At the heart of most woodworking shops is the table saw. Even though you can choose to use a Festool track saw, panel saw, or any of the various types of miter saws, a table saw is still the first choice for most woodworkers. Of all tools, the best table saw is versatile. With the right jig, you can cut box joints, spline joints, tenon and tenon joints, and more. No matter your skill level, this table saw guide can help you get started. Knowing how to use a table saw allows you to do everything from cutting boards to size to making very small parts for models or crafts.
With a homemade crosscut table saw, you can crosscut boards more accurately than with a miter saw. Tapered jigs allow you to make cuts that would be difficult (but not impossible) to make any other way. My joinery teacher in college who taught me how to use a table saw could even make an entire round bowl with just the table saw! Here's a video by Colin Knecht of WoodWorkWeb.com using a similar technique.
Table Saw Guide Catalog
- How to Use a Table Saw: Let's Start With the Types of Saws
- 8 Safety Rules on How to Use a Table Saw
- Table Saw Safety – Saw Stop
- Using Table Saw Controls
- cutting wood with a table saw
- How to Make a Rip Cut
- How to Make a Crosscut with a Table Saw
- How to Make Miter Cuts with a Miter Saw
- cutting sheet
- How to Use a Table Saw – Dado and Slot Joints
- How to Use a Table Saw – Dust Removal
- How to Use a Tap Table on a Table Saw
- wrap it up
How to Use a Table Saw: Let's Start With the Types of Saws
Instead of discussing the various types of table saws again, we could summarize under the categories of table top, construction site, contractor, and cabinet table saws. We've also written a helpful table saw buying guide. One type of saw deserves another mention—the sliding table saw. I have a small version of the saw that you can see in many of the photos.
Sliding table saw, also known as European table saw, is an industrial saw. They are huge. Much larger than a cabinet saw. The advantage of them is that they can take whole sheets of plywood and push them past the blades on the moving table. This makes them the ultimate saw for accuracy and efficiency. This would be my dream saw if I had the space. They come with a nightmarish price tag, though. A common one starts at $5,000 and I've seen them go as high as $15,000. Ironically, about 25 or 30 years ago, Ryobi made an amazing little portable sliding table saw. This is the saw I have been using for the past 25 years.
8 Safety Rules on How to Use a Table Saw
Let's get one thing straight. A table saw is one of the most dangerous tools in the workshop. According to the National Consumers Union, 40,000 people go to the emergency room every year due to table saw accidents. Every day 10 people lose their limbs due to table saws. This table saw guide should help you avoid some of those situations.
I'm not telling you this to scare you off from using it. It's not usually the new user learning how to use a table saw who gets hurt. Usually those who have used them for years. We can get so complacent that we forget about safety rules. Always be careful, follow the rules below and you should be fine.
Rule #1 – Do not cut rough-sawn, cupped, or warped lumber on a table saw
Table saws are used to cut wood that is finished (trimmed) on at least one face and one edge. The smooth finished side is pressed against the table, and the finished edge rests against the fence. Cutting cupped or warped wood on a table saw can pinch the blade and cause kickback. Kickback is where the blade grabs the wood and is thrown back at you at over 120 MPH (193 KPH)! Kickbacks are the number one way people get injured on table saws.
Some quick math: My table saw uses a 10" blade and spins at 4,800 RPM. This means the teeth are moving at about 150,816 inches per minute (or 9,048,960 inches per hour). Converting inches to miles converts to 142.82 miles per hour! Under load, the blade slows down, which is why I estimated 120 MPH earlier.
Rule #2 – Never use Miter Gauge and Rip Fence at the same time to prevent kickback
When you do this, the severed part may get stuck between the blade and the fence. This may result in a kickback. Instead, move the fence away from the blade when using a miter gauge. You can still use a fence as a stop, but you'll need to put a stop between the fence and the end of the wood. If this table saw guide has taught you anything – make sure you only use one of them at a time.
Rule #3 – Always use cleaves and guards as much as possible
Guards keep your fingers/hands away from the blade. Hacking knife reduces kickback. These safety mechanisms work by preventing the wood from squeezing the blade. It also does this by preventing the wood from twisting – preventing the teeth on the back of the blade from lifting the wood up and throwing it at your body!
There are many people who immediately remove the guard as soon as they get a table saw. This is a bad idea, the equivalent of cutting the seat belts from the car, as they are inconvenient to use in certain situations.
Newer table saws have guards that are easier to use than older table saws. If you have an old saw like mine that isn't as easy to use as a modern one, at least always use a riving knife. Keep in mind that in some cases you will have to remove it, such as when you are using a dado blade.
RULE #4 – KEEP YOUR FINGERS AND HANDS AWAY FROM THE BLADE
Do I really have to say that? Well, I've seen the stupid things people do on YouTube, so… yeah, yeah, I saw it. Imagine a laser beam aligned with a blade. Keep your hands on this line when you start cutting, and never line up your hands with the blade when operating the saw.
When I make the cuts, I focus on the wood that is in contact with the fence. I also pay attention to where the wood meets the table. It's also important to note if the blade follows my line. I don't have enough brain power to keep track of where my hands are because my focus is already spread out so much. So I've had a 30-year habit of always making sure my hands are out of the danger zone before I start cutting.
A table saw can cut off your finger so cleanly that you won't even know you've just amputated it. Don't put your fingers near that spinning blade, see rule #5 instead.
Rule #5 – Use the putter when it is unavoidable to get close to the blade
If a table saw is an oven, a putter is an oven mitt. They do this by giving you something to safely manipulate the wood with your fingers against your body. They come in all shapes and sizes, but this is my favorite set. These are suitable for table saws, router tables, shapers, band saws, and seamers. You can also make your own. Make sure you always have at least one within reach when pushing wood through the table saw blade. I keep one of these putters in my shop apron all the time.
Rule #6 – Never crosscut with a Rip Fence
A rip fence with a table saw is used for tearing . Miter gauges are used for crosscuts and miters. When you use the wrong tool for your job, you not only end up with poor results, but also increase your chances for kickbacks.
RULE #7 – ALWAYS STAY THE WOOD TIGHT TO THE TABLE AND FENCE AT THE SAME TIME
This special point in our table saw guides both prevents kickback and gives you the most accurate, straight cuts possible. I often picture my left hand holding the wood like a pool cue, with a few fingers wrapped around the left edge, and my index finger and thumb resting on top of the board. My right hand sends the wood forward, while my left pushes the wood down and to the right, towards the fence in front of the blade.
For larger pieces, use featherboard if desired. Feather boards apply lateral and/or downward pressure on the wood to hold it against the fence or table. You can craft or buy them. When using feather boards, don't position them so they don't put pressure on the spinning blade again, which can cause kickback. These are designed to guide your material through the table saw blade smoothly and accurately.
Rule #8 – Never freehand cut on a table saw
You never want to cut with your bare hands on a table saw. This means never cutting without using a table saw saw fence, a miter gauge, or some other jig to guide or hold the material. Violating this rule can easily result in losing a few fingers or having a plank smashed in your face. Enough said.
Table Saw Safety – Saw Stop
Years ago, Saw Stop introduced a technology that senses when your finger touches the saw blade, stops it almost instantly and lowers the blade below the surface of the table. This revolutionary technology has undoubtedly saved many fingers from permanent damage. Today, Saw Stop is a high-end table saw manufacturer with its own line of saws ranging from portable jobsite saws, contractor saws, to full-size cabinet saws. If you're in the market for a new saw, it's worth at least some consideration. You'll pay more for this saw technology, but if it protects you from one injury, the investment is well worth it.
Using Table Saw Controls
As you learn how to use a table saw, you'll quickly discover that every saw has the same basic controls. They may be in different locations or operate slightly differently, but when you learn to use one table saw, you can use them all. On the front or sometimes on the side, you'll find a handwheel to raise and lower the blade. You'll also find one and wheels to tilt the blade. On many saws, the handwheel and tilt wheel for raising/lowering the blade are combined into one wheel with a lever to change its function.
cutting wood with a table saw
When you're ready to cut, start by inspecting your wood. As you feed forward, look for rough edges that might catch on the edge of the table saw. Look for loose wood or splinters that will poke at you as you send the wood forward. As annoying as splinters are, don't wear gloves when using a table saw. This is a very dangerous practice. The blade grabs the material of your glove and yanks your entire hand into the blade.
Another thing to watch out for is the nails and screws in the wood. Inspect each board carefully before cutting, especially if it is reclaimed wood. Make sure your cutting wires are free of metal. I recently built a rolling barn door out of old pallets full of nails, staples and screws. A cheap handheld metal detector saved my saw blade because the wood was littered with nails or staples that I couldn't see.
If you've been woodworking long enough, you'll shoot bullets embedded in the wood. More often than not, hunters miss their target and hit the tree, which heals on the bullet. A carbide blade can occasionally cut through a nail or screw without much damage, just don't make it a habit.
How to Make a Rip Cut
This guide has been talking about how to use a table saw for lengthwise and crosscutting. Let me define them more thoroughly for those who don't know the difference. A rip cut is a cut that is cut with the grain of the wood. This is almost always the long dimension of the board, as shown below. That's why you probably bought a table saw in the first place. A crosscut is a cut at 90 degrees to the grain of the wood. A miter cut is any other angled cut to the grain. Most people immediately think of using a miter saw for crosscuts and miter cuts. A table saw is perfectly capable of making these cuts on all but the longest boards.
For very long boards, it may take two people to get the job done. The second person should hold the work with the palms up like a shelf (see photo below). They shouldn't be mastering or helping pull jobs at all! This can lead to poor cut quality and lead to kickback because you now have two operators trying to control the board and they could be fighting each other without realizing it.
How to Make a Crosscut with a Table Saw
While I usually reach for a miter saw when I need to make a cross cut, if I'm cutting small parts or need to be very precise, I use a table saw. Table sawing cross-cut boards (see photo below) is the most accurate way to cut cross-cut boards, except for the longest boards, since the miter saw will always come into play. A cross-cut sled is also the safest way to cut small pieces that are too small to safely handle on a miter saw. Some woodworkers keep a pencil next to their table saw, and they'll use the eraser end as a hold-down on the crosscut slide when cutting very small pieces of wood.
There are tons of plans online on how to make a crosscut sled. Some are basic no-frills jigs, like the one pictured above, while others include stops, gauges, hold-down clamps, and safety guards.
"My table saw has a miter gauge, why do I need a crosscut sledge!?" The answer is simple. The miter gauge that came with the saw moves side to side in it, so the cut will not be more accurate than a miter saw. Aftermarket miter gauges are another matter. Many of them offer ways to eliminate the gaps and allow them to slide perfectly through the miter gauge grooves. If they don't, or if you only have the original miter gauge, add a few layers of tape to one side of the rod to get a precise fit. The downside is that you have to replace it periodically. This still doesn't address safety concerns when cutting small pieces, so you'll still need a crosscutting sled.
How to Make Miter Cuts with a Miter Saw
One necessary skill when learning how to use a table saw is learning how to use a miter gauge. Cut not only crosscuts, but miter cuts as well. Many miter gauges have stops or stops at common angles such as 45 degrees and 22.5 degrees. The biggest mistake people make when cutting miters is not holding the wood securely enough to the miter gauge, so the wood will slip as it is fed through the blade. If you're lucky, this results in a poor quality cut. If you're unlucky, this can lead to kickbacks.
Many woodworkers will fit a larger plank over their miter gauge. This gives them more surface area to rest the wood on while making cuts. Others will even use spray glue and sandpaper to glue the planks to their miter gauges to give them more grip.
Pro Tip : When you're done mitering, loosen the miter screw, turn the miter gauge upside down and place it in the miter gauge slot. Now push it up to the leading edge of the table saw, which will be 90 degrees. Tighten the miter gauge screw, pull it out and flip it right side up. You've just set your miter gauge to a perfect 90 degrees without even looking at the scale.
I'm going to be controversial here, but this comes from 30 years of experience. Unless you have a large table saw with a large fence and a large discharge table, I wouldn't use a table saw to make the initial cut in a full sheet of plywood. Even then, I wouldn't use a table saw if I needed really precise cuts. Sheets tend to float a little bit off the fence. The whole sheet was too heavy and bulky to sit perfectly against the fence. I'm sure some of you can do it. I can't do without a second person to act as a featherboard, and I work alone most of the time.
In my cabinet making class we get a letter grade for every 1/64 inch reduction in our end of year project. If I wanted that kind of precision across the sheet, I'd use a track saw. Once I break the board down into smaller pieces, then I'll switch from the track saw to the table saw. Track saws are great for large plate loads, but are slower to use. Once the sheets get smaller than 4' x 4' I will use my table saw exclusively. In the end, when it comes to repeatable cuts, nothing beats a table saw.
How to Use a Table Saw – Dado and Slot Joints
You can make multiple joints with a table saw. None more common than dado and rabbet. While you can make these on a router table, they are much slower and require multiple passes. They also wear out your router bit faster than dado blades.
EN and IEC standards actually prohibit the use of dado blades. This means you cannot use them in the European market. In fact, the table saws made there often use shortened arbors, so you can't make your own or buy one from a third-party seller. If you can't use dado stacks, you can use a full size (not thin cut) flat rip blade, but you'll need multiple passes.
The dado and slots on the table saw are made with the dado set. The main type is the stacked dado set, consisting of two saw blades at the end and a pile of shavings sandwiched in between. Any thickness can be achieved by varying the number of blades and some brass spacers between them. If you are using a Sawstop table saw you will need different brakes when using the dado kit. You also cannot use blade guards or riving knives with dado suits.
How to Use a Table Saw – Dust Removal
Table saws generate a lot of dust. I mean they make a lot of dust. They also throw dust everywhere, including your face. For this reason alone, you should always wear goggles. The blade guard on most saws helps keep dust from flying at you. Most table saws are also equipped with a suction port for use with a shop vac or vacuum cleaner. I use them all the time. The bottom of construction site saws and contractor saws is open, allowing dust to fall and collect on the ground beneath the saw.
I always keep a big plastic bucket under them to collect the dust, but it also gives me a place to dump the scraps I cut. The bottom of the cabinet table saw is completely enclosed, so it picks up dust better. It's one of those things you get for a higher price.
How to Use a Tap Table on a Table Saw
If you have the room, and your table saw is in a fixed position, build yourself a tapping table. This table sits on the back of the saw to expand the size (depth) of the table saw. It allows you to push large boards and plywood through the saw easier and safer. There are plenty of plans online on how to build them. They range from simple desks to full cabinets with drawers and extra storage under the desk.
Make sure your kick table matches the height of your table saw. It shouldn't interfere with your fence either. We also like that they allow the miter gauge groove to continue for several feet.
wrap it up
We hope this article on how to use a table saw was helpful to you. Nothing beats the experience. The table saw is such an amazing and versatile tool that an entire book has been devoted to it. In fact, the books just write on the jigs you can make for your table saw.
Use this guide as a starting point and refer to it when needed, especially the security rules. Comment below if you have any questions, and look for our bandsaw guide for another great article.