Every step you take to correctly operate power tools reduces your chance of an accident and injury. And playing by the book is especially important when you’re using a table saw. Because these machines are so popular and require more care than most tools, improper setup and operation cause a disproportionate number of accidents among the people who use them.
Though we can’t address every possible setup and safety issue in a single magazine article, we want to help you avoid the most common pitfalls associated with table saws. Even if you already have years of experience with these machines, you can use the following guidelines to assess your work habits — and break the bad ones before they cause problems.
WATCH: Making Cuts Safely with a Table Saw
Table Saw Setup
Proper setup is absolutely essential for the safe and accurate operation of a table saw. For example, if the fence and miter-gauge slots aren’t parallel with the blade, stock can bind, burn or kick back, and you won’t get an accurate cut. Adjusting the fence and blade carriage is critical. (Refer to your saw’s manual for specific instructions.)
The safety devices included with every table saw – blade guard, anti-kickback pawls and splitter or riving knife – should be used for all through rip cuts and crosscuts. There are a few occasions when it’s not practical to use the guards, mainly when the blade does not cut entirely through the stock (for dadoes, rabbets and grooves). In these situations, use other safety devices to help keep your hands well away from the blade. Keep push sticks within easy reach to use with narrow workpieces, and use featherboards to push stock against the fence so that you don’t have to. Of course, you should always wear safety glasses and hearing protection — and a dust mask if a vacuum dust collector isn’t hooked up. And never, ever forget to unplug the saw when changing the blade.
To ensure square cuts, use a combination square to check that the blade
is perpendicular to the saw table. The angle gauge on the front of the
saw should be set on, or adjusted to, 0 degrees.
should be parallel with the miter slot. The rule of the combination
square should contact the tips on the front and back of the blade. If it
doesn’t, the saw carriage needs to be adjusted. Refer to the saw’s
Simple Table Saw Operation Rules
An important rule of thumb (assuming you want to keep yours) is to avoid operations that can cause kickback: Any cut that has the potential to bind stock between the fence and blade, cutting wet or case-hardened stock (dry on the outside, damp on the inside), using the fence as a guide to crosscut narrow stock, cutting irregular-shape stock and attempting any sort of freehand cutting are not worth the risk.
Pay attention to your gut instincts; if something doesn’t feel right, stop. Always keep your hands away from the spinning blade -- if the proximity of your hand to the blade is stressing you out, you’re probably too close. If you find yourself wishing that the saw table were free of debris, stop and clean it. (Keep the floor under the saw clean, too. It’s easy to slip on sawdust.) Don’t wear baggy or loose-fitting clothes or any kind of gloves: A spinning blade can snag them and pull you in.
Perhaps most important, never work when you’re fatigued or need to eat. To be safe, your brain must be engaged and focused. Resist the temptation to keep going and make that “one last cut” because you might wind up cutting the wrong thing.
The fence, blade guard, anti-kickback pawls and riving knife (or splitter) should always be used for rip cuts. Kickback can result if the fence or splitter is not parallel or not in line with the blade. For narrow cuts such as this, always use a push stick.
A featherboard can be helpful to push stock against the fence. The featherboard ends before the front of the blade to avoid pushing work into the blade. Note that the blade height is set so the gullets are just above the stock.
To make short repeatable cuts with a miter gauge, clamp a stop block to the fence behind the saw blade. The block should be thick enough so the cut piece won’t bind between the blade and the fence. (Note: The guard has been removed for photo clarity.)
When making cuts that don’t go through the stock, such as grooves and dadoes, you’ll need to remove the guard and lower the riving knife or remove the splitter. Never attempt to make cuts freehand; always use a miter gauge or fence.