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Table Saw Safety and Calculated Risks

Hank talks table saw safety and taking the occasional calculated risk to get things done in a pinch.

| January/February 2013

  • Hank Table Leg
    The photo in question: using a table saw to cut tenons without a jig. Work safe and smart, but there’s no substitute for understanding and respecting the machines on which you’re working.
    Photo By Karen Keb
  • Hank Truck
    Hank Will in his 1964 International Harvester pickup.
    Photo By Karen Keb

  • Hank Table Leg
  • Hank Truck

Sometimes you act without thinking, and sometimes you act only after carefully thinking it through. In both cases, you can win, and in both, you can also lose — depending on how it plays out. One of our loyal readers, Elton Brakhane, an experienced woodworking teacher from Glendale, Arizona, wrote a well-appreciated and heartfelt note to me in response to a photo that ran with the article Home Lumber Mill: Crafting Dimensional Sawed Timbers from the November/December 2012 issue. In this case, the photo was mocked up to give an indication of how I sawed the tenon cheeks for some cabinet legs — I actually made the shoulder cuts after the cheek cuts, which have already been made in this photo.  

Elton wrote this:

“Using a table saw to cut tenons is great. However, the picture shows a very unsafe way of cutting them. Build a jig to hold the leg, no matter how long the leg is. Kickback can occur even when doing things safely. Also, the picture shows no saw guard when cutting timbers — again, another very unsafe way of doing this.”

Elton’s sentiment is absolutely correct. The safest way to make those cuts on the table saw is with a jig that will simultaneously hold the legs vertically, while forming a sliding saddle over the fence. These jigs are easy to make; I thought about making one for those legs and didn’t do it. I didn’t do it because the legs were heavy and long, and I didn’t have the MDF material on hand that I like for making jigs. So I proceeded by thinking through each of the cuts and anticipating potential problems — even the most dangerous ones. I took a calculated risk and it worked out, but I can’t recommend that when making these kinds of cuts on the saw, you do the same.

My first table saw experiences occurred more than 40 years ago with a homemade, fixed arbor job. There were no guards, the blade was fully raised, and it didn’t tilt. The fence consisted of a board and a pair of clamps. That saw and a slightly less primitive commercial version after it served me for many years (through the building of several wooden boats), and never once did I experience kickback with them. The only time I experienced kickback was using a modern tilting arbor saw with the guard in place. Like Elton, I would not recommend that you routinely saw without the guard — if you have to do it, calculate the risks beforehand.

I am in favor of safety devices and for teaching their proper use. I am not in favor of substituting safety devices for fundamental knowledge and respect of the machines to which they are attached.

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