Thursday, January 19, 2012

On table saws

I saw it again today on a forum:  "The table saw is the heart of the wood shop."

We've probably all seen it, if we spend any time on woodworking forums.
"Buy the biggest saw you can afford."
"You can't do woodworking without a good table saw."
"You can't do real furniture making without a high end saw."

I have to question that logic.  I suspect every woodworker who lived more than about 75 years ago would question it too.  What did they do before they had table saws?  Did they not make real furniture?

Look:  I'm not going to argue that table saws are useless.  I'm not going to argue that power tools are somehow cheating.  It's not true.  A good, reliable table saw can make your life a lot easier.  I don't think anyone who isn't pushing some agenda is going to argue that.

But what if you can't afford a good, reliable saw?  Or what if you don't have space for one?  Or just don't want one?  What do you do then?  Give up on woodworking?  Accept that you're never going to be able to make fine furniture?  No.  What you do is find a different solution.

I'm not an expert.  I don't really do fine furniture, not yet.  But I have a cheap table saw -- you may have seen the review I wrote here -- and I occasionally need to cut things up that I don't want to use it for.  Here are some solutions I've found.

1) Hand tools.  A good hand saw can solve a lot of problems, and for cross-cutting at any angle it can solve the problem.  It takes a steady hand and some practice, but it can be done.  A good, sharp saw helps too.  This is the direction I'm moving in for most things.  No need for a sled or a fence... a piece of scrap marked at the right length to make sure everything is cut the same works fine.  Learning to cut at the right angle takes some practice, but again... it can work.

2) Use a circular saw.   I've been told it's not possible to cut accurately with a circular saw.  That's not true.  I've done it, both with an old Skil brand saw (around 7 1/4" blade) and my little Ryobi battery powered saw (around a 5" blade).  Make sure the baseplate is square, and that the blade is square to the edge of the plate.  Get a GOOD guide for the saw.  I use an old piece of extruded aluminum -- it's straight, the edge is higher than the base of the saw, and I can easily clamp it to just about anything.  Also, put a good blade on the saw:  I use a Freud general purpose blade.  Then do the following:
  1. Make sure you know the distance from the edge of the baseplate to the OPPOSITE edge of the blade on your saw.  On my saw it's exactly 1" on the close side, which makes life easy.
  2. Measure on your wood, remembering to account for that extra space.
  3. Clamp down your guide.  If things are going to go wrong, this is most likely where it will happen.  Measure.  Measure again.  Clamp down the guide, then measure a third time.  Measure at BOTH ends of the guide, and again in the middle.  Make sure you've got everything lined up correctly.  And it helps if the edge you're measuring from is square and straight, so you might want to check that, as well....
  4. Once you're confident that your guide is accurately placed, make the cut.  Make sure the edge of the saw's baseplate follows the guide the whole distance -- you'll probably have a tendency to veer off a little at the end.  Don't do it.  Also, keep an eye on the cord, if you're not using a battery powered saw.  Cutting through that can really ruin your day.

It sounds hard.  And, if the alternative is running the wood over a table saw, it's a little more complex.  But I can now get the guide set in around a minute for cutting the full length of a sheet of plywood, and the actually cut doesn't take any longer than it would with a table saw.

Oh -- yeah.  And don't forget to support BOTH sides of the cut.  You won't more than once, anyway... having a quarter sheet of plywood fall on your foot kind of teaches you that lesson.

Are there other options?  Yes.  Is a table saw easier?  Usually, yes.  But is that table saw necessary?  No, not really.  The same holds true for just about anything you can do with a table saw:  On a recent project, I cut dadoes by edging them with a circular saw, then cleaning them out with a chisel.  I could have done it with a handsaw and chisel, but the circular saw was faster and I was in a hurry.

My final word on this is:  Don't let people tell you you can't be a woodworker if you don't have a specific tool.  You can almost always find another way.  It may be harder, it may make more time, but you can almost always find another way.

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