Table Saw Safety Basics – How To Stay Safe In The Woodshop

The tablesaw is a powerhouse. And that is why so many woodworkers rely on theirs everyday.

But “with great power comes great responsibility,” as they say. If you do not respect this workhorse of all workhorses, it might just take a bite out of a finger or two.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to ensure that you keep all of your digits in tact:

Knowledge is the first key. Execution is the second.

In short, inform yourself about how to operate your table saw safely and effectively and then apply what you’ve learned to build experience.

If you’re a novice, ingrain every word of this post into your memory.

If you’re more advanced, a lot of this should be review. But I was very thorough in writing this post. Which means even an expert is likely to find some valuable new information, or at the very least a few good reminders.

Operational table saw safety can be broken down into 3 main parts:

  1. You
  2. Your Workspace
  3. Your Knowledge

Never engage your table saw unless you have all three of these things in order. If you’re unsure what this means, you’ll find out soon. From there, all it takes is experience to hammer that understanding into habit.

Speaking of good habits, I’d like to start by trying to stabilize the number one most unpredictable variable in this entire equation: You!

It All Starts With “You”

Operating any large power tool comes with direct personal risks. Your aim should be to reduce those risks by taking the proper precautions.

There are basic safety rules that any woodworker, carpenter, or contractor should know about. But all too often, some of the most fundamental steps are not taken and disaster strikes.

Common sense tells you that you should never operate a table saw under the influence or impaired in any way. Stay away when on pharmaceutical meds and when very tired. Your health is too important.

Humans rely on sight and hearing more than any of the other 5 senses. Yet ear and eye protection are two of the most neglected “accessories” in workshops and on jobsites.

Why is this?

Perhaps it’s the “that will never happen to me” mentality, but it’s a silly trend and people literally pay with their sight and hearing.

Real safety glasses and earplugs are relatively inexpensive. And you will be surprised how quickly you get used to them. A splinter to the eye is only one unlucky board away. Hearing loss however, creeps up on you; once you notice something is different, it is likely too late.

Another major key is proper footwear. Any experienced contractor understands exactly how important this is. But for newbie DIYers, the temptation is to dress a little too comfortably. Resist this temptation and you will safeguard yourself from a lot of mishaps. Whether you need to go slip resistant or steel toe will depend on your work environment.

On that note, let’s talk about what not to wear:

First, avoid baggy clothing and long sleeves. You do not want anything getting caught up in the blades and pulling you toward the saw before you can react. If you are absolutely attached to your long sleeves, roll them up past the elbow.

Similarly, avoid dangling jewelry and rings and keep shirt pockets empty.

The third most important of human senses is touch. And this is even more crucial to anyone working with a table saw. That is why you should also avoid wearing gloves. You need to be fully engaged with what you are doing and minimize distractions and other variables as much as possible. Your fingers depend on it!

Once you have yourself in order, you want to do a thorough once-over on your table saw setup.

Your Workspace

One of the most important aspects of safety comes down to maintenance.

You want to be sure that your saw operates at the highest levels of both safety and efficiency. Therefore it is imperative that you stick to a regular maintenance schedule if you truly want to be safe when you use your table saw.

Have a look at my Ultimate Table Saw Maintenance Guide and apply the information to increase both the safety and life of your saw.

Before you ever plug in the power or turn the saw on, begin by making sure your workstation is in order.

As long as you keep up with a regular maintenance schedule, all you need is a routine once-over. Simply double-check for safety concerns, tidy your workstation,and inspect alignment of saw and its parts.

Remember to:

  • Sweep saw dust and debris from table and floor. The cleaner the workspace, the safer the work.
  • Secure saw to stand if portable. If you have a portable table saw, it’s doubly important that you examine your table setup.
  • Check blade sharpness. Sharper blades make cleaner, safer cuts.
  • Check blade tightness. This is especially important if you have recently made adjustments or haven’t used your saw in awhile.
  • Align blade to table. Obviously, you want a solid 90° at your 0° stop, but if you plan on making bevel cuts you’ll want to check your stops as well.
  • Make sure throat insert is flush with table. The tiniest different can cause a hitch as you cut stock, which can lead to all types of danger.
  • Make sure anti-kickback and safety features are aligned and working properly. Align splitters and make sure pawls are clean and sharp.
  • Align fence to blade. This is one of the most important ways to reduce kickback and increase cut accuracy.
  • Align miter slots to blade. It’s amazing how many woodworkers fail to check that their table slots run parallel to their blades often enough.

If you need it, you can find with all of the above tasks and more in my Table Saw Alignment Guide.

This once-over may seem slightly redundant if you keep to a thorough maintenance and realignment schedule. But rest assured that it is not. It only costs a little bit of time and can help you avert major risk.

There is a variety of equipment and accessories specifically designed to enhance operational table saw safety. Be sure to have a look at Essential Table Saw Accessories and make sure you have everything on the list! Remember, the goal is to make better cuts, more safely.

Once you’ve gotten through your safety check, you are almost ready to begin. Make sure that the saw blade is turning freely (especially if you made any adjustments) and plug the saw in.

With both you and your workstation ready, it is time to turn the saw on.

That is, if you know what you are doing…

Your Knowledge

Perhaps you could say this is the most important step, a prerequisite so to speak.

Setting up for greatness is the place to start. But if you don’t understand how to operate a table saw safely, all the workstation prep in the world won’t save your sweet little fingers.

For every table saw newbie, this section is absolutely vital.

As usual, let’s start with the basics.

If your table saw is new, or new to you, read the owner’s manual. For any particular saw, there will be information in the owner’s manual that will be hard to find anywhere else. No one likes owner’s manuals, but they are always great resources.

The most fundamental operational safety rule when using a table saw is to emphasize good balance. What we mean by this is, do not make cuts that put your body into an awkward position. Either change positions yourself or modify your setup. If it comes down to it get help, but do not put yourself at risk by operating a table saw with poor body control.

As you make cuts, keep in mind that the saw blade will always be spinning toward you and does not discriminate about what it cuts.

Use common sense: keep your hands away from the blade and be wary of kickback.

Make these habit:

  • Always check the material you are cutting. Nails, staples, screws, knots all have the potential to do damage to you or your saw.
  • Position your body outside the line of the blade. Give yourself a few inches on either side to avoid kickback debris and sawdust.
  • Push material past the blade on all cuts. Early releases just beg for kickback.
  • Allow blade to come to a complete stop before reaching over or behind it. Even a slowly spinning blade can cut you.
  • Turn the table saw off before picking up stock. It only takes an instant to turn it back on once you are ready for the next cut.
  • For ripping, use the rip fence. That is what it is for.
  • For crosscutting, use the miter gauge or a sled. It is dangerous to mismatch this step and the one before.
  • Use a push stick for narrow rip cuts. For beginners, narrow means 6” or less. For advanced woodworkers, 4” or less should be cautious enough to keep you safe.
  • On rip cuts, apply feed force to the material between blade and fence. This is the most stable place to apply pressure to your work.
  • If you need to perform maintenance in the middle of working, turn the whole saw off and disconnect the power. Again, it only takes a moment to turn to back on and working on a table saw is not the time to take risks..
  • Set your blade height so that it reaches about ⅜” above the top of the material. Anymore is unneeded and simply adds danger.

And avoid these always:

  • Never make free-hand cuts with a table saw. Always use the miter gauge, rip fence, or a sled to guide your materials on cuts.
  • Do not use the miter gauge and rip fence together. There are very few exceptions to this rule and this is not the place to discuss them.
  • Never make adjustments to saw or setup while it is running. It’s so easy to turn off and then back on: just avoid the risk.
  • Never stack workpieces when making cuts. This doubles or triples the dangers involved with table saw operation.
  • Never back stock out of a cut. It’s simple. Finish the cut or turn off the saw.
  • Never rip warped or twist wood. Don’t cut along the grain when the grain is in shambles.
  • Never rip stock that does not have a straight edge. You need at least one straight edge to butt against the rip fence.
  • Never use a table saw without a throat insert. The insert prevents stock from falling into the innards of your table saw.

Incorporate these “Do’s” and “Don’t’s” into your workflow and you’ll be making excellent cuts safely. The more good habits you create, the safer you will be.

However, you’ll need a deeper foundation of operational knowledge if you want to be truly safe and do good work. Take a look at Cut Guide Series 1: Basic Table Saw Skills to learn everything a beginner needs to know about making cuts with safety and accuracy.

Now Get Experience!

From here, the more experience you get, the safer a woodworker you’ll become.

Maintain a strict maintenance schedule and remember to perform your checks before you get to working and you should be able to produce great work and remain injury free.

Remember that table saw safety is multifaceted. Both you and your workstation need to be in excellent running condition before you begin work on your projects. And you can never discount the value of third piece of the puzzle.

The more great woodworking you study, the safer you will be and the better your projects will turn out. Don’t forget: knowledge is the first key; execution is the second.

Now that you know what you need to be doing to stay safe, go out and turn that information into habit.

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

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