Tuesday, January 17, 2012

CTR 3: Ryobi BTS21

EDIT:  Pointed out by a reader at Woodworking Talk, this is the BTS 21, not 211.  Not sure how I missed that, originally.  Also, this saw is no longer available new, but may show up in the used market occasionally.

   So here's a big one.  It's a Ryobi table saw, sort of mid-size (by their standards).  It's not a benchtop, it's not a cabinet saw... so what do I think of it?

   First off:  I've had this for over a year.  I've done a lot of cutting on it.  The biggest cuts I've done have been cross-cutting 4x4, rip-cutting 2x10, and cutting plywood every which way.  I've also cut up a fair amount of 1/4" luan.  I've done dados in plywood, and both regular and pressure treated dimensional lumber.  I've gotten good use out of it, and despite the fact that this review isn't exactly positive, I don't think I made a big mistake. I just didn't know what I needed.

UPDATE:  I sold this saw a couple of years ago.  It continued to work reliably, but I was moving, and I met a guy who was starting out as a contractor and wanted a cheap job-site saw.  He got a saw, I got a hundred bucks, and I didn't have to move it.  It was a good deal for all of us.

   It's kind of an odd beast.  Rather than the standard miter slot, it has a sliding miter table.  Some people love these, some people hate them, and I'm in the middle.  It's heavy for a portable saw -- something like 85 pounds -- but light for a full-size saw.  While the wheels make it pretty easy to move around, it's pretty hard for one person to get it into a car or truck.  Ryobi sells (or sold) a dado insert, and it's set up to allow the use of dado stacks, but it can only take one up to 5/8" wide.


   While not fantastic, the saw is reasonably solidly built.  It IS a portable saw.  There's no way to get around that.  That means there are some tradeoffs:  it's not possible to build a collapsible stand that's as solid as a cabinet base and still portable.  You just can't do it.  But the top has stayed flat (see my comments on the sliding miter table for an exception), the base has been easy to work with, and nothing has broken.  Some pieces that would, ideally, have been cast iron are cast aluminum.


   Safety is important, I think we can all agree with that.  So how safe is this thing?

  Issue one:  it lacks a riving knife.  It does have a splitter, guard, and anti-kickback pawls, but a riving knife would have been better.  The splitter occasionally leans a bit one way or the other, which can make things interesting when you've gotten a piece of wood past the blade and into the pawls, and then find you can't advance any.  A tap with a push-stick straightens it out just fine, and it's never been a serious issue, just irritating.

  Issue two:  Getting to the shutoff switch can be interesting.  Say you're cutting a big piece of plywood -- a full sheet, 4x8 -- lengthwise.  Say something goes wrong two feet in, and you need to shut off the saw.  You'd better be able to reach the plug, because you're never going to reach the switch!  This isn't really a surprise -- there's not much space to move things around! -- but it is unfortunate.  I would have preferred to see the switch on the left side, where I could reach it without letting go of anything with my right hand, even if I was cutting something very wide.

  Issue 3:  You can't get a zero clearance insert for love or money.  They don't exist.  This saw uses super-thin metal for the inserts, so to custom make one you'd need to make a panel that was something less than 1/16" thick.  Sure, it could be done, probably, but it wouldn't be easy.  I've considered buying a second dado insert and hot-gluing a sheet of 1/4 plywood onto the bottom, but I haven't done it yet.

   Now, that said:  this is a cheap saw.  The splitter is solid, and the splitter, guard, and pawls are all a single unit.  It's quick and easy to remove and install:  it takes maybe 20 seconds.  So I've never felt like there was any reason to make a cut without those.   The guard is easy to see through, and does a good job of keeping things away from the blade.  The anti-kickback pawls appear to work, although I've never tested them in an emergency -- they do make it impossible to pull wood back, though, so I assume they'd work as advertised if they were really needed.


   Let's start with the basics:  does it cut?  Yes.  Does it cut straight?  Well... that depends on the user.  The fence system is pretty poor.  The measuring system is bad enough that I don't bother to use it for anything other than rough measurements:  "OK, I need 23 3/16 inches.  Slide it out to 23 1/2, then grab the framing square."  The fence can be made to be square, but you'll need to check it each time you set it.  Once it's set, it's solid -- I haven't moved it accidentally yet! -- but if you're incautious you can set it a little bit off of square.  Maybe a degree or two.

   What about power?  I've never had a problem.  It slows down cutting PT lumber, but I did cut 5/16" dados in over a hundred feet of the stuff without trouble.  It took a slightly slower feed rate, is all.  Not a big deal.  Cross-cutting 4x4 isn't an issue, except that it's at the very limit of the depth of cut.  Any warp in the wood can mean you don't QUITE get through it.  I did try a rip in 4x4 just to see what would happen, and that was fine too.

   How about that sliding miter table (SMT) I mentioned earlier?  Well, first things first:  I love the concept.  It's a built-in cross-cut sled.  How cool is that?  More than that, it's a built-in cross-cut sled with an adjustable fence!  And angle measurements cast into the tabletop, so no need for a protractor!  For 90 degree cuts, just set it to 90 degrees, and... um.  Wait.  The 90 degree line is almost 1/8" wide.  What do I line up with?

   Right.  So right there is the first big problem with the sled.  The cast in angle measurements are just plain bad.  Again, they're a reasonable approximation, like the measuring tape built in for the rip fence, but they're not exact.  They're within a few degrees, but it's impossible to get them closer.  So you do need that protractor or angle gauge after all.

  Next problem:  the miter fence isn't very stable.  I have had it shift when I didn't want it to, and there's only so much you can tighten down the knob.  If you're careful, it's not a problem.  But if you're not paying attention, you can really mess up a piece.

   Here's the big one:  the miter table isn't perfectly flush with the rest of the table.  Not much -- less than a sixteenth -- but noticeably.  Normally that doesn't matter much:  if you're cutting through a piece of wood, you wind up having to raise the blade another sixteenth of an inch.  You'll probably never notice.  It never bothered me.  BUT.. if you're cutting dadoes using the SMT, they're likely to be the wrong depth.  That can be a big problem if you don't remember to compensate for it.  The main thing is to remember to measure your depth from the SMT, not the regular table top.

   The last issue with the miter table is just that it isn't a miter slot.  Most of the jigs you'll find writeups for assume you have a miter slot.  That's fine, and you can modify most of them, but you'll never be able to just buy a pre-built jig and have it work.

Final thoughts:

   I bought this table saw because I needed a table saw, and it was cheap.  Home Depot accepted a Harbor Freight coupon, and I got the saw for, as I recall, a little under $200.  That's not bad.  I'm not sure my other options in that price range were any better.  As a rough cut tool -- think general construction work -- it's fine.  For finer woodworking.... it can be made to work.

   I don't want to be too negative here:  I knew what I was getting into by buying a cheap saw, and I got it.  For rough work, it's fine, and most of the problems can just be worked around for finer work.  For what I knew at the time, and what I needed at the time, I made a reasonable choice.

Would I do it again?

   No.  Given what I now know, it's not sufficient for what I need.  With what I now know, I would have put that money into either a used cabinet saw or, more likely, a cutting guide for a circular saw and a better router.  Put simply, this is a lousy tool for any kind of fine woodworking.  I do most of my sizing work with a circular saw now (with a good guide, I can get easily within about 1/32 of my intended final size), and only pull this out for rough work and dadoes.


  1. It's a Ryobi table saw, sort of mid-size (by their standards). It's not a ... stablesaw.blogspot.com

    1. I have the same or similar saw (can't find a picture of it anywhere - mine has pipe rails that the miter slides on, and all that I've seen have square rails) and completely agree with your review. The difference in height between the sliding table and the saw table is annoying as is trying to get completely square cuts. This is not to say it wasn't usable, but I always have wished I'd bought a saw with standard miter slots and a solid (cast) top. It was powerful enough, but I never could be sure production cuts would be the same after one or two passes through the saw. After I made a 7' x 7' step back cabinet, I wasn't trying to do much, just making picture framing stock for paintings - 1.75" with two different size rabbets for a shadow box effect in the front and for a screw surface on the back for a flat, 5/16" x 3.5" piece to attach the painting to the frame. It was also hard to keep featherboards in place. I still have it and can't quite justify replacing it due to a dramatic reduction in the works I now do. Maybe if I had a better unit I'd do more. a good table saw make the work fun, but having to work too hard on each setup makes it less so.

    2. I ended up selling mine when I moved, and I haven't replaced it yet: I'm not working much with plywood these days, and I don't actually have electricity for more than lights to my shop. Once that's fixed I might start looking for a table saw, but I'm not convinced it would actually benefit me very much.

      For most ripping I've needed to do, either a hand saw or a circular saw has done just fine, and for rabbets and dados I have dedicated hand tools to do them.