The table saw is my most used tool for woodworking. Given it’s utility in woodworking, it is arguably the tool that shouldn’t be skimped out on. Yet over the years, the question of “which table saw is right for me” question is posted time and time again by new woodworkers, with a price point that is fixed to a specific niche, between a high-end jobsite saw and the entry level full-sized (contractor/hybrid) table saws (as of the date of this post, somewhere between $500-$600).
Over the years, I’ve gone from inquirer to observer and now responder for many of these questions. Inspired by knotscott's well written The ABCs of Table Saws, I decided to put my selection experience as a resource for the community (and to avoid repeating myself).
Context: I have had the pleasure of using a variety of saws in my brief woodworking journey (5 years as of the date of this posting). Going from a low end Black Friday special Skil 3305 Table saw, to several full size saws, to include contractor (older Craftsman, Ridgid R4512, SawStop) and high end cabinet (Delta X5, Jet XactaSaw, SawStop PCS and ICS) saws. When it came time to replace my Skil table saw, I was faced with a dilemma. What is the right table saw for me. To answer that question, I spent the time to think about what my criteria is for a table saw.Criteria: Having experience with full size saws, I was able to define my table saw criteria to the following.
- Fence – For the fence, I defined two selection criteria. First, I knew I wanted a good fence that locks reliably and parallel to the blade. Without a good and reliable fence, the table saw goes from a tool that has a real potential for danger to a dangerous tool with a real potential to hurt you. That’s because kickback is amplified by a fence that isn’t properly aligned, especially if it veers into the blade. Second, I knew I wanted a fence that would resist deflection.
- Ease of Alignment – A well aligned table saw will perform it’s job well. A well mis-aligned table saw will not only perform poorly, but also introduce the same danger for kickback. Therefore, the ability to align the saw and maintain it’s alignment settings should be high on any selection criteria.
- Power – Of all the saws I’ve used, I’ve been able to bog down all but the 3HP and up saws I’ve used.
- Stability – Vibration creates danger and is the enemy of accuracy. If the saw is bouncing around, it will be hard to control your work piece (and the saw for that matter), greatly increasing the danger.
- Safety Features – If we go by the minimum legal requirements for new table saws, as of 2009 all new table saws sold today (thanks Underwriters Laboratories) must include a riving knife that remains in line with the blade and blade guards are required to support tool-less installation and removal.
- Miter Channels – Having standard sized miter channels (3/4” x 3/8”) opens up a world of after market accessories, greatly improving the options available to a woodworker.
- Table Size – The space before the blade is one criteria that doesn’t seem to come to mind for folks looking for a table saw. Full size table saws have a 27” table, giving them about 12”+ before the blade, 10” for the blade, followed by 5” after the blade. Jobsite tablesaws range have anywhere from 20-22” deep tables. To put it into perspective, 5” of additional table space before the blade on a full sized saw (versus the largest jobsite) translates to a significantly increased (70%) table and rip fence capacity before the blade. We’re not talking ways to augment capacity (i.e. infeed support, auxiliary fences).
- Zero Clearance Insert-ability – When crosscutting thin veneers and sheet goods, the right blade and a ZCI are your two best friends to fight tearout. While many popular saws have after market ZCIs, for long-term ownership and blade changes, having the ability to make your own will prove to be economical options.
- Mobility – This criteria takes on two forms; the mobility to regularly move it within the confines of semi-permanent home that is adequately protected from the elements (i.e. home workshop) or the mobility to regularly transport the tool to and from different locations, terrains, and elevations (i.e. storage to jobsite/workspace).
- Price, Time, and Mechanical Expertise – Ultimately, one has to balance the saw they want, with the monetary and time constraints, tempered with their ability to tune/refurbish the saw. Without the money, you can’t buy the saw. Without time, you can’t properly setup, tune, or refurbish a saw. Without the mechanical expertise, well odds are you’ll have to pay someone else for their time and mechanical expertise to setup your saw.
Considerations: Balancing these criteria is the challenge that any table saw prospector will likely face. My intent is not to tackle the old vs new tools or patented safety feature question. Rather, to focus on ranking of selection criteria. One must identify their non-negotiable first. For any aspiring woodworker, if one of those non-negotiable criteria is mobility to regularly transport the tool to and from different locations, terrains, and elevations, then that would fix your selection into the jobsite saw category. In my case, that flavor of mobility WAS a non-negotiable criteria, forcing me into the jobsite saw category. I wrote about my application of these criteria in another blog post, describing how I picked my saw.
If you mobility is not a non-negotiable criteria, or you have the option for mobility to move your table saw within the confines of a semi-permanent home, then it helps to know why the price point between a high-end jobsite saw and the entry level full-sized (contractor/hybrid) table saws is a matter of compromises. After doing my research, I come to the following conclusions about the compromises:Arguments for a jobsite saw:
- Safety Features – Most manufacturers that make saws in this price bracket or below offer a two-position riving knife that allows the blade guard to connect onto it. As of this post, there is little differentiation between jobsite and entry-level full size saws, with the exception of the Dewalt DWE7490/DWE7491/DWE7499. That is the saw includes a separate riving knife and blade guard with dust collection.
- Zero Clearance Insert-ability – Manufacturers carefully balance the features they support to create differentiation. In the case of entry-level full sized saws, at the time of this post they all come with thin metal insert plates, making it difficult (albeit not impossible) to make your own ZCIs. While after market inserts are available, they can get pricey for longterm ownership and replacement. The top saws from Bosch and Dewalt both have 1/2” insert plate openings, making it easy to make your own insert plate.
- Fence – Jobsite saws with 24”+ of rip capacity tend to have a single extendable rail fence system. Entry-level full-sized table saws vary from enlarged versions of jobsite fence designs to cost reduced Biesemeyer style fence systems. While they may be more finnicky to setup thanks to most saws incorporating a split-rail designs, they tend to be better out the box, offer larger length/capacity, and allows for the of after-market replacements.
- Ease of Alignment – Aligning a jobsite saw varies from a magic trick (to even loosen the bolts holding the saw “trunnion” to the table to being extremely challenging based on the enclosed setup. Event the open-cage designs introduce the challenge of needing 3-4 arms to properly execute. Entry-level full-sized table saws run the gamut, and should be looked at on a case-by-case, saw-by-saw basis. Chances are, if the saw has been available for a while, the information about alignment will be well discussed and criticized on forums.
- Power – Comparing universal motors and induction motors are like comparing apples and oranges. Both come from trees (anyone want to cut it down for lumber) and you can eat it, but they work towards different design criteria. From my research, if you do the physics math on it, a universal motor is less efficient than an induction motor, hence the higher RPMs to compensate. It also means that amp for amp, it’s easier to bog down a universal motor than an induction motor.
- Stability – Dampening vibration comes down to a physics problem. If you slow down the rate that movement changes (i.e. with soft start) or increase the mass (heavier saw or affixing the saw to something heavy), you can control vibration. If you’re considering increasing the mass, the natural question to ask is, IF you’re looking at a similar price point (and I emphasize the IF) why you didn’t go with the bigger, heavier saw in the first place.
- Table Size – Entry-level full-sized saws offer 12”+ vs 7” of infeed space. Or to put it another way, 70% more table and rip fence capacity before the blade.