How to Safely Use a Table Saw, the Most Fearsome Power Tool of All

If you’ve decided to upgrade your power tool game and get a table saw, there are several things you should know before you crank it on and slide your first pieces of wood through.

Don’t get me wrong; all power tools should be wielded properly and safely, but none more so than the almighty table saw. To give you some perspective, a typical table saw rotates the blade at around 4,000 RPM, allowing the teeth of the blade to make a cut approximately every 370 microseconds (that’s around 2,700 cuts every second). Furthermore, according to one study, 78% of injuries involving stationary power saws (this includes table saws, band saws, and miter saws) were from table saws.

With that said, it’s extremely important that your table saw is used properly and with extreme caution. Here are some things you should know about operating a table saw safely and correctly.

Use All the Safety Equipment When Starting Out

When you buy a new table saw, it will most likely come with a blade guard, a riving knife (aka a splitter), and some anti-kickback pawls. This may all seem like overkill, but they’re crucial for your safety when you’re just starting out and learning how to use your table saw.

When you become more experienced, you can slowly begin to remove certain safety equipment in order to make complex cuts (at your own risk, of course). However, always have at least the riving knife installed, as this will prevent kickback and prevent major injury.

Kickback is when your workpiece turns, twists, or binds in the middle of a cut and therefore is no longer parallel with the blade. This causes the teeth of the blade to grab onto the wood and fling it violently back towards you. Since the blade spins at an incredible speed, you can image how much force is used to fling that piece of wood.

The riving knife prevents this from happening and keeps the workpiece from turning, twisting, or binding during a cut. Anti-kickback pawls sort of act as a failsafe to the riving knife, digging into the workpiece if it does start to kickback and stop it in its tracks before the blade has a chance to fling the wood back at you.

Invest in a Good Push Stick

88% of all table saw injuries involve contact with the blade, so it’s important that you use a push stick whenever you can so that your hands are as far away from the blade as possible when making a cut. Furthermore, you should also invest in a good push stick, as the ones that come with your table saw aren’t all that great.

Something like this allows you to apply force over a larger surface area of your workpiece, whereas most push sticks that come with your table saw only allow you to apply pressure to a small little corner of your workpiece as you feed it through.

Never Make Cuts Without a Fence or Miter Gauge

Every table saw comes with a rip fence, which is that long skinny block that runs parallel to the blade. Never make rip cuts (aka cutting wood lengthwise) without pressing the workpiece up to the rip fence in order to guide it through the blade at a perfect parallel angle.

Likewise, never make cross cuts (aka cutting wood width-wise) without using a miter gauge. Some table saws will come with one, but you can buy them separately if not. This tool allows you to make perfect miter cuts on your table saw.

So why do you need to use these tools to make table saw cuts? Again, kickback. A rip fence and a miter gauge prevent your workpiece from twisting or binding in the middle of a cut and possibly causing kickback. They also give you perfectly straight cuts, which is what you want in the first place.

Visualize & Practice Cuts Before You Make Them

Many times, as the workpiece feeds through the blade, you have to readjust your hands, and not knowing where you need to place them next can be a recipe for disaster.

This is why it’s important to visualize and practice cuts before you actually make them, especially on new types of cuts. Imagine what the entire process of the cut will look like and where you’ll place your hands (or push stick). Then, off to the side, practice the motions of the entire cut to make sure that it will work out.

Eventually you’ll become more experienced to the point that you can easily make most cuts without rehearsing. However, when you’re just starting out (or trying a new cut), make sure to put some thought into how you’re going to make your cuts.

Always Show Respect, Your Grace

While I mentioned above that you can start to let loose a little once you become more experienced, that’s only to a certain point. You always want to treat any power tool with respect, because the moment you bad mouth it, you’ll be convicted of treason (metaphorically) and your head will be cut off (possibly literally).

Whenever you become more experienced with anything, you start to get comfortable with it and naturally loosen up—you might be extremely cautious riding a dirtbike for the first time, but once you’ve done it a hundred times, that cautiousness flies out the window and you start to become more reckless.

It’s completely fine to become comfortable and confident using your table saw, but you always want to show it respect and know that it won’t show mercy if you end up making a mistake.

Always Wear Eye & Ear Protection

Many people remember to wear e ye protection, but ear protection often goes by the wayside—table saws are really loud, and your hearing is probably something that’s important to you.

Always wear earplugs or earmuffs whenever you fire up your table saw, and always wear eye protection. At the very least, wear safety glasses, but you can also step it up a notch and wear a face shield that protects your entire head and neck from potential flying objects.

Image from Darren E/Flickr

Craig Lloyd writes about smarthome for How-To Geek, and is an aspiring handyman who loves tinkering with anything and everything around the house. He's also a mediocre gamer, aviation geek, baseball fan, motorcyclist, and proud introvert.