Writing my column last week about ripping material reminded me of an incident when I was ripping some thin parts about 30 years ago.
At the time, I had completed a semester of high school co-op in a small cabinetmaking shop. They liked me enough to offer me a job over the summer which I happily took. I got all the grunt-work jobs like sweeping the floor, making coffee, ironing on edge tape on all sorts of cabinets and doing anything repetitive.
As an aside, I didn’t drink coffee at the time (still don’t), and I had no idea how picky people could be about their coffee. Sheesh. But that’s another story.
One day I was tasked with ripping about 1,000 thin strips of mahogany down to about 1/4″ wide. The strips were about 5′ long and about 3/4″ thick. Once they gave me a short lesson on ripping, I grabbed a push stick and set out to turn all these wide planks into narrow strips.
I didn’t want to get my fingers anywhere near the blade, and a push stick was the answer. It was shaped very simply; a slightly curved handle controlled a straight base that had a small finger on its trailing edge.
I methodically cut strips for the first hour or so of the morning. The mahogany was straight-grained and not dense so it was easy to rip. Typically, the push stick was in contact with the rip fence, though (apparently) once in a while it ran through the saw a little away from the fence. Over the duration of the morning the little finger on the back of the push stick got thinned down to just a sliver of wood without me knowing, of course. Really, it took only a few imperfect cuts to reduce the 1/4″ wide finger down to about 1/16″ wide.
My Favourite Push Stick
This is a push stick that's within arm's reach of my table saw today. It's virtually identical to the one I used on that fateful day many years ago.
Get into a rhythm
As you can imagine, making a thousand of the same cuts can be mind numbing. And remember, I was about 17 years old, so I had lots of better things to occupy my mind with. Grab a board, rip one strip off it, rip another piece off it, and continue until the board is no longer. Repeat. After each rip I would reach around and grab the strip to put in into the pile.
To this day, I clearly remember looking down after making a rip cut to see no strip at all. It was weird. After a few seconds I started to look around at the surrounding area and the other workers in the shop. I can still picture a guy standing about 25′ behind me with a very surprised look on his face. It turned out the freshly cut strip of mahogany got stuck between the blade and fence because the finger on the back end of the push stick was virtually see-through. The strip took off so quickly and silently that I didn’t even see it move. It tore out the back of the table saw, flew about 25′ through the air and exploded into the back of a kitchen cabinet he had his head inside. Now I know why they use mahogany to make model airplanes. After making sure he was okay (he was, just shaken) we turned our eyes to the shop floor. It had some sawdust on it, but it wasn’t a messy shop. It was actually quite hard to find anything larger than a 4″ long sliver of mahogany on the ground. The strip essentially exploded into hundreds of tiny pieces. We picked up a few of the pieces and the guy who almost got skewered broke early and made his own coffee that morning.
A memory is a funny thing
I often think of that day when I’m ripping solid wood today. I know enough now to keep my push stick pressed against the rip fence when ripping. I also know to check the structural integrity of the finger regularly, and replace the push stick if needed. I also think back to how lucky I was to not have been standing right behind the blade that day. I don’t need a 1/4″ x 3/4″ hole in my stomach.
Is there a moral?
The moral of this story is that if you scare the living daylights out of someone, you won’t have to make coffee for them.
Lots of Options
These are made of plywood, but when the tabs become too small to use I rip a straight edge on the lower edge of the push stick, glue a base piece of solid wood onto it then add another small piece of wood at the trailing end to give me the tab that's needed to push stock through the table saw. The reason for having many different push sticks of the same design is because their tabs are all of different widths. You'll notice my favorite push stick in the lower left corner. Someone commented on how these push stick look like rabbits, with big floppy ears, so I drew an angry looking mouth and teeth on it. I guess it resembles a shark with floppy ears now.
This tab is still strong enough to allow me to rip material about 1/4" thick, but if it gets much thinner I'll have to replace it.