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.
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!
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.
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.
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?