Table saws support and guide lumber and wood panels as they pass over the spinning blade, making it easier to make accurate repeat cuts than with a circular saw. According to the Power Tool Institute, about 69 percent of all table saws are portable models, used for carpentry or in small woodworking shops. These saws range in price from less than $200 to over $700, with corresponding ranges in capacity, accuracy and convenience.
We found excellent objective comparison tests of current portable table saws at Popular Mechanics and Fine Homebuilding, covering saws that come with blade guards and riving knives that meet the latest safety standards. Both publications also test ultraportable benchtop saws, as do publications aimed at professional remodelers and contractors: Tools of the Trade, The Journal of Light Construction and ThisIsCarpentry.com. Owner-written reviews are also useful in evaluating portable and contractor table saws, often over longer periods of time -- at Amazon.com, HomeDepot.com, Lowes.com and Sears.com.
A reader survey at Popular Woodworking, a publication for serious woodworkers, finds that almost 90 percent of them own bigger, more powerful table saws; 60 percent own contractor saws and 30 percent own cabinet saws. Heavier table saws vibrate less, making accurate cuts easier, and stronger motors cut denser and thicker hardwoods more easily. They also last longer. Our report covers the full range of table saw types, including cabinet saws priced at around $3,000.
Magazines devoted to serious woodworking provide excellent reviews of hybrid and cabinet saws. We found excellent reviews at Fine Woodworking, Popular Woodworking, Woodcraft, Woodworker's Journal, Workbench and Wood magazines. The top contenders among cabinet saws are well covered here. However, the new hybrid saws that come with improved blade guard systems haven't yet been tested in these publications. Since these saws are often the main starter saw for serious amateur and even professional woodworkers -- priced at less than half the cost of cabinet saws -- the lack of current reviews leaves a serious gap.
Table saws pose serious risks of injury, since part of the spinning blade on a table saw comes up above the surface of the table -- and the user's hand is guiding the wood toward the blade. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), table saws are the most dangerous power tool in common use. Thanks to new safety standards formulated by the CPSC with Underwriters Laboratories (UL), most table saws now come with better blade guards. The new guard systems are easier to remove and replace as needed, and include true riving knives (which ride up and down with the blade when its height is changed).
These improvements are important because inconvenient blade guards are apt to be left off the saw, even though the spinning blade can kick back a piece of wood toward the user with tremendous force, causing serious injury to any part of the body that's hit.
Most table saw injuries aren't due to kickback, but instead involve contact with the blade (cuts or amputations) -- and most happen to hobbyists and homeowners. A July 2011 report from the CPSC concludes that even an excellent riving knife and blade guard system, as found on the portable Bosch 4100-09 (*Est. $550) , can't prevent serious cuts from contact with the blade.
The CPSC concludes that additional protection from blade contact is needed, from technology equivalent to that of SawStop's flesh-sensing blade brake -- which stops the blade in milliseconds if a hand touches the blade. So the CPSC has proposed new regulations to require this capability on all table saws. The comment period ended March 16, 2012, and at the time of our report it's not clear whether or not the stricter requirement will be adopted -- and if so, on what schedule. For more on this controversial issue, see our Useful Links section.
Meanwhile, SawStop has designed a prototype benchtop table saw that incorporates its blade brake, and David Butler has designed a Whirlwind blade brake that works as soon as a hand touches the blade guard (while the saw is running). The Whirlwind system could be added to existing table saws, a big advantage, but it only works if the blade guard is in place -- thus, not for all cuts. Neither the Whirlwind nor the SawStop bench saw are in production yet, and it seems likely that negotiations about patents and licensing fees will also cause delays.
At present, then, the safest table saws are still those manufactured by SawStop. Reviews testing the SawStop confirm that the technology works and that the saws provide excellent build quality, convenience and performance. Price is the big drawback. It's less an issue for the SawStop Professional cabinet saw (*Est. $3,000) , priced competitively with other cabinet saws. Reviews say that the SawStop Contractor Saw (*Est. $1,600) competes well with hybrid saws that cost about three or four hundred dollars less. This finger-sensing technology just isn't available now, though, for a budget starter saw or extremely portable saw.