Are Radial Arm Saws a Thing of the Past?
posted on February 15, 2007 by Rockler

sliding miter saw bladeIt's a perennially popular debate: With all of the great sliding compound miter saws out there these days, is there any point in owning a radial arm saw? Is a radial arm saw an inherently dangerous tool? There's no concensus among  expert woodworkers, as you'll read below. Here's our two cents: The blade you put on a radial arm saw - or any saw, for that matter - has a lot to do with how well it will perform and how safe it is to use. Read more on choosing radial arm saw blades here on the blog.

Q. Are radial arm saws obsolete, especially when you take into account the latest compound miter saws out there on the market? And are they safe?

A. (Rob Johnstone) "Radial arm saws are great and a very useful power tool. With the increasing popularity of power miter boxes and their slide-arm cousins, I can understand how the question could be asked, but my answer is they are in no way obsolete. The main reason they remain a great option for woodworkers is their versatility.
R.J. DeCristoforo used the radial arm saw for so many operations it would simply amaze you. He routed, sanded and did horizontal boring in addition to actually cutting wood with it. In fact he used it so often, I wonder if he could do woodworking at all without one. Paul Eckhoff of Ridgid Tools made the versatility point quite strongly when I posed the question to him. Ridgid introduced a brand new radial arm saw this year and I asked him point blank why they did it. Paul offered the opinion that radial arm saws offer a woodworker more options than a table saw. So if you think of radial arm saws as a power miter box on steroids, you might feel that their days have passed. But if you understand their remarkable versatility, you just might wonder what you are doing without one".

A. (Rick White) I don't know if they're obsolete, but I know I wouldn't buy one. The new compound miter saws and radial miter saws are much nicer. They are a lot more accurate and are becoming much more reasonably priced. The radial arm saw can be a lot more flexible if you add sanding accessories or chucks for shaping.

In terms of safety, they can be a bit more tricky. The blade is coming at you and is climbing the wood, so there's a lot of momentum between the blade and arm toward the person using it. It can be pretty dangerous in the shop, but that can be said of any power tool. Just look at a chop saw and imagine the accidents that could cause. The danger of the radial arm saw is the way it walks toward you. I can also imagine safety issues when you're ripping with one of these. If, for example, you're ripping a long piece with a dado blade, I'd think the blade would 'want' to take that wood and throw it."

A. (Ian Kirby) "Radial arm saws were built for industry early last century when thick wide boards of solid wood were staple materials. They were used in mill work to rough cut to length, and in production, to cut to length. Holding a right angle was not a problem for the well engineered, heavily built machines, but the quality of the grain cut was poor since it was the age of the spacing set blade.

After WWII a lightweight downmarket version of a radial arm saw sold vigorously to homeowners?it was said to be the "must own" woodworking machine in the U.S. Unlike it's industrial counterpart, it didn't hold a right angle at all well and the quality of the end grain cut was what you got with the blade of the times. In the 60s, with the introduction of the TCT blade, the end grain cut was greatly improved but the inaccurate angle cut remained. Today's mitre saws are better engineered than the "homeowner" radial arm saws. They are generally limited to a 12" cut length and they use a TCT blade. They hold the set angle very well and deliver a first rate end grain cut?that for me takes care of to the vast majority of cross cuts. Dimensions longer than 12" are best cut using a sliding cross cut fence or box on a table saw.

Are they safe? If they're used to cross cut and if accuracy is not important, yes. If they are used in any other way, no."

A. (Ellis Walentine) "In my mind, radial arm saws are not at all obsolete. Although sliding compound miter saws do an excellent job of finish-crosscutting boards up to 12" wide, nothing beats a radial arm saw for crosscutting wider stock and rough boards. Properly adjusted, the radial arm saw can cut very accurate dados, referenced on the opposite side of the board, which is a big advantage for some jobs.

The radial arm saw's reputation has suffered because of the "do-everything" billing it received in the '60s and 70s through the marketing efforts of a couple prominent mass marketers. It was touted as the best all-around solution not only for crosscutting, but also for ripping, dadoing, shaping, routing and saber-sawing. In fact, the radial saw is a poor match for many of these tasks; and some of these secondary operations, particularly ripping, have proven to be quite hazardous."

From the Woodworker's Journal eZine archives

posted on February 15, 2007 by Rockler
previous post next post
Comments

30 thoughts on “Are Radial Arm Saws a Thing of the Past?”

  • I use both, doing compound and angle cuts on the mitter saw and square cuts on the radial. A radial arm saw does one more thing we fail to remember. They can be turned to do a fine job of ripping long boards. I keep mine set nice and square and do almost all my cross cuts on it. Always there, ready to flip a switch and cross cut using the added laser pointer, but I must admit, I spent some time tuning it to near perfect squareness. .. and I never change the angle... it is a work horse.

  • I use my radial arm for a multitude of things.....specialty moldings using a moulding head (Sears, don't you EVER discontinue them!), tenons, lap joints, and especially crosscuts.<br />I frequently make moldings of exotic or uncommon woods.<br /><br />Yes, I do have a sliding compound mitre saw, but I save that for on-site jobs where most of the work is just cut-off work.<br /><br />I have a TINY 8x12 shop, and have the radial arm set in a corner. The left fence/tabletop extends out to the double doors; the right side is right against a wall, with a small door set up to pass-through stock. I can rip stuff on the saw if needed.<br />There is room to swing the saw both ways for angled cuts.<br /><br />I HIGHLY recommend that the side tables be covered with laminate to provide slipperyness.....the area right by the blade is MDF for a sacrificial top.<br />It provides enough friction to hold the stock still for cutting, and the De Cristoforo book on using the saw is an incredible resource....use it!

  • I have a 1948 DeWalt GR 24" crosscut 14" radial arm saw in my shop. I frequently use it to crosscut rough slabs for tabletops, doors and windows. Also good for cabinet crosscuts for plywood parts. It sets up square and stays there. Properly adjusted they do not "climb" at you. Anyone who thinks they can cut rough lumber safer than this machine with a chop box or skill saw should submit for a drug test. At nearly 1000# I do not move it to job sites as was actually done decades ago...this beast is stationary. An original saw or old dewalt or delta is a fine machine to have if your space/needs/budget can afford it. My dewalt also makes finish end cuts smooth as glass and very square. That said I grew up with and have used a Craftsman homemaker model in another shop and would rather crosscut my slabs by hand than risk my life with one of those.

  • Ernest Demaray

    All good comments here, but these two saw formats are both evolving. It will be interesting to see how this goes. I'd like to see each saw evolve new capability; dado capability on a sliding miter saw, that is the capacity for a dado blade on the arbor and set height slider setting, and cross cabinet length dado cuts on the RAS for nominal 24" wide panels as is the case with "The Original Saw" RAS.<br /><br />RED

  • Seth Hook

    I tend to think that the RAS is one of the safer power tools in the shop, when treated with respect for it's power. Why? With a RAS you are controling the saw and thus tend to always know where the blade is, versus a table saw where often times the kerf is the only sign of where the blade is going, and often times a woodworker hunches over the saw. But each tool has it's place, I find a table saw unrivaled for ripping and a RAS unrivaled for crosscutting. I think the danger with a RAS comes in with taking the tool into questionable waters. I'd say that if you have to ask yourself should I make this cut then the tool is beyond it's use. My theory use a table saw for ripping, use a jointer/planer for it's purpose, a router for it's purpose, bandsaw for it's purpose, and a RAS most definately belongs in the shop.

  • Very interesting; I have used a Radial Arm saw for over 30 years and find many of the comments about safety are made on hearsay or without due consideration; for instance:<br />1. You can rip from either end of the table. Rip from one end and, sure enough, the blade tries to climb and throw the board, but rip from the other end and the saw blade tries to lift and with the blade guard in a suitable position it then works almost like a table saw. My saw was built in the 50's or early 60's ( I got it at a garage sale) so didn't have all the modern safety features. <br /><br />2. I have found that even after long use the cross cut function is still within 1° to 2° and if I check and adjust it occasionally it will hold less than 1°. Good enough?<br /><br />I haven't used multiple brands, but am inclined to say accuracy and function are likely more dependent on quality than saw type. Is this a Chevy vs. Ford debate?

  • joe purman

    can any 1 with real experance ,not hearsay, tell me the proper saw blade to use on a radial arm saw? i have read that the safest blade has a -5% saw tooth ???? plz. let me know for sure.

  • I couldn't imagine my shop without a Radial Arm Saw. I've never even had as much as a close call for safety, but I do use it properly. Accuracy is a bit of a problem if you don't keep it "in tune". The major problem I've found is when you are constantly swining the arm to different angles and then back to 90 degrees. My RAS is a 28 year old Craftsman and it is WELL used and still working well. The sliding compound miter saws just don't have the reach I use in making furniture. I can't ever see being without a RAS

  • Michael P. O'Connor
    Michael P. O'Connor August 28, 2008 at 5:22 pm

    I own a Rigid radial arm saw and am trying to locate a fitting that will allow me to hook my shop vac up to the dust port on the blade guard. Does anyone know where I can purchase this? Thanks, Michael

  • Blog Editor

    Michael - what are the inside and outside dimensions of the saw's dust port? We may have a fitting that will work.

  • Lewis Pond

    Radial arm saws have a lot of versatility compared to table saws. Horizontal boring, sanding, milling, etc. The saw does have to be adjusted properly to make accurate cuts. Most of my friends who do not like radial arm saws were those who used a saw which was out of adjustment. They are not very portable, but can cut large stock, if the proper supports for the stock are used in the shop.

    No single saw will do everything.

  • Bob Mazzarone

    The one thing I hate about my RAS is that it tends to pull itself throught the cut. The friction on the arm seems fine when you're nut cutting but as soon as I start to cut, the blade runs up like a car tire on the road. I hear that can be adjusted but the directions don't make sense.

  • Rockler Blog Team
    Rockler Blog Team January 18, 2010 at 5:24 am

    Thanks for the comment Bob. We're hesitant to advise you without the benefit of seeing the situation, but it sounds like you're correct and the tension of the roller bearings on the underside of the arm need to be adjusted. If you're unsure of how to do this, or what the correct adjustment should feel like, we urge you to find someone who is, or get in touch with the manufacturer, if possible, and have them talk you through it. Also, be sure to check the condition and type of blade. A dull blade, especially one with an agressive hook angle, is not a good thing on a radial arm saw. A sharp blade with a zero degree or negative hook angle is your best bet. In this case, the adage "better safe than sorry" definitely holds true. Hope this helps.

  • R

    To make a RA saw safe (well less dangerous) is to tune it. Accuracy is important, but it is actually a lot safer when your saw blade can spin without touching the wood it just cut. If the back of the blade hits the wood as you cut, it is going to tend to push on your work and catch on the blade. Secondly, the blade needs to be sharp. Get a good carbide toothed blade...the sharper the blade the less force there will be on the wood you are cutting. If your saw if set up properly you should almost be able to cut the wood without holding it...don't try it though.

  • Dick

    I am a firm believer in the usefulness of the radial arm saw. I purchased a 10" Craftsman radial arm saw in 1960. It is my key tool. Over the fifty years I used it in every configuration, and it has not required any repairs at all. I can't imagine being without it.

  • John Zoltner

    I've had a Craftsman 10" RAS since 1965. It's served me very
    well during this time (only failure so far: the on/off switch).
    I've retired since then and have picked up a table saw and a
    sliding miter saw over the past few years. I still use the RAS
    but have dedicated it to only dado cuts. I still occasionally
    surprise myself when I take a too aggressive dado cut. The
    dado stacked blades can take a bite that can overpower you.
    That must be why the newer Craftsman RAS's I've seen have
    a cable/brake feature to control this side effect.
    John Z

  • Steve

    I also also have a 1948 DeWalt Radial Arm saw in my shop. I bought it at an estate sale four doors down a few years ago after its 95 year-old woodworking owner, Willis, passed away. So far, I've used it only for cross cuts while remodeling my house and boy, it cuts shockingly square and sharp — like it was brand new. I've never seen any tendency to climb; then again, it's so solid on it's original metal DeWalt table (it weights about as much as a Caterpillar bulldozer and is built like one too) it's hard to imagine this saw could do that, however I keep my fingers and hands out of the blade path as common sense would dictate. Honestly, I could have easily done with a good chop saw or compound miter saw, but then again, there's something so timeless about the solid workmanship and 1948 quality that went into that DeWalt saw. It reminds me of the glory days of woodworking and brings on a smile every time I use it.

  • DUVIE

    I have been a radial arm saw user since the 1960s and am now using my 4th saw due to some trades and upgrades. I use the radial arm saw as a cutt-off saw and to cut dados. I have always kept the saws set up beside my table saw and am now designing my latest and probably last shop and am contemplating its replacement. The saftey and versitility of the saw is not so much the determining factor as is the floor space it requires. I hav a 10 inch sliding miter say that I will replace it with and I suppose it will find a spot in an unused corner while the final judgement is made.

  • Bob La Londe

    Well, I don't know. Just have my own experience to share. My uncle has an old commercial grade ras in his shop. My dad has an old Montgomery Wards ras. They both seemt o work just fine with my uncles being slightly more accurate and settable. They use them a lot, but when I did a major bay window retrofit into an old house of mine I bought a Rigid table say instead. I had a ras I had bought from a client, but It just didn't seem to work well for me. No power jumping, jamming, etc. I hated it, but because it was a cheaper consumer brand I figured it was just the saw. The Rigid has become my work horse table saw. Its not even a cabinet maker's saw, Just a roll around 110V contractor's saw. It will rip 3/5 ply without slowing down, and if I take the time to set the fence accurately (my only complaint about the saw is the sloppy fence placement) it cut very consistently every time. Yes the blades make a difference, but its very versatile. I think the next time I need to do cabinet grade or custom fit work I will just make a shuttle for it. Now let me add a caveat. Several years ago I gave away my old ras FOR FREE and bought a nice Delta 230V ras. I hate it. The motor or brake (not sure which) would stick constantly, and the safety guards actually caused dangerous situations and jammed up stock. I haven't even tried to use it in a couple years. I use my table saw and my miter saw for everything.

    Are they a thing of the past? My uncle has a nice cabinet grade saw cabinet saw, and a table saw just like mine. (when he was living away from home for work he bought one on my reccomendation) He still uses his ras as much as his table saws. My ras is just another workbench in the shop currently cover with bottles of flake and plastisol pigements.

  • Scott

    I've used a ras for years and for all kinds of operations. I don't agree that it's any more dangerous than any other tool in the shop. If you know what you're doing and respect the tool, there should be no issues. As for versatility, there is no more versatile tool in the shop. Cross-cuts, rips, dados, grooves, rabbets, coves, boring, sanding, shaping...tenons, miters, dovetails, box joints all can be done safely and accurately with the ras. Just as with the table saw or any other tool, achieving safety and accuracy sometimes requires the use of jigs or fixtures. I love the tabel saw, but if could only have one tool in the shop, I'd take the ras, hands down.

  • Marvin McConoughey
    Marvin McConoughey June 2, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    We built our house, cabinetry included, with a radial arm saw. Late in the process a neighbor lent us his table saw. Both were useful, but the RAS was used far more. We sold the RAS after the house was done. Years later, I now have a Makita sliding arm bevel saw. The Makita is fine, but the RAS was more versatile, partly because it would cross cut two feet where the Makita struggles to crosscut one foot. Blade changes were easier on the RAS than on our present Ridgid table saw. I wish that I had kept the radial arm saw.

  • Randy

    After becoming interested in woodworking by watching Norm on Old Yankee Workshop I decided I’d try and make a pair of sawhorses like the pair he made on the show.

    Having no power tools outside of a drill and circular saw I figured I use the Craftsman RAS sitting in the garage where I work. Norm’s sawhorses included a shelf and had many beveled edges that required angled rips. Not having a clue I figured out how to turn the saw for ripping, set the angle and started pushing the stock between the blade and fence trapping the wood under the blade. Thankfully I had enough since at the time to stand off to the side just in case.

    You guessed it; if it hadn’t been for the cinder blocks making up the walls the board would have punched through just like engineers testing walls with tornado force winds.

    But many years later after working for a few years in a cabinet shop and owning my own tablesaw and other varied nail guns and such I found a commercial grade Craftsman 12” RAS for $45 that had been sitting in a barn for 20 plus years. It is made very solid and has little wear but I’m having issues with the motor working at least most of the time. Hope I can figure out what it is because I need it to cut some 2x12 and 4x4 lumber soon.

  • Wayne

    I have two work shops, one attached to the garage And one in the basement with a dust collection system. I have a craftsman table saw and a craftsman RAS in the basement. In my other shop I have a ridgid table saw and a chop saw. Before I retired 9 years ago I bought a new ridgid table saw and a new RAS. THE table saw I set up right away. It's a great saw with a great fence. The RAS is still in the box. I thought the old craftsman RAS would surcome to part replacement issues. It's still going. I'm 69, don't do as much woodworking as I use to. I love the rigid table saw, I'm sure the RAS is great too. But, I guess I might try o get some of my money back by selling the RAS. I still love a RAS. But the chop saw in my other shop is portable and doesn't take up as much room as the RAS. THE chop saw has a quick release foldable stand with wheels. I still love the RAS I have in the basement. Just wait, as soon as I sell the RAS in the box old reliable RAS in the basement will crap out and then the replacement part will cost more than I could get for the one in the box. Maybe I'll think about this a little more....

  • Bob Frerichs

    I have a Delta 18" RAS with a Forrest 18" 100T Duraline, .180 Kerf blade. I also have a Makita chop saw. Each does its intended mission very well. The Delta produces a square cut with a finish so smooth it hardly needs sanding on everything I have cut with it; wide or narrow, thick or thin. I used to have a Craftman 10" RAS. The Delta and the Craftman are completely different tools. I had to be very careful with the Craftman as it was really too light for what it was doing. The Delta is rock solid heavy with a very high quality blade. There is not the slightest hint of the issues I had to watch out for with the Craftman. The way the Delta is made, I would guess I could hit it with a hammer and it would stay square. It was a challenge getting it tuned the first time, but i doubt if I will ever have to tune it again.

    In reading the comments above it seems to me the differences are really attributed to the quality of the RAS itself, rather than the type of saw it is. For my shop, I like the radial arm. But if you plan to get one, get a very good one which means you will be spending 5 times or more what even a compound miter will cost. Unfortunately, through the many ownership changes, Delta has stopped making their industrial quality RAS. If you can find a used one, it might be the way to go.

  • mark

    I want to thank you for sending my order so soon . I am very pleased with the things i got. thank you. mark

  • I have been reading, and I understand that you are of no need for a dependable sturdy, multiple angle, multiple use, and very powerful tool like the radial arm saw and although I can respect your opinion I cannot leave this column without defending my RAS, you could say the same about the cordless drill when you start comparing some of the pro's and con's of the corded drill and or better yet! the drill press. But what it really boils down to is personal preference along with the scope of the work you do! I would like to believe that my RAS is a vital and very important power tool in my arsenal of wood working tools in the shop, also as far as safety goes! We all must remember to slow down! Take it a little bit at a time and remember when you try to do too much with any power tool you could get hurt trying to overwork your tools and push to much thru the action it take on! Oh yeah the comment about the blade coming at the operator if you think about it when you stand in the line of fire of anything that creates centrifugal force you would always naturally have that tools moving part coming at you

  • Jens Jensen

    I would not be without my radial arm say (Craftsman, circa 1982). I've invested a lot of time to make it "true" and it supports activities that a "chop saw" cannot. So, I have both. Use the right tool for the job for greater "performance" and "safety".

  • Andrew

    Would NEVER permit one of these in my shop. Without a doubt, the MOST dangerous tool in a shop & I've been in one professionally over 35 years. All my fingers and never a workman's comp claim from any employee.

  • Jay

    I have used sliding compound miter saws exclusively for the past many years. But, I have just run into one major drawback of them. The sliding arm.
    I am building a wood shop in the barn and thought to build a saw table along one wall. I forgot about the fact that the saw has to be far removed from the wall to be used effectively. It would have projected the front of my saw 4 feet from the wall with a lot of wasted space along its length. Now I'm stuck with tearing out the whole frame I'd built for it or getting a radial arm saw (Which, when I stop to think about it was exactly what was used for just such set ups I have seen.). The problem is that I currently have a good 12" dbl bevel compound miter saw. Buying a rad arm saw would be redundant.
    So space needed for the saw is a consideration as to which to use.

  • Don

    My Craftsman RAS is indispensable for making dadoes for cabinets and bookshelves. Do the adjustments and respect the blade. I have tablesaw, band saw, jointer, thickness planer and all of my fingers! Keep hands a few inches from the blade and don't use the saw when tired or impaired.

Leave a comment

What People are Saying:

I have been ordering from Rockler for almost 20 years and have found their products to be very inexpensive and of high quality. Shipping is fast even when an item is back ordered. The best prices I have found anywhere."

- Orval - 08/07/2012

What People are Saying:

I have been ordering from Rockler for almost 20 years and have found their products to be very inexpensive and of high quality. Shipping is fast even when an item is back ordered. The best prices I have found anywhere."

- Orval - 08/07/2012
Feedback X