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designing and building with wood channels my creativity and challenges my mind.
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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Table Saw Safety: Is it Time to Act?

For woodworkers, the issue of table saw safety is ever-present. And now the issue has grown big enough to be covered the news outlets like USA Today. The big news is a proposed federal
law regarding the technology from SawStop, which uses an electrical circuit, a small explosive charge, and aluminum block, to stop a table's saw's blade as soon as it hits human tissue.

SawStop and many in the US government would love to see SawStop technology on every new table saw sold in the US. But other manufacturers - as well as a great many woodworkers - object to the requirement.

One big downside to SawStop is that saws equipped with the technology are not able to cross-cut hot dogs. They also cost several hundred dollars more than non-equipped saws. These concerns (okay...just the second one) are cited by critics as the main reason SawStop technology should remain optional equipment. Manufacturers, obviously, are also concerned about the effect of mandatory SawStop on their bottom (and top) line. The issue is so red-hot that a recent article in Fine Wood Working Magazine ("Tablesaw Safety Goes Under the Microscope--Again") stuck strictly to the facts, and issued little judgment on the proposed federal law making SawStop mandatory.

But is there a good reason for woodworkers to shun a technology that can prevent them cutting off their fingers? I'll admit that I remain skeptical about the wisdom of mandating SawStop on all new table saws. But I'm also the victim of a table saw accident that left me with a funny-looking fingernail. So what gives? Am I crazy?

My sense is most woodworkers don't want to be told what to do, and don't like seeing their beloved machinery brands being forced to welcome a newcomer - SawStop - to their industry. Moreover, woodworkers know that the table saw is just one of many dangerous machines in a wood shop. They also know that a table saw's dangers go beyond slicing digits; the risk of a piece of wood being thrown at the operator is, unlike the cutting action of the blade, potentially deadly. Before my own accident with my "big" table saw (an evil 5 hp, 12" monster), my worst injury in the shop came from a 6x48" belt sander.

Before I cut off the tip of my finger on my table saw, I was aware of the consequences of an accident, and aware of the risk factor, but I didn't put two and two together. Luckily, I learned an important lesson about permanent injuries without paying too high a price. Now, I am focused on safety in a different way, and it extends to all of the machines I use.

After my injury, I installed the blade guard and riving knife on my "little" saw (a Robland X31 combination crosscut saw), and fabricated a riving knife for the big saw. I also made up several large push blocks that can't fall over or slip - which was the cause of my injury.

I probably won't get a SawStop saw in the near future for a number of reasons: I already own two table saws, SawStop doesn't yet make a sliding table saw, nor do they make a 12" saw, and I don't think I'll ever buy another piece of brand-new equipment.

But I wouldn't be mad if SawStop did one day offer a 12" sliding table. And my advice to anybody purchasing a saw for which SawStop does make a model: buy the SawStop. As long as the other features match your requirements, why wouldn't you want to add the extra protection? The $500 premium you'll pay is nothing compared to the value of having all ten fingers a the end of the day.

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