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Table Saw Classifications - Making Sense Of All The Choices (Part 1 of 3)

Table Saw Classifications -
Buying a new table saw can be a little confusing to an inexperienced buyer. The models, brands, manufacturers, and types of saws are in a constant state of change. What was true just a few years ago may no longer apply, so it can be difficult to get reliable information even from seasoned veterans if they haven’t been keeping up on the trends. Even seasoned veterans may be surprised at how rapidly the marketplace changes. To help simplify your purchase, here’s one man’s view of the table saw marketplace in the USA. Opinions vary widely about which saws are best, and the classifications are more blurred than ever. Because many saws roll off the same assembly lines from the same plant, but sport different name plates and color schemes, in my opinion it’s better to focus more on the type of saw that’s most suitable for your needs than what brand name to buy. Don’t dismiss a model from a brand name because of your impressions of a different model or type of saw of the same brand...there’s often little correlation between models. Instead, see if the type of saw suits your needs, then evaluate the features and the buying circumstances as thoroughly as you can, and base your decision on what you find in each given model.

This article will help explain some of the basic features and differences between types of 10” table saws that are commonly found in the US. The vast majority of table saws available in today’s market can be divided into two major categories – portable and stationary, with varying sub-classifications for each. The focus will be only on 10” saws with standard 5/8” arbors that will accept standard 10” saw blades, since those are what's most commonly found in the marketplace.

Portable Saws:
Portable saws include 3 subgroups – the entry level bench top models, compact saws, and portable jobsite saws. They’re primarily designed to be light and mobile. The vast majority have universals motors, most of which are direct drive, and run on standard 120v residential circuits. Universal motors tend to be considerably louder than induction motors, and have less torque, so they tend to rely on higher RPM to get the cutting done. Most have motors that are rated between 10 and 15 amps, and typically generate between 1 and 2 usable horsepower. Claims of greater horsepower than that are misleading…if it plugs into a standard home outlet, it’s not more than 2hp (at least not for very long). Many are also available with a variety of lifts and leg stands….which is where our first point of confusion shows up. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that a portable benchtop or jobsite saw on a leg stand is still a portable saw.

Bench top saws tend to be small, light, inexpensive, entry level, and aimed mainly at the casual home owner. There are several models typically costing in the $100-$200 range, or less, from brands like Skil, Black & Decker (Firestorm), Craftsman, Tradesman, Ryobi, Hitachi, Task Force, Central Machinery, Pro Tech, Cummins, Delta, Jet, and others. The same saws mounted on a leg stand can run upwards of $300. To keep weight and cost down, bench top models tend to feature materials and designs that are less robust than those found on more substantial saws. Most feature plastics or very lightweight metal housings, plastic/nylon/Delryn or cheap pot metal gears and mechanisms, aluminum or composite tops, very small tables, and poorly designed fences that are awkward and difficult to get accurate results with. Many of these saws are made to “look” the part of a stationary saw or a higher grade jobsite saw to the uniformed, but the similarities don’t go very deep. Many are no more than 17” deep, leaving very little room to operate in front of the blade, which can make safe accurate cuts more difficult. Many don’t feature standard miter slots, or don’t accommodate the use of common aftermarket accessories or parts from other saws. Bench top saws of this type tend to cost less upfront, but often represent a very poor value down the road due to their poor resale value and poor reliability. Many people gravitate towards this type of saw because they’re inexpensive and readily displayed at many popular home centers. They’ll cut wood and other materials, but are difficult to use, and difficult to get good results with. Operating area is very limited, and the lighter weight makes them less stable during operation (many weigh in the range of 50#). It’s often not feasible to repair them in the event of a mechanical or electrical failure. Sometimes it’s prudent to save a little longer and spend a bit more to spare yourself the trouble of wasting your entire expenditure. Buying a better quality used saw is often a viable option if the right deal comes along. In some cases your needs would be better met by a basic circular saw and a decent straight edge used as a guide.

Portable jobsite saws represent a more ruggedly built class of portable saws. These are the type of saws that most carpenters, contractors, and tradesman use on the jobsite… which might explain why they’re often incorrectly referred to as “contractor saws”. They’re still small, light, and portable, and retain many of the disadvantages inherent to a smaller saw, but are made more ruggedly and are generally more accurate than the entry level bench top saws. Most still have direct drive universal motors, and lightweight construction compared to a full size stationary saw, but the motors, gears, and underpinnings are made to hold up better to the riggers and demands of a construction site than most bench top models. Most have reasonably powerful 15 amp motors, many have standard ¾” miter slots, decent fences, better alignment adjustments, extension tables, ripping capacities up to 24”, and are available with a variety of clever foldup or rollaway leg stands. There are popular and reasonably capable models from companies like Bosch, DeWalt, Ridgid, Porter Cable, Makita, Jet, Craftsman, Hitachi, and Ryobi, among others. Prices tend to be in the $300-$600 range, and many are capable of suitable accuracy for furniture making in the hands of a skilled woodworker. All have their fans, but the Bosch, DeWalt, and Ridgid are the perennial top dogs in this class. These saws have modern riving knives, some have dust collection ports, and are an excellent option if you need to move the saw easily from location to location. However, they still don’t offer the sheer size, mass, and performance benefits of a full size stationary saw.

Compact saws are a slightly larger class of saw than the entry level bench models, but are still lighter, smaller, less expensive, and more portable than full size stationary saws. They’re often still considered bench top saws, and still tend to retain direct drive universal motors, and less rugged overall construction, though some do feature a cogged vacuum cleaner style belts, and most will have some sort of a leg stand. Some even feature cast iron tops, and can look remarkably similar to a full size contractor saw from a glance, though the table area is smaller and the construction is significant lighter duty.

(continued in parts 2 and 3)
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