What the best table saw has

  • High safety. Thanks to voluntary standards created by Underwriters Laboratories, most current table saws feature much-improved blade guard systems over older models: riving knives instead of splitters and guards that are easier to adjust. SawStop table saws have technology that makes them safest of all, but they are pricey and the company does not offer a portable model.
  • User-friendly blade guard and riving knife setup. Safety protections are only effective if they're used -- so look for fast, tool-free operation of the whole blade guard system. It's crucial that the blade guard be easy to detach or flip out of the way, because inconvenient blade guards usually get left off the saw, exposing the user to danger.
  • Good dust control. Contractor saws, with their open stands, usually provide the worst dust control, though the best models provide shrouds around the blade with ports for dust hoses. Table saws with closed bases vary in dust-control performance. The best have shrouds around the blade and a slanting chute toward the main dust port.
  • A left blade-tilt setup is safer than a right tilt. Most experts say such a blade orientation reduces the risk of kickback. Also, experts warn that debris can become trapped between the blade, table and fence on a right-tilt saw, flying out at the operator. In addition, reviews note that left-tilt saws make it easier to make clean miter cuts along the length of a panel.
  • Cast-iron tables are better than steel for minimizing vibration and staying flat. Cast iron table saw tops provide greater weight and stability. Stamped or open steel or aluminum are lighter and create more vibration.
  • Blades that are easy to adjust. Blade alignment needs to be accurate for the best cuts. It should be checked periodically.
  • The handwheels should turn easily to maneuver the blade. Test the handwheels that raise and tilt the blade in the housing. Does it take several dozen revolutions or just a few to raise the blade a few inches or tilt it 10 degrees? Also, the wheels and levers should work without heavy friction and should be easy to lubricate.
  • Adequate dado capacity. If you want to cut a slot across a board for joining pieces, make sure the saw's arbor is long enough to accommodate the dado stack you want. A few cheaper saws limit this to half an inch, not big enough for some projects. 
  • A standard miter slot. This lets you accommodate aftermarket accessories you may want to add later -- for extra convenience and accuracy.

Know before you go

Check the voltage. In choosing a table saw, be sure to consider the available electrical power. Because of their heavy-duty motors, cabinet saws run only on 240-volt power. Most hybrid and contractor saws can run on either 240- or 120-volt power, with 240 being more efficient. Experts warn that a 1.5- to 2-horsepower motor with 18 to 24 amps should be the only draw on a 20-amp circuit, and even then some saws will keep tripping the circuit breaker. Portable saws and benchtop saws use 120-volt power, so they're especially useful for job sites or home workshops.

Check the space. Available space is another big consideration in selecting a table saw. Most cabinet saws are stationary, designed to be located in the middle of the workshop. Reviews say to allow at least eight feet of clearance on the infeed, outfeed and left side of the saw to handle 4-by-8-foot sheet stock. Saws on mobile bases can be moved against a wall when not needed, and of course, portable table saws take the least space of all. Some benchtop table saws, such as the DeWalt DW745 (Est. $300) can even be hung on a wall between uses, and the Bosch GTS1031 (Est. $400) can be stored on edge. Quite a few saws on rolling stands fold up compactly.

Match power and capacity to your needs. If you plan to rip hardwoods 3 or more inches thick, experts recommend a 3- to 5-horsepower motor, and therefore a cabinet saw. For ripping hardwood 2 inches thick or less, 1.5- to 2-horsepower motors are adequate. A larger table takes more space, but makes cutting plywood easier.

Portable and benchtop table saws are best for small shops or jobsites. Reviewers recommend these models for easy transport to jobsites and for easy storage in a small workshop. Portable saws are either light enough to carry or are mounted on wheeled folding stands. Their small tables make it tricky to cut plywood, and the cheapest portable table saws use noisy universal motors -- making them much like a circular saw mounted upside down on a table.

Standard table saws are better for sheet stock and plywood. Sometimes called contractor table saws (even if intended for the home do-it-yourselfer), these table saws have open, fixed legs. Since the motor hangs out the back, these saws take up more space than a portable or benchtop table saw, but the table is often larger, so it's easier to cut 4 by 8-foot panels. Contractor saws are still reasonably portable, but usually it takes two people to move one.

Cabinet saws are best for the woodworking professional. These are the heaviest, sturdiest and most precise table saws, with powerful motors that require a 220-volt electrical outlet. Cabinet saws require a large, dedicated space because of their guide rails and large tables (often with big extension wings). Cabinet saws are also apt to have the best safety and dust-control features. Woodworkers with enough space (and money) usually make a cabinet saw the permanent centerpiece of the workshop, though a few cabinet saws have mobile bases.

Hybrid table saws split the difference between contractor and cabinet table saws. They run on ordinary household current but have heavier enclosed bases for good dust control and better precision. Many hybrid saws can be moved. Popularity of these table saws is relatively low. We spotted no recent quality editorial coverage and user reviews of current models are hard to come by.

Consider upgrades. Table saw performance can sometimes be improved by upgrading to a better blade, replacing inferior parts with aftermarket accessories or by building extra stands and extensions. Typical upgrades include replacing the fence and/or miter gauge, as well as replacing a 30-inch rail with one designed for longer ripping. Other upgrades include filing rough edges, shimming fences, building crosscut sleds and dust control covers or even making new surfaces for tables. Popular Woodworking editors recommend upgrading the V-belt on a contractor saw by replacing it with a Powertwist (or link) belt, to reduce vibration.

Consider accessories. Many table saw accessories are designed for specific tasks. These include the tenoning jig, spline-mitering jig, various tapering jigs, the crosscut sled, the dado blade (actually comprised of six blades), custom molding heads and many others. Some table saws include a router table as one of the wings. Many experts recommend buying a zero-clearance throat plate.

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