Disclaimer: None of this advice is a substitute for proper training and adherence to your saw’s operating manual. You assume all risk for use of your table saw!
The table saw is the centerpiece of my shop, and probably yours too. Its versatility means it plays a role in almost every project that comes through the shop. But it’s also the most dangerous tool most of us will use on a regular basis. Table saws send thousands of people to the emergency room every year, and some of those people die.
The spinning blade is an obvious danger, and can easily slice off a finger or a hand. But just as big (or even bigger) a danger is kickback. Kickback is caused when material that’s already passed the forward edge of the blade is pinched or caught on the blade and flung back at high speed toward anyone standing in its way. Because of the velocity involved, even modest-sized pieces can cause serious injury or even death if vital organs are damaged.
Your first reaction might be fear, but left unchecked, fear leads to poor decision-making and tentative actions. By paying attention to how to use a table saw safely, you can replace fear with proper respect for the tool. You’ll be confident that you can make cuts quickly and safely.
I’ll talk first about precautions to take before you even begin to make a cut with your table saw, then go into how to safely make the cut itself. Two overriding rules safety rules for table saws before we start:
- Read your user’s manual. Every saw is slightly different, and the manufacturer paid lots of lawyers and engineers to tell you how to use it safely! ALWAYS read the safety precautions in your table saw’s manual before using it for the first time.
- If you’re in doubt, stop. If anything feels awkward or not quite right, don’t go any further. Evaluate whether there’s a better way to make the cut you have in mind. Don’t do it until you have thought it through and are sure you can do it safely.
Before the Cut
You make most of the important decisions affecting the safety of a cut before you even turn the saw on. We’ll talk about preparing yourself, your table saw, and your workpiece.
Make sure you’re ready to operate the table saw safely:
Don’t do it when tired. Most of us know the feeling of trying to finish one last thing late in the day when we’re tired. You’re in a hurry and you’re not thinking clearly. This is when mistakes happen. This is too dangerous a job to do when you’re not fresh. Sleep on it.
Don’t do it on medication or alcohol. Many chores around the house are more fun after a beer or two! But this is definitely not one of them. If you’ve been drinking or using drugs (prescription or otherwise) that impair your judgment or reaction time, wait until they’ve worn off, preferably until the next day.
Wear eye and ear protection. Table saws are very loud, and things can come flying off them. You only get two eyes and two ears, so protect them! Wear proper safety glasses, not just regular eyeglasses, along with hearing protection designed for use in a loud environment.
Wear sensible clothing. Avoid loose clothing or jewelry that could get caught on the saw blade or your workpiece. Don’t wear gloves that will make it hard to feel where your fingers are resting. Wear shoes or boots with a good grip so you don’t slip or fall. And if you have long hair, you should tie it back.
Plan ahead. Make sure you know how you’re going to do the cut before you proceed. Ensure you can visualize it from start to finish. If you have any doubt about how to do it, take the time to figure it out now.
Preparing Your Table Saw
No matter what type of cut you’re going to make, you should first make sure the saw and surrounding area are ready to go before turning anything on:
Unplug. Always unplug your table saw before adjusting the blade or doing any other work that brings you near the blade. Sure, it’s turned off, but are you willing to trust your arm to not turning it on accidentally while you work?
Also, unplug the saw when you leave it unattended or if you need to reset a triggered circuit breaker, so it doesn’t start running when you’re not around.
Check the blade. Turn the blade completely around by hand (with the saw unplugged!) to make sure it turns freely. Inspect it for any cracks, chips, or missing teeth, and don’t use it if it’s damaged. Verify that the nuts holding the blade on its arbor are tight. Make sure you’re using the right kind of blade for the cut you want to make.
Keep things parallel. Make sure your blade is completely parallel to both your miter slots and rip fence. Consult your manual for the exact steps to adjust these parts.
Some people prefer to angle the rear of the blade away from the fence by a hundredth of an inch or so for cleaner cuts. But no matter what, never angle the rear of the blade toward the fence, which can pinch the workpiece and cause kickback!
Check the throat plate. Never operate the saw without the throat plate around the blade installed and flush with the table. It lets the workpiece slide smoothly past the blade and keeps debris from falling into the blade and being thrown back out.
An optional zero-clearance throat plate that has no extra space around the blade stops even more material from falling in. And it helps make cleaner cuts, too, so is an accessory well worth purchasing or making.
Check the table. The table itself should be flat and free of any dust, debris, or other tools. Waxing it periodically helps wood slide freely, reducing the amount of force you need to exert and giving you better control.
Install safety equipment. Every table saw these days includes fairly similar basic safety equipment (discussed in more detail in our guide to buying a table saw):
a riving knife that keeps wood from pinching the rear of the blade,
a blade guard that prevents your fingers from coming near the blade, and
anti-kickback pawls that will dig into wood if it’s being thrown back toward you.
Some types of cuts require removing one or more of these, but for all other cuts, you should make sure they are installed and operating correctly. Make sure the blade guard and anti-kickback pawls move freely up and down and that the riving knife is directly in line with the saw blade.
Clear the surrounding area. Make sure at least 2’ on all sides of the table saw is clear of any obstructions, especially on the floor. Be especially careful to run the saw’s power cord so it won’t be in your way. Tripping or stepping on something that throws you off-balance could propel you towards the blade or cause you to twist the material you’re holding. That could cause a violent kickback.
Clear a path for cutting. You’ll obviously need to feed your wood into the saw, and it’ll need to come out the other side. Check that you have enough room on both the infeed and outfeed sides and that the path is free of any obstructions. You don’t want to find out you don’t have room to push material all the way through when you’re in the middle of the cut!
Provide support. If your material will extend more than a foot or so off the back of the table when it’s through the blade, provide some support. This could be an assistant standing behind the saw to hold it. But ideally, you’ll have an outfeed table or roller stand to ensure the workpiece won’t tip over, which could cause the end of it to get snagged by the blade.
Inspect the wood. Double-check you have no nails, screws, or other foreign objects in the wood. If you’re cutting recycled wood, a handheld metal detector is a good idea to make sure there isn’t any hidden metal. If the wood has knots in it, make sure none of them are loose enough to be ejected out.
Making the Cut
By now you should have visualized the cut in your mind and be confident that you can make it successfully. It’s time to actually do it!
Position Yourself Correctly
You want to position yourself so you’re out of harm’s way (and stay that way):
Stand for comfort and stability. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart so you can maintain your balance even in an emergency. Don’t lean against the table saw or anything else that could move unexpectedly.
Don’t stand directly behind the workpiece. If you’re using a rip fence, the piece of wood between the fence and the blade can be kicked back violently toward you if it gets pinched. Be sure to stand to one side or the other of the path it will take if it’s thrown backward. Never stand directly behind it. Be sure nobody else is standing behind it either, even across the shop, as objects can be shot dozens of feet with great force.
Never reach over or behind the blade. If something goes wrong, you may instinctively pull your hands back, and you don’t want to pull them into the blade. So don’t let the blade get between your hands and body at any time.
Hook your fingers. Use your left hand to push the wood against the rip fence, and hook your thumb over the front of the table so it won’t be pushed toward the blade. Use your right hand to guide the wood forward, and hook your ring and pinky fingers over the fence so they stay far from the blade. Keeping your fingers hooked like this will keep your hands from wandering if you get distracted.
Control the Workpiece
Using firm, steady movements to push the wood or other material through the saw gives the safest results:
Let the blade spin up on its own. Don’t start the saw with the wood anywhere near the blade. Ensure the blade has spun fully up to speed before starting to feed wood into it.
Don’t freehand it. Never push wood through the saw without using either the rip fence or the miter gauge to guide it. The risk of it twisting and causing kickback is too high. (Not to mention you’ll never actually get a straight cut.)
Fence or miter gauge, but never both. Always use one or the other, but never both at the same time, because again the risk of twisting and pinching the wood is too high.
If you want to use the fence to get consistent lengths of wood with the miter gauge, use a stop block (a piece of scrap wood works). Attach it to just the front portion of the fence so the workpiece is completely clear of it by the time it enters the blade.
Use a push stick for thin cuts. For any rip cut narrower than 6”, use a push stick once the tail end of the board gets near the blade. Many saws come with one, or it’s easy to make one out of scrap wood. Don’t use your hands to push the wood through if your fingers would come closer than 4” from the blade.
Finishing the Cut
Once the material is fully through the blade, wrap things up safely:
Let the blade spin down on its own. Turn the power off and let the blade spin down on its own. Don’t try to slow it down with scrap wood, and don’t remove any of the cut wood until the blade has stopped. Even a slowly rotating blade has plenty of energy to cause serious damage.
Unplug the saw. Unless you’ll be making more cuts immediately, unplug the saw. That way nobody will turn it on accidentally even if you get distracted or called away.
A Note on Technology
I’m not recommending specific manufacturers or products in this guide. But no discussion of safety would be complete without mention of recent safety improvements in table saws. SawStop, based near Portland, Oregon, has patented a technology that uses electrical conductivity to detect when a saw blade makes contact with flesh. It can stop a blade in just a few milliseconds, turning what might have been a gruesome injury into a small nick.
These saws cost quite a bit more, and both the saw blade and the brake mechanism itself need to be replaced after it’s triggered. As of this writing, SawStop is the only company selling table saws with this technology. But I would not be surprised to see more products coming to market with similar safety features in the next few years. You may want to pay attention to safety features if you’re shopping for a new table saw.
All these safety guidelines may seem like a lot to remember, but once you’ve followed them a few times, most of it will become second nature. But it never hurts to print out this list and refresh your memory, especially if it’s been a while since you used the table saw.
Plan your cuts ahead of time, inspect your saw carefully, and pay attention to your own mental state and physical movements. You’ll minimize the chances of something wrong and maximize the chances of responding correctly.
Stay safe, and happy sawing!