Some home improvement projects—and some types of cutting—require a table saw; nothing else will really do the job as well. Manual circular saws, miter saws, hand saws, and reciprocating saws all have their place and can produce an amazingly wide variety of cuts. But when it comes to making a length-wise rip cut in wood, a table saw is the only tool that can do it accurately while producing cuts that look like factory edges.
Rip-cut is a term that refers to cutting a workpiece lengthwise, usually parallel to the direction of the wood grain. For example, when building a door or window frame, or installing flooring planks, you may need to shave off a half-inch from the length of a board. Or, you might have a sheet of plywood that needs to be cut lengthwise in order to fit the layout of a subfloor installation. While a hand circular saw can do the job for this kind of cut, it may seize up when cutting thicker boards, such as 2x stock. And a circular saw can be difficult to use when ripping thinner boards, such as trimming down a 2x4 or 2x2 to fit a particular application.
A table saw is the best tool to use when rip-cutting, but safe cutting requires that you carefully follow recommended procedures.
A table saw is the safest tool to use for most rip-cutting operations, but you should follow these procedures for safe work:
- Use a push stick—an expendable stick of wood about a foot long and a 1x1 inch square—to push the workpiece the last foot or so through the saw blade. With a push stick, you won't need to place your hands near the blade. Many woodworkers create their own push sticks, but there are also commercial push sticks you can buy.
- Keep the table saw unplugged except when you are cutting wood. Many accidents occur when a table saw is accidentally turned on.
- Always use safety glasses and hearing protection when using the saw.
- Avoid using gloves, as gloves can sometimes get caught on the wood or in the saw, drawing your hand into the blade.
- Keep the blade guard on the saw whenever possible. While some cutting jobs require the blade guard to be removed, your saw will be much safer to use if you leave the blade guard in place.
- Do not attempt to rip severely bowed or curved wood. If the piece has a slight bow, place the convex edge against the fence while cutting.
More Safety: Watch Out For Kickback
Kickback is a dangerous situation that is responsible for many injuries during rip-cutting operations on a table saw. It occurs when the workpiece pinches against the blade while cutting. The rapidly spinning blade can then throw the workpiece back in your direction with great force, perhaps striking you in the stomach or chest with enough force to puncture the skin or break bones.
Kickback can occur when the workpiece wanders away from the fence as you feed it through the blade, or when the edges of the kerf pinch together around the blade. Watch out for wet wood and for knots in the wood, which can make kickback more likely. And make sure to keep the workpiece pressed tightly against the fence as you feed it slowly through the blade.
Use a splitter to keep the kerf—the space left where the wood has been removed by the saw blade— open and keep it from pinching the blade as you cut the workpiece. Standing slightly to one side rather than directly behind the board will keep you from getting hit in the stomach or chest if kickback does occur.
Make sure the blade is correctly aligned so it is exactly parallel with the rip fence. Kickback becomes much more likely if a misalignment is forcing the workpiece to press against the blade.
Equipment / Tools
- Table saw
- Measuring tape or square
- Push stick (or expendable piece of scrap wood)
Set the Blade Depth
Adjust the blade for the proper depth. The recommendation is generally to set the blade so it extends about 1/8-inch above the top surface of the workpiece. For example, if you are cutting a 3/4-inch piece of plywood, set the blade at a depth of about 7/8-inch. This reduces the chance of serious injury if you accidentally brush your hand over the top of the workpiece while cutting.
Proper blade depth is argued by woodworkers, with some saying that setting the blade higher reduces the chance of kickback since the teeth of the blade will apply more downward pressure on the workpiece as you cut. They argue that a shallow blade depth causes the teeth of the blade to strike the workpiece in a manner that pushes the wood back toward the operator.
Mark the Workpiece for Cutting
One benefit of using a table saw to rip cut wood is that you can adjust the fence to whatever measurement you want, and then trust that the saw will maintain this measurement all the way through the cut. This means that you can measure and mark just the front end of the board, adjust the fence to this distance from the blade, then feed the board through the saw. Provided you keep the board tight against the fence for the entirety of the cut, you're assured that the width will be uniform throughout.
Alternatively, you can draw a mark lengthwise, down the entire board, then visually follow the cut line as you feed the board through the blade. This can be helpful if you do not have a good fence or are cutting a workpiece that is too wide to use the fence.
Set the Table Saw Fence
Set the marked end of the workpiece on the top of the table saw so it just touches the blade. Adjust the workpiece so that the teeth of the saw are just touching your pencil mark. Then, move the wood slightly left so that you will not be cutting exactly on the mark.
Table saws chew up so much wood that they will throw off your measurement by at least 1/8-inch if you do not preserve the mark.
Make sure that the fence is snug against the side of your workpiece, and then snap the fence lock tightly into place.
Position the Outfeed Support
With benchtop table saws, often the table is rather small and it may be necessary to establish some kind of outfeed support to hold the end of a long board as it comes off the saw. Without some kind of outfeed support, the workpiece can wobble up and down as you feed it through the blade. An additional support may not be necessary if you have a stationary table saw with a large extension table that already provides plenty of outfeed support.
You can create outfeed support by stacking blocks of wood on the outfeed side of the table at the exact height of the saw's table. As the workpiece comes off the saw table, it will glide over this outfeed support. There are also adjustable outfeed roller stands you can buy. These can be adjusted to the precise height you need; they feature a roller or ball bearings over which the workpiece glides as it comes off the end of the saw's table.
Rip-Cut the Workpiece
Put on safety glasses and hearing protection. With your push stick near and the saw's safety guard down, flip on the power switch and let the motor come to full speed.
Push the workpiece through the saw blade at a slow but steady rate, keeping it pressed lightly against the fence. Once you begin feeding the workpiece, complete the cut in one continuous motion. If you slow down or stop, you may notch big grooves out of your wood, destroying your straight line.
When the wood is about halfway through the blade, pay attention to the outfeed side of the table, making sure the workpiece smoothly settles onto whatever kind of outfeed support you are using.
Finish the Cut Using a Push Stick
As you approach the end of your cut, your hands will get closer to the saw blade. Use a push stick to guide the end of the workpiece through the saw blade. Make sure that the push stick does not slip off of the workpiece, causing your hands to fall into the blade.
Make sure the push stick is placed on the portion of wood between the blade and fence. That is the part that could bind and kick back.
Power Down the Table Saw
Once the cut is complete and before retrieving the workpiece, turn off the saw and wait for the blade to stop turning. Only now should you reach to lift the workpiece off the saw table. If you do not expect to be making another cut, unplug the saw.