If you’ve never used a table saw or larger power tools before, you’ll probably feel a little nervous just before you rip cut your first board. The startling raucous of the engine will be louder than you imagined, and the blade will whirl faster and appear more deadly. That instinct you have to be cautious is warranted, with good reason. Table saw misuse can be deadly. But by taking the steps to be safe and preparing yourself for first-time use by reading instructions and watching videos, you’ll be ready to tackle that first rip cut on your own – without breaking the table saw or ripping any fingertips off.
Of course, there’s nothing better than an instructor or mentor by your side to guide you on your first-time table saw use. For many of us, that’s not possible, so we learn on our own. The first thing to learn is how to be safe. Second, you learn how to prepare your table saw to cut your board for a rip cut. Third, you learn how to manage the board while it’s being cut on the table saw. Fourth, you learn stopping procedures.
Table Saw Safety – read this for anxiety relief!
Table saws are scary. If you’re scared of something, the best thing to do is to prepare yourself to face your fears. Once you’re prepared, you’ll feel more confident. When you operate a table saw you should be afraid that:
- A board will fly off and cause serious injury (term: kickback)
- It will slice your hand off (term: handback)
- Sawdust or flying slivers may interfere with your sight, and therefore your ability to make safe judgments (term: blindness).
To prevent blindness, wear safety goggles. To keep your fingers and hands, use a blade guard. To avoid injury from kickbacks, use anti-kickback devices. Anti-kickback devices are the splitter or riving knife, and the anti-kickback prawls. These should be on your table saw if you have a newer model. The blade guard covers the blade so your hand can’t touch it, the splitter or riving knife will keep the wood’s newly formed open slice (term: kerf) from closing up and causing kickback, and the anti-kickback prawls keep the wood from flying off the table if it gets bumped or misaligned. If you inherited an older model table saw from your great-grandpa, you can buy blade guards, splitters, riving knives and other anti-kickback devices then add them on. Or you can custom-make your own then modify your table saw.
Once your safety devices are in place, you should feel confident you have a far less chance of being injured. (The majority of table saw accidents happen when there are no safety features in place.) But there are other safety “rules” you should follow as well. If you ever worked in a manufacturing or food service environment you’ve probably heard them before:
- Don’t wear loose clothing
- Don’t wear jewelry (wedding band should be fine if it’s tight)
- Keep pets and small children out of the work area.
- Don’t wear gloves while operating a table saw. You’re in more danger wearing gloves than not wearing gloves.
Although sometimes it’s hard to keep children and pets away, it’s even harder to keep dust away. Dust isn’t scary, but it can be annoying and cause long-term health problems. Sawdust particles will cause more harm if you already have asthma or breathing-related difficulties. There are plenty of toxic, harmful particles that don’t leave the body once they’re lodged in your lungs. Wearing a dust mask keeps you breathing and keeps your lungs healthy. You might be surprised by just how much sawdust doesn’t make it into the dustbag or shopvac. Cheap dust masks are usually available at a local dollar store. Small expense, big benefit.
If you are still unsure, I can recommend you these two Toolerant articles for more information:
Once you know where all your table saw safety features are and where your safety gear is, you can get the table saw set up for action. You are going to:
1) Set the blade height;
2) Prepare for the size of your wood;
3) Set and lock the fence guard.
Before you even go near the blade, make sure the table saw is off and unplugged. If your blade guard is down, lift it up. Always make sure you have a blade that is made for the material you are cutting. There are saw blades for practically everything from cloth to concrete. Wood, metal, plastic and stone saw blades are commonly available at most hardware stores. For the weekend woodworker, a combination blade will usually meet your needs. The quality of your blade directly affects your project and your safety. Make sure there are no bent or excessively worn teeth on your blade.
- Take your piece of wood and place it parallel against the blade. You are going to adjust your blade by raising it or lowering it so the teeth of the blade are just slightly above the wood. For basic cuts, you want the bottom of the gap between the teeth (which is the “gullet” in the blade) to be lined up with the top of your wood. A blade set too high or too low can make kickback worse. A blade too low can also put unnecessary stress on the motor. Once you get past the basics, you’ll be adjusting your table saw blade to different angles and heights depending on your woodworking project. For instance, if you need a one inch groove in your wood piece, you’ll set the table saw blade one inch high. For now, the “gullet rule” is the basic rule of thumb for standard rip cuts.
If you have a wheel with a knob on the side of your table saw, that’s what you will use to raise and lower the blade. If you have two wheels, one wheel may be for angling the blade, and the other may be for raising and lowering the blade. Some table saw models have a lever for angling the blade and a wheel for raising and lowering the blade. Models differ, so check your table saw owner’s manual if you’re not sure. Traditionally, table saw manufacturers have table saws assembled so that turning the wheel counterclockwise lowers the blade, and turning the wheel clockwise raises the blade. Your table saw may be different, but as soon as you turn the wheel you’ll be able to tell.
- Once the gullet of the blade is lined up with the top of your wood, you can adjust the fence. (In reality, it doesn’t matter if you adjust the fence or blade first. But the fence might get in the way of setting the blade, so the blade is usually set first.) Before you set the fence though, prepare your wood for action.
Once you have set your blade to the right height, you’ll want to lock it in place. There should be a knob or lever that locks your blade into place that’s located right around your adjustment wheel.
Preparing your wood…
When you’re working on a woodworking project, you’ll probably cut more than one piece of wood. Marking your wood will help keep you organized and less confused when you end up with a table full of measured wood pieces and leftover pieces. First mark the measurement for the “good” piece, then put an “X” or squiggly line on the side that’s going to be left over. This way you’ll know which is the good piece of wood and which is the “save for later” piece of wood.
Marking your wood is optional, but preparing for the output of the wood is not. Make sure you have an “output” table for any long, oversized pieces of wood. It is not safe to let the excess length just drop towards the floor. When one end drops to the floor, the other end raises on the blade. If that happens, not only could your cut be ruined, but the shift in movement can cause kickback. Keep in mind, the blade will always be spinning toward you. That propels the wood at full force in your direction. If you’re rip-cutting a piece of wood that is longer than your table saw table, you need to either pull out the table saw extension that’s available, or slide another table next to the table saw.
Now that you have measured your wood and prepared for excess length, you can set your fence guard. The fence is used for rip cuts, but not for cross cuts. For cross cuts you will remove the fence and use the miter gauge. For now, we’re just concentrating on rip cuts. (A rip cut is a cut that is made that follows the same direction as the grain of the wood. A cross-cut is against the grain. Never make any cut without a fence or miter gauge.) The table saw fence is often called the rip-fence since it’s only used for rip cuts.
The fence and measuring scale are perpendicular to each other. The measuring scale is located on the fence rail. On the fence rail you’ll also see a locking lever. Move the fence along the fence rail until it gets to the measurement that you want to set your cut for. If your woodworking directions say you need a three inch piece, move the fence to line up with the 3” mark and then use the fence lever to lock the fence into place.
Now you’re ready to position your body and the wood for sawing. At this point, you can plug your saw in. Make sure your blade guard is down, and safety measures are in place. You also need to have your push stick handy near your right hand. Don’t start the machine until everything is lined up and ready to go. When you are sawing, stand on the side of the blade. Because the blade is spinning towards you, you never want to be in its direct path. But you do have to be close enough to the table saw to push the wood through, and to reach your push stick. You never want your hand to be between the fence and the blade. The push stick used to move the last part of the wood through the blade.
Position your board flat at the edge of the table and tight against the fence, but a few inches before the blade. You need to keep the board firmly against the fence, and against the table, as the blade moves through the saw. You will be pushing the board forward with your right hand, and keeping it against the fence with your left hand. Your left-hand thumb and forefinger should be on the board, and other left hand fingers on the table saw tabletop. Once you’re comfortable holding the board on the table and safety features are in place, use one hand to turn the table saw power switch on. You never want to jam the board through the table saw or be too gentle, or too forceful! The key is to have the wood firm against the fence and flat against the table as you move it forward with smooth continuous motion. If you push too hard too fast, the motor will sound different because it suddenly had to work harder. You can overheat the motor if the wood is too thick for your model, or if you are sawing at a reckless speed. If that happens, an automatic shut off feature may shut the table saw down. If you’re moving too fast, just slow down and let the motor regain its previous speed. If the motor keeps getting really bogged down, your wood may be over the recommended size for your table saw. (Best to check the table saw owner’s manual before your first-time use.)
As you’re cutting, the edge of the board you’re holding will move closer to the blade. When the edge of the board that your right hand is holding moves on to the table, keep the board pressed against the fence with your left hand but quickly use your right hand to grab the push stick and then use the push stick in place of your right hand to finish pushing the board through. Many woodworkers use two push sticks, one in each hand, particularly when cutting narrow pieces. A good rule of thumb to save your thumbs: If your hands are 6” or closer to the blade, use a push stick. (These can be bought or made.)
Once the last part of the board you’re moving gets just past the blade, shut the motor off. Use your pushstick to move the pieces away from the blade once the blade comes to complete stop. Your first rip cut is then complete. You still have your fingers, and you tackled your initial fear.
Your woodworking addiction has officially begun.
PS: If you are still looking to buy a quality table saw, and don’t have much space in your shop, i recommend looking into portable table saws. They’re sometimes called jobsite table saws because they are rather easy to carry around if you are a contractor. But then, they’re also real space savers and fit every garage. I have reviewed the two best products here.