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The Right Table Saw for Your Shop

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Rockler offers a broad range of table saws designed by Jet and Powermatic for woodworkers of all budgets.

Buying a table saw is one of the biggest and most carefully considered investments a woodworker can make.  To make the best decision, you need to know what your options are, and what's important to look for in a table saw.  In this article, we'll cover the basic table saw facts, and point out a few things to consider when you're shopping for a new saw.

Article Contents:

  • Table Saw Terminology
  • Types of Table Saws
  • Choosing the Right Saw for Your Shop

Table Saw Terminology

Although the design, quality and purpose of the table saws on the market varies greatly, all table saws share certain basic features: They all have a base, a table and extension wings, rails and a rip fence, a motor, trunnions, gearing to raise and tilt the blade, and an arbor and arbor assembly. 

 

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The Powermatic Model 64A picturedabove is an open based saw. The motor is mounted to the back of the saw and the bottom of the base is open.  

The Base
The base houses the working parts of the saw, including the trunnions, the arbor assembly, the sector gears, and sometimes the motor.  On some saws, the base is a "cabinet" type, meaning that a fully enclosed base extends all the way to the floor. Other saws have an open base, meaning that the base consists of an open metal box that surrounds the internal working parts of the saw. Open base saws have legs that extend from the bottom of the base to the floor. 

Recently, a few "hybrid" saws that combine the features of a cabinet base and an open base have appeared on the market. These saws have legs, but the base is enclosed on all sides to facilitate dust collection and limit noise.

The Table and Extension Wings
The table and extensions plays an extremely important role in the overall performance of the saw.  The table needs to be reliably flat and durable to properly support the workpiece being cut. Cast iron is the material of choice for the table and extensions.  on a quality saw, the table is made using state of the art foundry methods and is precision ground to flatness in the .0005'' tolerance range.  

Table extension wings bolt on to the right and left sides of the table and increase the surface area of the saw to help support wide stock and sheet materials.  On a heavy duty stationary saw, the extensions are usually cast iron, while on smaller saws, they may be made of lighter stamped steel or the lighter "webbed" style of cast iron.

One drawback of lighter-weight table extensions is that they - of course - have less mass, and the overall mass of the saw is what soaks up the vibration crated by the motor and other moving parts. The added mass of heavy cast iron extension wings decreases vibration, which in turn helps the saw stay in calibration, and, incidentally, helps it stay firmly planted on the shop floor.  On less expensive saws, extensions made of stamped metal, or ones that aren't precision ground, can also compromise the overall flatness of the table surface. 

 

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The fence system offered standard with the Jet JWSS Supersaw (above) and many Powermatic contractor saws are patterned after the famous Biesemeyer design, bringing the accuracy and reliability of a professional-class fence system to affordable contractor and hybrid saws.

The Rip Fence and Rails
The rip fence guides the wood as it is being ripped (cut along it's length) and can be positioned to any width of cut within the saw's range. The fence rides on fence rails attached to the front and rear edge of the table. Ideally, the system keeps the fence perfectly parallel to the plane of the blade, regardless of where the fence is positioned.

The quality and accuracy of fence systems, however, varies greatly across the  spectrum. The quality of a table saw's fence system is an extremely important consideration: A poorly designed or inaccurate fence greatly diminishes the quality and accuracy of the cut, and can be a source of significant frustration. For saws in the price range of most hobbyists, the famous Biesemeyer T-square fence design sets the standard. Fence systems like the Jet XACTA and Powermatic's Accu-Fence are the norm on professional-class stationary saws and, happily, are also available many smaller and less costly Jet and Powermatic models. 

The Miter Gauge
Most table saws use the miter gauge and miter slot system to allow for crosscutting. A miter gauge consists of a cast metal protractor head attached to a length of metal bar. The bar rides in corresponding "miter slot" in the table saw's surface. Protractor on the "no frills" miter gauges that come with most table saws can be set to crosscut stock at any angle between 90 and 30 degrees and, if well made, do a serviceable job with most "routine" crosscutting.

 

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Most table saws come standard with a serviceable, no-frills miter gauge. The optional slide table and upgraded miter gauge on the Jet JWSS Supersaw adds precision crosscutting features, including a cam-lock material clamp and positive stops for common angles to the standard package.
One of the more useful add-ons for just about any table saw is either an upgraded system offered by the manufacturer, or an aftermarket miter gauge or crosscutting sled. These tools provide, in various combinations, repeatable incremental angle positioning, longer fences, stop blocks and other advanced features that can come in handy in projects that call for precision crosscutting.   

The Motor, Trunnions, and Arbor Assembly
The motor, trunnions, arbor assembly, and gearing make up the essential mechanical components of the saw. These quality and robustness of these components vary considerably from saw to saw and can greatly impact the durability of the saw and it's capacity for cutting heavy stock and it's ability to stay in adjustment and hold settings.

Most table saws - other than "jobsite" and bench top models - are equipped with induction type motors in the 1 - 5 HP range.  On better quality saws, you'll find a "totally enclosed fan cooled" (TEFC) induction motor, which makes sense, because a TEFC motor is sealed against dust and other contaminants (a significant advantage in a woodshop) and is designed for continuous duty.

Saws specifically designed for hobbyists and home use are usually outfitted with motors under 3 HP and can be operated on standard 110 volt residential circuitry.  In general, motors in this class are powerful enough for routine cutting of sheet goods and hardwoods up to 1'' thick. Professional class saws, on the other hand, have motors in the 3- 5 HP range and require a 220 volt power supply.  Motors in this category are designed to stand up to hours and hours of continuous duty, and have enough power to cut even thick, heavy hardwood stock without bogging down.

The arbor assembly is made up of the arbor and the sector gear for raising and lowering the blade. The arbor is the shaft that holds the blade and, on all American stationary saws that use a 10'' blade, is 5/8'' in diameter where the blade is attached. On some larger and higher quality saws, the arbor is larger in diameter through the bearings to allow for more substantial bearings, and is turned down to 5/8'' to accommodate the blade. The sector gear is an arc shaped gear that operates in conjunction with a worm gear attached to an adjustment wheel to raise and lower the blade.  The gearing on better saws includes an adjustment mechanism to take up slack in the gearing and limit backlash.

The front and rear trunnions - along with the yoke, which joins the two - are what hold the motor and arbor assembly in place.  The trunnions are of interest because they are what hold the blade in alignment with the rip fence and miter slot, and also because they play a role in absorbing vibration form the motor and blade and transferring it to the mass of the saw's base and table. Trunnions with a "wide stance" (trunnions that span most of the width of the base have a wide stance) tend to improve the stability of the arbor assembly. The general rule of thumb is: the better the saw, the more substantial the trunnions.

Also, it's important to consider whether the trunnions mount to the base of the saw or the underside of the table.  Trunnions that mount to the base (the standard on professional-class saws) make aligning the blade with the miter slot and fence much easier: The motor, arbor assembly, trunnions and base stay bolted together as a single unit while the table is brought into alignment with the blade, rather than awkward prospect of having to loosen the trunnions assembly from the bottom of the table and bring it into alignment with the table top.    

Types of Table Saws

Table saws available on the market today fall into a number of classes: jobsite saws, compact saws, contractor saws, hybrid saws and cabinet saws.  For woodworkers, the last three - contractor, hybrid, and cabinet table saws are of the most interest. While improvements in recent years to "jobsite" saws and compact saws have made them more viable for a number of carpentry tasks, they simply lack the power and accuracy to suit the needs of the professional or serious hobbyist woodworker. 

 

powermatic model a4 table saw
The Powermatic Model 4A is a "classic" contractor saw with high-end features, including an Accu Fence rail and fence system and cast iron extension wings.
Contractor Saws
Contractors were originally designed to be portable enough to hauled from jobsite to jobsite. These open-based table saws are characterized by a straightforward design and an affordable price.  Contractor saws are relatively lightweight (in the 250 - 350 lb. range) and usually priced within the reach of the hobbyist and homeowner and, until recently, have been virtually the only option for the small shop.

Contractor saws do make a few concessions in the name of affordability and portability. Although most contractor saws have a solid cast iron table top, the extension wings may be made of "open webbed" cast iron or stamped metal. The trunnions, gearing and arbor assembly of a contractor saw are less husky than those found on more expensive saws. The contractor saw's motor hangs off of the back of the saw - a feature originally meant to make the motor easier to remove for transport - and is most often connected to the arbor assembly via a single V-belt.

Contractor saws are still the most affordable solution for the home shop, and are suitable for carpentry, small cabinetry projects, trim work, and basic furniture making. Many contractor saws now come with high quality fence systems. Using the best quality saw blade - and using blades designed for a specific type of cut - can enhance the performance of a contractor saw and bring it up to speed for many more advanced woodworking projects. Buying a contractor saw that's equipped with solid cast iron extension wings will increase the stability of the saw, and help reduce the impact of vibration on the saw's less substantial trunnions and gearing.  

Jet model jtas table saw
Jet and Powermatic cabinet saws offer performance and durability the put them in a class by themselves. The Jet JTAS pictured above comes standard with everything you'd expect from a professional-class saw, plus a few extra options and features, like the XACTA router lift that lets your table saw double as a router table, and a left-tilt blade for increased beveling accuracy and safety.

Cabinet Saws
Cabinet saws - so called because of the fully enclosed "cabinet" style base - represent the other end of the spectrum from the contractor saw. Cabinet saws are designed to meet the performance and durability needs of professional woodworkers.  Cabinet saws are more substantial in overall construction than contractor saws - they're built using more cast iron and steel, have heavier trunnions, gearing, and arbor assemblies, and more powerful motors than their contractor saw counterparts.  The cumulative result is a saw that can cut through even the thickest hardwood stock easily, all day long, with very little vibration to wear on either the saws alignment and settings or the operator's nerves. 

A number of features set the cabinet saw apart: The motor is enclosed inside the cabinet base, making it a quieter saw, and the fully enclosed base itself has the advantage of making dust collection an easier matter. The motor and arbor assembly are held in place with heavy duty trunnions that attach to the cabinet base, instead of the table, making it much easier to bring the saw blade into alignment with the miter slot and fence. Cabinet saw are, in general, manufactured to more exacting standards than less expensive saws: their tables are flatter, their bearings and pulleys heavier and more robust, and most often, they're equipped with a more reliable fence system.

A good quality cabinet saw is more of an investment than contractor saw, however. And because cabinet saws use more powerful motors (3 -5 HP as opposed to 1 - 1-3/4 HP for contractor and hybrid saws) they require a 220 volt circuit for operation. They are by no means portable - a full sized cabinet saw weighs in at upwards of 600 lbs.  But even with the greater expense, the electrical power requirements, and the physical heft of the machine, because of their superior performance, cabinets saws are still the preferred saw of professional woodworkers and serious amateurs alike.

Jet jwss supersaw
 Hybrid saws, like the Jet JWSS pictured here, combine affordability with cabinet saw features, including a fully enclosed base and heavier trunnions and gearing and more advanced drive belt systems.

Hybrid Saws
In recent years, tool manufacturers have begun to recognize the gulf between the affordable contractor saw and the cabinet saw, and have responded by developing a new class of table saw.  "Hybrid" table saws capture some of the most valuable features of the cabinet saw at a price that's still in range for the hobbyist. 

Some hybrid saws have a cabinet type of base and others have a shorter base and legs, but in either case, the base is fully enclosed, with the motor mounted inside the base, instead of on the back of the saw. Hybrid saws are equipped with more substantial trunnions and arbor bearings, often a more advanced drive belt system, and better gearing than most contractor saws. In addition, the trunnions of many hybrid saws are mounted to the base of the saw, making precision alignment of the blade with the miter slot and the blade much easier.

Hybrid saws are essentially a scaled down version of the cabinet saw.  They're lighter weight, and are equipped with motors in the 1-1/2 - 1-3/4 HP range (which means that they can be used with standard 110 volt service). Many believe that hybrid saws represent the wave of the future for home shops, and while they're not quite in the same class as their larger cousins, hybrid saws are sturdy and well constructed, and offer many advantages for the serious hobbyist. 

Choosing the Right Saw for Your Shop

 The type of saw to consider for your shop depends on the type of woodworking you do, the amount of time you spend woodworking, your budget and, in part, the space and type of access your shop affords (you should think twice, for example, before committing yourself to moving a full scale cabinet saw into a small basement shop). 

 

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The Powermatic Model 66 Cabinet Saw - a top performer and a top choice of professionals and dedicated hobbyists for years.
If you spend only a few hours a week in your shop, mostly making small cabinetry and craft projects, a cabinet saw might be nice to have, but a little more than you need.  On the other hand, if you operate a small professional shop, and are looking for a saw that you can comfortably and reliably run for hours at a time, a low end contractor model will probably slow you down and end up being a disappointment. Hybrid saws offer a good middle ground for serious hobbyists, and will even prove suitable for certain small-scale professional operations. Jet Tools offers a surprising breadth of advanced features in its line of affordable "Supersaws."

 

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Jet and Powermatic Contractor Saws - affordable and lightweight without sacrificing accuracy and durability.

As important as the type of saw you choose are the individual features of the saw. Some affordable contractor model saws offer many of the same features that you'd expect to find on a top-quality cabinet saw, such as the widely respected Accu-Fence system and precision ground cast iron table tops and extension wings you'll find on Powermatic contractor models.  By the same token, while saws in the cabinet saw class all share certain features - a 3HP or larger motor, trunnions that attach to the base, and heavier construction - they are not all manufactured to the same standards.  Take a close look at the quality of all of the saw's components, including the quality of the fence system, the mass and stance of the trunnions, the grind and finish of the top and extension wings, and features that make power transmission to the blade more efficient.

Buying a table saw is a big investment, and worth careful consideration. You may not be able to "test drive" every table saw on your list, but you can read reviews, compare specs and features, and  it doesn't hurt to take the manufacturers reputation into account. When you're ready to buy your new dream table saw, Rockler offers a wide variety of contractor saws, hybrid saws and cabinet saws from Jet and Powermatic, two of the most trusted names in the business.

 

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