Even the best table saw demands a lot of respect. While these tools can help a finishing carpenter get a lot done on the job site, you need to be very focused and intentional about using them. A large number of table saw accidents and injuries occur every year. These tools can go from "useful tools" to "relentless thumb eaters" in no time. We love that all our fingers are intact and in God's will. We think so are you. We asked some experts to give us top tips for avoiding table saw accidents.
Editor's note: Just getting started? Don't miss our how to use a table saw guide.
Table of contents
- Table saw accidents and injuries are 100% avoidable
- Avoid Table Saw Accidents When Making Crosscuts
- How Accidents Happen When Making Rip Cuts
- How Table Saw Injuries Occur When Cutting Dado
- Make sure to set the correct blade height
- The number one cause of table saw accidents is kickback
- Always use a riving knife (or a splitter from an old saw)
- Push Rods Prevent Table Saw Accidents
- Adjust body position to avoid potential accidents
- Proper PPE Helps Prevent Table Saw Accidents
- Any tips we missed?
Table saw accidents and injuries are 100% avoidable
Every table saw accident or injury can be avoided. Otherwise, these tools would have been outlawed years ago. It comes down to respecting the tools, following security recommendations, and always paying close attention to what you're doing.
While table saw improvements like the one we saw with the SawStop Jobsite table saw offer some level of enhanced protection, SawStop even recommends following all safety protocols. You always want to know where your fingers, hands and arms are at all times, and you never want to remove the blade guard without using other safety devices. And, only when cutting where the blade guard interferes and gets in the way.
By the way, let's talk about how to keep your table saw safe when making certain types of cuts.
Avoid Table Saw Accidents When Making Crosscuts
The type of cut you are going to make determines how table saw accidents can happen. The three main cutting methods are crosscut, tear and dado cut. Each presents a particular challenge. Using proper technique can help you stay safe when making any cut with a table saw.
Crosscutting – aptly named – crosscutting textures. You can use a miter gauge or a sled for these types of cuts. Using the included breakaway guard and riving knife, slide the miter gauge into the appropriate slot. You want the gauge to be on the side with more material.
Most table saw accidents occur when crosscutting, when you fail to stay on one side of the cut and your arm goes over the top of the blade. You will need both hands to support the material around the miter gauge. Then, your hands rest safely on the side of the blade as you slide it forward. Keep your hands and any forward pressure away from the incision side.
Safety Tip Summary: When pushing the miter slide forward, never place one hand on either side of the blade. Apply forward pressure to one side only to avoid injury.
How Accidents Happen When Making Rip Cuts
Rift cutting requires reducing the length of the board. This is a classic cut and you'll use fences to provide support, accuracy and square edges. Most tables have seen accidents when tearing wood. This is due to many reasons. First, you have a blade that spins towards you. Second, you're feeding a plank between the rotating saw blade and the stationary rip fence. Third, the rip cut needs to be closer to the blade because the material spends longer in the cut.
You can avoid table saw accidents when making rip cuts. It just involves being cautious and following the right steps. Even where you stand matters (not directly behind the blade). You also want to use the blade guard and table saw fence properly.
Keep the board level with the table and square with the fence. You can do some practice cutting with scrap wood chips to get that new saw feel.
The position of your hands is important
You never want your hand or fingers to get between the blade and the rip fence. No matter how experienced you are. Eventually, you'll lose focus, or something will happen and your fingers may come into contact with the blade. If a blade guard cannot be used due to thin cuts, triple this value.
Summary of safety tips: Slicing will place your hand closer to the blade with a rip cut than with a cross cut. As you feed the board in, use the pusher to keep your hands clear when the end of your board reaches the edge of the tabletop. If you lose the putter that came with your saw, make a new one from scraps of 1/2-inch plywood or similar material.
How Table Saw Injuries Occur When Cutting Dado
When you need to make wide or trench cuts, you will use dado cutting. This style forces you to swap blades for dado stacks. You also have to reduce the feed rate to get high quality results. The blade height determines the depth of the dado.
We don't hear of many table saw accidents and injuries from using dados. However, you do need to be aware of a few key potential areas of concern. When you don't apply enough pressure to the top of the board, you may experience kickback. It can be raised as it passes over the top of the blade set. You also want to make sure the siding stacks are staggered correctly so the teeth don't all line up.
Finally, if the part you're tearing off ever falls off the blade, be extra careful when putting it back in place. Never push it down over the blade. Instead, you want to re-feed the material through the dado. This prevents your hand from accidentally touching the tej dado stack if the wood is suddenly moved back.
Safety tip: Do not use miter gauges and fences at the same time, though you would like to. Doing so will cause the blade to stick to the wood. Also make sure the saw supports the dado stack you want to use. You need the correct throat plate width and proper clearance on the mandrel. With some saws, the use of a dado may reduce the effectiveness of the blade brake. Even the SawStop table saw requires a different safety mechanism when using dado blades.
Make sure to set the correct blade height
Not everyone agrees on setting the height of the table saw blade. However, some table saw injuries can be avoided as long as this step is performed correctly. To avoid unnecessarily exposing more of the blade, set the table saw blade height so that the teeth are all the way over the top of the board…and that's it. Too low and you may not bite the material sufficiently and create extra friction.
A taller blade height reduces tearing from the bottom of the workpiece and forces the blade's teeth through less material. This makes the motor easier. However, it also exposes more of the blade. Always keep an eye out and keep an eye on the blade.
If safety is more important than a slightly better surface, you can set the blade height so that only about 1/8" of the blade is exposed when ripping through plywood or other building materials. You'll probably tear a little more at the bottom of the board, but you'll have less exposure if you hit the blade. When the blade is lower, you usually also need to reduce the feed rate.
Some professionals have accused this method of welcome kickbacks. In fact, the squeezing action around the back of the blade causes kickback, regardless of tooth angle or blade height.
The number one cause of table saw accidents is kickback
Kickback is the number one cause of table saw accidents and injuries. The reason is that kickback usually includes a follow-up action of pulling your hand towards the blade when operating the saw at close quarters. Many seasoned pros prefer to forgo table saw blade guards and anti-kickback pawls. We don't recommend this to anyone – experienced or not. The blade guard protects you from debris and provides an extra layer of protection for your fingers.
Kickback is what happens when material hits the back of the blade as it rotates. This more or less launches the material back to the user – often at high speed. Recoil can snap a 2×4 to the wall behind you, or drive a piece of 3/4 inch oak through a piece of plywood. It's scary when it happens, and reinforces the fact that table saws demand our respect.
We are not aware of a case of someone losing a finger while using the blade guard. 100% of the cases seem to be people who got off guard for some reason.
Anti-kickback pawls protect you from the board kicking back when cutting. Their teeth move in the opposite direction to the slide. In the event of a kickback, these teeth bite into the wood, preventing it from bouncing back against your body.
Safety tip : Make sure the scrap winds up on the other side of the blade and not the fence. When scrap gets caught between the blade and the fence, it can bind and kick the wood back.
Obviously, some cuts require removal of the blade guard and/or recoil claws. Sometimes you need a thinner rip cut, or you need to bevel the blade in a way that makes the use of a blade guard impractical or impossible. In these cases, you just have to be very, very careful.
Always use a riving knife (or a splitter from an old saw)
Even if you need to remove the table saw blade guard, you want to keep using your riving knife. We cannot overstate how much this piece of equipment helps reduce recoil. Sometimes the fence goes out of line, forcing the scrap towards the back of the blade. Other times, natural stresses in the wood grain cause the material to spring back. Both of these situations can cause the wood to pinch the back of the blade. This can cause the table saw to kickback.
While splitters (older saws) and riving knives (newer saws) force the wood apart to reduce the chance of kickback, they are designed differently. The separator remains in a fixed position regardless of blade height. A gap can develop between the blade and the diverter, which can be problematic with thinner stock. The riving knife always remains in a fixed position with the blade. This eliminates any gaps between the blade and the riving knife.
Unless you like the thrill and suspense of your work material possibly flying back at you at 200 mph, you should absolutely always have a riving knife installed. Many table saw injuries could have been avoided if the operator had installed a riving knife.
Push Rods Prevent Table Saw Accidents
Sometimes, with short or narrow boards, you'll need to make cuts that don't leave enough room for your hands to work safely. When you find yourself in this situation, grab that putt. Every professional-grade table saw comes with one, and they keep some distance between your blade and your hand. As mentioned above, if your stuff gets lost, you can make a quick one out of scrap.
Adjust body position to avoid potential accidents
Despite all the safety and anti-kickback features, you never want to test your fate by standing directly behind the blade. Instead, step slightly to the side . If the saw kicks your board back, it will pass you by, or – at least – stray away from you instead of hitting you directly.
Seriously, we can't say enough about this. If you can get to the side of any rotary blade – do it. This is even more true with table saws, since the blade basically rotates towards the operator. In the event of a kickback, this material will come directly to you. Compare this to a miter saw where the material is pulled (very quickly) towards the fence.
Proper PPE Helps Prevent Table Saw Accidents
The first step to avoiding table saw accidents starts with the rule: Always protect your eyes. Most table saws work well with a dust collector. There is still a chance that the wrong sawdust will get rifled on your eyeball. Wear those safety glasses just in case.
Work gloves can help you avoid splinters when handling wood. Gloves simplify wood handling because you can grab the material and work with it. However, we (and most manufacturers) do not recommend wearing gloves when operating a table saw.
Gloves can get caught in the blade when feeding material through the saw – stick your hand inside the blade. Since the glove reaches farther than your fingers, you could accidentally reach too far and touch the blade. Since the glove covers your fingers, you may not even know it's happening.
Finally, consider wearing some hearing protection. You'll find any type of hearing protection useful, as table saws like to make a lot of noise.
Any tips we missed?
We're not perfect – we may be missing something. After all, table saws are used extensively for many different types of projects. This contributes to a variety of experiences for its many users.
If you have any tips, tricks or ideas we missed on how to prevent table saw accidents, please add them in the comments below.