Note - The limitations of 10,000 characters have required that I break this article into 4 segments. It's advisable that you read the 3 sections on Table Saw Classifications before reading this section)
Part 1 Part 2 Part 3
Some Basics of Buying a Saw
For performance and stability, large and heavy is good, operating room and support is good, strong and powerful are good. From that perspective, in most applications metal is preferred to plastic, cast iron is preferred to steel, steel is preferred to aluminum, aluminum is preferred to plastic, stronger plastics are preferred to more brittle plastics, etc. It’s subjective to some degree, but you get the gist of the strength of materials game.
When you approach a table saw in a store, try to imagine whether or not the saw would be stable when you push a piece of heavier material across the blade. Is there enough operating room in front of the blade for you to get the workpiece settled before it contacts the blade? Push a little on the front of the saw…if it moves easily, it’ll move when your cutting if you don’t take precautions to anchor it down. It’s hard to know how powerful a saw will feel when cutting until you’ve used it… there’s a lot more to how easily a saw cuts than it’s horsepower rating, but if the blade isn’t cutting efficiently while your pushing the matieral, it’ll ultimately translate to pushing on the saw, so it has to be stable. Blade selection
and alignment are key factors in how easily and accurately any saw cuts.
Horsepower ratings can be misleading or vague, but you can at least check the stated nominal amperage on the motor plate, manual, specs, or elsewhere on the saw. “Amp” draw is an indication of how much power it’ll draw from the electrical circuit, and is a better indicator of how much power it’ll produce during operation than HP ratings….it’s not an ideal rating system, just better…especially with univesal motors. If you’re unfamiliar with the difference between a universal motor and an induction motor, think in terms of a running circular saw vs a ceiling fan…circular saws have universal motors, while fans have induction motors…quiet is usually good too!. There are many other variables involved with the saw’s perceived power, but that at least gives you a leg up on whatever wishful number the marketing wizzards have printed on the front of the saw. If it plugs into a standard 120v outlet, it’s not mathematically feasible for the circuit to safely supply enough amperage for the motor to produce more than 2hp for long enough to matter. Any motor that’s larger than a true 2hp is best run on a 240v (aka 220v) circuit.
Since alignment is critical to good performance, the ability to adjust the blade to the miter slots, and the fence to the blade are also good. The fence is a critical part of the cutting operation during rip cuts, check it out thoroughly….it should have easy adjustments for horizontal and vertical alignment, and should clamp down firmly on the fence rail, or should at least have adjustments for the clamping pressure. If it sticks a little on the rail, don’t worry… a little wax in the right location should help it gliding nicely (never wax or lubricate where the fence clamps against the rail though). Stock miter gauges are notoriously poor, but are easier to compensate for than a bad fence with an aftermarket miter gauge or crosscut sled. Check to see if the miter slots are a standard 3/4” width. If not, then you’re on your own for accessories that fit the miter slot. Keep in mind that most store displays are horribly adjusted and poorly setup. Don’t misjudge the saw because of the setup…if it’s too loose or too tight, that can usually be rectified with proper setup.
You’ll also discover that some saws have table mounted trunnions, some cabinet mounted. Cabinet mounted trunnions, like those on cabinet saws, are easier to reach and easier to align. Table mounted trunnions can be more tedious, but it’s usually a one time deal and is doable, so I don't believe it's a "make or break" feature....just one of many important decision factors.
Belt Drive or Direct Drive?
In two words...belt drive! The vast majority of top shelf saws are belt drive with an induction motor. The vast majority of cheap plastic benchtop saws have direct drive universal motors. Belt drive simply gives smoother operation with less vibration than direct drive. There's also less chance of frying the motor should you stall the blade on a belt drive saw, as the belt with generally slip a bit as opposed to melting the motor coils. (I'll bet all the old school audiophiles were familiar with the belt drive concept on turntables!)
The Great Debate – Right Tilt or Left Tilt?
Virtually all modern table saws have the ability to tilt the blade for bevel cuts. Some tilt towards the right, some tilt towards the left. There are pros and cons to both which many feel are minor concerns, and it really boils down to a matter of preference. Right tilt bevels toward the fence on a standard bevel cut, which is considered less safe than if it beveled away from the fence. You can move the fence to the left of the blade for safer bevel cuts, but that makes it a non-standard operation, which is still not quite as safe as a bevel cut on a left tilt saw. On Left tilt saws the blade bevels away from the fence with the fence on the right of the blade (standard location), which is considered safer.
The downside of a left tilt saw is that any changes in blade thickness will skew the zero reference on the tape measure because the left side of the blade registers on the right side of the flange. This can be adjusted by recalibrating the cursor each time, always using blades of the same thickness, using shims/spacers, or just measuring by hand. Blade thickness changes make no difference with a right tilt saw because the right side of the blade registers against the left side of the flange, so changes in blade thickness don’t impact the tape measure.
Here’s another difference that will also be a matter of preference. The arbor nut on a right tilt saw gets applied from the left side of the blade and uses a reverse thread orientation, which is typically done with your left hand. The arbor nut on a left tilt saw goes on from the right side (easy for right handers) and uses a normal thread orientation.
What to Buy?
Which saw to get is a personal decision that we all face, but I'd focus more on saw type than brand. Each of us has different criteria for a saw, so make your decision based on your situation. Price is often a big consideration, as is size. The old adage, “buy the best saw you can afford” rings true. If space and price allows, a bigger saw would be my recommendation….more power, more capacity, and more stability is seldom a bad thing. The performance advantages of the larger full size saws are hard to argue, but many of the better portable jobsite saws and some of the compact saws are capable of producing accurate cuts. If a smaller saw is all there’s room for, or if you need to move the saw from location to location, a larger saw may simply be unfeasible.
If budget is the limiting factor, look to a good used saw….Craigslist, Ebay, and the used classifieds on woodworking sites can often yield an excellent saw for a reasonable cost. Older full size contractor saws are plentiful in the used market….it’s very common to see a used Ridgid or Craftsman contractor saw in the $100-$200 that could be ready to go with a new blade and very little effort. The fences on the old Craftsman saws were pretty suspect, but fence upgrades can be added at a later time as funds allow. Thanks to the wonders of the SawStop flesh sensing technology, there are many excellent full size saws available due to people upgrading to the new technology. This is a great time to find a good used industrial cabinet saw at a good price….just beware that you’ll need 240v operation if the motor is more than 2hp.
New full size saws tend to start just north of $500. Sale prices and coupons can drop the price further. I’ve read of several cases where a store has honored a Harbor Freight 20% competitor’s coupon, which can bring entry level full size saws like the Ridgid R4512 or Craftsman 21833 down in the $425-$450 range. If you’ve got 240v, you just might find a great deal on a used cabinet saw for within that same budget. You’ll have to decide if you’d rather have a new saw with warranty and modern features like a riving knife, or if you’d rather buy more beef under the hood. New cabinet saws tend to start near $1300…ie: a new Grizzly G1023RL 3hp cabinet saw is currently $1394 shipped, and enjoys a very solid reputation…..that’s pretty close in price to several of the better hybrid saws, and offers much more substantial construction. Regardless which type you end up, the end performance is largely determined by proper setup and good blade selection
, so take your time with the alignment and setup, and buy a quality blade. Good blades tend to start right around $30….if that’s all that’s in your blade budget, I’d buy one decent general purpose blade as opposed to a two-pack of cheaper blades, but it really depends on what you plan to do.
see riving knife/splitter info at the end of Part 3