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If you want to build cabinets, furniture, boxes, or other items where multiple pieces of wood must fit together accurately, you need a precision saw. One that cuts absolutely straight lines, precisely where you want it (at times, 1/32 of an inch is considered a rough measurement). The cut must be smooth, and most of the time must be exactly vertical - 90 degrees from the the adjacent side. Our ancestors only had a hand saw, and became very good at using it (with lots and lots of practice - forget that option for me). A jigsaw won't work. A carpenter's circular saw isn't usually sufficient for a finish cut (although it may be very handy for making a rough cut on a long board or sheet of plywood, with a finish cut refined later on a precision saw).
A bandsaw is a stationary saw, but that is covered separately. This page focuses on table saws (or at least those saws that use a round spinning blade).
This "old style" saw gets first reference because it was my primary saw for over 25 years. There are some reasonable arguments that a radial arm saw is better than a table saw (that was a common debate in past decades), but the RAS has become largely obsolete. The popular Sears models have been recalled by the manufacturer - Emerson Electric - to replace the guards on some models, or with a $100 compensation to destroy other models (thus I knew mine would always be worth $100).
I kept my RAS and used it for a long time for rough cuts like a miter saw, in part because of it's limited resale value, and partially for sentimental reasons. But that also means you can probably find a used RAS cheap.
There are a wide range of saws where the blade is raised through a table, only as much as necessary, and the wood is slid across the table. The blade can be tilted if necessary (a few very old saws tilted the table rather than the blade). A rip fence holds the wood parallel to the blade for long cuts. A miter fence or gauge holds the board perpendicular to the blade (or at a set angle) and guides the work through the blade for "cross cuts."
This is the entry level table saw, often available for a couple hundred dollars. The table is typically small, and rarely cast iron or other "normal, heavy" top. The fence is typically lightweight, and may not consistently hold a close alignment. The saw blade is often connected directly to the motor, making alignment difficult, and the "play" in the motor bearings is magnified in the blade into the very undesirable "play" in the blade. The overall light weight of the saw does little to dampen vibrations. These saws are often used by contractors for on-site work, but they are not normally considered a precision saw that would be desirable in a shop. I had one many years ago, and gave it away - it wasn't worth messing with.
This is an entry level table saw for a shop, good for hobby users or sometimes taken to a job site by contractors when more precision is required than a tabletop saw. It is typically built with an "absolutely" flat cast iron table, heavy enough to dampen vibrations, with the blade mechanism (raise, lower, tilt) hung from the bottom of the table. The motor is typically 1-2 hp, extending from the rear of the machine, with a drive belt to isolate the motor from the blade. The position of the motor makes the saw hard to move and store (most won't go through a standard door without removing the motor) - they can't just be shoved against the wall.
The newer models have a shroud around the blade to aid in dust collection, but many just drop the dust to the floor under the table. The open back (to allow the motor to tilt with the blade) makes efficient dust collection difficult. Many come with legs, and some with wheels, but others require an optional or shop-made cart. Some have reasonably good rip fences and long rails to allow cutting wide sheets of plywood, or some users use a more precise "after market" rip fence. The OEM miter gauges are generally poor as a fence; the after marked miter fences are quite nice (but I have gotten used to even better). Most people consider alignment difficult - making the blade parallel to the slot for the miter fence, then making the rip fence parallel to the blade.
In my opinion, this is the basic table saw for precision work. The blade mechanism (tilt, raise, lower, etc.) is mounted to the cabinet, and the motor (often 3-5 hp) is within the cabinet. The cast iron top is mounted on the top of the cabinet, and can be readily and precisely aligned to the blade. It also will presumably remain flatter without the saw hanging from the under side of the table (cast iron is remarkably flexible and does warp).
Since the motor of the cabinet saw is inside the cabinet, dust collection has been addressed for years... the techniques are improving, but a cabinet saw has always done more than "just let it drop." Cabinet saws inherently have a cabinet, and many have optional mobility kits to allow them to be moved as necessary.
Some cabinet saws come with an adequate rip fence, but upgrading the rip fence (either at the time of original purchase or later) is fairly common. Precision cross-cuts require something far more than the usual miter gauge - often a shop-built sled or an after-market miter fence.
SawStop makes an excellent cabinet saw with a unique feature - if it senses that it may be cutting flesh, it stops practically instantly - may not even require a band-aid. The single-use $60 brake often destroys the blade (or at least requires expensive blade repair), but that is far cheaper than even the bandages on a severed finger. To lower cost, SawStop has come out with a cheaper contractor saw that I have not used. Many people hate the Saw Stop company for their attempts to get laws passed that would require all vendors to buy their technology. There are a lot of ways to get seriously hurt with a saw, and this just eliminates one option, so this is not a perfect solution to saw safety. Despite the lack of perfect safety and despicable management, their cabinet saw is an outstanding machine.
One of my readers who likes to argue claims the contractor saws with an upgraded fence are quite adequate and the upgrade to a cabinet saw is unnecessary. He also argues that the motor can be easily removed from a contractor saw to make it easier to store and move. (It wasn't that easy on my contractor saw.) The folks I know who have switched from a contractor to a cabinet saw have been surprised at the real improvement. My primary saw was a contractor saw for years, both as a hobbyist and as a pro, and I didn't feel the need to upgrade - until I tried something better.
Why does the motor have to stick out of the back of a contractor saw? Because that is the way it has always been done. In the last few years, manufacturers have been using the less expensive contractor saw technology with the "works" hanging from the table rather than attached to the cabinet, but putting the motor inside the cabinet. Of course, that means dust collection has to be addressed - you cannot just dump all the dust on the motor. But these "hybrid saws" are an interesting cross between a contractor saw and a cabinet saw.
A number of vendors, mostly based in Europe, make high performance, high accuracy saws where the entire table, left of the blade, is on a track and "slides" (the common European name translates to "trolley" or "wagon"). The slider itself is typically about a foot wide and 8 1/2 to 10 1/2 feet long, although some hobbyists buy the 5 foot slider intended for factories making cabinet doors and drawers.
A board can be clamped to the slider for long cuts, even a rough board with no straight side to follow a rip fence. (I find this a great way to optimize a board that has a flaw on the left side of one end and the right side of the other, or vice versa.) The cut with the slider is so perfect that I rarely have to edge-joint a board before use. Once a straight edge has been established, I can use the rip fence on the right side of the blade to cut the second side parallel to the first, or use the slider (more precise than the rip fence). See my tutorial on using a slider in the MiniMax section.
If the work piece is wider than the slider (sheet goods), an outrigger easily attaches to the slider. An arm extends from the machine to support the outrigger, so this table (often 5 feet wide) easily supports multiple sheets of plywood. A long "miter" or cross-cut fence (extends over 8 feet on mine) allows VERY precise cuts. On my mid-level machine, the cumulative error in four right angle cuts is less than the thickness of a sheet of paper, and stayed that accurate for over three years before needing adjustment. Owners of cheaper machines are amazed at the accuracy and stability of my machine; owners of better machines are horrified that I tolerate this poor precision. I have not had to recalibrate even when I have repeatedly removed and replaced the outrigger and fence.
SawStop does not make a slider like mine, but by clamping the work to the slider, the normal operating position is farther from the blade than with most saws, providing a degree of protection from blade contact, and other safety features such as kickback not addressed by SawStop.
How can a small shop tolerate the space required by such a long slider? Although I do not casually move my 2,200 pound saw, I find it takes no more space than my previous table saw... if you want to rip an 8 foot board, you need 8 feet before the blade, plus 8 feet after the blade, plus the space of the blade, or about 17-18 feet. With the table saw, the 17 feet was cleared and movable stands were set in place - inconvenient and time consuming. The slider moves over my workbench and other work areas. It is rare that anything needs to be moved for long cuts, and the slider is easily slid to the other end (such as when I am using my bench). The large outrigger is used in the first half of a project, while large pieces are cut, then can easily be removed in the latter part of a project, giving more room in the shop for assembly (although in practice I find the outrigger is an excellent assembly table). A smaller miter fence (that is easier to set at various angles) can be attached to the slider - I normally keep that fence at the opposite end of the slider. If you have a dedicated shop where you don't have to move your saw, even a very small shop, I bet a slider will easily fit.
A riving knife is a heavy steel plate, close to the thickness of the blade, positioned close behind the blade (about 3mm or 1/8 inch on my saw), that raises, lowers, and tilts with the blade. By keeping the work from touching the back side of the blade, it goes a long way towards eliminating kick-backs. A splitter is not as effective, because it is generally quite narrow, and on many saws has to be removed for many operations. After market splitters that attach to the table don't follow the movement of the blade.
Most North American users can't imagine a saw that doesn't also take a dado blade, up to at least 3/4 inch thick. European safety regulations don't allow non-through cuts on a saw, so dado blades are not used in Europe. Some of the European saws have been modified for the North American market by moving the slider farther from the blade, and providing a longer arbor, to support dado blades. My saw has this feature, but I never use it. Sheet goods are so uneven that I get far better results using a router to cut dados and rabbets following the curvature of the panel, then I can pull the panel flat during glue-up. Bottom line, I might even choose a machine without the dado capability, so the sliding table can be closer to the blade!
Festool has built a circular saw using table saw technology, integrated with a guide rail and dust collection. Many people swear by the precision cuts available using this saw system, and many contractors are now carrying this tool to job sites, rather that a "contractor" saw.
With a good Miter Fence cross cuts can be done on a table saw. However, removing the rip fence and setting up for angle cuts, particularly compound angles, is often not convenient. A separate saw is often used for cross cuts of narrow boards. Early saws only cut straight across, and became known as chop saws.
A regular miter saw has a simple mechanism - the spinning blade is lowered through the work. This apparently simple design has led to some very inexpensive miter saws with weak fences and inaccurate settings, although good miter saws also exist. Since the maximum width of the cut is determined by the size of the blade, these saws are often equipped with a 12 inch fine tooth blade optimized for cross cuts. The compound part of the miter saw is that the blade can tilt (either one way or both ways) in addition to pivoting left and right. The difference between the cheaper and better saws is the range and precision of the alignment (does it tip both ways, as well as turn both ways? Can cuts be readily set to a fraction of a degree in both angle and tilt? Is it possible to calibrate the saw so that the fraction-of-a-degree cuts are really the angle set? Does it have a large sturdy fence to precisely hold the work?
The solution to the limited size of the miter saw cut is to allow the blade mechanism to slide - enter the Sliding Compound Miter Saw, or SCMS. They are used by lowering the blade into the front of the wood and pushing back, improving the safety and control compared to a radial arm saw. Some people prefer a 10 inch or smaller SCMS even though they would need a 12 inch regular miter saw, expecting less blade wobble with the 10 inch blade. The tracks add complexity to the saw, and "cheap" tracks can detract from precision, so a good quality sliding miter saw can cost twice as much as a comparable conventional miter saw. The cost and complexity of the SCMS is approaching that of the Radial Arm Saw, but with the extra safety and accuracy, these have practically replaced the old RAS.
Some people consider the band saw the most important saw in the shop. The blade is a very tight thin steel band, which allows it to cut with far less loss of wood, cutting through far thicker pieces (sometimes a foot or more) than a spinning blade. The blade can also be narrow, which allows it to cut outside curves. Since the blade is a band, it cannot cut inside closed curves. See the more detailed discussion on band saws and using the bandsaw to resaw.
A jig saw is a portable tool that has a short reciprocating blade. The cut is not very smooth or precise, but it can follow a curved line (depending on the skill of the operator). Now that I have a good band saw, I rarely use this inexpensive tool. People who have tried a really good jig saw (such as Festool Carvex) have told me that I am missing a good approach.
A scroll saw is a motorized coping saw - a narrow blade that cuts slowly but precisely along sharp curves, in wood no more than about an inch thick. By drilling a hole and mounting the blade through the hole, a scroll saw can even cut inside closed curves. For furniture making, a scroll saw has only limited value. But for many types of work, the scroll saw is priceless. It may not be essential in "big" projects, but it is a lot of fun, and simple units are not that expensive.
This saw is great for free-hand cuts, and is widely used on construction sites. However, for furniture/cabinet work, a free-hand cut(or even a cut along a straight edge) is not as accurate as a table saw. I occasionally use one for rough cutting boards for easier handling.
A generally powerful reciprocating saw with blades that can handle any material - plaster, wood, plastic or metal pipe, rebar. But not for precision cuts.
Rockwell recently introduced a table mounted jig saw or reciprocating saw, as a low cost, low space alternative to a table saw. The table and fence make far more precision possible than using one of these saws freehand, but the cut does not approach the precision and smoothness of a circular saw.
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