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Table Saw Buying Guide: What to Look For

TODO

Cut through the clutter of manufacturer claims by learning what features matter when choosing a new table saw for your home or shop.

A table saw is the centerpiece of most people’s workshops. Aside from its obvious use to rip material to a desired width, a huge array of accessories and jigs let it make many other types of cuts.

The different features, sizes, and price ranges you’ll encounter when trying to buy a table saw can be daunting. I’ll walk you through all of the features you need to look for, then talk about the types of table saws on the market. Then when you start reading reviews and comparing models, you’ll know exactly what matters to you when finding the best table saw for the money.

Table Saw Basics

You can find table saws costing from a couple hundred to many thousands of dollars. But all of them work essentially the same way and have the same basic features.

Before we get started, take a minute to think about the type of work you want to do with your saw. Are you mostly going to do general home improvement projects or do you want a woodworking table saw? Will you be cutting mostly sheets of plywood or small pieces of exotic wood? (Or all of the above?)

And think about where you’ll be using it. Do you have a small shop or a big one? Are you okay with a saw that lives in one spot, or will you need to move it?

Motor Type

Table saws have two basic types of motors and drive systems connecting the motor to the arbor that holds the blade:

  • Direct Drive: Powered by a universal motor whose shaft connects directly to the arbor. This is a simple mechanism more common in portable saws. These motors tend to be loud and offer less power than induction motors, and are more common on smaller saws.
  • Belt Drive: Powered by an induction motor that uses one or more belts to drive the blade. These are quieter and more powerful, but require regular inspection and maintenance of the belts for safe and efficient operation. They’re more common on larger saws.

Voltage and Horsepower

One of the first things to consider is the voltage needed to power the saw. Standard residential wiring in the United States provides 120V to all outlets except for kitchen ranges and clothes dryers, which have 240V outlets. You’ll find saws that operate on both voltages. (Outside the U.S., of course, products will be designed to run on the voltages used in the countries where they are sold.)

Many table saws operate on 120 volts. They will have lower-powered motors than those that require 240 volts but should be more than adequate for most DIY carpentry and basic woodworking projects. Check the specs to make sure the saw you have in mind will work on 120 volts.

A word to the wise: You should take manufacturer claims about motor horsepower with a large grain of salt, especially for the universal motors typically found on smaller 120-volt saws. You’ll see claims of 4 HP or even more for such motors, but this is mostly marketing spin. Those measurements are made by pushing the motor to its limit with a much higher current draw than you can achieve on a typical residential circuit. A motor on a 120-volt 15-amp circuit can produce a theoretical maximum 1800 (120 x 15) watts of output, or about 2.4 HP, before the circuit breaker trips. And motors are not 100% efficient, so you can expect to see about 1.5 to 1.75 HP in reality. You’ll see similarly misleading claims on things like vacuum motors too. Physics beats marketing every time, so just ignore these ratings!

If you plan to work with very thick or dense hardwoods, you may need the additional power (3-5 HP) offered by a 240-volt saw. If your workshop doesn’t already have a 240-volt circuit, you will need to add one. (This is a job for a professional electrician unless you are absolutely sure you know what you’re doing.) The horsepower ratings for the induction motors on these saws tend to be more realistic than the marketing hype I mentioned above for universal motors.

Cordless table saws are starting to appear on the market, targeting contractors working on jobsites with limited access to electricity. While I love cordless tools in general, I think most people will be best served by a corded table saw. If you do plan to take your saw beyond the reach of an extension cord, though, be sure to compare battery life.

Overall Size

The next important consideration is how much space you have to dedicate to a table saw. As you’ll see below, offerings range from bench-top models that can be easily moved around a shop to 600-pound beasts requiring significant floor space.

When evaluating your space, you need to consider not only the saw itself. You’ll need several feet on either side for you to safely stand and operate it, plus space for the materials to feed in and out of the saw. For many of us with modest-sized shops, this requires some amount of portability so we can move the saw into open space to use it, then return it out of the way.

Table Quality and Size

The table that your workpiece rests on must be flat, durable, and large enough to support the material without letting it tip over. Higher-end saws have cast-iron tables, while those designed for portability typically are typically made of lighter (but less durable) material such as aluminum. In any case, when inspecting a table, reject any that aren’t completely flat. The best saws will have less than a couple of thousandths of an inch deviation across the entire surface.

Larger tables are useful when dealing with sheet stock such as plywood. Many larger saws also feature extension tables that can be added as needed to support very large workpieces securely.

The more portable the saw, the smaller its table will tend to be. This can limit a smaller saw’s usability for sheet goods or large material. Some models may come with optional extensions that can buy a few more inches of support. The Internet is also full of plans for portable saw stands with extension tables if you want to build your own.

Picture of a table-saw blade protruding from the table

Blade Types

Almost all the table saws that you’ll look at for home or hobbyist use take 10” blades. Choosing the right saw blade can make even more of an impact on the quality of your finished project than the table saw itself.

Every table saw will accept a standard full-kerf (1/8” thickness) blade, but those with lower-powered motors might struggle to remove that much material from dense wood. Many people prefer to use thin-kerf blades (around 3/32”) in such cases. If you want to use more specialized blades such as a dado set (to cut flat-bottom grooves), you’ll need to check the specs for the saw. Some smaller saws won’t accept a dado set, which means they probably wouldn’t be the best table saw for woodworking.

Rip Fence

The rip fence is one of the most critical parts of a table saw, since it’s what lets you rip wood to the exact width you want. The quality of the fence can be one of the biggest factors in how much a table saw costs.

Depending on the manufacturer, fences may clamp in place in both the front and back of the table saw, or in the front only. The T-style common to some higher-end fences clamps only in the front to a heavy bar or tube mounted to the front of the saw. Other manufacturers offer rack-and-pinion adjustment mechanisms that travel along toothed tracks in both front and rear.

Regardless of how it attaches, you want to look for a fence that is perfectly parallel to the blade from front to back. It should be made of sturdy material that won’t flex as the material slides over it, and should have very little gap underneath it that would let thin material slide through. And the locking mechanism should let you easily make precise adjustments to the fence, then lock it solidly in place.

Smaller saws might have fences that let you make cuts 20-24” wide, while saws with larger tables will let you move the fence much farther away. If you plan to cut sheet goods like plywood on your saw, this extra range (up to 52”) may be important.

Miter Gauge and Slots

The miter gauge is a tool that slides back and forth in miter slots that run parallel to the blade, typically one on either side. You’ll use it to safely push material through the blade when making crosscuts. The head of the miter gauge will typically rotate to let you make miter or bevel cuts (think the four sides of a picture frame meeting at 45-degree angles).

The quality of miter gauges that come with table saws varies widely. You want a miter gauge that fits snugly in the slots without even a hint of wobble, yet still slides easily. The head should be easy to secure at any angle, and accurately marked to let you dial in the exact angle. Higher-quality gauges offer detents that securely hold the head at common angles like 45 degrees.

You’ll find two types of miter slots. Rectangular slots have flat bottoms and sides, and the miter gauge simply slides through it on a rectangular rail. T-slots are shaped like an upside-down T, with a wider flange on the lower sides of the slot. This lets specially-shaped rails lock securely into the slot so they can’t fall out. T-slots will typically be found on newer or more expensive saws.

You can purchase (or build!) a wide variety of different jigs and accessories that will fit into the miter slots, so if this is something you plan to do, pay attention to the style of the slot on your saw.

Blade Tilt

Table saws let you tilt the blade up to 45 degrees to make bevel or miter cuts. The blade only tilts in one direction, and some saws are left-tilt while others are right-tilt. For the most part, which direction to choose is a matter of personal preference, but there are a couple factors to consider.

Since you generally put the rip fence to the right of the blade, a left-tilted blade is slightly safer because it will not have a tendency to pinch your workpiece against the fence, which can cause dangerous kickback. But the adjustable nut that secures the blade is on the right, between the blade and the fence. So you’ll need to recalibrate the distance to your fence every time you switch between blades of different kerfs (widths).

A right-tilted blade may be more prone to pinching and kickback when making bevel cuts. But because the adjustable nut securing the blade is on the left, on the opposite side from the fence, the distance to the fence should remain the same even when swapping out blades of different thicknesses.

Dust Collection

If you have an existing dust collection system in your shop, pay attention to the connections that a table saw offers. Smaller saws may provide 2” or 2 1/2” fittings for a standard shop vac, while larger ones typically have 4” ports for dedicated dust collection systems. Still others, especially contractor models designed for outdoor or jobsite use, have open bottoms where sawdust simply falls out.

Safety

The large table saw brands all feature common safety features that should be considered must-haves.

Blade Guard

Blade guards are clear plastic shields that fit over the blade itself. They lock in place so the workpiece can slide under them, but your fingers can’t come along for the ride. Look for blade guards that offer a clear view of the blade and are mounted so they raise and lower along with the blade.

You’ll occasionally need to remove the blade guard to make certain cuts (dadoes or other grooves, for instance), so make sure it’s easy to remove and attach securely. And be sure to reattach it as soon as possible.

Riving Knife

One of the most dangerous table saw accidents is kickback. Kickback happens when the workpiece pinches the fast-spinning blade, causing it to fire the wood back towards the operator (that’s you). Turning your wood into a high-velocity projectile can lead to serious injury.

A riving knife is a solid piece of metal with a wedge-shaped front edge that sits just behind the blade. It keeps the two pieces of wood from pinching back together on the blade. Ideally the knife raises and lowers along with the saw blade. Riving knives are already required in European shops, and you should consider them a necessity on any saw you purchase.

Anti-Kickback Pawls

Another mechanism to prevent kickback are pawls, which are spring-loaded arms that mount behind the blade. They have rear-pointing teeth that let the workpiece move forward through the blade without resistance, but dig in to prevent it from flying back in the case of kickback. They are important safety features, so look for quality pawls that press down with enough strength to be effective, but not so much that their teeth can damage wood.

Large Power Switch

Look for a large red power switch that is easy to find and turn off. Ideally, you can reach it with a knee if you need to turn it off while supporting workpieces on the saw.

Blade Brakes

The newest safety feature on the market is an automatic blade brake. This technology measures electrical conductivity through the blade to detect if it is touching flesh. It can stop blades almost instantly, turning potential severed fingers into tiny nicks. (Certain metals such as aluminum can also trigger the brake, so be sure to read the manual carefully.)

SawStop has patents on this mechanism, and is currently the only manufacturer offering it. While it is an amazing safety feature, the price it commands will put it out of reach for many purchasers. In addition to the up-front cost, triggering the brake destroys both the brake and your saw blade, requiring you to replace them both before you can continue working. Of course, reattaching your fingers isn’t cheap either, so it pays to do the math!

Types of Table Saws

Most of the consumer-grade table saws you’ll look at fall into one of three categories, though a newer hybrid category combining some of their properties has also gained popularity.

Bench-Top Table Saws

Also labeled portable saws or jobsite saws, these are smaller saws optimized for moving around a shop or jobsite. They typically weigh under 65 points and are made from lighter materials such as plastic for cases and aluminum for tables, making them prone to vibration when in use. They have direct-drive universal motors that are compact but loud. In the US, these will always be 120V motors and generally produce 1 1/2 or less horsepower.

Dust collection options vary, but will frequently include a 2 or 2 1/2” port meant for use with a shop vac. The miter slots will often be rectangular, and the quality of the miter gauge itself can vary widely. Fences on these models often use proprietary attachment mechanisms, so it may be hard to find aftermarket fences that fit, though sometimes you can make them work with alterations.

These often make the best table saw for a small shop where you don’t have a lot of space for a stationary table saw. You can either set them on a bench or buy a stationary or wheeled stand from the manufacturer. Many plans for DIY saw carts are also available on the Internet.

Because of their size and lower power, they’re not ideal if you’ll need to cut lots of sheet goods or thick hardwoods. And the accuracy of the blade and fence may not be sufficient for fine woodworking.

Contractor Saws

Designed for contractors setting up shop on a jobsite, these are larger and heavier than bench-top models, usually weighing between 200 and 300 pounds. They usually have a 120V induction motor producing 1 1/2 to 2 HP and powering the blade via a belt drive. The motor typically hangs off the outside of the saw, so it can be removed for easier transport.

The materials used in construction will vary, with some featuring cast iron tops and others using aluminum. Fence and miter gauge quality varies as well, and you will find both rectangular and T-slot miter slots. These saws typically have open bottoms, since they’re often used outside or on a jobsite; if dust collection is a concern, you may need to rig up a bag or other collection device that sits under the saw.

If you have space in your shop, a contractor saw will provide plenty of power for almost any home improvement or basic furniture-making project. An exception might be if you need to cut dense hardwoods more than about 1 1/2” thick. While they are hardly lightweight, you can build or buy wheeled bases to give you some flexibility in your shop.

Cabinet Saws

These heavyweight saws, named because the table rests on a fully-enclosed cabinet, weigh in at 450 pounds or more. Meant to be installed permanently in a shop, they usually require a dedicated 240V circuit to drive their 3-5 HP induction motors. These motors use belts to drive a blade and deliver enough power to cut any thickness of wood.

All the important parts of these saws will typically be made of cast iron for durability and stability, including the table and the trunnions that hold the blade arbor. You should expect higher quality fences and miter gauges, and the miter slots may be either rectangular or T-shaped. A 4” port will enable you to connect a dedicated dust collection system.

The price and size of these saws mean they are not for everyone, but if you are serious about doing fine woodworking or cabinet-making, they are the tool for you. The heavy-duty construction of a cast iron table saw means that it should last a lifetime or more.

Hybrid Saws

Some manufacturers have recently begun offering table saws that combine aspects of both cabinet saws and contractor saws. They typically have fully-enclosed bases, but the base may be smaller and rest on legs much like a contractor saw. They have 120V motors rated at 1 1/2 to 2 HP like contractor saws, but may have more sophisticated belt systems to run more quietly and deliver more power.

Beyond the above, each manufacturer will offer their own blend of features from contractor and cabinet saws. You’ll need to compare the specs for individual products, but you may find a hybrid model offers the right mix of portability, durability, and power for you.

Conclusion

If shop space is available, a hybrid or contractor saw will provide enough power for almost all home or hobby projects. The hybrid saw might offer better dust-collection connections than a pure contractor saw.

Small workshops or projects requiring portability may dictate a bench-top model, but be aware that very thick or hard wood might be too much for them. People serious about fine woodworking will definitely want to look at cabinet saws.

Once you’ve selected the right table saw, you’ll want to pay just as much attention to choosing the right saw blade in order to get the best results.

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