Table saw pricing factors

Most table saws employ a circular blade 10 inches in diameter that cuts as the blade spins. This is not unlike the way a handheld circular saw slices through wood. The difference here is that the blade spins in one place, sticking up through a gap in the table. The operator moves the wood against the blade instead of moving the saw.

Table saws range in price from less than $200 to $3,000 and up. The main differences lie in the saws' power and accuracy. More powerful saws can handle thicker or denser wood, cut faster and run all day without wearing out the motor. Accuracy depends on a variety of factors: low vibration, precise build and an accurate fence and miter gauge that are easy to set. Editors at Rockler.com say you can often improve an inexpensive table saw by upgrading the blade from 36 or 40 teeth (used mostly for rough cuts) to a 50-tooth blade from a top-rated brand.

Reviewers agree that SawStop contractor and cabinet saws are safer than their competitors because of their proprietary blade brakes, which stop the saw from cutting into flesh. Thanks partly to new regulations, newer table saws feature much-improved blade guard systems over older models: riving knives instead of splitters, and guards that are easier to adjust. (Some retailers may still have older saws on the market.)

In addition to significant differences in accuracy, ease of use and safety, some table saws are more convenient to use than others -- for example, when changing a blade.

Table saw types: portable, contractor, hybrid and cabinet saws

Table saws fall roughly into four types, though there is some feature overlap. This list is arranged in general order of price, since the least expensive table saws are portable or benchtop models. The best portable saws, though, cost more than the cheapest contractor saws, so there are sizable price overlaps among the different types.

  • Portable (also called 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 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.
  • Contractor table saws are better for sheet stock. 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 sheet stock. Contractor saws are still reasonably portable, but usually it takes two people to move one.
     
  • Hybrid table saws are good for woodworking projects, dust control. Hybrid saws fall 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.
  • Cabinet saws are precise, best for sheet stock. These are the heaviest, sturdiest and most precise table saws, with powerful motors that require a 220-volt electrical outlet. Cabinet saws are the best for cutting sheet stock 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.

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.

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. Hybrid 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. The DeWalt DW745 (*Est. $370) can even be hung on a wall between uses, and the Bosch GTS1310 (*Est. $400) can be stored on edge. Quite a few saws on rolling stands fold up compactly.

Reviews say to consider the following features when shopping for a table saw. Several surveys show that around 50 percent of all workshop accidents involve a table saw, so safety features are especially important.

  • Match power and capacity to your needs. Buying more power than you need is not only expensive, these can generate powerful kickback. 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.
  • Consider 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 is important. It can accommodate aftermarket accessories you may want to add later -- for extra convenience and accuracy.
  • Look for a 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.
  • A switch that turns off with the knee or hip in an emergency is another important safety feature. Be sure the switch is mounted where you will stand. Reviews note that if the saw doesn't come with such a switch, it is possible to make a kick-switch.
  • Consider a saw with flesh-sensor technology. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has been urging manufacturers to use this technology since 2001, because they've found that most table saw accidents aren't caused by kickback, so a riving knife isn't enough to prevent serious damage. These saws cost more initially, but the price difference is less than most trips to the emergency room.
  • A magnetic switch prevents saws from being activated accidentally. Usually available only on cabinet saws, a magnetic switch keeps a saw from turning on when the power is restored after an outage.
  • Dust collection is an important safety feature to protect the lungs. 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.
  • Granite and cast-iron tables are better than steel for minimizing vibration and staying flat. Granite tabletops provide greater weight and stability. Cast iron can rust and often warps after the saw is manufactured. Stamped or open steel or aluminum are lighter and create more vibration.
  • Heavy cast-iron trunnions minimize vibration. Trunnions are the assembly that holds the arbor to the underside of the table. The trunnions on hybrid saws are usually heavier than those on contractor saws, because the latter are designed to be carried around if need be.
  • Poly-V belts make for smooth operation. According to Workbench magazine, these belts are superior to wedge belts, which in turn are better than regular V-belts. The cheapest saws don't use belts at all.
  • Blade alignment should be accurate and easy to adjust. American Woodworker editors point out that it's usually easier to align the blade on a cabinet saw than on one of the other three types of table saws. Other adjustments need to be checked periodically. This is called "tuning the table saw" and is an art in itself.
  • The front wheel 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.
  • Buying a table saw with the best safety features is not a substitute for learning safe procedures. Be sure to study table saw safety guides carefully and always use both hearing and eye protection.

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