The table saw is likely the most costly and most important tool purchase a woodworker can make. This is the one woodworking tool around which most woodshops are centered, and as such, making an ill-advised purchase can be a costly mistake, not only in terms of finances, but also in terms of productivity.
With that in mind, here is a checklist of features to consider when buying a table saw, one that will allow you to determine what features are absolutely critical to your needs, and what features you may decide aren't as important.
Types of Table Saws
Table saws fall into three main categories:
Cabinet Saws: This type of saw is the largest, heaviest and most costly of the bunch. Cabinet saws typically have a heavy cast iron table machined to a very smooth surface. The motor is enclosed within a cabinet beneath the saw table, and the saw's trunnions and gearing are very heavy-duty and precise. Cabinet saws typically have a 3HP to 5HP motor. The entire saw with wings and fence can weigh well over 600 pounds.
Contractor's Saws: This type of saw is designed to be portable, often used by building contractors on a job site. As such, the saw is far lighter than a cabinet saw. The table is often made from aluminum, the motor is mounted on the outside of the saw (and the blade is belt-driven), and the trunnions are much lighter in weight as well. With sizes ranging from a small bench-top table saw (occasionally with a 1HP or smaller motor) to a 1-3/4 horsepower saw with a larger table, portability is of a greater concern than accuracy or power.
Hybrid Saws: The hybrid table saw attempts to be a combination of both the cabinet and contractor's saws, although the thoughts of which cabinet saw features to incorporate seem to vary widely by manufacturer. Some hybrid saws incorporate a cast iron main saw table, heavier trunnions and gears, and legs that keep the saw at the same working height as a cabinet saw.
Motors on hybrid saws are typically no more than two horsepower.
In North America, most cabinet saws utilize 220-volt electricity (either single-phase, or three-phase in the case of heavy-duty commercial saws). Conversely, most contractor's saws use 110-volt power, because it is far more widely available. Hybrid saws are typically set up to use 110-volt power from the factory, but many can be switched to use 220-volt power where available.
The advantages of using 220-volt electricity to power the table saw is evident. The saw's motor will have less of a tendency to bog down under a heavy workload. Unfortunately, in portable situations, this isn't a choice to consider, as 220-volt is rarely readily available outside of a shop location.
Types of Saw Tables
Cabinet saw tables are almost always constructed of finely-machined cast iron. This allows the table top to be extremely flat and accurate, and the weight of the table provides stability to the saw. Other types of saw tables found on hybrid and contractor's saws include aluminum, granite and painted steel. Some hybrid saws may use a main table made from cast iron with extension wings built from aluminum.
After the table and the motor, likely the most distinguishing feature between table saw models would be the fence.
A table saw's fence needs to be accurate (remaining perfectly parallel to the saw blade at all times) and easily adjustable. A fence that flexes or slides when in use can cause the saw blade to bind with the wood, causing dangerous kickbacks. A fence that is sturdy but difficult to adjust evenly along both the front and back edges of the table can be equally dangerous, not to mention frustrating to use.
One of the most popular styles of fence is the T-style, such as the Biesemeyer fence found on the Delta Unisaw. A T-style fence has a heavy bar or square tube attached to the front of the saw table, and a wide, dual-sided fence that glides along the top of the table. The locking mechanism on the front of the fence locks down onto the bar or tube in any position along the table top, and can be micro-adjusted to remain parallel to the blade at all times.
Other saw manufacturers have their own versions of the T-style fence, but the main distinguishing features are similar.
When choosing a saw, spend plenty of time focusing on the fence. If you find that the fence is easily movable, locks in place solidly and remains true to the blade at all times, it may be a good choice. If you find the fence lacking in the store, you'll likely be frustrated when using the saw after you get it home.
Traditionally, the 0-45 degree bevel adjustment on most table saws have tilted the blade to the right, but some cabinet saws use a left-tilt mechanism. This is one feature that is a matter of preference. Since most cutting operations have the fence positioned to the right of the blade, left-tilt saws are generally regarded as safer. The left-tilt angles the top of the blade away from the fence, and keeps the blade from possibly pinching the stock between the beveled blade and the fence. However, some people are used to using right-tilt blades, and find switching to a left-tilt to be a difficult adjustment. Right-tilt models seem to be more widely available.
Table saws create a lot of sawdust. Using a dust collection system with your table saw will keep the saw's motor running cooler and the gearing cleaner. Almost all cabinet saws have a 4-inch dust collection port on the back side of the cabinet, and a capture system within the cabinet to funnel the sawdust toward the port. Conversely, contractor's saws are expected to be used outside, and as such, the bottom of the saw's undercarriage is typically wide open, allowing sawdust to fall to the ground. Hybrid saws could fall anywhere in-between.
Keep dust collection in mind when you decide on what type of saw to use. If you plan to work mostly indoors, you'll want to choose a saw that allows you to connect to some form of dust collection, not only to keep the airborne dust to a minimum, but also to keep the saw (and your shop floor) cleaner. Conversely, if you're going to be in the great outdoors using your saw, you'll probably be better off with an open-cabinet saw, but expect to collect large piles of sawdust at your feet.
One feature found on all table saws is a miter gauge (and the requisite slots on either side of the saw blade in the table top). A miter gauge should be sturdy and the angles can be easily adjusted, and the angles should remain firm when the lock is tightened into place. The miter gauge should glide easily in the miter slots with no sloppiness in the mechanism. Slop in the track will translate to inaccurate angles when using the miter gauge.
There are two types of miter gauge slots: the rectangular slot and the T-slot. A rectangular miter slot will have just three sides to the slot, whereas a T-slot will have a narrow groove on either side of the base of the slot, giving the slot a shape like an upside-down T (when viewing from either end of the slot). T-slot miter gauges have a notch on either side of the glide that fits into these slots. This keeps the miter gauge from being lifted out of the slot when in use.
Standard rectangular-style miter gauges will fit just fine into T-slots, but not vice-versa. T-slots can accommodate other commercially-available table saw accessories such as locking featherboards. T-slots are rarely available on contractor's saws, but are almost always a feature of cabinet saws. This is a feature that is strictly a matter of preference, but one that is handy to have if found on your model of choice.
One of the major advances in table saws in recent years has been in safety features. Since table saws are statistically the most dangerous woodworking tool in use today, it makes sense that the safety features on your saw should be features you will actually use, rather than removing them because they're too cumbersome. Some of the most useful safety features include:
- Large, paddle-style switch - this allows you to turn off the saw with your leg or knee, keeping your hands on the work
- Riving knife - this metal piece rides just behind the saw blade, and is the same width as the saw blade. As the two cut pieces of stock glide past the blade, the riving knife keeps the boards separated, preventing the wood from pinching onto the blade and kicking back into the user. A good riving knife should be able to be raised or lowered with the saw blade automatically, and easily removed when using a dado blade on the saw.
- Anti-kickback pawls - Some table saws feature anti-kickback pawls on either side of the riving knife. These are small, spring-loaded pieces of metal with teeth that protrude downward toward the table top. As the wood glides past the blade, the pawls rise up and glide along the top side of the wood. If the wood kicks back, the teeth grab the wood, holding it in place. The advantages of anti-kickback pawls are that they help prevent kickback, but they can also damage the top surface of the stock.
- Blade guards - Most table saws also have a removable blade guard, which is a single or dual piece of plastic that covers the top of the saw blade, to prevent accidental hand or body contact with the blade. Some blade guards are very well-designed, while others seem to get in the way, leading the user to feel that they're more hassle than they're worth. A quality blade guard should be used whenever possible.
- Blade brake - One manufacturer of table saws has developed a revolutionary blade braking system that stops the blade whenever a body part comes into contact with the blade. This mechanism is now a part of all models built by SawStop, and has been known to save more than a few woodworkers from a potentially catastrophic injury. At this time, SawStop is the only manufacturer to implement such a blade braking system. This system has gained wide acclaim for preventing injuries, but is also a costly feature, as your saw blade (and the aluminum brake) must be replaced after the brake is engaged.
Another feature to consider when buying a table saw is whether you'll need to use a dado blade to cut dadoes or rabbets. This is typically a technique used by cabinet makers and furniture builders, and is rarely done on a job site. However, if you will need to use a dado blade, you'll need a saw with the horsepower and the arbor to handle cutting dadoes and rabbets. You should likely avoid contractor's saws in this instance.
Additional features to consider include the ability to add extension wings to either side of the saw, longer fence rails (for wider cuts, something very useful when ripping plywood and other sheet goods), storage options, mobile bases (to allow you to roll a heavier saw around your work area) and more.
In some cases, the features outlined above may seem like trivial in their functionality, whereas other features may seem like deal-breakers if they're not included. These are the types of decisions that only you can consider, as you know how you intend to use the saw best.
One final word of note: a table saw will only be as good as the blade will allow. Using a very well-built table saw with a cheap blade will yield cheap results, so don't skimp on the blade. Additionally, keeping the blade clean and free from pitch will keep the blade sharper and make it last longer.