Turning the tables on table saws - What to buy, motor differences and every category explained

Table Saws

It’s enough to do your head in.

It’s Saturday arvo and the kids have to be at soccer practice, but you just can’t ignore that underlined scribble on your TO DO LIST any longer: It might be a new chest of drawers, a shelf or even a bedside table – whatever it is, you’ve been putting it off for months.

Why? Because like any flat-out workaholic, inevitably you’re going to end up at IKEA, Bed, Bath & Beyond or Harvey Norman, wasting your hard-earned dollars on the latest crappy plywood Strømrøforget that will last about 20 minutes until it cops a soccer ball to a leg and self-combusts.

It’s times like these that you wish you could step up your DIY capabilities. But where do you begin?

PUTTING TIMBER ON THE TABLE

The table saw is the beating heart of any workshop. It’s big, super-useful, can take off a few fingers and usually sits smack bang in the middle of the room. But with every tool as important as a table saw, there are a myriad of options and variations at your disposal.

This is because the humble table saw began life in the Netherlands as far back as the 16th century, so passionate woodworkers have had more than enough time to revise and devise the best version for a range of different jobs.

INDUCTION OR UNIVERSAL MOTOR?

Before we get into table saws, here’s a quick guide to different types of electric motors because these beauties are usually the best place to learn the difference.

The fundamentals behind electric motors are relatively simple: a motor draws electrical current from a battery or other power source and – using magnets that attract and repel each other (an electromagnetic field) – cause the rotor to spin.

The rotor continues to spin because it circulates this current through the guts of the motor: metal brushes and a commutator (which together act like connectors, channelling and directing the flow of electricity).

That’s the (very) basic mechanics behind an electric motor’s operation, but what’s more important is how they’re powered: either alternating current (AC – from your power plug) or direct current (DC – from a battery).

If your electric motor can only run on AC power, it means it has an ‘induction motor’ and it’ll need to be plugged in. If it can run on either AC or DC, it means it has a ‘universal motor’ and can run off a battery.

Portable power tools like routers and smaller table saws use universal motors – they’re lightweight, compact and offer higher starting torque / running speeds. Larger stationary power tools use induction because they’re more powerful, reliable, efficient and quieter - in addition to being heavier, which has a stabilising effect. They’re also more expensive.

What sort of motor you choose will depend more on your needs. Just because you have the space and want the best quality you can afford doesn’t mean you should buy an induction motor – inductions are slow starters: they take longer to warm up and they don’t enjoy being turned on and off again regularly. They’re also bloody heavy.

If you’re the sort of woodworker who wants the flexibility to pick up and play with their tools, turn them off, realise what you’ve forgotten to do and crank them back up again, consider a decent universal motor instead.

Just keep in mind they make a racket and create more heat, meaning those carbon brushes we mentioned earlier will wear out. Check that the brushes are replaceable before you buy.

PORTABLE OR STATIONARY?

Table saws can come with either induction or universal motors, which explains why there are a few different types. The table saws you’ll find today are separated into their level of portability:

Benchtop:

One of the lightest and cheapest types of table saw, the benchtop model is designed to save on space, making it ideal for small or crowded workshops where the ability to move items out of the way when you’re not using them is a priority.

This is a decent option, as one of the major advantages to table saws is also a principle drawback for many woodworkers: they end up becoming the centre of your workshop. But this space-efficiency comes at a cost because these table saws are also the least capable.

The smaller motor (although often boating a better power-to-weight ratio), narrower table-top and less distance between edge to blade can make mitre cross-cuts more difficult, in addition to limiting your general cutting capacity and lifespan.

In these cases, it’s often worth considering a bandsaw instead.

Jobsite:

Larger than benchtops but still portable enough to take site-to-site, jobsite table saws are a step up from benchtop models that are quickly phasing out the latter. Usually requiring a stand, these saws are built for tradesmen, which means they’ve become synonymous with contractor’s saws.

The original contractor’s saws are a little different, but we’ll get to that later. The idea behind a jobsite table saw is to balance added professionalism – better accuracy, alignment and capacity – with a rugged build that can handle the rigour of a construction site.

Contractor’s

While some use the terms ‘jobsite’ and ‘contractor’ interchangeably, they’re very different saws. Contractor’s saws offer vastly improved fences, significantly larger rip capacity and a far more professional cut then jobsite saws - hence the name – yet are still a cheaper, slightly portable alternative to larger cabinet saws.

Despite the fact that many contractor’s saws are very hefty indeed, the name derives from the U.S, where they use a lot of timber in residential construction. In the ‘States contractor’s saws were designed as deluxe jobsite saws, heavy-duty machines that can enhance a worksite’s capabilities for extended jobs, like building a house.

The contractor’s saw ditches the cabinet to provide more flexibility. It’s portable (at least for a few blokes) and you can mount it on a mobile workstation or even on the back of a work vehicle.

This flexibility makes a good contractor’s saw the perfect option for a home workshop: they’re cost effective, while still offering some of the key advantages of cabinet saws.

Cabinet

The piece de resistance of table saws! Cabinet saws mount the machine body to a cabinet stand (us woodworkers are pretty straightforward in our naming) and offer an upgrade on just about every contractor’s saw feature.

They offer exceptional cutting accuracy due to their heft, their weight anchors the saw to the floor, eliminating vibration to offer unbeatable precision. A standard cabinet saw is mounted within the cabinet, while a full-width cabinet saw extends the full length, providing even more stability.

They’ll also cut nearly anything, from the toughest Jarrah hardwoods to sheet materials of varying sizes. Given their size and weight, they’re beyond the realms of many hobbyists and are closer to industrial or educational use.

Hybrid

The Hybrid saw’s features are a blend of contractor and cabinet saws, as they’re designed to fill the gap between these two models. Despite this, they’re still not comparable to cabinet saws in power or accuracy - hybrids are essentially a contractor’s saw, mounted to the table-top, but with a cabinet stand.

It’s true that most hybrids have a better fence, cast-iron rather than pressed-metal wings and the cabinet base is fairly rigid. This added weight then offers more precision, but it’s nowhere near as effective as an actual cabinet saw.

In layman’s terms, these are upgraded contractor’s saws with a fancy name. But if you’re feeling ambitious, at a similar price to contractor’s saws. they still offer good value for money.

FEATURES TO LOOK FOR

  • Riving knives: A safety feature that prevents the two sections of a workpiece from closing together after they pass through the saw blade. If they bind, they can jam the blade and create a dangerous kickback motion.
  • Left-tilting bevel blades: A right-tilting blade can still jam the riving knife or saw blade because it’s trying to push the waste material into the fence. By buying a left-tilting saw, you’re pushing the workpiece into the fence and the waste material out of harm’s way, where it can’t bind to your blade or knife.
  • T-fence: Look for a fence with a longer clamping area which goes against the rail (which creates a T-shape) to enhance your accuracy and ease of positioning.
  • Standard mitre slot: While Australian table saws will generally all use the standard 19 x 9.5mm mitre slot, fitting all standard accessories, European table saws or many jobsite models will use different sized slots.
  • Arbor locks: Rather than using two spanners or a screwdriver to prevent the blade from spinning while you lock it in place, an arbor lock provides a simple, safer locking mechanism. You put your saw blade on, tighten a nut and hey presto, you’re good to go.