If you think the table saw was a recent invention, you’re in for a surprise. Although there have been recent advances, such as the use of batteries to power them, people have been using power saws before they could be plugged in. They predate almost any electrical device we have, including the telegraph, telephone, and lightbulb. But the history of the table saw doesn’t start with the saw, but with the blade.
What Are the Different Types of Table Saws?
Most table saws fit into one of two categories—those you can move by themselves and those that are attached to a cabinet.
Some people like to differentiate between portable table saws and contractor saws.
Portable table saws are
- Also called benchtop (maybe because they sit on a bench?)
- The kind of saw most folks picture when they hear the words table saw
- Usually sold at home improvement stores
- Used primarily by homeowners and for carpentry work that doesn’t require a lot of accuracy
- Have smallish tabletops, making it difficult to cut larger pieces of wood
- Powered by direct drive motors
- Don’t have the accuracy for detailed work
- Are light enough to carry—which sounds good except
- Are light enough that they vibrate when cutting heavier wood, leading to less accurate cuts
Contractor saws are
- Larger and heavier
- Have stronger motors
- Are often sold with a stand to move them around
- Often have fence rails around them to provide more stability and to make carrying them easier
- Are slightly more accurate, but not enough to be used for detailed work
In appearance, the two look similar. A carpenter’s table saw often has a smaller work space to make carrying them around. Although they are typically more expensive, the carpenter’s saws are more durable and cut better.
These are the other major category of table saws. They are called cabinet saws because—you guessed it—they sit on an enclosed cabinet. Here are some other ways they are different
- They have much stronger motors. Motors in the 5 to 7 horsepower range usually require a 240-volt dedicated receptacle. Homeowners who buy a table saw with motors this strong are serious about their woodwork.
- They typically have table extenders, making it easier to cut wider pieces of wood. Trying to cut a 48-inch wide piece of drywall with a portable saw is not easy, even with two people.
- Cabinet saws have increased accuracy because they are heavy
- The cabinet they sit on provides the ability for superior dust collection
- The blades of cabinet saws are almost always belt driven
Because of the voltage these beasts of a saw require, a new category of cabinet saws has been developed—the hybrid.
Hybrid cabinet table saws
- Are considered hybrids because they are heavier table saws
- That could be picked up and moved
- But are typically sold with a cabinet
These models are usually bought by home woodworkers who want a precise table saw but don’t need so much power that a separate outlet is than.
The specialized saws can be categorized either by size or movement.
Micro and Mini Saws
These are small saws with blades 4 inches wide or less. They are commonly used for cutting trim or hobby wood. A typically mini saw is about the size of a paper cutter.
Some carpenters who do a lot of trim work have begun to use them. Why carry something heavy when a lighter machine will do?
These saws are usually used to cut large sheets of wood, such as 4 by 8 plywood. The saw is stationary, but the table it sits on moves, so that the plywood can be more accurately cut. Although some Americans are using sliding saws, they are used primarily in Europe.
Table Saw Blades
What is a table saw without its blade? No discussion of table saws is complete without talking about the blades. Let’s start with the three main parts of a saw blade.
- Teeth. These are the pointy ends of blades. Typically, the more teeth, the finer the cut. A blade with 24 teeth is going to make a much rougher cut than one with 60 or 80. Blades designed for ripping lumber usually have fewer teeth while blades used for cross-cutting have more.
- Gullet. The space in between the teeth. Their purpose is to allow the chips of wood to be removed while the saw is cutting. The depth of the gullet is important to determining the speed with which the blade will go through the wood. Deeper gullets clear out the wood chips more quickly, causing the blade to spin faster. If you want a smoother cut, you want a blade with smaller gullets.
- Tooth configuration. If you compare the teeth of several blades, you will notice subtle, but important differences. Some have a flat top, others are beveled, and still others are a combination. Manufacturers match the configuration with the blade’s purpose. For example, a combination blade will have four alternating-bevel teeth and one flat top, with a large gullet between each grouping.
The Width of the Blade
The width of the blade determines the kerf—or how much wood will be cut out. Some blades cut a 1/8 inch slot, but there are thinner blades as well. Thinner blades require less power, so they are often used with less powerful machines.
The Quality of the Teeth
Most high quality blades have carbide tips that have been fused to the steel blade. The better the quality of the teeth, the longer the blade will last. The best blades use a specially-formulated carbide that creates a stronger bond between the tips or teeth and the steel plate.
The type of blade you choose is based on what and how you will cut as well as how often you want to change out blades. Many folks are happy with an all-purpose blade for everyday jobs.
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Table saws should be used with care. Over 30,000 accidents occur every year in the United States. Fingers or tendons can be cut, or damage can occur to the body and face. While most people would associate saw danger with the blade, a more common injury happens because of kickback.
What is Kickback?
Kickback is what happens when a piece of wood is sent back to the person operating the machine. This can result in two types of injuries.
The first is more obvious—a piece of wood rapidly flying toward you can cause damage of several kinds. Injuries include bruises, torn skin, eye damage, and the occasional broken finger or thumb.
The second type of damage is less obvious but even more dangerous. For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction–remember learning that in school? When one piece of wood is kicked back, the piece still on the table picks up speed and moves in the opposite direction—toward the blade. If the sudden movement forward catches the operator off-guard, he might not have time to pull his hand back from the blade.
Preventing Kickback Injuries
To help prevent kickback and its related injuries, table saw manufacturers developed two safety features—blade guards and splitters.
If you have seen a table saw in a store, you have probably seen a blade guard. Typically made from plastic, they cover the blade and act as a brake if your hand gets too close to the blade. The plastic cover is attached to a piece of metal that gets attached to the machine.
However, they are also detachable (so you can turn the saw over to remove the blade). Many people find them annoying and don’t use them. Experienced carpenters claim they don’t need them, but I would rather put up with a little annoyance to avoid a trip to the ER.
These are small metal pieces that sit behind the blade, one on each side. They look like miniature curved saws. They are attached by springs, and as the wood slides under them, they lift up. But if the wood stops, the teeth grab the wood, either stopping it or at minimum slowing it down. They are effective. But they are usually attached to the detachable blade guards.
So removing the blade guards means removing the splitters. If you are new to using a tabletop saw and think you can prevent yourself from getting hurt, watch this video here. It was filmed by an expert who knew what was going to happen and still almost cut his hand.
Additional Safety Measures
This is a recent feature, invented in 1990, that allows the operator to hold down wood and prevent kickback. This is one time when a picture (or a video) speaks a thousand words, so if you want to see one in action, click here.
This is as old-school as it gets. A push stick keeps your fingers from getting too close to the blade and can help you deflect a piece of wood if it is flying towards you. A lot of folks use a spare piece of wood for a push stick. Thinner push sticks with a hook on top to keep wood down are not expensive but might be a little safer.
Last Word on Kickbacks
They can be serious and happen so quickly that there is little time to react. This cannot be stressed enough. For another video that explains kickbacks and shows various ways to prevent them, you can watch it here.
Automatic Braking—the Latest Safety Feature
Starting in 2000, inventor and physicist Stephen Gass, tried selling an automatic braking system that he designed. He wanted a saw that could tell the difference between a piece of wood and a finger. He realized that one way humans are different from wood is that we conduct current.
So, he came up with a way to have a tiny amount of current sent to the blade. If the saw notices any change in the amount of current flowing through the machine, it stops within 3/1000 of a second. And it also vanished right into the table. If you want to see how this technology works, check out this video here.
Sadly, saw manufacturers have been resistant to making changes to their table saws to use this technology. Some claim it will be too expensive or require them to make too many adjustments to their machines. Gass, however, argues that safety should be a paramount concern. As he said in a 2017 Consumer Safety Hearing
“You commissioners have the power to take one of the most dangerous products ever available to consumers and make it vastly. And yet, here we are over 14 years later. There’s no time left to waste.”
Since he couldn’t get manufacturers to use his technology, Gass created his own company, Saw Stop, to make and sell saws himself. They have sold thousands of high-quality table saws. However, they are not cheap. You can visit their website here.
History of Table Saws
What is the history of the table saw? The first patent for a circular saw blade was in 1777. However, an American invented a slightly different model in 1810. Since that early history, table saws have been modified frequently, and continue to be modernized today through the use of laser lights to provide accuracy and battery-powered saws to provide portability.
As you see, table saws go back further than you might have thought. Let’s see what else we can discover about these useful tools.
When Were Table Saws First Invented?
You can’t have a table saw without a circular blade, and in fact, it did come before the invention of the table saw. So, let’s talk about that first.
The person often credited with being the inventor of the table saw is Samuel Miller, whose patent was approved in 1777. However, many historians of woodworking tools point out that the wording in his patent indicated that the circular blade was already in use before he built his circular saw. As Norman Bale wrote in Circular Saws and Their History
“the circular saw is said to have been originated in the 16th or 17th century, but there is nothing to show who was the inventor”
Just like Edison and other inventors built on the work of others, so did Samuel Miller.
The American Woman who Invented a Saw
Tabitha Babbitt was a Shaker woman who is credited with inventing a circular saw in America around 1810. Legend has it that she was watching men trying to cut with a pit saw and realized their work was inefficient.
So what is a pit saw? A pit saw is a long saw with handles on either end so that two people could pull the saw back and forth over the wood. If you want to see a demonstration of how people used a pit saw during Babbitt’s day, look here.
Back then, saw blades could only cut in one direction. So when she noticed that half the time the men were just moving a blade across wood, she figured there had to be a better way. She used her spinning experience to come up with a novel idea—that if a blade could be turned continuously in one direction, it would make sawing more effective. To do that she used the same concept as the pedal on a spinning wheel.
Later, her design was used to create a much larger version that could be used in a sawmill. Because of her Shaker beliefs, she never applied for a patent. Several years later a couple of men applied for a patent based on her idea, but history barely remembers their names (or they don’t come up in Google searches, which might be worse). As it should be.
The Next Major Innovation
Skip forward about 70 years to Rockford, Illinois. There, in 1878, John Barnes built the first saw that looked similar to what we think a table saw should look like. It had a circular blade in the middle of a horizontal surface, or table.
Barnes designed the saw to be powered by a treadle–a pedal that one sees on spinning wheels or old timey sewing machines like this one. By pushing the treadle down, the operator made the saw blade turn so it could cut the wood.
Barnes used a treadle similar to this one to turn the saw blade. A man would push the treadle down repeatedly, turning the saw. It was an ingenious idea. If you want to see a recreation in action, watch this YouTube video here.
He designed many of his woodworking machines to be powered by foot-power because of his belief in the importance of foot power. He once said
“The application of foot power is not new. It has been used in different ways for centuries. … There are two classes of foot power machinery, one embracing those designed for amusement and recreation, and the other those for use in the workshop.”
Source: Union Hill Antique Tools
As you can see, the history of table saws is complicated. Without a circular saw blade, you can’t have a table saw, so any history of a table saw has to include a history of the circular saw. But a circular saw blade can be used to make radial arm saws, table saws, and portable saws.
Table Saw Resources
- Can You Cut Aluminum with a Table Saw?
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- How Much Does a Table Saw Weigh?
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- What You Need to Know: How to Transport a Table Saw
- Table Saw Horsepower: How Much is Enough?
- Why is My Table Saw Burning Wood?
Table Saws Have Come a Long Way
Table saws have a convoluted history, starting with the invention of a circular blade to a table saw that can stop almost immediately when it senses your finger. For a power tool that many people have, it has a surprisingly rich history. Maybe Tabitha Babbitt didn’t copyright her invention, but I bet she would be satisfied to see what became of it.
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