Using a Table Saw Safely

Recently, a jury awarded $1.5 million to a Boston man after he injured himself on a table saw. Whether you agree with the decision or not, I thought a review of table saw safety would be appropriate.

There are two ways a table saw can injure someone: the putting your hand, fingers, etc. in the blade or having something kicked back at you.

Blade Safety

Let's tackle the obvious danger first -- the spinning blade. Most 10" table saws spin the blade at 3400 to 4500 RPM. This means that each tooth on the blade is traveling at a speed of 100 to 130 MPH. You don't need me to tell you that sticking your finger into the blade is definitely a bad idea.

Most saws come with some kind of blade guard. This is usually a plastic or metal enclosure that rides up on top of the work piece and is intended to be a barrier between you and the blade. Generally speaking, you should try to keep the blade guard on the saw as much as possible. However, there are times when it must be removed.

  • Non-through cuts. Most stock blade guards are attached to the splitter. When using a dado blade or making grooves, the blade guard is in the way and must be removed. Note that this doesn't apply if you have a blade guard that isn't attached to the splitter.
  • Narrow cuts. When ripping very thin pieces, the blade guard can keep the fence from getting close enough to the blade.

In these situations, other precautions must be taken. These are good ideas if you're using the blade guard or not.

  • Use push sticks/shoe. A push stick is another piece of wood or plastic that is used to push the wood through the saw. This is especially useful when ripping narrow pieces, as it allows you to push the piece all the way through while keeping your fingers well away from the blade. If the blade does hit the push stick, you can always make another one. You can't make another finger.
  • Use feather-boards.Using a feather board frees your hands from having to hold the piece against the fence or table, allowing you to concentrate on feeding the piece through the saw and keeping your hands away from the blade.
  • Use a Power Feeder. This is a device that is installed on your table saw and, via rollers and belts moves the piece through the saw automatically.

Whether the blade guard is installed or not, you always need to be aware of where your hands are in relation to the blade. No technology can completely keep your hands away from the blade if you really try to put them there.

In recent years, a woodworker by the name of Steve Glass invented a technology that senses the minute electrical current through a person's hand. When the system detects that someone has touched the blade, it slams a brake into the blade and lowers the blade below the table in a fraction of a second, resulting in only a minor nick instead of major injury. When he found that the major table saw manufacturers were not interested in licensing the technology, he founded his own company, Saw Stop, which integrates this technology. It will be interesting to see how wide spread this or similar technologies becomes in the coming years.

Kickback

When the blade is spinning, the top of the blade is moving towards the operator of the table saw. If the backside of the blade is ever able to grab the work piece, it will quickly lift and accelerate the piece to over 100 mph, "kicking" it back at the user.

There are several ways to keep kickback from happening.

  • Use a splitter or riving knife when ripping. Whenever you are ripping down stock, there's the potential for the piece to twist away from the fence and into the blade. In addition, ripping solid wood can relieve internal stresses, causing the board to move and try to close up on the freshly cut kerf -- pinching the blade. In both cases, a splitter or riving knife keeps the board from coming in contact with the back of the blade. The riving knife is better in this regard since it follows the blade as it goes up and down. A standard splitter stays in one spot and there is a gap between the blade and splitter, depending on the height of the blade above the table.
  • Use feather-boards and hold-downs. A feather-board holds the wood tightly against the fence or table. Again, the idea is to keep the work from drifting away from the fence and into the back of the blade.
  • Don't use the miter gauge and fence at the same time. The off-cut can become trapped between the blade and the fence and thrown back at you. If you're using the fence to index repeated cuts, use a stop block clamped to the fence in front of the blade or slide the fence back.
  • Don't use the table saw. It may be that the particular operation isn't suitable for the table saw. Think about whether the same task can be performed more safely by using a different tool. For example, resawing a board into two thinner pieces is a task better suited for a bandsaw than a table saw.

So how about you? What techniques do you use to keep from hurting yourself on the table saw?

Work safely!

Learning Woodworking

I thought there could be no better way to start a woodworking blog than with a post about how to get started working with wood. I've always had an interest in working with making things, be it model rockets or helping build a playhouse in the sandbox. Ten years ago, I took the plunge and bought a table saw and haven't looked back since. Whatever your reasons or skill level, building something tangible with your hands can be very rewarding.

Classes

One of the easiest ways to get started is to take a class. Getting hands-on instruction is one of the best ways to learn woodworking. Books, magazines and videos, while useful, are no substitute for having someone right there to demonstrate and help.In addition, you will learn what kind of tools you need and what features are important when selecting your own set of tools.

Classes can be found in a variety of places:

  • Community Colleges. Many community colleges have a series of woodworking classes. Some are tailored towards those looking to pursue a career in woodworking. Others are designed with the hobbyist in mind as well.
  • Woodworking Stores. Many woodworking stores, such as Woodcraft and Rockler, offer classes on a variety of topics. While these are as much a marketing event as a chance to share knowledge about woodworking, taking classes from woodworking supply store can be a good way to learn about and try out new tools before purchasing.
  • Workshop Co-ops/Clubs. In many cases, it is possible to join a co-op or woodworking club. Membership usually provides access to shared workshop space as well as the chance to take classes and work alongside more experienced woodworkers. This can be a great option if you are limited for space in your current home but want to get started with woodworking.

This list is certainly not exhaustive. Search for "adult education" or "continuing education" for additional resources that may be available in your area.

Books

If you are not able to take a class or no classes are available in your area, there is no shortage of books and magazines on the subject. Want to learn more about sharpening your tools? There's an entire book about that. Want to get the most out of your bandsaw? There's a book devoted to that too.

Magazines

As with any other subject, there are several magazines that cover all aspects of woodworking. They include everything from tool reviews to specific techniques. From how to set up shop to step-by-step instructions for building a particular project. Some of the more notable magazines include:

  • Fine Woodworking. Considered by many to be one of the best magazines. Early issues going back to the 1970s are considered collectible in some circles. Published bimonthly.
  • WOOD. Provides useful tips and tricks, articles on various techniques and tools, tool reviews, and step-by-step instructions for how to build featured projects. Usually includes a "Basic Built" section for those just getting started or with limited tools.
  • Woodsmith. Mainly contains step-by-step instructions for a few featured projects. However it does provide useful tips for woodworking in general.
  • Shopsmith. Produced by the same publisher as Woodsmith, this magazine emphasizes projects for the shop instead of furniture.
There are certainly many more that I have left out. A visit to your local bookstore should give you a sense of what is available.

Videos

For many of us, our interest in woodworking was fueled by watching Norm Abram on the New Yankee Workshop (as well as This Old House). While the show is not on the air anymore, project videos are still available for purchase. In addition, some episodes are now available online.

Videos are a great way to see specific techniques demonstrated or how a project goes together. Be careful, however, that you have realistic expectations when watching videos. A 30-minute video might show the result of several days of work.

As you can see, there are lots of resources out there for learning woodworking (including this blog). In future blog posts, I will delve into some of the more practical matters related to getting started, including selecting tools, how to use them, and where to put them.

I look forward to sharing my interest and knowledge of woodworking with you!