Using your table saw is something you should be very comfortable with.
It’s not good to feel skiddish when you start making a cut.
You also shouldn’t be second guessing yourself in the middle of the cut.
Have you ever finished a cut on the table saw and thought, dang I’m lucky i didn’t lose a finger.
Sooo…, you were probably doing something you shouldn’t have done in the first place, right?
Then how do you build confidence with cutting at the table saw?
How do you consistently make safe cuts and never get so much as a scratch?
Maybe a splinter here and there, right? Especially cutting plywood, splinters just seem to go hand in hand with cutting plywood.
But when it comes to passing your hands right next to a sharp blade spinning at 3,400 rpm…
And to do that time and time again, never once getting cut. Never once feeling unsafe.
That’s what I call Table Saw Confidence.
And you only get that when your comfortable with your tool.
But that doesn’t mean you should get cocky. Or careless. Or distracted.
In this article, I’m going to teach you how to build Table Saw Confidence, by making safer cuts every time you step up to your table saw.
Now I think we all know that using a riving knife, and a sharp blade are both important steps to making safe cuts.
But in case you didn’t know that…
Use a riving knife, and always use a sharp blade. This is important for making safe cuts!
And one more thing. Use eye protection at all times when cutting in your shop!
With that out of the way, lets move on to the 5 actual things you do at, and with your table saw for safer cutting.
1 – Tune your table saw on a regular basis.
That means doing several things to keep your saw and it’s components working and aligned properly.
If any one of these 3 things are out of whack, you’ll notice either burning of the wood, or on the extreme end of the spectrum, kick back.
With a misaligned blade or fence, you’ll possibly notice pinching of the wood at the back end of the blade.
This can bog down the motor, and burn the wood. If at that point the blade grabs the board just right, it can cause kickback.
I would say this is probably very rare. You’ll notice some burning before it gets so bad it wants to kick back. But either way, it can happen if you let the misalignment get bad enough.
Likewise, with an unlevel throat plate, your board may tilt, shift, or get hung up, half way through the cut.
This will most likely just cause some burning, as well as an unclean cut. Both of which suck, and may ruin the piece your working with.
So keep your table saw tuned up, and that makes every other step in this list much easier.
2 – Apply pressure correctly while cutting.
On a standard cut, your board is passing through the cut with the fence to the right.
In this scenario, you want to keep downward pressure on the board to keep it from lifting up from the table.
A longer board is likely heavy enough so you don’t have to actively push down on it. But lighter boards are a different story.
The saw tends to push lighter boards upward, so you must keep consistent pressure at a downward angle.
So on this small piece I’m using a push shoe to apply my downward pressure.
You also want to keep rightward pressure on the board. That is how you keep the board against the fence.
Notice above I’m using another push stick, almost like a feather board. This applies my rightward pressure and keeps my left hand away from the blade.
Rightward pressure is important because if the board shifts to the left away from the fence, now you essentially are freehanding the cut, which is no good.
And third, you want forward pressure on the board. This keeps it moving forward, but also from pushing back. The saw is turning toward you, so without forward pressure, it will come back at you.
For some cuts, using just your hands to apply the correct pressure is ok.
But if there’s not much space between the board and the fence, you’ll want a push stick for your right hand.
If there’s not much board to the left of the blade getting removed, then you’ll want a push stick for your left hand.
Applying pressure in these 3 directions is really easy, but you need to be comfortable doing it and make it a habit.
3 – Use good follow through
When the cut is complete, continue pushing the board until it’s clear of the blade.
On any cut that uses your fence, you need to push the right cut-off with either your hand or a push stick.
But when the cut is complete, most of the exposed blade is still in contact with the cut-offs.
So don’t stop pushing yet.
Continue pushing the right piece forward until it clears the blade.
The left piece can stay put.
But it’s that right piece you need to be careful with. So follow through and finish the cut each and every time.
4 – Visualize the cut
You should mentally walk through the entire cut before you make it, each and every time.
This step is easy to skip. Sometimes you just don’t think about it.
But it really is important.
By visualizing before you make the cut, it’s easy to identify any ‘gotchas’ you may run into half way through, that might not normally be on your mind.
For example, I was making a cut the other day.
I had not visualized this cut like I should had.
When the cut was almost complete, I realized a board laying on my outfeed table had been moved over, but the corner of it was still in the path of my work piece.
Luckily it was a light piece of scrap wood, and my cut piece was able to push it out of the way while I finished the cut.
But had that been something heavier, I would have had to stop the cut.
That means securing the board in place with downward pressure.
Then turning off the saw and letting it come to a complete stop before moving.
I don’t like doing that because sometimes you end up burning the wood.
Another gotcha you may run into is on longer boards, do you have your outfeed prepared?
That could be an outfeed table, outfeed rollers, or even saw horses.
These longer boards need support after the cut, so they don’t fall or tilt up while you’re trying to finish the cut and turn off the saw.
By visualizing your cut, you’ll think about stuff like that now, instead of half way through when it’s too late.
5 – Stay level headed.
If during a cut, anything ever feels wrong, or is a blatant and obvious problem, don’t panic!
If you panic when something goes wrong in a cut, you may compound the problem.
Keep a level head and think through what you’re doing, and what you should do next.
Sometimes, we just can’t avoid a potentially dangerous situation.
Key word there – potentially.
It doesn’t have to become dangerous if you think through it and resolve the situation.
A little background story…
I was cutting some Menards 3/4″ pine on my table saw.
I was using a riving knife. The board had so much internal stress that about halfway through, the board closed in on itself and pinched the riving knife.
To keep it moving through the cut, I had to apply more pressure than what I felt was safe.
Now this may not have been a moment someone would typically panic.
But regardless, it was a problem and as soon as I no longer felt the cut was safe, I secured the board in place and turned off the saw.
What if I had pushed harder than normal in order to force it through. Then the stress released and all of a sudden it became really easy to push through. What would have happened then?
Another example, one time I was making many cuts, one after another.
I was making several adjustments to the fence in this process.
I got careless, and on one cut in particular (cutting hardwood might I add), I started the cut and didn’t have the fence locked down.
So pretty quickly into the cut, I felt and heard some binding. I realized the fence was being forced to the right and I was essentially freehanding this cut.
I could see someone getting really nervous here. The blade was binding and burning, the board was not secure against a fence, and here I am holding it on this blade and standing right behind it.
To resolve the situation, I kept a firm hold on the board, not letting it shift in any direction.
I turned off the saw and let it come to a stop.
This could have easily turned into a kickback situation.
But I kept a level head and fixed it before it got that far.
Now had I not been so careless, this would have never happened. You can bet I’ll never let that happen again.
I’ll leave you with this…
On one end of the spectrum, you need to build confidence so you’re not skiddish and nervous using the saw.
But on the flip side, never just ‘go through the motions’, and mindlessly make cuts on your table saw, being careless or cocky.
Each cut should have the appropriate amount of thought and focus put into it, as if it’s the only cut you’re making that day.
Here’s something you can say to yourself when walking up to the table saw for a cut:
“The Cut I’m about to make, right now, is the most important cut in my life”.
Say this every time, because it applies to every single cut.
If you get in the habit of doing that, you’ll build Table Saw Confidence, and you’ll live a long, happy, 10-fingered life!
UPDATE – I’ve made a longer list that dives deeper into table saw safety >> 11 Critical Table Saw Safety Tips. Give it a read next.