Table Saw – Tool Basics

The table saw is the centerpiece of most woodworking shops, at least in the opinion of many table saw owners. There are many things you can do with it, and if you are doing furniture on a regular basis there is probably no reasonable way to avoid getting one.

Welcome to the second article in the Tool Basics series. If you have not done so already, check out the first one about general thoughts on tools here, or dive right into what the table saw can do “out of the box” below.

In the next article, I will share with you a number of jigs that you can build to make it do even more – why not subscribe to my newsletter so you do not miss that?

Here is what the table saw can do “out of the box”. This assumes a few very basic features that virtually every saw has, like a fence and a miter gauge. At the very least, every saw should have a fence of some kind, because otherwise there is little you can do with it safely.

Oh, and a disclaimer: I am linking to videos that are not my own. Neither do I have any special affiliation with those creators, nor can I be held responsible if they do something that you do not agree with. That being said, let’s…


Cut wood in straight lines

This is, of course, its main objective, and the table saw does this rather well. The capacity of the saw is mainly determined by the size of its table, the flat surface around the blade where you can rest boards upon. Yes, you can hold larger boards in position, or put your weight on them to keep them from tipping, but that is generally not a good idea. If your shop space allows, you can extend that capacity using outfeed tables or rollers, though.

Rip cuts are cuts along the grain of the wood, and they are generally facilitated using the rip fence of the saw. This fence is a flat surface that runs parallel to your blade, against which you hold your material as you move it through the blade.

Crosscuts run across or perpendicular to the grain, and in an “out of the box” setup you can use a miter gauge to hold the piece on its way through the saw. Using the fence for these cuts is not recommended because the likelihood of kickback is pretty big. Also, when you need to square up the end of a board, the fence would not do you any good either.

Yes, this video is about handsaws. Still, the basic principles still apply, and it never hurts to broaden your horizon, right?



Dados, Rabbets and Grooves

The only difference between these kinds of cuts and the ones mentioned above is that the blade does not cut completely through the material. There are a number of different names for the different variations, and they are generally used for joinery of some kind, like sliding a board into a dado of matching size to keep it in place in a shelf.

table saw basics - dados, rabbets and grooves

Even though I have never used one myself, I should mention dado stacks. They are more widespread in the USA, since – as far as I can tell – European table saws are not built to support them. A dado stack is a set of two saw blades and a number of spacers and chip removers that go between them. With it, you can create dados wider than your standard blade in one go.

You can produce the same result with a single blade – you just have to make more cuts. Also, before you feel sad about not having one at your disposal, consider the time it takes to put it in and set it up, as opposed to using the blade already in there.


The Sled – Safety and Comfort

Some saws come with a sled, a piece of table that can slide back and forth. I should mention that you can easily build your own sleds for your table saw, but this will be part of the next article, so we will talk about pre-built sleds only here.Also, keep in mind that this feature is more often than not found in more expensive saws, and it is unlikely that you will find it in entry-level models.

Sleds can have a fence of their own to butt your piece up against or allow you to fasten your miter gauge to it to act as one. They often give you the option to clamp pieces of wood to the table to make sure they stay in position during the cut. As they allow you to keep your fingers away from the blade and prevent kickback, they can be considered a safety feature, too.

But even if your saw did not come equipt with one, chances are that it has machined grooves parallel to the blade in the table, and allows for the use of a homemade sled – which will be part of the next article in the series (hint: subscribe to my newsletter so you do not miss it).


Consumables on the Table Saw

The table saw uses table saw blades, which is as obvious as it sounds. But there are a couple of things to consider. For starters, a good blade will yield a much better cur face than a bad one, so upgrading to a quality blade will save you time later when you save time on sanding, and can actually use cut faces as a visible feature of your designs.

There are different kinds of blades, too. There are different widths of the blade, and while it may not seem like much, a wider saw will create a wider kerf – the line where it removes material. If you make a number of cuts, a thinner blade can save you some wood, especially if it is expensive stuff.

There are also different tooth geometries. Most blades come with teeth with an alternating angle. These are perfectly fine for most purposes. There is only one use case where you would want to get a blade with flat teeth – doing non-through cuts. If you are cutting dados and the likes, having a blade that creates a flat kerf bottom will create a cleaner, smoother dado.

That being said, I have cut grooves using an angled-tooth blade many times, and it has never failed me. It does not look as pretty, but generally speaking, wood glue can cover the imperfections in the bottom of the dado. It is just something worth knowing, just in case you run into problems with that look at some point.



Improving your Table Saw

All of the above is what a table saw can do out of the box, i.e. the way you buy it. While it may seem like a short list, it covers a lot of ground when it comes to woodworking. Cutting boards to size is, after all, the most important step in many projects.

To improve your saw’s performance – other than getting a better blade – you can use jigs and fixtures. And quite possibly, there are more options here for the table saw than most other tools. You will find them in the next article. But there are some things that improve upon the basics, the out-of-the-box experience of your saw.

Make a Zero-Clearance Insert

In most saws, there is a gap between the blade and the table surrounding it. Generally, you can remove this part of the table in order to change the saw blade, and this part is called the table insert. There are ways to make inserts that do not have this gap – hence they are called zero-clearance. The main advantage is that they prevent tearout on the bottom of the cut (the teeth tearing down wood fibers, leaving a rough edge). They also improve dust collection and prevent thin cutoffs from dropping into the saw or shooting back at you.


Build your own Fence

Here is how you can build a new fence for your saw. This is a useful upgrade if your saw is generally good enough for what you need, but the fence it came with is not stable, too flimsy or prone to flexing. This requires some skill to make, especially since you need a stable fence to make most of the required cuts. You can temporarily improve your old fence by clamping it to the table – just make sure to keep the clamps away from the blade.


Sharpen your Blades

Like all cutters, table saw blades will dull over time, depending on what you use them on. The terms hardwood and softwood are not without a reason. There are companies out there that offer to sharpen saw blades, and that is a good option for high-end blades, where a new one would cost more than having the old one sharpened. This will probably not be true for cheaper models. But there are ways to increase your blade’s life by sharpening them yourself.

Thanks for checking out this article in the Tool Basics lineup. Let me know what you think, and if you have more improvements that you can make to your table saw I would love to hear them.

And as always, remember to be Inspired!

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It is my passion and mission to inspire you, no matter what you do - woodworking and making, cooking, or roleplaying and paper crafting. Be inspired!

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