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Table Saw 101 – Know Your Tool

Let’s talk about the table saw. And I mean at the most basic level.

This is for real beginners, for those of you that still need a good, basic understanding of this amazing tool and what it can do for you.

As with most woodworkers, this tool will likely become the most important power tool in your wood shop.

So it’s worth spending a little time to make sure you understand the various cuts, techniques, parts and pieces, and basic accessories for this particular tool.

Components & Terms

Table, Rip Fence, Infeed, Outfeed, and Paddle Switch – These are basic components and phrases you’ll read about in woodworking. See diagram:

Table saw and basic components

Miter Gauge & Miter Slot – The miter gauge comes with your table saw and is used to make cross cuts and miter cuts (more on that below). The miter gauge supports the board as it slides through the miter slot.

Table saw miter gauge and miter slot diagram

More > How To Calibrate Your Miter Gauge

Kick Back – this is when a cut-off gets grabbed by the back of the blade and projected back towards you at a very high speed.

This is not common, and if you learn to use your table saw safely, there’s no reason you can’t go your entire life without ever having kick back.

I personally have never had kick back, and I don’t ever plan on it. But we should all be aware of the danger of kick back, and take precautions that help drastically reduce the chance of it ever happening to you.

Which leads me to the:

Riving Knife – This is attached behind your blade, and it helps prevent kick back by stopping the cut-off from getting into the back of the blade, which is the most common cause of kick back.

Table saw riving knife closeup

Spreader & Anti-kickback Pawls – The spreader, also known as a splitter, works like a riving knife to eliminate kick back. The anti-kickback pawls take it a step further by holding the board down, and stopping the cut-offs from moving towards you.

Table saw spreader and pawls closeup

Throat Plates – These are the inserts that your table saw blade will protrude through. Your table saw should have come with a standard throat plate, which will allow for normal cuts and bevel cuts with your standard blade.

For using a dado blade (which I explain below), you’ll need a throat plate with a wider opening.

And for cutting small or thin pieces, or to reduce tearout when cutting plywood, you’ll use a zero-clearance throat plate.

Table saw throat plates

Some manufacturers make zero clearance inserts for certain model table saws. A lot of woodworkers just build their own.

Arbor – this is the threaded post that turns the blade. Most table saw arbors are 5/8″, and will have a blade washer and an arbor nut. If the saw has enough power to support a stacked dado set, the arbor will be longer. Smaller table saws may have shorter arbors to keep people from using dado sets on them.

Arbor diagram

Motor – this is what powers and turns the arbor. Your table saw will have either a belt-drive, or direct drive setup. The difference in these 2 styles affect the loudness of the saw, the maximum elevation of the blade, and the general maintenance required on the tool.

Cut types

Cross Cut (Standard 90 Degree) – This is when you’re cutting a board 90 degrees to the blade, using your miter gauge or a table saw sled.

Crosscuts using a miter gauge

The cross cut is done by firmly holding the board against the miter gauge, or against the fence of your sled, while sliding it through the cut.

Miter Cut – this is a crosscut that is anything other than 90 degrees. So if you adjust your miter gauge away from 90 and make the cut at an angle, it’s a miter cut.

You can also make dedicated miter sleds. See video:

Miter sled build-guide
Custom table-saw sled demonstration

Rip Cut – this is when you cut along the grain of the board, using your rip fence. This is done safely using push sticks or push shoes. See image:

Crosscut ripping with fence and push stick

Be sure to read 5 Steps To Making Safer Table Saw Cuts to learn how to properly make rip cuts using your fence.

Non-Through Cuts (Dados, Grooves, Rabbets) – These cuts all make a slot in the wood, without actually cutting the board into 2 pieces, because they do not cut all the way through the board. Hence, ‘non-through cuts’.

These are used for different reasons, sometimes joinery with shelves and cabinets, sometimes making drawer boxes, sometimes for picture frames

You can make non-through cuts with a standard blade, but for wider slots, you can save time by using a stacked dado blade set like mine:

stacked dado blade set

The main pieces of a stacked dado blade set are the 2 blades, the chippers, and the shims. You’ll use the chart that came with your dado set to determine how many chippers and shims to put between the 2 blades to make a given width cut.

Dado blade setup diagram

Here’s the setup with both blades on, ready to make 7/16″ wide cuts:

Dado blade set complete

The three types are dados, rabbets, and grooves. Here’s how you line up to make a dado cut (it’s across the grain):

Prepped for dado cut

Here I’m lined up for making a rabbet (at the edge):

Prepped for a rabbet cut

And here I’m lined up for a standard groove (cut along the grain):

Prepped for a groove cut

Here’s what these 3 different cuts look like:

Diagram for differences in the 3 non-thru cuts

Bevel Cut – This is done by adjusting your bevel adjustment wheel to tilt the blade. Your riving knife or spreader should also tilt with the blade. If they do not, you’ll have to remove it before making the cut.

Blade tilted ready for a bevel cut

The tilted blade may have a tendancy to push the board away from the fence, which could ruin your cut. So I recommend making bevel cuts using a feather board to help keep the board against the fence. See this video:

Thin Rip Cut – this is when you’re making a rip cut to a thickness that can not be safely handled with your hands or even a standard push stick. For this type of cut, you’ll want to use a Thin-Rip jig. See video:


Stop Block – this is used as a reference point for making identical repeated cross cuts. It’s attached to your fence, and positioned before the blade. I designed mine so I can tighten it down easily wherever I need it on the fence. See the video below.

Stop block for your table saw fence

Sacrificial Fence – This is built to fit over your standard fence, and partly over the blade itself. You’ll build the fence and position it over the blade. Turn the saw on and raise the blade to cut away part of the fence. This is used mostly for cutting rabbets.

Sacrificial fence
Fence closeup
Sac fence from the cut side

Normally I’ll use my stacked dado set in combination with this sacrifical fence to cut my rabbets.

Closeup of the blade under a sac fence

When cutting rabbets, it’s a good idea to use a feather board like shown below to keep the board down evenly through the entire cut.

You’ll end up with a much better rabbet cut using the feather board.

Feather board clamped to a sac fence

It IS safe to make rabbet cuts at the end of a board, with a sacrificial fence, in combination with your miter gauge. Using your miter gauge is the correct way to handle a rabbet cut like this if the rabbet goes along the short end of a board.

Table Saw Sled – it slides along your table saw using the miter slots, and a runner (or runners) attached to the bottom. These keep it perfectly in line as the sled carries the board throught the cut.

Sleds come in many different sizes and shapes, and can be really simple, or really elaborate.

They can even be made with attachments to help you make even more complicated cuts, as well as making cuts for various joinery techniques like splines, box joints, and dovetails.

For more info on table saws, check out these posts:

>> How To Make Safer Table Saw Cuts
>> 11 Critical Table Saw Safety Tips
>> How To Choose A Table Saw
>> So You Got A Table Saw, Now What?

This page may have affiliate links. For more information see my disclosure page.

About The Author
Adam has been woodworking for the last 10 years. He considers himself a 'Small Shop Woodworker' and practices his hobby in his garage. With the lack of time, space, and proper tools, he always finds ways to get great results without over-complicating or over-thinking the process. Various shop jigs, table saw sleds, and tricks of the trade have served him well. God has blessed him with a beautiful family, as well as a passion for teaching others about woodworking. You can read more about Adam here.

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