The table saw is the heart of any workshop. Buying the right table saw is critical, as it will affect the quality of your work, your productivity, and the limits of what you can actually build in your shop.
Table saws come in four categories and I will explain each one and describe the pros and cons of each. The table saw you eventually purchase will be largely influenced by your budget, this space you have available, and in some cases the actual type of flooring you will be working on.
Portable table saw ($ 150 to $ 300)
Gantry table saws are the most popular picks in most home shops due to their cost, weight, and size. These models can be installed directly on a workbench or on a floor stand. They are easy to handle, transport and move around the workshop. Some carpenters with tight spaces will store them under their benches, in a corner, or even in a closet. Although these table saws offer low cost and portability, these saws have several drawbacks. Although suitable for the novice carpenter, the cutting precision is somewhat limited. Inherent play in work guides and a small cut from a table can create acceptable cuts for many projects, but can be a problem with larger, more sophisticated jobs. To save costs, gantry table saws have direct drive motors that operate on 110 volts and are generally limited to one horsepower. Coarse and heavy cuts are generally beyond the capabilities of this type of table saw. I have found that extensive use of these little saws eventually results in motor burnout and the motor is not replaceable. Although they have limited power, saws are also quite loud and usually start with an abrupt jolt of the blade. One final problem with saws is their blade angle systems. Most use a crude pivot system that is difficult to set up and can quickly become clogged with sawdust, making the mechanism stiff. Although these saws serve a purpose, you will likely want to upgrade as your woodworking skills evolve.
Contractor Saws ($ 600 to $ 1,000)
These units resemble the larger versions of the range of portable saws, but with some significant improvements. Although generally mounted on a stand with wheels, these units are not portable and are limited to rolling around the store at best. Weighing in most cases over 250 pounds, they are not portable. Most of its weight is on the motor and on the table top. Larger motors up to 3 horsepower and larger cast iron tables offer higher cutting capacities. Well-designed cutting guides with low tolerance levels also offer a much more precise cut. Most contractor saws run on 220 volts and use a belt-driven motor system. Starts and stops are smoother and quieter and if in the future you want to increase the size of the motor or replace a burned out one, the process is easy and straightforward. Most contractor saws also have helical gear driven blade tilt systems that are more precise and less prone to binding due to sawdust build-up. One drawback of contractor saws is their open cabinet design, much like the portable saw. This makes it difficult to control dust build-up. Despite this drawback, contractor saws offer many great features for the intermediate carpenter. Even as your skill levels evolve, contractor saws can offer you many years of dependable service.
Hybrid saws ($ 1000 to $ 2000)
It is a relatively new addition to the class of saws available on the market. They are a cross between contractor saws and larger cabinet saws, and generally offer more cabinet structure to the floor than the contractor saw configuration. These saws will generally house the belt driven motor inside the cabinet. This makes dust collection more efficient and the saw also runs more quietly. These saws are heavier, typically in the 350 pound range and feature larger motors starting at 3 horsepower. Like the contractor saw, they have helical gear blade tilt systems and larger cast iron tables. Many hybrid saws can be equipped with table extensions to make it easier to cut larger blades.
Cabinet Saws ($ 2000- $ 10,000)
Cabinet saws are amazing equipment and are prohibitively expensive for most hobbyist woodworkers. They are heavy and require a solid concrete floor to rest. Cabinet saws also take up a lot of space, especially when equipped with large table extensions. They all run on 240 volts and motor sizes range from 3 to 6 horsepower. Some expensive industrial units even run on three-phase power, not available in a home. They offer maximum precision and cutting capacity, and while most of the saws mentioned use a 10 “blade, some cabinet saws work with a larger 12” blade which further increases cutting capacity. The cost and size of this carpenter’s dream limits these units to large stores with solid concrete floors and big budgets.
If you can afford to buy a new contractor saw, consider this one of your best options. A good contractor saw will serve you for many years and will produce quality work. If it’s not in your budget, consider a portable saw as a temporary measure with a plan to upgrade to a contractor saw in the future. Think hard before making the jump to a hybrid or cabinet saw. Justify the expense and make sure you have
Forty years ago, I bought my first portable table saw from a newspaper ad (the Internet wasn’t invented then!). The kind man sold it to me with a stand for $ 20 and I was able to start woodworking. For the past four decades, I have owned all of the saw types described in this article, depending on the job I was doing and the space I had to work in. I still believe that the best investment is the contractor saw. A few years ago a colleague was selling one in Kijiji and I was able to buy his barely used contractor’s saw for the price of a new portable saw. Obviously the contractor saw was much better and has served me well since 2012. I have two other contractor saws that I have used for over 25 years. They have proven to be strong and durable saws that allow me to do good quality work.
A final word on table saws
When buying a table saw, look at the direction of the blade’s rake. These days most saws are left tilt, however some models are configured for right tilt blades. In another article I will go into more detail about all the advantages and disadvantages of these two different configurations. However, in general, right-handed carpenters are more compatible with left-lean models. Also, when it comes to bevel cuts, left-hand tilt saws are safer to use. Although right-tilt models have some measurement and production advantages, most carpenters will find left-tilt blade saws easier and safer to operate.
Always try to buy the best type of saw you can afford. Inexpensive portable saws can create limitations and tend to wear out quickly with constant use. Consider the dust collection capabilities of the one you are considering, as well as the power requirements (do you need to install a 240-volt outlet?).
There are many lightly used saws out there. Consider buying a better designed used saw rather than a new inexpensively made one.