Construction is a field where workers can bring skills of nearly every industry into play, from high science to simply knowing the best way to lift something heavy. Erecting a building from the ground up is a massive undertaking, requiring machines and materials that are rarely seen elsewhere.
One of the broader fields that sees ever more widespread inclusion in construction work is the use of power tools, taking advantage of a growing trend of miniaturization in electronics to put the significant mechanical advantage in the hand of every worker. Most tasks on a worksite have a powerful tool dedicated exclusively to them, from the drill (arguably the single most iconic power tool in existence) to electromagnets and welding equipment.
These tools speed the job along by allowing the workers to do otherwise difficult tasks in a fraction of the time. For example, a nail gun can shingle an entire roof in the time it would take a worker going at it by hand to complete one or two rows. Power tools are the world’s default when it comes to getting things put together in a hurry – but that’s not all they can do.
The same motors that allow workers to drive a screw through solid concrete or metal in a few moments to hold things together can also power a saw to cut them apart. The invention of the power saw has sped up the construction process along with many other tools, despite the differences in use. No modern construction sight is properly equipped until it has a motorized cutter of one kind or another available to slice materials to size, whether they’re plaster, drywall, rebar, and anything in between.
Like any tool, power saws come in a variety of sizes and shapes, each suited to a different task: chainsaws for clearing shrubbery, jigsaws for fine detail, and reciprocating saws for nearly anything. Putting the right tool to the job has always been the best way to get things done, and having a power saw suited to the task at hand can make it the work of a minute or two instead of long, tiring hours.
A particularly good example of this principle is the table saw. Other saws work once the material to be cut is already in place and needs only a few minor adjustments, but a table saw comes into play well before the rest of the construction process to reshape and resize the raw material in preparation for installation.
Other saws are uniquely unsuited to the table saw’s task because of their handheld nature, which means that almost by definition there will be some unwanted movement in the saw blade as you cut. Table saws hold the blade perfectly and steady by employing a picket to brace the material as it moves, enabling the operator to reliably cut clean and straight no matter what is being processed.
This accuracy makes table saws a central part of most woodworking shops and construction efforts, and knowing how to use one well can mean a world of difference in whatever project you’re working on. Table sawing may seem like the most elementary of skills – just pulling or pushing the material across the blade – but there is far more to it than that.
More important than knowing how to use a table saw is knowing how not to, as it is made to slice metal and hardwood, it can also slice flesh and bone with little to no resistance. Even if you don’t accidentally amputate either yourself or others, there remain multiple ancillary dangers that are worth learning about before applying yourself to actually cutting anything.
Proper etiquette calls for the operator to learn the area around the table saw by checking that people or things around the saw are in no danger of getting too near the machine while it is in operation. This is especially important when looking directly along the line of the blade, as these areas are endangered by kickback while you work.
A moment of self-inspection is also in order before starting the saw up. As the one standing nearest the table saw, the operator is most likely to come to harm from it. Protecting yourself is always the first priority, and ever so much more so when actually working with such a powerful machine as the table saw.
Clothing should not be baggy or trailing when using a table saw; dangling jewelry such as necklaces, bangles, or long earrings should also be removed. Secure long hair well away from the blade, and check that your top is tucked in where it will not come loose and get caught in the blade.
Ear and eye protection are as important here as they are with all large power tools. Table saw operators will be standing next to an unmuffled engine for long periods of time, and in the close vicinity of something that can easily fling fragments of wood and metal at high speeds. Proper protective gear may be arduous and repetitive to don, but this should never be seen as a valid reason to disregard it.
One safety precaution that is almost exclusive to table saws – take off the work gloves. Although having clean, dry hands with good grip is important when sawing, the gloves give a false impression of where your hands are and what they are feeling – both potentially lethal when using a table saw.
Even with all of these precautions in place, certain hazards haunt a table saw for even the most careful of operators. Chief among them is the dreaded autoamputation; for this reason, you should never extend any part of the body across the cutting line, and make frequent use of push sticks and automatic brake mechanisms in your saw.
Kickback, where the rotary motion of the table saw launches pieces of material as it cuts, is another common cause of injury when using this tool. Some saws have anti-kickback guards built-in, but the best defense against it is a solid grip on the wood to keep it from moving after it is cut loose.
Spinning through wood or metal at well over a thousand rotations per minute, table saws can also experience significant friction against whatever material they are cutting. Metal saw blades conduct the resulting heat dangerously well, to the point of causing water to sizzle and skin to burn on contact. Make sure your table saw is given ample time to cool before attempting to replace or store the blade.
A final peripheral hazard of using a table saw is in the sawdust, which can be irritating to the body’s various mucous membranes in the best of circumstances. If made of something other than wood, such as PVC pipe or metal sheets, the dust can cause serious internal buildups of inert abiotic that can lead to serious lung, stomach, and heart issues if not addressed.
For once, though, there is a concrete way to minimize this risk; sawdust may be inevitable, but it is far from insurmountable. A well-aerated location, such as outside at a construction site or a proper shop vacuum can whisk the dust away and form a quantifiably effective defense against dust inhalation.
What Have You Got to Work With?
Plenty of newcomers find themselves stuck with the question “Can my table saw be used to cut this particular kind of wood?” As a rule, the answer is “yes, that and more.” Nearly any construction-grade wood can be safely applied to the table saw, under any circumstances where a long, straight cut is called for.
Metal, PVC, and drywall follow the same sort of rules, although there is often a need to change saw blades before cutting these materials. Some table saws are built to hold an angle grinder disc as well, letting them cut metal simply by touching the disc instead of being pushed onto it, or else a diamond-edged saw that can shear brick, cinderblock, and poured concrete in half in short order.
The table saw should not be used anywhere where a curved or jagged cut is desired, or on warped pieces of material. The same flat cutting surfaces, pickets, and guides that make the table saw so useful for flat planks or blocks mean that it cannot yield good results on curved or twisted wood.
Making the Cut
As we’ve seen, there are endless purposes to which the table saw can be applied, at any level of your construction project. All of those applications were stated only with regard to the material, though; in terms of actual usage, most cutting falls into three distinct categories of sawing action.
Your first, shortest, and the simplest cut is the cross-cut, so-called because it runs perpendicular to the length of the plank and crosses the grain of the wood as it is made. Crosscuts are used for evening out the ends of planks and cutting smaller lengths of wood from larger, wholesale lumber.
To cross-cut properly, start by lining up the end of the plank to be cut against the picket as flush as possible. Some professionals will take an ordinary geometry set triangle for this purpose, helping them to measure a precise square corner before continuing.
Use the hand farther from the picket to grasp the plank at least half a foot from the blade line and push it against the picket, creating the tension to keep it aligned as you move it along. Some table saws will have a sliding safety guide to move the tensed wood; if there is none, a good push stick will grab onto the corner of the plank and move it forward into the saw.
Your last step should always be to turn off the saw, even if it will only be off for a short while. Power tools, like stoves and cars, should never be left on and unattended no matter how many adults are around.
On many occasions, what is needed is not a shorter piece of wood but a thinner one than the ones currently available. This gives rise to the rip cut, named for its likeness to ripping a sheet of paper down the middle.
Rip cuts follow the grain of the wood along a plank from end to end, yielding two narrower planks. Ripping a plank is longer than making a cross-cut, and has arguably higher stakes; a slip while ripping can run the length of the plank or board, while a cross-cut simply means shaving enough off the end to cover it up.
To rip cut wood, press the entire side of the wood flush against the picket and slide it into your table saw at a steady and even pace. Ripping tends to mean that wood is long enough, at least at first, to handle by hand; using a push stick is recommended from eight inches and closer to the blade.
Because the wood is in contact with the blade for much longer than cross-cutting, both friction and kickback have far longer and a far greater likelihood to occur. Keep an eye on both as you saw to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
Special cuts of many descriptions can be made with the table saw, although they require significantly more skill and experience to carry out successfully. A dado cut, for instance, is created by using a thicker dado blade or blades to carve a deep channel into a piece of wood; save for the blade, it is reminiscent of the rip cut but is used to mount pieces of furniture together.
Bevel and miter joints, which involve cutting wood at an angle, can also be done with the table saw by rotating the wood to a predetermined angle just before inserting it into the saw. These cuts fit together much better either rip or cross-cutting, making them the default choice for anyone looking to build even, homogenous joints and corners for their furniture.
Table saws are powerful, versatile tools in anyone’s workshop or construction site. Using one safely and correctly is always worth doing, making the project faster, easier, and less hassle all around.