A table saw really is a very amazing tool, one that every carpenter, wood worker, and home hobbyist should have. From creating wood joints and ripping planks to making fine cross cuts, the table saw can do it all. That being said, a table saw is also a fairly dangerous tool. After all, it involves a big old blade spinning at several thousand rounds per minute. Get your hands anywhere near that and you can be sure that you are going to be taking a little vacation at your local emergency room.
People get cuts, people lose fingers, and even whole extremities too, and in extreme cases a really bad table saw injury can potentially be fatal. There are tens of thousands of table saw injuries, serious ones, in the United States alone every single year. However, over the years, table saws have become a lot safer. This is thanks to various safety features which modern table saws now come with. So, what are the various safety features which any good table saw should have?
One of the biggest, best, and most modern safety features that any good table saw needs to come with is a safety sensor. These safety sensor are perhaps your best line of defense against losing a finger or even worse. These sensors are built to shut off the table saw in a moments’ notice. They can actually stop the blade from spinning in just a fraction of a second in order to prevent all kinds of injuries. Sensors on table saws function through the miracle of conductive electricity.
They are built to recognize when something that conducts electricity, like your skin and flesh, contacts the blade. You see, wood is not very conductive, so the sensor knows to let the blade keep spinning. However, your fingers are a very good conductor of electricity. So, when the say feels a conductive element coming in contact with the blade, it automatically shuts off in a few milliseconds. On a side note, many table saws are built to cut through metal, which is of course conductive. This means that you will have to disable this sensor when cutting metals and other conductive materials, which can be quite a problem.
Now, to be clear, injuries can happen very fast, so these sensors may not prevent all injuries. It takes more time for the sensor to shut down the saw than it does to sustain an injury. However, the point of these sensors is to cut off power to the blade as quickly as possible, thus turning a situation of lost fingers or hands into one of a simple little cut. You might still get injured if you slip and come into contact with the blade, but thanks to these sensors, your injuries will be much less severe than they otherwise would be. Here is a video of one of these sensors in action, where a guy actually touches his finger to a moving blade to demonstrate how fast and how well these sensors work.
What most people see as the first line of defense in terms of preventing severe table saw injuries is the blade guard. The blade guard is a device which covers the blade, both when in use and not in use. It consists of a (usually) plastic housing which goes down over each side of the blade, down to the table top. This is a great feature because it helps to create a barrier between your fingers and a table saw blade spinning upwards of 3,800 rounds per minute.
The blade guard can tilt up or down, with the point being to move upwards and expose the blade just enough to make the cut. The guard should move upwards just enough to fit the material under it, thus allowing you to feed the piece into the blade without exposing your fingers to certain injury.
The problem with blade guards is that they do limit your sight. It is hard to see markings and it is hard to see exactly where you are cutting when the blade guard is attached. This is why many people will remove the blade guard when trying to make precision cuts, which is obviously something that you should not do.
The blade guard may occasionally get in your way, but it is indeed a very important safety feature which can save fingers, hands, and even lives. However, many newer table saws are making their blade guards thinner and totally see-through, which allows you to make precision cuts, see what is going on, all while keeping the blade guard in place to protect your own safety.
Your next line of defense when it comes to table saw safety features is the anti-kickback pawl, which is usually combined with a splitter. If you did not know, kickback is one of the biggest causes of table saw injuries. Kickback occurs when the wood gets stuck or jammed in between the blade and the fence, followed by the wood getting caught on the back end (or back teeth) of the blade.
This in turn causes the wood or other material you are attempting to cut to be ejected off the table, fly off of it at high speeds, and launch directly towards you. This can definitely cause serious injuries and has been known to take out eyes, cause concussions, break bones, and yes, cause death too. Having a big piece of wood or metal hit you in the head travelling at a high velocity is definitely not something that you want to experience at any point in your life.
This is where the splitter comes into play, which is a vertical blade, usually made of plastic or metal, and it keeps the kerf open in order to prevent the wood from getting snagged on the blade and being flung at your face. This is then combined with anti-kickback pawls. Anti-kickback pawls are little metal devices equipped with front facing teeth.
These teeth will catch a piece of wood and stop it in its tracks before it has the chance to fly off of the table. The anti-kickback pawls are kind of like the second line of defense in case the splitter fails to do its job. Anti-kickback pawls will generally be located on either side of the blade in order to hook onto the left and right side of the wood in the event that it begins to fly back at you.
Another crucial safety feature that many modern table saws come with is the kick switch. Usually when you turn a table saw on or off, you use a switch that is operated with your hands. The problem is that you can’t always use your hands to turn the saw off.
In the event that something goes wrong in the middle of your cut, you can’t very well just let go of the wood in order to hit the off switch with your hands. That can end up causing serious injury in itself because you should never let go of a piece mid-cut while the blade is still running. That can cause it to be ejected towards you and cause serious injury.
This is where the oh so important kick switch comes into play. The kick switch is like an emergency off button that you can kick with your foot or hit with your knee, usually located on the underside or the front face of the saw, near the bottom. If you do need to turn the saw off mid-cut, simply kick the switch with your foot to instantly stop the blade from turning.
Another switch that many table saws nowadays come with is the magnetic switch, yet another very important safety feature. The magnetic switch is something which will hit the power switch and disable power to the saw blade in the event of a power outage. To explain this clearly, power outages can happen, which will of course cause your saw to turn off when in use.
The problem is that the power can potentially come back on in a moments’ notice, which means that the saw blade will start spinning again. This can be very dangerous if you have decided to start poking around with your fingers. The magnetic switch automatically puts the saw in the off position when a power outage happens, so that when the power does come back on, the saw will not automatically start back up without you knowing it.
The riving knife is actually a pretty similar safety feature to the splitter. It more or less does the same job, but many people find that riving knives are a little more convenient. The point of a riving knife is to make sure that wood stays separated and does not get caught on the blade once cut. When the blade cuts distorted wood, or if you are not pushing the wood through the blade in a straight manner, there is always a chance of the wood getting caught on the teeth, being kicked back, and launching straight at you.
The riving knife sits on the back end of the blade (or just behind it) and makes sure that the 2 cut pieces stay separated and don’t hit the back end of the blade, thus preventing dangerous kickback. The reason why many people prefer riving knives is because they are actually attached to the same mechanism which holds the blade in place.
A splitter is fixed into place, which makes performing dado cuts, cross cuts, and other cuts a real pain. A riving knife on the other hand is not fixed and can be moved out of place when it is not needed; the riving knife can move with the blade. On the other hand, the splitter needs time and effort to be disconnected when making certain cuts, with the big problem here being that many people simply forget to reattach the splitter after taking it off.
Most professionals also consider riving knives to be safer than splitter because the riving knife sits close to the back of the blade, thus making the gap between the blade and kerf even smaller, plus it also prevents the back of the blade from being too exposed to your fingers. The bottom line is that riving knives are great safety mechanisms for preventing kickback.
Now, these things are not really safety features of a table saw, but they are both things which can make your woodworking experience much safer. Push sticks are pieces of wood or specialized plastic sticks which you can use to push short or thin stock through the blade. In essence, it makes sure that you can make precise cuts without getting your fingers too close to the blade.
The same can be said for a stop block, which is pretty much a push stick for making cross cuts. A stop block sits between the miter gauge and the piece of wood you are cross cutting, thus increasing the space between your fingers and that deadly blade.
At the end of the day, there have been many innovations in terms of table saw safety. If you are on the market for a new table saw, you should look for one that has as many of these safety features as possible. Table saws are great tools, but you need to be aware that they are dangerous and they certainly are not toys. The safety features discussed above can save fingers, hands, and even lives, so you definitely want them in your arsenal.
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