Pushsticks, Pushshoes and Pushblocks

I like to keep my fingers firmly attached. So when I'm using power tools, I often reach for some kind of push stick or block that will keep my hands well away from the spinning bit or blade. There are several varieties of push sticks commonly used with power tools. Today I'll discuss the most useful as well as how to make them yourself.

Push sticks should be considered a disposable item. While I don't go out of my way to run them through the sawblade, they do get chewed up over time. So while you can buy push sticks—and I own a few—you can save money and easily make them yourself from scrap you probably have laying around the shop.

Push Stick

Push Stick in action

A push stick is, as the name suggests, a stick that you push some wood with. It is usually about 12 inches long and has a notch cut in one end which hooks on to the corner of a board.

Push sticks are mainly useful at the table saw, such as when you're ripping thin pieces. The push stick lets you push the thin strip past the blade when the gap is too narrow for your fingers to fit safely.

While push sticks come in handy from time to time, I don't like them as well as other pushing devices. By the nature of their design, they only grab a very small area at the end of the board, providing little control other than to push the board forward. As a result, I only like using push sticks in combination with other safety devices such as featherboards.

Making a push stick couldn't be easier. Start with a piece of solid wood or plywood about 12 inches long, 1 inch wide and 1/2 inch thick. Though if you are ripping thinner strips, you could use 1/4 inch plywood or hardboard. Trace a curve or sand down the corners of one end for a handle so that it's comfortable in your hand. On the other end, cut a 90 degree notch that is about 45 degrees to the end, making a "V" in the end of the push stick. Drill a hole in the stick to hang it and you're done!

Push Shoe

While a push stick is useful to have, I find that I use a push "shoe" much more often than a push stick. The push shoe is much better at controlling the wood as you push it past the bit or blade. As the name implies, this is a push stick that looks a bit like a shoe. Typically 8 to 12 inches long, the push shoe has a short "heel" at the back. This heel at the end hooks over the end of the board while the majority of the shoe sits on top of the stock. This allows you to hold the wood down while you are pushing it through the machine. A push shoe also provids some measure of lateral control, helping to keep the work against the fence.

A commercial and a shop made push shoe

Some push shoes, especially commercial versions, tend to have a "V" groove along the length of the bottom. This allows the shoe to fit over the corner of a board allowing you to push down and sideways at the same time as you push the board through the machine. I find this especially useful at the router table or when edge jointing smaller pieces with the jointer. In both cases, you typically need to hold the stock firmly against the fence and the table at the same time. Having a groove in the bottom of the push shoe provides this control while keeping your fingers clear of the spinning blade.

To make a push shoe, start with a blank that is about 8 to 12 inches long and 6 to 8 inches wide. Cut a long notch one of the long sides 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep, leaving a "heel" portion about 2 inches wide. You want the heel to be short enough that it won't drag on the machine table as you push the wood through. Round over the corners on the top side of the push shoe. If you want, cut a nice profile on the top of the push shoe. Cutting the push shoe in a "D" shape is common, though not necessary.

Push Blocks

A push block is a variation of a push "shoe". It is typically wider (3 to 6 inches) and may or may not have the hook at the end. Pushblocks typically have some kind of rubber or other grippy surface (e.g. sandpaper) to keep the block from slipping as you push the wood through the tool. This is especially true if the block does not have a hook at the end. Push blocks are typically used at the jointer when face jointing, but they are also useful when working with wider boards at the router table or when cutting dados at the table saw.

Sometimes push blocks will have a hook on the edge, allowing you to catch the end of a board when pushing it through the tool. This can be useful at the jointer. I typically use the two different styles of block when face jointing. The front block allows me to hold the work down and pushes using friction alone. The rear push block has a hook on the end to make it easier to push the wood over the cutterhead.

A push block starts with a piece of wood about 4 inches wide, 6 inches long and 1 to 2 inches thick. A cutoff from a 2 by 4 makes a good blank for a push block. Drill a hole in the block and glue in a dowel to use as a handle. If you like, you can angle the hole to provide a more comfortable grip on the handle. To add a hook on the end, cut a piece of hardboard or plywood about the same size as the end of the block. Drill a couple of holes and screw it to the end of the block. If you make the holes oversize or make them slots instead, you will be able to push the hook up and use the block with or without the hook. To finish off the block, glue a piece of sandpaper or some kind of rubber material (old mouse pads work well) to the bottom of the block.

These are the push blocks that I use around my shop. Hopefully this will help you make your own and keep your hands and fingers out of harms way! Is there a style of push block that you like to use?

Whirlwind as a Potential SawStop Competitor

Look out SawStop, you've got some competition on the way! A woodworker and inventor by the name of David Butler recently launched a website to demonstrate his new table saw safety device, the Whirlwind, in order to convince one or more manufacturers to incorporate the device into their saws. The Whirlwind is a flesh-sensing technology built into the blade guard which shuts off the saw within one-eighth of a second, well before the your hand can come in contact with the blade.

The technology is still patent-pending (though they expect the patent to be issued soon) and there is not a product available to buy yet. Therefore, details are still somewhat sketchy about how the Whirlwind works. However, after watching the various videos on the Whirlwind website, it appears that the idea is to incorporate sensors into the blade guard. If your hand strays too close to the blade, the system shuts down the saw and stops the blade before you have a chance to contact the blade.

The Whirlwind website points out a few benefits of this new technology:

  • The blade is not damaged when the safety mechanism is triggered, allowing you to continue working right away.
  • Supports saws with a standard American splitter as well as those with a European-style riving knife.
  • Integrated dust collection.

However, there appear to be a few downsides to this technology that I can see:

  • Because the technology is built into the blade guard, there will be times when you aren't protected by the system. Some examples include: using a tenoning jig, cutting box joints, or any operation involving a non-through cut on a large or tall item (Though there is a solution for things like dados).
  • The blade doesn't stop immediately. The high speed video shows the blade rotate about 4 times before coming to a stop. If someone were pushing something through the saw quickly, it seems to me that there is still the potential (albeit a much smaller chance) for injury.

Some have grumbled about the tactics SawStop has used to try and get its technology adopted my other manufacturers. Having a competing technology emerge, such as the Whirlwind, should be welcome news to SawStop's critics. Even if you are not interested in the politics surrounding the SawStop, having an alternative should help bring the price down for everyone.

It will be interesting to see if any manufacturers pick up this technology and incorporate it into their saws. I'm looking forward to what other ideas will appear in the future to improve the safety of table saws.

So what do you think of the Whirlwind? Do you think it's a viable alternative to the SawStop?

Laser Guided Hand Saw. Really?

Lasers are all the rage these days for woodworking tools. From miter saws to drill presses to levels, manufacturers have been adding lasers to all kinds of tools. Now, here's the latest: a laser guided hand saw.

Yes, I'm quite serious. Sears is now selling a laser guided hand saw. A laser line is projected from the saw handle on to the wood to show where the saw will cut.

Great! Now I know where the saw will cut! It doesn't matter that the saw is resting on my layout line! Do people really have that much trouble lining up their hand saw with a line on the board that they have to have a fricken laser beam on their saw?

A laser line for a hand saw doesn't even guarantee a square cut, as it might on a miter saw. With a miter saw, you can make a tick mark where you want to cut, line up the laser, and be quite sure that the cut will be square (or whatever angle you set the saw to). With a hand saw, you still have to draw a layout line across the board and follow it in order to get a square cut.

Now I'm not saying lasers don't have their place in woodworking. As I aluded to before, I can definitely see the value of using a laser to line up a drill bit or miter saw blade with a mark (though I, personally, don't have any tools with this feature...yet). Once the tool hits the wood, it better be spot on, as there's no going back. With a hand saw, the process is slower and it is easier to correct a mis-aligned cut as you go.

Maybe I'm becoming old fashioned, but a laser guided hand saw falls firmly in the "gimmick" camp for me. What do you think? Have you used this saw? Did you find the laser helpful?

Delta Machinery Sold to Taiwanese Company

This past weekend, Popular Woodworking Magazine is reporting that Delta Machinery, owned by Stanley Black & Decker, is being sold to the Taiwanese company, TOTY. As part of the sale, the company is being renamed to Delta Power Equipment.

If you've been doing woodworking for any period of time, you've likely heard of Delta Machinery. Founded in 1919, Delta has been producing woodworking equipment for over 90 years. Many people probably know the company as one of the main sponsors of The New Yankee Workshop, where their popular Unisaw was at the center of the workshop and used in most every episode.

While nothing will likely change in the short term, I look forward to seeing what this means for the company in the future.

What do you think of the sale of Delta?

How to Avoid Tear-Out

Have you ever made a cross-cut on your table saw only to have it splinter? Or perhaps you're putting the final edge on a table top and a chunk breaks away on the final pass? Knowing when tear-out can occur is the first step in understanding how to control it. In this post I'll discuss some of the strategies you can use to avoid this problem in the future.

Tear-out typically occurs when cutting across the grain (e.g. crosscuts, dados, drilling holes, etc.). When the blade or bit exits the board, it can cause some of the wood fibers, which are all lined up in the same direction, to tear away. We can use this knowledge to avoid the tear-out in the first place.

Sharp Tools

The easiest remedy for tear-out is to make sure that your tools are nice and sharp. A sharp tool is much more likely to cut a wood fiber than try to push it out of the way. Think of what would happen if you were to hit a piece of grass with a sword versus a baseball bat. Obviously, the sharp sword will cut the grass, whereas the bat will just knock it out of the way.

Backing Board

In our analogy of cutting the piece of grass, even the sharp sword is likely to bend the piece of grass before the cut is complete, possibly breaking it in an unexpected place. However, if you put the piece of grass on a cutting board, the strand is supported while you make the cut.

In much the same way, a backing board of some kind provides support to the wood fibers as the bit or blade exits the wood, allowing the fibers to be cut cleanly. How this support is provided depends on the tool being used.

Table Saw

On a table saw, the blade cuts down and towards you as you move the wood through the blade. This means that support is needed on the surface of the table and along the trailing edge of the board.

Zero Clearance Table Saw Insert To support the wood as the blade exits the bottom of the board, use a zero clearance throat plate. You can buy these, ready-made for your saw, or make your own out of some scrap plywood. As the name suggests, the first time you use the insert, you raise the blade through the insert, creating a slot that is exactly with width of the blade. When wood is passed over the blade, the fibers are now supported by the throat insert as the blade exits the bottom of the board.

As the blade exits the trailing edge of the board, support is provided by adding a sacrificial fence to your miter gauge. This is nothing more than a piece of scrap wood or plywood, taller than the height of the blade, that is screwed or clamped to the miter gauge. As the cut is made, a slot is made in the backer board, allowing the blade to pass through but providing support to the wood fibers on either side of the cut.

A panel cutting jig, combines these strategies into one unit. The base of the jig provides support similar to the zero-clearance insert and the rear fence of the jig provides the same support as a sacrificial fence attached to your miter gauge.

Miter Saw

A miter saw is similar to a table saw, but in reverse. The blade exits the wood along the table and the fence. The strategies are almost identical to that of the table saw.

To support the wood along the table, make a custom throat plate for your miter saw. Alternately, place a piece of 1/8 or 1/4 inch hardboard or plywood on the table of the miter saw.

To support the wood along the fence, add an auxiliary fence. Again, 1/8 or 1/4 inch hardboard or plywood is a good choice here. Use something cheap since you will likely be replacing it on a fairly regular basis.

Router

When using a router, the forces applied to the wood are only in one direction: perpendicular to the axis of the bit. This means that tear-out can occur in two ways when using a router. When routing along the long edge of a board, tear-out can occur every time the cutter exits the edge of the board. When cutting perpendicular to the grain, tear-out occurs as the bit reaches the edge of the board.

If you are using a router table, tear-out that occurs when routing along the grain can be controlled by adding a zero-clearance insert to your fence. The bit is then raised into the insert or the fence is rotated into the bit, creating an opening that exactly matches the profile of the bit. This provides the support needed to keep the wood fibers from breaking and tearing away from the board.

When routing across the grain, support is provided by adding a scrap to the point where the bit will exit the board. On a router table, this takes the form of a push block. The block is used to push the board through the bit, but it also provides the same support provided by the sacrificial miter gauge fence on your table saw. For hand-held routing, the support is provided by clamping a piece of scrap to the board where the bit will exit the cut.

Drilling

Whether you're using a drill press or a hand held drill, the strategy for controlling tear-out is the same, place a piece of scrap against the board where the bit will exit the wood. On a drill press, this can mean a replaceable insert or just a scrap piece of wood under the work. For a hand held drill, this might mean clamping a scrap under the board on your bench (which also protects your bench).

Order of Operations

Sometimes, the order you make your cuts makes it irrelevant whether you get tear-out or not. If you order your operations correctly, any tear-out that does occur will be removed by a subsequent operation.

For example, imagine you're making a raised panel or putting a profile on all four sides of a table top with your router. If you make the cross-grain cuts first, any tear-out that occurs will be removed when you cut the profile on the long grain sides.

If you are cutting dados across the grain, you might make the board extra wide. Any tear-out that occurs while milling the dados will be removed when you rip the board to it's final width.

Plywood

The veneer on plywood is usually quite thin and very prone to tear-out. While this can often be dealt with using the same measures as for solid wood, there are some additional strategies to keep in mind when working with plywood and other sheet goods.

Sharp Tools
I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating: Use a sharp blade or bit. This is especially important with plywood and other sheet goods. The veneer has very little support and will tear or chip easily if the blade or bit is not sharp.
Lots of Teeth
The more teeth a blade has, the less likely it is to chip or splinter the plywood veneer. Manufacturers even make blades specifically for cutting plywood. It is not unreasonable for a table saw plywood blade to have upwards of 100(?) teeth or more!
Scoring
If all of the other methods discussed here still don't prevent the tear-out, it is sometimes useful to make a scoring cut with before making the real cut. To do this on the table saw, raise the blade only 1/32 to 1/16 of an inch above the table and make one pass, cutting a shallow dado in the plywood. Then raise the blade to the normal height and make another pass.
Some high end table saws include the option of adding a scoring blade, which allows you to make the scoring cut and regular cut in one pass. This is a special blade that is really two saw blades, one in front of the other. The leading blade scores the plywood while the rear blade makes the cut as usual

Tear out is a normal part of woodworking, but if you anticipate when it might occur, you can control and avoid it. What strategies do you use to avoid tear-out?