Let’s say you’ve been watching woodworking videos for a while and finally decided to dive in and you bought your first table saw. Now that you’ve got it out of the box and set up, it looks a little intimidating.
Why a table saw?
You probably already have a general idea of what you can do with a table saw and why I consider it the most important, versatile tool in any modern, power-tool based home woodworking shop.
Most any cut a table saw makes can be made with other tools such as a circular saw or bandsaw, but a table saw makes them faster, easier, and with far more precision, accuracy and repeatability. About the only kind of cut you can’t make on a table saw is a curved cut. (*Aside from advanced jigs to cut circles.)
Parts of a table saw
A table saw is really a simple tool. It’s basically a more powerful, upside-down circular saw mounted to a table. Instead of moving the saw through the wood, you move the wood through the saw giving you better control.
There are people who have made their own table saws by mounting a circular saw under a table, but unless you are an experienced woodworker, don’t try this. There are just too many safety considerations and making it accurate is pretty tedious. It would be a terribly frustrating and potentially dangerous way to begin your woodworking hobby.
My saw is an older Porter Cable saw given to me nearly 10 years ago by a bunch of viewers. It’s developed quirks over the years, but it still works great and is a good example of a very basic saw. Everything I show you on this will be very similar to just about any entry-level table saw you might have. This saw may look big, but really the saw is just this middle part. The two sides are just extension tables.
First, make sure your saw is unplugged.
All table saws will have a motor that spins a blade. The blade is held onto a post, called an arbor, with a nut.
Make sure you install the blade with the teeth facing toward you. Don’t over tighten the nut, just get it snug.
The blade will spin toward you. If it spun the other way, the wood would just shoot out the other end.
There are different types of blades, but I pretty much use a 50 tooth combination blade for everything.
The blade can be raised and lowered with a crank at the front of the saw, allowing you to cut wood of different thicknesses.
There will also be a mechanism for tilting the blade so you can make beveled cuts. Mine has a crank. My gauge is not very accurate, so I use a digital bevel finder for making accurate bevel cuts. The most important thing here is to make sure that it locks in accurately at 90° to the table. That’s where you will mostly have it set. You can check it with a square.
Your saw will have a riving knife. The riving knife is the most important safety feature on your saw, preventing kickback. Never cut through lumber without it in place.
Your saw will come with a blade guard. As a new woodworker, use it. It’s there to prevent wood from dropping on the blade or your hand from skimming across it. That said, I rarely use one myself. I’ve laid out my specific reasons in a separate video called “Why do so many people remove their table saw blade guards?” Click the link in the description. Again, as a new woodworker, you should use every safety accessory that came with your saw.
Once you’ve installed the blade and the riving knife, you’ll need to drop in an insert plate. This creates a narrower gap, preventing wood cutoffs from dropping down into the housing and will give you a cleaner cut, safer. Never operate a saw without an insert plate installed. Make sure it’s flush with the table top.
Most saws will come with a dust port in the back. I hook a shop vac into mine, but there are other dust collection options. Removing the sawdust at the source will make cleanup a lot easier and keep your shop a lot less messy. Plus there will be less dust floating around the air.
Supporting your workpiece
Table saws come with two methods for supporting wood when making a cut.
On the table, there will be a groove on each side of the blade called a miter slot. It’s used for a miter gauge.
A miter gauge is used to support the wood when making crosscuts, usually against the grain of the wood. And, like the name implies, you can rotate it for making angled cuts. Most miter gauges that come with saws look something like this. If you want, you can upgrade to something like this one that a viewer sent me a while back. It’s a little much for my saw, but it is very accurate.
The second support accessory is a rip fence. This will have a clamping mechanism that lets you position it as close to the blade as needed. It’s used for making rip cuts. Those are cuts along the length of a board in the same direction as the grain.
Most saws will have a ruler so that you can set the distance between the rip fence and the blade. Mine isn’t even close to accurate so I always just measure each cut with a tape measure.
When cutting all the way through a board, use either the miter gauge or rip fence, never both at once. (*Non-through cuts such as dados are an exception.)
And never attempt to freehand cut a board without any support!
Plug your saw into an outlet. Put on a pair of safety glasses and hearing protection. Make sure there is nothing on the table obstructing the blade and flip the switch on. Get a feel for how the machine reacts when powered on and the noise it makes. The noise from a saw can be a little jarring the first time you hear it, even with hearing protection in place.
Go ahead and turn it on and off a few times. Especially get used to turning it off. A lot of saws will let you stop it with your knee. Without even cutting anything, you should be getting a sense of the saw’s power. Don’t fear that power, but always respect it.
Make your first cut
Let’s start with a crosscut. For this, remove the rip fence and set it aside. Install your miter gauge in the left miter slot. If you are left handed, you may want to use the right slot most of the time, but it really makes no difference. Test to make sure it slides easily and that there’s no play side to side. It should have a way to adjust it if it’s a little loose.
Grab a scrap board. I’ll use a 1×4 for this example.
Raise the blade so that it is a little higher than the thickness of the wood. There is some debate lately about this, with some people contending that raising the blade up as high as possible will result in a better cut. But I get perfectly fine cuts with the blade lower and I feel that the less the blade is exposed, the safer.
Let’s say you want to cut this board 12” long. Measure and make a mark at the 12” point. I don’t usually draw a line, but I will here. The important thing to keep in mind when making any cut is knowing which side of the line to cut on. Rarely do you want to cut straight down the line because you want to consider the kerf, or thickness, of the blade.
Since this is my work piece . . . the 12” piece I want to use for my project . . . I want to make sure to line the teeth of the blade with the outside of the line. Otherwise, my board would be short an eighth of an inch, and that matters.
When possible, I prefer to have the workpiece…the part I measured and want to use…supported with the miter gauge. But sometimes you need to support the cutoff or waste side. Usually that comes down to keeping the longer end supported. Don’t try to support a tiny bit of wood against the miter gauge where it would be tippy.
Once you’ve lined up your cut, pull the miter gauge and board back together, away from the blade.
In addition to the safety glasses and hearing protection, put on a respirator mask.
Now’s when I want you to imagine your cut. I do this for every procedure, no matter how simple. Make it a habit. Imagine the cut you’re about to make: How are you going to turn on the saw? How will you hold the wood against the miter gauge? Where will you position your body throughout the cut? What will you do after the board is cut? Most of all, imagine where your hands will be throughout the entire procedure, from the moment you power up the saw, until you turn it off. This habit will become more and more important as you learn to make more complicated cuts.
Turn on your shop vac or dust extractor if you have one and power up the saw.
With the board in place and firmly held against the gauge, position your body to the left of the blade, never make a crosscut in line with it. If a cutoff piece were to kick back, you don’t want to be in its path. Again, with your riving knife in place, kickback is far less likely to occur.
Slowly push the miter gauge forward and through the blade.
After the cut is made, pull the board away from the miter gauge with your left hand and pull the miter gauge back.
Resist the temptation to reach over the blade to retrieve the cutoff piece. Just let it sit there until the saw has stopped.
Shut off the saw.
Using the rip fence
You’ll use the rip fence for ripping boards…cutting them lengthwise into narrower boards. But you’ll also find it handy for cutting plywood and other larger sheet goods. A good rule of thumb is to use the rip fence for any board that’s longer than it is wide. Making a crosscut with the rip fence could cause the board to twist and bind between the fence and the blade, causing kickback.
When using the rip fence, your workpiece will almost always be against the fence and the cutoff part will be on the other side of the blade. This will give you complete control of the wood through the entire cut.
Making cuts with the rip fence will require you to use a push stick or push block. I always use a GRR-Ripper from Microjig. This isn’t an ad, but I’ll include a link in the description. It fully supports the wood through the entire cut giving me cleaner cuts and keeps my hands safe.
A lot of people are more comfortable using push sticks which is probably what your saw came with. Whatever you choose, don’t ever use your fingers for the complete procedure.
Slide the rip fence to your measurement and lock it in place. Right handed people will almost always use the rip fence on the right side of the blade.
I’ll use a 1×4 for this demonstration too. Let’s say I need a board that’s 2” wide. So what I’ll do is measure 2” from my rip fence to one of the teeth on the blade. Like crosscutting, remember, to account for the kerf of the blade. So obviously if I measured from the outside of the blade, my board would be too narrow.
As always, do an imaginary dry run, envisioning where your hands will be throughout the entire cut and how you will position your push sticks or push block.
Position your push sticks or push block where you will be able to reach them during the cut.
Turn the saw on and set the board against the rip fence. For the first part of the cut, you’ll probably need to use your hands to guide the wood into the blade. Push forward with your right hand and use your left hand to press the board towards the fence. Keep your hands at least 6” from the front and side of the blade. As the end of the board gets closer to the blade, you’ll need to grab the push sticks. Hook one over end of the board, pressing forward as well as downward. Try to always maintain three directions of pressure. For the third direction, against the fence, use your other push stick.
Continue pushing the board all the way through the blade, completing the cut using the push sticks.
The Grr-ripper push block will give you much better control and you only need one, although it’s handy to have two for long boards so you can leapfrog them through the cut.
One tip I always like to mention when using the rip fence, is to keep your eye on the fence, not the blade when making cuts to ensure the workpiece and fence are in constant contact.
If you’re looking for a comprehensive, step-by-step, no-nonsense approach to learning woodworking, check out my online courses over at theweekendwoodworker.com . You’ll be able to build your first project this weekend, no experience necessary. And while you’re there, be sure to download my free guide to setting up a shop for under $1000.