Buying a Table Saw 101

Things to Look For - Types of Table Saws - New or Used - Parts of a Saw

Considered by many the heart a workshop, there is always much debate on which saw to buy. My take on this is, like buying any other tool, get the best you can afford. After doing all the research and soul searching on what kind of saw you want, what you buy boils down to a choice between a new or used saw. Both have their advantages which are covered on this page.

Table saws have evolved into two categories workshop saws and job site saws. Most workshop saws are built with heavy cast iron tops, many panel saws are actually stationary tools. The bench top saws, are now often refered to as job site saws, have lightweight aluminum tops with folding stands complete with wheels for easy mobility.

Table saws used to fall into three basic types, bench top, contractor and panel, a combination contractor and panel saw called a hybrid has now been added to the mix.

Ten inch blades have become pretty well the standard size, there are older models with eight or nine inch blades. Some find that on under-powered ten inch saws using an eight inch or even a 7 1/4 inch blade will work better, this will limit the depth of cut.

Things to Look For

Whether you are looking at a new or used saw the following holds true.

You will want to be able to make accurate cuts on any saw that you purchase, the two main things to look at are the fence and the miter gauge.

The fence must be rigid when locked in position, any flexing and the cut will not be straight.

The miter gauge should fit snuggly into the slot, there should be no slop, otherwise your cross or miter cuts will not accurate.

Get a saw with 3/4' X 3/8" slots in the table, this is the standard dimension so any guides or jigs you buy will fit.

The saw should have a splitter and a blade guard, both of these are safety requirements.

These are some additional things to check on a used saw. Do this with the saw unplugged.

Lower the blade until it is below the table, then raise it up as far as it will go, there should be no resistance or tight spots.

While the blade is up grasp the blade and check if there is play in the bearings by pushing and pulling the blade sideways.

Set a block of wood against a tooth at the front of the blade, holding the block in position rotate the blade and check for wobble. If there is any it will be caused by a warped blade, dirt or rust on the flanges, or a bent shaft.

Tilt the blade to a full 45 degrees, there should be no resistance or tight spots.

Look under the table at the trunnions that hold the blade mechanism, they are the slotted semi-circular things that hang form the table top and allow the blade to tilt, are they cast iron, or some kind of cheaper metal?

Set the blade to 0 degrees, plug the saw in and switch it on, listen for any unusual noises, bad bearings etc.

The saw should not vibrate excessively when running, if it has been sitting unused for a length of time the belt may have to be run in so could cause a bit of vibration or moderate thumping. If the belt has been replaced by a link belt this will not be a problem.

Types of Table Saws

Bench Tops and Portables

Bench top saws usually have an aluminum top and a direct drive motor, they may have extension wings of some kind.

A few years ago I would never have considered a bench top saw, most of them were literally crap, under powered, poorly made with cheap bits of plastic and pot metal. They still don't compare to a contractor or panel saw but are now more than adequate for most jobs for the ocassional woodworker. Where they really shine is on the job site, they are light, portable and accurate enough for construction. If the direct drive motor burns out it must be replaced by the same part from the manufacturer, usually it is cheaper to just by a new saw. Generally the weakest part of these saws is the fence.

Don't get me wrong, a lot of very nice work has been done with these saws in the right hands, if you are on a limited budget and can't find a deal on a used contractors saw the top end models are a great choice.

Porter Cable Portable Table Saw and Accessories
Price Range $100 - $400

Contractor Saws

A contractor saw is the next step above a bench top, it will have a cast iron top, it is belt driven by a stock motor that is easily replaced. It sits on a open four-legged stand so dust collection can be a bit of a problem, newer models have dust ports. It will have a good quality fence and sturdy extension wings, either cast iron or pressed metal. These saws actually have a larger footprint than a panel saw because the motor hangs off the back of them, they are still light enough to put on a mobile base for portability in the workshop. Most contractor saw have table mounted trunnions.

Price Range $500 - $1000

Horse Power 1 - 3


Cabinet or Panel Saws

The classic cabinet saw is the Delta Unisaw, first manufactured in 1939, even today most brands are still based on the design of that saw. The stand is a four sided floor to table box that encloses the motor and is a snap to connect to a dust collector. The top will be cast iron and comes with many choices of configurations for the extension wings. It will have a quality fence and miter gauge and will feature cabinet mounted trunnions. Due to their weight and overall size when equipped with extension tables they are usually a stationary machine.

Price Range $2000 - $3000

Horse Power 3 - 5


Hybrid Saws

Hybrid saws are designed to compete in the market with high-end contractor table saws. They offer some of the advantages of cabinet saws at a lower price than traditional cabinet saws. Hybrid saws on the market today offer an enclosed cabinet to help improve dust collection. The cabinet can either be similar to a cabinet saw with a full enclosure from the table top to the floor or a shorter cabinet on legs. Some hybrid saws have cabinet-mounted trunnions and some have table-mounted trunnions.

Price Range $800 - $2500

Horse Power 1.5 - 5


The Right Table Saw for Your Shop

New or Used

With a bit of luck deals come along, both on new and used saws, if you can afford to wait.

New Saws

Late December or January usually has the best deals on new tools, so if you can save money and not spend it over Christmas you have it made. A new saw will have a warranty so if anything goes wrong you are covered. It will be equipped with the latest design and safety features. There will be some assembly required and you will likely have to clean protective junk off the saw. You will probably have to tune the saw up to get it really accurate.

Used Saws

You can save a lot of money buying a used saw, for the same money you can get a much better saw than buying a new one. Be aware of what you are buying, try to determine why the saw is for sale despite what you have been told. Has the saw been replaced by a better model, or one nearly the same, if the saw has been replaced by almost the same model be suspect. What is the overall condition of the saw, are there broken or damaged parts from abuse. If the saw looks good cosmetically then check it out as outlined above.

Parts of a Table Saw

In any discussion of table saws certain words keep coming up in the conversation, here are some of the most common.


Use the proper blade for the job and buy the best quality you can afford. A crappy saw will still do a fair job with a good blade, a good saw will not do a fair job with a crappy blade. Poor quality blades cause many problems, they over-load the saw, tear-out the edges and burn the wood. Use a blade with a low tooth count for ripping, and a high count for crosscutting.

Choosing the Right Saw Blade

Saw Blades 101

Blade Guard

A blade guard is cover over the exposed blade, stock guards are attached to the back of the saw and usually incorporate a splitter and kick back pawls. Stock guards cannot be used in certain instances such a when cutting dados, there are overhead styles that allow for the use of a guard in all applications.

Building and Overhead Blade Guard .pdf


There is a large hole in the table where the blade comes through to allow room to get at the nut on the arbor to change blades from the top of the saw. To prevent small pieces of wood from falling in this hole an insert is used to fill the gap. There is a slot cut in the insert for the blade, if the slot is exactly the width of the blade it is refered to as a "Zero Clearance Insert", the purpose of this is to prevent tear-out as the teeth of the blade leave the wood.

Zero Clearance InsertsZero Clearance Inserts
Laminated 1/2'' Phenolic Resin plates resist wear and offer frictionless sliding. Improved control minimizes tear out, reduces wood damage and increases safety. ..

Zero Clearance Inserts

Link Belt

This is a special type of drive belt that reduces vibration, standard vee belts will often try to retain their shape from sitting for long periods of time and cause vibration and thumping.

Power Twist Link BeltPower Twist Link Belt
Turn your tools into smooth operators!..

Power Twist Link Belt

Miter Gauge

This is a sliding guide used to make cross or angle cuts that runs in the two slots milled into the table top. The head of the miter gauge is adjustable to cut different angles.

Sure-Loc Miter Gauge 

Precision Miter Gauges and Crosscutting Sleds

Miter Slots

Two slots will run parallel to the blade, one on each side of it, the standard is 34" wide by 3/8" deep, some bench top saws and older Craftsman saws have odd sized slots. With the standard size any accessory will fit with no modifications.

Rip Fence

This is a guide for ripping that runs parallel to the blade and is laterally adjustable.

Fence Systems for Accurate Table Saw Ripping


A splitter is a narrow strip the width of the blade that prevents the wood from closing up after it is cut. This little thing doesn't look like much but is one of the most important things on your saw to prevent kick backs.

Table Saw Pop-In Splitter Table Saw Pop-In Splitter
Improve Table Saw Safety! This affordable splitter system is simple to use, exact and extremely effective! Produces virtually burn-free cuts!..

Table Saw Pop-In Splitter

Table Saws from Rockler Woodworking

Professional-class cabinet saws, affordable contractor saws, and hybrids that combine the advantages of both - Rockler offers a range of table saws designed for the woodworker by Jet and Powermatic.


Trunnions are brackets that hold the blade mechanism and allow it to be tilted. They may be mounted to the underside of the table or to the top of the base depending on the saw. The mounts are adjustable to allow them to be set parallel to the miter slots in the table.


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