensions must fit tight and flat to the main table. Out-of-flat tables can create all sorts of later problems, including generally inaccurate cuts. The guard supplied should give a clear view of the blade in operation, and be easy to set and change: currently, no hobbyist's table saw has a really good blade guard.    Additionally, over-arm blade guards are currently the hot set-up, but add considerably to expense (about $260 to $375--but they work and are easy to use.)

The fence must be sturdy, move easily from side-to-side, lock tightly with no creep when wood presses against it, and be easy to attach jigs to. Repeatability is also nice. If you need to reset to a size, you don't want to be 1/8" out with that second setting, even though you're spot on your needed size on the marker. You may or may not want a fence that locks front and rear: few of the top fences do. Unless you plan to use a power feed, there is little to worry about with fences that lock only at the front. The fence must be longer than the saw table (but may have auxiliary adjustments to allow it to slide into a shorter position). The saw fence must fit reasonably close to the saw table top to keep thin woods from slipping underneath (though an auxiliary fence may be clamped in place to prevent this kind of problem). Fence width is often a function of shop size. If you have the space, wider (50" and 52") fences are great to have when it comes time to slice a full sheet of plywood. But those wide fences add about two feet to the width of the table saw, so can prove a problem in smaller shops.

Miter gauges must fit tightly in the table miter slot, while keeping the ability to move smoothly back and forth. If at all possible, select a table saw that has a T slot for the miter gauge, as that extends usefulness.

Dust Collection

Dust collection possibilities must be considered for all table saws. Some are easier to keep clean than are others. The cabinet saw, with its enclosed base, is the easiest. The maker adds a slanted shelf dropping off to one side or another, where there is a 4" duct to connect to the dust collector hose. Add a zero clearance insert to the top, and you've got good suction to keep the sawdust headed for the dust collector bags. The contractor's saw is probably the worst to collect dust from. Hanging a bag on the open underside, and letting the dust drop into it works, but there are many ways to partially block off the back of the saw (the motor on its moving mount, which arcs across the back of the saw, forces the owner of a contractor saw to fabricate some kind of back cover that allows the motor to still move in that arc). Then, any of the available plastic duct units may be placed between the stand and the saw base. Add a zero clearance insert, and you're about ready. The duct is then added to the unit, and suction applied. The bench top saw is something of a mix between as easy as the cabinet saw, and as difficult as the contractor's saw. Several come from the factory ready to accept a 2" or 2-1/2" shop vac hose on a molded in dust port. The primary problem comes from the lack of sealing at the base of the saw. Most bench top saws have light bases, often plastic, and do not have permanent stands, so sealing is a problem. Usually, that's solvable with man's second best friend, duct tape.

Defeating Space Problems

Basically, the best saw for the person who has space problems is a bench top model. This can be changed if there's room to place a larger saw, possibly a contractor's saw, on a mobile base. For a few extra bucks, these bases make it easy to push a tool weighing hundreds of pounds around without damaging set-ups. Simply raise the wheels with a step-on lift when you reach the spot you must work from, and you're set. If there's room to store a contractor's saw at all, a smart woodworker will favor that set-up over the best of bench top saws. Accuracy is greater. Durability is greater. Depth of cut is greater. Noise levels are lower.

Making The Buying Decision

For those who already know how deep their interest in woodworking is, the decision to tap the savings account to the tune of no less than $1500 will bring a cabinet saw into the shop. While the cabinet saw is not necessary to production of excellent projects, it tends to become a goal for experienced woodworkers. 

And there you have it. Which one do YOU want? Or need?

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Woodcraft's National Power Tool Sales Manager, Andrew Bondi details important questions to ask yourself when purchasing a table saw in the article CHOOSING A TABLE SAW THAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU

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