Like most workshop warriors, you probably know how to rip a board to width on your table saw. But perhaps you haven’t explored its other talents: creating woodworking joints, cutting grooves, mitering corners, mass-producing parts and cutting plywood.
The table saw can do all this and more, provided it’s accurately adjusted, used safely and is operated with the proper know-how.
I’ll explore this great tool by answering some common (and not so common) questions about table saws. Keep reading the article to find out all about it!
From safeguarding your fingers to creating finger joint jigs — getting better acquainted with your “big saw.”
Your table saw is (choose one):
- A convenient place to set my coffee mug while I work.
- A great tool for turning 2x4s into 2x2s.
- A machine I used a lot — until it launched a board through my garage wall.
- The next tool I'll purchase.
- A versatile saw I have mastered totally and completely.
Unless you chose the last one, read on.
What This Article Is And Isn’t About
I presume you know the basics:
- how to cut boards to width (rip) using the rip fence, and
- how to cut boards to length using the miter gauge.
I also presume you’ve developed a few sloppy work habits, maybe let your saw drift out of accuracy, and perhaps have begun thinking of it as a “one trick pony.” I’ll try to freshen your memory, review some basic tune-up and safety procedures, plus show you some new jigs and uses.
If you go right now to Amazon, there are 38 books devoted solely to table saws. There are accessories that can turn your table saw into a disc sander or molding cutter, and jigs that will help you create dovetail joints and perfect circles. I can’t possibly cover everything here.
Bear in mind, every type of saw is different, Some blades tilt left, others tilt right (some saws even have a table that tilts around a fixed blade). There are miniature “hobby” saws with 3-1⁄2 in. diameter blades and commercial varieties with blades 12 in. and larger.
I urge you to locate and review your owner’s manual; it will be more specific when it comes to the adjustments I describe below, and will also cover safety tips, maintenance, and accessories particular to your saw. Google your saw’s make and model if you can’t find the paper manual, chances are there’s a PDF somewhere on the internet.
How do I get my table saw to cut straight and square again?
Start by conducting the simple test you see in Figs. A, B, and C.
Make an “X” on a 1x3 or 1x4, then cut it in half using the miter gauge as a guide (Fig A).
Flip one half over (Fig. B), butt the two cut ends together and view them from the side. If there’s a wedge-shaped gap where the cut ends meet, your blade isn’t square to your tabletop.
Keep the blocks in the same position, place a carpenter’s square along with their edges (Fig. C). and view them from the top. If you see wedge-shaped gaps, your miter gauge isn’t square to the saw blade.
You can readjust your saw to correct these and other problems, but first, check to make sure the blade is parallel to the miter gauge slots. It should be unless your saw’s been moved or banged around a lot, but check this first or some of the other adjustments will be useless.
Unplug the saw (as you should for all major adjustments) and crank the blade to its full height. Measure from the front and back of the blade over to one of the miter gauge slots.
If the measurements aren’t identical, loosen the bolts on the underside of the table that secure the blade “cradle” or carriage. then slightly reposition it. On saws with four bolts, loosen three of them and use the other as a pivot point. Consult your owner’s manual for the specific steps.
How do I adjust my table saw blade?
With the blade angle degree scale (usually on the front of the saw) set at “0” and the blade cranked to full height, rest one leg of a square on the table and the other 1⁄16 in. away from the blade. Sight between the square and body of the blade.
If you see a wedge, rather than a straight line, of daylight between blade and square, adjust the screw that stops the blade in the perpendicular position. On the Delta saw pictured here, this is a little hex screw on the table top.
Once the blade is perpendicular, readjust the arrow on the blade angle scale to “0” degrees. This is usually done by loosening a small screw and moving the pointer slightly. On some saws, you simply bend the pointer.
How do I square my table saw miter gauge?
Rest one leg of a carpenter’s square against the blade, the other against the miter gauge (loosen the locking handle of the gauge first). If the arrow on the gauge doesn’t point to “0,” loosen the screw that secures the pointer, move it to the “0” position, then retighten the screw.
How do I adjust my miter gauge to a snug fit in my table saw slot?
If the gauge wiggles side-to-side in the slot, remove it and dimple one edge with a center punch in a zigzag pattern. Deepen each dimple until it fits snugly. If this creates too tight a fit, flatten the dimples with a metal file until the gauge slides freely, but firmly, in the slot.
How do I align my table saw rip fence?
Position the fence next to one of the miter gauge slots and lock it in position. If it doesn’t align itself parallel to the slot, loosen the two fence bolts or screws, realign the fence, then retighten the bolts or screws.
How do I adjust my table saw blade guard?
Place a square alongside the blade and splitter. Use a hand screw-type clamp to gently bend the splitter in line with the blade. For major adjustments, add or subtract a washer where the guard fastens to the saw.
I give up. Which table saw blade should I buy?
Yeah, it’s a jungle out there. When you go shopping, consider:
Blade and tooth composition
Steel blades are inexpensive but need to be replaced or re-sharpened frequently. They dull quickly when cutting particle board or tough woods like oak and birch.
A sharp steel blade can cut softwoods as cleanly as a carbide-tipped blade, but the advantages of carbide are overwhelming.
Carbide-tipped blades last 50 to 60 times longer than steel blades. They can cut particle board, hardwoods, plastic laminates, even some metals.
Carbide teeth come in varying qualities; you’ll get what you pay for.
Carbide blades are available in standard and thin-kerf styles. Thin-kerf blades remove less wood per cut and create less drag on a motor — making them a good choice for the less powerful, benchtop-type saws.
On the downside, thin-kerf blades tend to become distorted when hot and have shorter lifespans than standard blades.
Number and pattern of teeth
Saw blades will have anywhere from 20 to 100 teeth, arranged in any number of ways, with a variety of tip angles and bevels.
- For cutting boards to length or mitering across the grain, use a blade with 60 or more teeth.
- For ripping boards to width, where speed is more important than smoothness, use a blade with fewer teeth.
My advice for the do-a-little-of-everything homeowner is to buy this Freud Diablo D1050X. It’s a great 50-tooth tungsten carbide combination blade; it has 10 groupings of 5 closely spaced teeth (for crisp cross-cuts) separated by a larger gap (for easy ripping). The Amazon price offers great benefit for its low cost, click here and check it out yourself.
If you own a benchtop saw, buy a thin-kerf blade such as the Freud LU83R010. The thin kerf requires less power from your saw and allows for faster feed rate as well. This blade has great Amazon reviews, click here and read them yourself.
How much time should I spend fiddling around with blade guards, push sticks and other safety stuff?
Well, how long does it take your fingers to grow back?
The table saw is one of the most dangerous tools in the workshop; accidents multiply when people remove guards and take risks.
Being cut by the blade and getting hit by kicked-back boards are the two most obvious dangers.
But stay alert to another frequent creator of accidents — boards that are wet or green, twisted, bowed, or contain splits and loose knots. Such boards are more likely to pinch the blade, wedge against the rip fence and kick back unpredictably.
Actions to protect your fingers
Protect your fingers by following these precautions:
- Set your blade so it protrudes only about 1/4 in. above the wood being cut (Photo 7). Some pros swear that setting their carbide-tipped blades so the entire tooth clears the work produces a cleaner cut — but that should be the limit. Setting the blade higher exposes more of it for potential accidents, creates more strain on the blade and motor, and leaves a rougher cut.
- Use your blade guard. Most guards contain three safety features: the “plastic shroud,” which keeps fingers away from the blade and prevents splinters or loose knots from flying back at you; the “splitter,” which keeps the cut open after it passes the blade to prevent pinching; and the “anti-kickback pawls” (shown in Photo 7), which have little teeth that allow the board to pass in the cutting direction, but bite into it in case it tries to kick back. If you remove the guard for dadoing (Photo 12) or some other operation, replace it as soon as possible.
- Use a push stick (Photo 8) any time your fingers must pass within 4 in. of the blade. Push sticks (Fig. D) help you hold thin boards flat against the table surface while they’re sawn. Buy or make your push sticks (it’s an ideal way to use up scrap material) but by all means, use them. Keep them handy — in your back pocket or on the opposite side of the rip fence from the blade.
- Use common sense. Never reach over a spinning blade. Don’t wear loose clothing. Unplug the saw when making adjustments or changing blades.
How to avoid kickback on the table saw
“Kickback,” another real danger, occurs when the part of the board between the fence and blade gets pinched (or drifts away from the fence as you’re cutting) and the blade, spinning toward you, catches it and hurls it back at you.
The anti-kickback pawls don’t always prevent this, especially if the wood is very hard or you’re cutting skinny strips. The best defense is to stay out of the path of any possible kickback.
Use push sticks to extend your reach. Featherboards (Photo 12) also help prevent kickback.
“Outfeed rollers” help support long boards, stifling your impulse to reach over the blade to catch long boards as they fall off the table at the end of a cut.
Rollers complete with stands are cheap. Side and front rollers make handling large pieces of plywood easier. The Finether rolling stand is foldable, its height can be adjusted from 26 to 43-3⁄8 inches, and it supports up to 132 lbs. Plus, it’s dirt cheap at Amazon. Click here to buy it now.
What do featherboards do? Can I make them?
Featherboards are basically fingers of wood, used to press boards firmly against the rip fence. They can also be clamped to a wood auxiliary fence (Photo 12) to hold boards down against the table saw’s surface.
Since featherboards take the place of fingers, they also minimize accidents; especially important when blade guards are removed. Made and secured properly, they create a one-way door, allowing boards to pass in one direction (forward), but preventing kickback. Featherboards always must be clamped firmly, immovably in place.
You can buy featherboards from woodworking stores for cheap or make them yourself as I show below.
Cut short slits (kerfs) into the end of a 5⁄4-in. thick hoard that’s been cut to a 45- to 60-degree angle. Keep the back of the board pressed firmly against the rip fence while cutting.
Adjust the rip fence. Turn off the saw, move the fence over the thickness of the 3⁄8-in. spacer (one 1⁄4-in. finger plus a 1⁄8-in. kerf). Then retighten the fence, back the board out and make the next cut.
Featherboards help hold the workpiece firmly against both the fence and the table top, a great safety feature during operations like dadoing where the blade guards must be removed.
How can I make a simple table saw fingerjoint jig?
Fingerjoints — sort of a simplified dovetail. Their strength and simple beauty make them a natural choice for furniture, boxes, and drawers.
The jig you use is simple and cheap to build and can be used over and over. To make and use this jig, you’ll need to use a dado blade and remove the blade guard, so use extreme caution.
The key is making the alternately-spaced fingers and notches exactly the same width. You can make them any width you want; this project used 1⁄2 in.
With a 1⁄2-in. dado blade stack (set 1⁄2 in. high) I used the miter gauge to guide a 1x3 over the dado blade to create a 1⁄2-in. x 1⁄2-in. notch (Fig. E).
Then I glued a 1⁄2-in. x 1⁄2-in. x 2-in. “pin” into this notch.
I then raised the blade to 7⁄8 in. (slightly higher than the width of my 3⁄4-in. boards) and cut another notch exactly 1⁄2 in. away from the pin; then screwed the 1x3 to the miter gauge (Photo 13) in that exact position; most gauges have holes for this.
Screw the jig to the miter gauge, making sure the 1⁄2-in. pin is exactly 1⁄2 in. away from the 1⁄2-in. dado blade.
Grab some scrap 1x6s or 1x8s for practice. Stand a scrap on end, bump one edge against the pin, then push the board with the jig and miter gauge across the dado blade to cut your first notch.
Leapfrog this first notch over onto the pin and cut your second notch; this will create a 1⁄2 in. wide notch exactly 1⁄2 in away from the first notch.
Repeat this over and over to create a series of fingers (Photo 14). Do this on another board, then interlock the two ends to check the fit; you may need to slightly reposition your 1x3 on the miter gauge.
Cut the notches by leapfrogging the most recently cut notch onto the pin, then cutting the next one.
On actual boxes, two of the sides will start with a finger, two with a notch (Photo 15), so make your first cut accordingly.
After you’ve glued your finger jointed box together and let it dry, use a power sander to remove the little finger ends that protrude past the corners of the box.
Assemble and check the test pieces for a tight fit. The jig may need to be slightly shifted in the miter gauge.
How do I use my table saw to cut plywood?
Plywood is unwieldy to cut on a table saw; it’s heavy, sometimes warped and can be difficult to guide along the rip fence.
Use support tables and rollers (front, sides, and back) to help hold the wood.
When possible, first rough-cut the sheet about an inch oversize with a circular saw, then make the final cut on the table saw.
If you need to cut a sheet larger than your rip fence will allow, use the method shown above. A 2x4 cleat, temporarily screwed to the bottom side of the plywood, is guided along one edge of the saw’s table to create a straight cut.
By the way, always cut plywood and laminates “good side up” on a table saw; the blade tends to chip and splinter the bottom side.
Can I cut 45-degree miters with my table saw?
Yep — at least moldings up to about 3 ft. long for picture frames or other projects. Longer pieces will be awkward to handle, require more room to maneuver and will be less accurately cut on a table saw — use a miter saw instead.
For an occasional cut, simply set your miter gauge at 45 degrees and hold (or clamp) your board against it as you guide it past the blade.
But for lots of cuts, the miter jig I show below is more accurate, easier to guide and always set to make common 45-degree cuts.
Nail and glue a 3⁄8-in. particle board platform to two 3⁄8-in. x 3⁄4-in. runners resting in the miter gauge slots. Use the rip fence to position it square to the blade.
Mark two lines at a 45-degree angle to a slot cut in the platform by the table saw blade. Use a Speed square to position the carpenter’s square for marking.
Screw 1x2 cleats along the 45-degree lines using drywall screws. Paste wax the runners and platform to reduce friction between the jig and the table saw top.
Cut 45-degree miters by firmly gripping the molding and pushing the platform across the table and blade. Sandpaper glued to the cleats prevents the molding from slipping.
How can I quickly cut fifty 1⁄4-in. strips?
Cutting thin strips safely on a table saw is tricky since the blade guard usually prevents you from positioning the rip fence closer than an inch or so from the blade.
You can cut strips from the edge of the board farthest from the fence by adjusting the fence, ripping a strip, moving the fence in a little, ripping another strip, and so on — but it takes forever and the results aren’t uniform.
The simplest solution is to build the jig I show. It’s simply a notched piece of plywood with a handle.
Adjust the fence so the distance between the edge of the jig and the blade is the width of the strip you want to be cut.
Then nestle the board in front of the notch and cut a strip; place the board back on the notch and rip again — and again.
The jig serves as a push stick and automatic spacer — and lets you keep your guard where it belongs.
Quick trick #1: create a measuring guide
Need to mass-produce a couple dozen checkers? 50 identical building blocks? A convoy of toy wheels?
Screw a 2x2 “stop block” to your rip fence to serve as an automatic measuring guide. Bump one end of your dowel or workpiece against the stop block, then use your miter gauge to move the dowel over the blade.
You’ll get perfect, uniform pieces every cut (plus avoid the inevitable kickback that would result if you were to guide the end of the piece directly along the rip fence as you cut).
To adjust the length of your pieces, move the rip fence left or right.
Quick trick #2: how to protect your table saw surface
A twice-a-year wax job will protect the surface of your table saw from moisture and rust. As an added bonus, waxing it will reduce friction and help boards glide more easily across the top.
Lower the blade, then remove the blade guard, rip fence, and miter gauge. Apply a high-quality paste wax, let it dry, then buff thoroughly.
Try it — you’ll be amazed.
Quick trick #3: take care of your jigs
Most jigs, push sticks and featherboards are simply scraps of wood turned into something useful. To make certain I don’t toss them out with other scraps, I paint them with colorful paint. It protects them, helps me locate them, plus makes me think of them more as real tools.
Some woodworker folks glue small magnets to the push sticks and jigs they use most often and stick them to the side at their table saw — they’re out or the way but always ready to use.