It is called a “contractor” saw because it can be loaded into a truck for on-site work, although this is a bit of an exaggeration. While a contractor saw is lighter than a full-sized cabinet saw, it can still weigh upwards of 300 pounds. It would take three strong contractors to lift it out of a truck!
If you’re serious about woodworking, a table-top portable saw will frustrate you very quickly. They are great machines for portability, but the small table size, underpowered motors, poor quality fences and other accessories leave much to be desired.
On the other end of the scale is a full-sized cabinet saw. These are typically large saws, weighing in at around 600 pounds. Most have 3 HP motors and some even 5 HP. But a cabinet saw is beyond the budget of many hobbyists and is certainly not essential. A good quality contractor saw will do anything a cabinet saw can do, except for ripping 3″ thick maple boards all day long.
These days many manufacturers are making what they call “hybrid” saws. These saws fit somewhere in between the contractor saw and the larger cabinet saw. You get some of the benefits of a cabinet saw, and retain many of the advantages of a contractor saw. Typically, hybrid saws offer an enclosed base to help improve dust collection. This can be a full enclosure as found on a cabinet saw or a shorter cabinet on legs. The extra weight of hybrid saws lowers vibration, and offers more choice in drive mechanisms, including single and multiple v-belts and serpentine belts. You’ll find that some hybrid saws have cabinet-mounted trunnions while others offer table-mounted trunnions. Some even offer sliding tables as an option to improve cross cutting capability. We can expect to see more of these kinds of saws on the market with an ever increasing array of options.
Table Top and Wings
A quality contractor saw has a cast iron table top, about 27″ deep by 20″ wide – about 40″ wide including “wings” on either side. Cast iron wings are great to have, but stamped steel wings are still workable. Avoid wings with holes through them (like a honey-comb structure), as small parts easily fall through them. The openings also give you places to get your fingers caught, especially when moving your fence back and forth.
Most contractor saws also have T-style mitre slots. A washer connected to the underside of the mitre gauge engages in the T-slot, making it impossible for the mitre gauge to fall off the table when you pull the head off the front of the saw.
A table saw without a T-slot style can be a nuisance to use.
Also, look for a table saw with a thick table insert. Some are made with such a thin steel plate that it is impossible to make your own zero-clearance inserts using plywood or plastic composites. Zero-clearance inserts are commercially available for some of the more common brands, such as Delta and General International.
Once you start cutting larger sheet goods, or cross-cutting longer boards, you’ll want to consider an extension table as well. It should be on the right of the saw if you are right handed – the left if you are left handed.
Most contractor saws have an open stand. The sawdust falls through the bottom onto the floor and also collects inside the stand around the edges. Occasional vacuuming inside the stand helps. Open stands make it hard to collect sawdust with a dust collector, although plans for boxing in the base are available in woodworking books and on the Internet. There are also table saw “boots” available, which block off the back of the saw and collect the dust in a bag below.
Motors are a controversial issue these days. While North American made motors were once more common, most brands are now using off-shore motors. Not that an off-shore motor can’t be of decent quality, but most users agree that you are better off with a high quality, known brand. I would choose a saw with a North American-made motor, given the choice. Be aware that it is common these days for equipment manufacturers to overstate the horsepower of motors. Some brands have been known to call their contractor saw a 2 HP model, when the actual HP is barely half that! Horsepower can be measured in different ways and there are no accepted norms for how it is stated on the motor plate. Amperage, however, must be correctly stated. If you multiply the amperage of the motor by the voltage you are running it on (120 or 240 volts), the result is wattage. And 746 watts equals 1 HP. So a motor drawing 12.9 amps at 120 volts, gives a wattage of 1,548. Divide that by 746 watts and we get 2.1 HP. That number will actually be less because motors don’t run at 100% efficiency. If the efficiency rating is 75%, then we get an actual HP of about 1.6. So when comparing motors, buy the motor that draws 13 amps instead of 10, and make sure you’re also comparing apples with apples in terms of efficiency ratings. If you can’t get that information from the manufacturer, then stick to brand name North American motors and feel more confident about it. The overstating of real working horsepower is a huge problem in the industry. It is not just related to table saws, but also routers, bandsaws, shop vacs and just about anything else with an electric motor in it.
One of the most common stories I hear is that people throw away their blade guards as soon as they buy their table saw. The next most common story I hear is that they have cut off some fingers while ripping on their table saw without a blade guard!
The blade guard is an essential part of every table saw. The clear guard protects your hands from accidentally touching the blade and deflects sawdust towards the table instead of into your face. The anti-kickback fingers are to prevent a board from being shot at you should a kickback be in progress. Do not count on them to save you, as they only work some of the time.
The most important safety component of a blade guard is the splitter, which is the piece of metal running into the saw table directly behind the blade. Correctly positioned, it will actually prevent kickback from occurring in the first place. Learn to properly set up your splitter and you can count on increased safety and more enjoyment in using your table saw. If you decide to replace the stock blade guard with another system such as a riving knife or metal pin, first understand how these replacements work and realize that some of the other benefits of the manufacturer’s blade guard will be missing.
Fence systems have gotten so much better over the past decade. It surprises me to see the effective after-market fence systems now available at relatively reasonable prices. Still, if you choose the right saw you should receive a very good fence system as part of the package. Look for a single rail system that runs smoothly, locks down tightly and has a needle-thin cursor and easy-to-read scale. In my opinion, simpler is better when it comes to a user friendly fence.
Right Tilt vs. Left Tilt
We could argue all day long about whether a left tilt or right tilt table saw is preferable, and there is no shortage of reading material on the subject. You should buy whichever one you are most comfortable with. You will learn to work around the differences and risks in either case. For what it’s worth, I use a right tilt table saw in my workshop. And I believe a right-handed woodworker should rip to the right of the blade, crosscut to the right of the blade and use a right-tilt saw. But then, that’s just one woodworker’s opinion.
My regular machinery supplier, which is one of the largest dealers in Ontario, says that only about 5% of their table saw sales are left tilt. Shocking, really, when you read all the hype about how left tilt saws are better and safer.
Whichever contractor saw you decide to buy in the end, just remember one thing. Safety always comes first. Look for the best saw you can afford and focus your attention on safety features first. Then look at power, convenience and other factors.
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