Basic Table Saw Use Skills – Comprehensive Guide

Operational knowledge is one of the most important issues concerning table saw use, especially for beginners.

It’s dangerous to operate any power tool without knowing what you are doing. One of the best ways to develop your woodworking skill set is through experience. But you have to start with the fundamentals, always.

That’s why this post is so important. I wanted to go over the most basic table saw cuts in a thorough, yet understandable way. This will set the groundwork for later discussions on more advanced cuts.

We will focus here on proper technique and safety.

Safety First

Oh yeah, safety. Nothing is more important.

Expect heavy doses of safety throughout this post. Partly, because safety and great cuts often go hand in hand. But also because this is a post geared towards beginners, so it only makes sense.

Make sure that you know all the proper safety procedures. Be sure to review my posts on Table Saw Safety Basics and the Essential Table Saw Accessories before you even attempt the most basic of cuts.

It is all about keeping fingers. Seriously.

Go read those posts so that you how you need to do approach your table saw. That way we can focus on great cuts here.

Anyway, to start off here, let’s talk about what you need to do on every single cut.

All Cuts

So we’re going to go ahead and assume you’ve done a thorough once-over on yourself and all your equipment and materials.

We’re also going to assume that you have taken care to acquire all of the most essential accessories such as quality miter gauges and rip fences. But also safety add-ons like zero-clearance inserts, push sticks, and maybe even a quality blade guard.

And the last thing we’re going to assume is that you understand basic table saw safety fundamentals like only making adjustments or picking up material with the saw off and blade completely stopped.

Now, we will discuss the fundamentals of proper technique.

The first thing you should realize, is that cuts that feel unsafe to you probably are unsafe. Find another way to do it. Ask for help if you need to because balance is one of the most important aspects of table saw use.

Cut one piece of stock at a time. And never makes cuts “free hand”—or without the use of some sort of jig for stability (ie. rip fence, miter gauge, etc.). You also want to be sure to wait until the blade is up to speed before initiating a cut.

Always make cuts with the blade spinning against you and push stock all the way past the back the blade. Remember to stand to the side and out of the direct line of the blade. This is where push devices get their use.

So now would be a great time to talk about blade height. Blade manufacturers suggest setting the blade so that the bottom of the gullets are even with (or just below) the top surface of your stock. Why not just listen to them?

They say this helps ventilate the cut and clear sawdust. Makes sense. depending on your blade type, this is usually going to put the top of your blades teeth no more than ⅜” above the top of your stock.

There are very few exceptions and they are all outside the scope of this post.

No matter the cut, the blade speed and feed rate will directly affect quality (as well as safety). Blade speed is self explanatory, but if you didn’t know, feed rate is the speed the user pushes stock through a cut.

Point blank, experience is going to be your best teacher when it comes to striking the right balance between these two.

But to give you a good idea of how to start:

Dense hardwoods and thicker stock need slower blade speeds for the extra torque. Softer woods do well with faster blade speeds. And faster speeds leave smoother cuts. So even for harder stock, you want to lean towards speed because if you err in the other direction you will get rough surfaces.

For feed rate, you’ll notice different issues depending on whether you need to make cuts faster or slower. You need to slow down if it feels like you are having to apply too much pressure, the stock seems like it wants to rise off the table, your cut surface is chipped and splintered, or your saw bogs down. You need to speed up your feed rate if you notice burning along the cut or can’t feel the saw moving through the stock.

Again, the type of wood you cut can make a big difference to what blade speed and feed rate works best.

Don’t be afraid to use plenty of scrap to get a feel for your saw. Experience is always a woodworker’s best teacher. And every time you try something new, factor in some extra practice time and material.

But before you rush off to your saw, continue reading. When you get right down to it, every cut you are going to make will be either a rip or a crosscut. So finish up the next two sections before you start your practice.

Now that you understand the every-cut basics, we can build on that knowledge.

You see, every type of cut has its own sub-set of rules. Don’t even think about making cuts with your saw until you understand how to properly perform the cut you are attempting.

Anyway, let’s get ripping!

Rip Cuts

Rip cuts are pretty much the most fundamental table saw operation.

A cut is considered a “rip” when it goes along the grain of the wood. It’s also called “ripping” or “cutting to width”.

The main thing you need to know about rip cuts is that they use the rip fence. Leave your miter gauges out of it. In fact, the few cases when you’d use the two in tandem are rare and advanced.

In order to make accurate rips, it’s vital to make sure that you put the rip fence in the right location. Be sure that you measure based on a tooth that leans toward the rip fence if your blade has set teeth for the most accurate cut possible.

Don’t blame your table saw for a poor cut if you don’t take the time to get this right.

When you are ready to make the cut, stand on the side of the saw opposite the fence so that you can more easily apply pressure to the fence with your stock. Making sure that your wood stays flush up against the rip fence is one of the most important ways to ensure rip accuracy.

Try to keep your eyes on this meeting of stock and fence (and glance over at the cut, as opposed to the other way around). And apply feed force between the blade and the fence.

Only rip stock that has a straight edge opposite your cut. Do not cut wood that you doesn’t slide up against the fence firmly down its length. Attempting to rip warped or twisted material is dangerous. Don’t do it.

For safety’s sake, stand outside of your miter slots. Never force stock through the cut or rush its progress.

Always have a few push sticks handy to help you finish cuts safely. Beginners should always use push sticks for rips narrower than 6”. Also, zero clearance inserts are extremely important for narrow rips.

Splitters and riving knives—especially those with anti-kickback pawls—really cut back on the potential for kickback that comes with the kerf in the wood ripping creates. Featherboards are also a great way to increase safety and accuracy.

Now, I’m not going cover any complex cuts here. But I would like to give a few tips on cutting long stock, large stock, and sheet goods.

The most important thing you need to worry about is supporting your material, on the front end and back end.

First and foremost, ask for help if you need it. For the most part, you’re going to want to position yourself at the corner opposite the fence and walk the wood through the cut. Remember, you want to apply firm pressure against the fence but apply your feed force for the cut between the fence and blade.

Behind the saw, be sure that you have adequate support to catch your stock once it’s gone through the rip. Push the piece you need for your project beyond and away from the blade first. Then remove the leftover in the opposite direction.

You might do well to extend the rip fence across the supports as well.

It’s also very important that the transition from saw table to outfeed support is a smooth one. Make sure that your support system doesn’t cause a hitch in the motion of your stock as it passes through the blade. This can lead to ruined pieces and unneeded injuries.

That’s all a novice really needs to know about making rip cuts on a table saw.

Remember, even for woodworking’s most basic cuts, execute the fundamentals with care and precision.

Crosscuts and Miter Cuts

Simply put, cross cutting refers to cutting stock across or perpendicular to the grain of the wood.

Cross cuts are used to square off the end of stock and to “cut boards to length” (also a common synonym for crosscut).

It’s the second fundamental table saw cut. It makes use of the miter gauge instead of the the rip fence. Or sleds, when you are ready for them.

To get set up, first double-check that your miter gauge is properly aligned to make 90° cuts. Then, decided which side of the blade feels more comfortable to stand on while you make your cuts. Attach the miter gauge to that side.

Then, you will need to lock your stock into place with the miter gauge using whatever means your owner’s manual describes. Now, you’re nearly ready to guide your material through the cut with your miter gauge.

In order to make sure that your cutline is correct, push the miter gauge forward until your stock touches the blade’s teeth (those that lean toward the side you have the miter gauge if your blade has set teeth). This way, you can go ahead and ensure that your cut will be accurate before you ruin your board.

Now, pull it back, turn the saw on, let the blade get up to speed, and initiate your cut.

Apply feed force with one hand on the miter gauge and keep other hand on the free end of the stock. Take care not to push the free end of the stock forward, backward, or into the blade. This just begs for kickback. Your free hand is there to provide stability, not feed force of any kind.

As always, push stock all the way through the cut and wait until the blade has stopped turning to adjust stock or pick up scraps. This only takes an extra moment or two and minimizes risk greatly.

Similar to rip cutting, you need to make sure that your stock is well supported when you deal with larger stock. If you are limited in your extension table selection, make sure that you prioritize whichever side needs it the most.

If you work with large stock regularly, you should consider multiple support tables or extensions so you can more easily support both ends of your material. I also highly recommend miter gauge extensions and sleds, which can really make your crosscuts easier and more accurate.

Now, if you need to cut multiple pieces to length, there a number of ways to go about it.

The easiest way is to buy a miter gauge designed with some sort of stop system built-in. You can also create an adjustable jig with a kerf in it to guide your cuts. Add in a DIY spacer and shorter crosscuts to length are a cinch.

Do not use the rip fence as a stop for cutting to length. Without a properly-designed spacer, your stock will bind between the fence and the blade, inevitably producing kickback. I won’t go into how to create one because there are simply too many other solutions that produce great results and don’t add any risk.

Once you understand how to crosscut safely, converting your miter gauge to make an angle cut is a simple matter. You must only select and lock in your angle. Again, I move the stock up against the still blade to make sure it’s lined up before I pull it back, turn on the saw, and initiate my cut.

For angled cuts, you want to slow down your feed rate to ensure your stock doesn’t bend or slip your grip. Also, you’ll want to have various miter gauge extensions available for different projects, angles, and wood types.

Crosscut operations often involve cutting long boards down into several smaller pieces of matching size. Avoid as much as you can cutting small pieces off the end of long stock. If at all possible, begin in the middle so that your material is more manageable and your cuts more accurate. Remember to avoid awkward table saw operations as much as possible

If you are cross cutting sheet goods, you may need to extend your saw table in front as well as on the sides. Also, you want to avoid making crosscuts that push the miter gauge off the table. If you need to, buy or create a sled to use in place of the standard gauge.

And finally, if you need to crosscut unusually thick stock, you’ll need to make two passes. Raise your blade to a little over half the stock’s thickness. Make one pass. Flip the stock over. Factor in blade set and make a second pass.

If your crosscut operations get more complicated than this, it’s time to take things to the next level.

Getting Better and Looking Ahead

Through this Basic Table Saw Skills Guide, you’ve been exposed to the table saw’s two most fundamental cuts.

But ripping and crosscutting are just the beginning of a woodworker’s journey.

There is also resawing, bevel cuts, and miter cuts. Not to mention even more advanced operations like creating dados and tapering.

If you’ve mastered rips and crosscuts, it might be time to move on the Advanced Table Saw Skills Guide. But make sure that your “mastery” of the basics is applied and not theoretical.

Remember that gaining knowledge of proper techniques is but the first step. The cliche “practice makes perfect” may have been coined by a woodworker. The second step, execution, is where that knowledge create physical form.

So before you rush off go learn more advanced information, focus your time and energy on perfecting these basics.

Make sure to check out our list of all table saw guides for more.

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