Of all the modern tools in a wood shop, the table saw is the most used. Countless table saw designs are available, from a basic tabletop version to a contractor's version to a full-blown cabinet saw. As a beginning woodworker, start out with a contractor saw. Contractor saws have a large cutting capacity (like the larger cabinet saw), but they have an open base so they're lighter and cost less than an enclosed base cabinet saw. Contractor saws run between $500 and $1000, depending on their features (Figure 1 shows a contractor saw).
A table saw is an essential tool that can be used for an almost unlimited number of woodworking tasks. Because this is such a versatile and common tool, you have tons of options when buying a saw. This section helps you figure out what features are most important to you.
- Fence (rip fence): The fence (the part that you slide the wood against when you feed it onto the saw) ranks up with the tabletop for its importance in achieving good, accurate cuts. The quality of the fence dictates the price of the saw, so your budget dictates how good your fence is. The main thing to look for in a fence is one parallel with the blade that adjusts smoothly and accurately. Most saws in the contractor category have decent (but not perfect) fences. Starting out with a less-than-perfect fence is okay because you can always add a better fence to your saw later on.
- Left-tilt or right-tilt: On a table saw, you can adjust the tilt of the blade in order to cut angles. In the past, the vast majority of saws (all except some of the most expensive ones) had blades that tilted to the right. Now you can get saws that tilt either right or left (but not both). The side of the tilt is a very personal thing.
- Some people prefer being able to measure the long side of an angled cut and want a right-tilt saw, although other people prefer the way a left-tilt saw tilts away from the fence so cutting narrow angled pieces is less dangerous. Only you can choose which is best for you. Generally, unless you intend to do a ton of work that requires mitered cuts, you'll probably want a right-tilt saw because you'll have more options when buying one (right-tilt saws are still more common).
- Miter gauge: Table saws come with a small t-shaped tool called a miter gauge. The miter gauge fits into one of the two slots (called miter slots) machined into the tabletop and it guides wood that you feed through the saw. Most contractor saws come with a decent miter gauge (although not great — again, you need to buy a separate one if you want great). When deciding on a saw, put the miter gauge into the miter slot and try to wiggle it sideways. It should fit snuggly. If it wiggles much, move on to another saw.
- Motor size: Most contractor table saws have either a 1 1/2 or 2 horsepower motor. Cabinet saws, on the other hand, generally have between 3 and 5 horsepower motors in them. For most applications, the 1 1/2 or 2 horsepower motor on the contractor saw is powerful enough.
- The trick to getting the most out of the power you have is to feed the wood slowly and use a very sharp carbide-tipped blade.
- Saw blade: Most table saws have a 10-inch blade, but some of the most expensive cabinet saws have a 12-inch blade. Either works just fine on most tasks. More important than the blade size is the quality and finish of the blade itself. Just like with handsaws, numerous blade designs exist to ensure the best cut possible. You can get blades designed for ripping, crosscutting, both ripping and crosscutting (called a combination blade), cutting dados, and blades specifically made for plywood, plastic laminates, and other man-made materials. A safe bet is to start with a good combination blade and a stack dado blade (you'll need to buy the blades separately from the saw). You can add others as you get to know your needs.
- Regardless of the blade you get, make sure yours is sharp and clean of pitch when you use it.
- Tabletop: The tabletop is the most important part of the table saw and needs to be absolutely flat in order to provide the most accurate cut. Most saws have a cast-iron table that has been milled to within 1/1000th of an inch for flatness.
- Be aware that this figure can be deceiving and that you need to check the saw for flatness before you decide to keep it. Some tables are so far from flat that a decent cut is impossible to make. Choosing a saw from a major manufacturer reduces your chances of getting one that doesn't have a flat table (though it doesn't eliminate them).
- Even though the tabletop is cast iron on most models, this section covers only about 24 inches of the entire table surface area. The rest of the table consists of wings that can be made of cast iron, molded steel, wood core plastic laminate, or other materials. The size and quality of these table wings (called extensions) dictate the overall price of the machine. Start with a fairly basic one, because you can always add table extensions later on.