Exploring the Safety Features on SawStop Brand Table and Cabinet Saws
The SawStop brand products might carry a somewhat higher price tag, but the safety innovations are well worth it in the shop.
The “hotdog saw.” Thanks to demonstrations done at woodworking shows, that’s what lots of people call the SawStop table saw. You’ve heard the buzz.
I can’t imagine anyone arguing against the notion that a safer table saw is a better table saw. The brake system on the SawStop machine is cool and, as the SawStop folks say, it should “minimize the severity” of a table saw injury. But you’ve got to admit, they’re not giving the SawStop machines away. Their 3HP cabinet saw with a 52" fence, side extension table, dado insert and brake cartridge costs about $3,400 (as of 2008). Which begs the question: brake aside, how good a table saw is the SawStop, and how does it stack up against other saws?
I’ve had a SawStop in my school for quite a while, and am happy to report what I’ve learned about the saw. I also interviewed a number of SawStop owners for their opinions. The bottom line is that SawStop makes a great table saw. Here are the details.
In the Door and Set Up
The SawStop table saw is plenty heavy, weighing in at about 600 pounds, so plan on getting some help to get it into your shop.
The saw was easy to assemble, and the directions were great, but an extra pair of hands simplifies the process. You’ll need to bolt on the cast-iron wing and side extension table, along with the rip fence rail. Once the saw was assembled, I checked parallelism between the blade and miter gauge slot and found it was dead-on. If you do need to adjust this setting, it’s easy thanks to positioning screws that are unique to the SawStop machine. The screws let you dial in parallelism settings, instead of tapping the saw table with a mallet, as on other saws.
The positive stop that sets the blade perpendicular to the table was also dead-on. Stop bolts used to adjust this setting are similar to those found on other saws.
Them’s the Brakes
The next step involved learning about the brake system. Like anything new, my first experiences with getting the brake in and out of the saw were awkward. But solid instructions and plenty of room to work through the throat of the saw got me through it. Once I had a feel for inserting and removing the brake, it wasn’t a big deal.
[caption id="attachment_13903" align="aligncenter" width="350"] Set the brake for the SawStop at around a nickel's thickness between the brake and blade for proper functionality.
After the brake is in the saw, it has to be set the correct distance from the blade. You’re shooting for a gap, from brake to blade, equal to the thickness of a nickel. This adjustment is made from above the saw. After doing a few blade changes, I could easily dial the distance in. If the brake is set too far from the blade, which could affect its ability to work correctly, the microprocessor won’t allow the saw to run.
Because of the diameter difference between standard blades and dado heads, a different brake is required for dado heads. That means swapping the two brakes when setting up a dado head.
[caption id="attachment_13904" align="aligncenter" width="350"] Alignment changes for the blade's brake can be made on the SawStop saw from the top down, above the saw.
I’ve found that changing blades on the SawStop, with the extra step of checking or swapping the brake, isn’t a big deal. Even students who have never used the saw before easily get the hang of blade and brake changes with a little assistance.
It’s a “Smart” Saw
The brake technology is great, but only if it’s working. Each time you power up the main switch on the SawStop, the machine does a self-analysis. It checks out the brake and the proximity between brake and blade, and it even makes sure all the access doors on the cabinet are closed. If the saw fails any of these tests, it won’t run. A pair of blinking lights, and the pattern in which they blink, allows you to cross reference to the owner’s manual to figure out what’s wrong.
[caption id="attachment_13905" align="aligncenter" width="350"] The blade guard on the SawStop has a very low profile which allows you to get a push stick between the guard and the fence for narrower cuts.
All right, let’s have a look at the saw and see what it offers. I’m a big advocate of keeping the guard on the saw all the time. SawStop’s blade guard is very low-profile and convenient. It allows you to get the rip fence quite close to the guard and still fit a push stick in between the two — useful for narrow pieces, like face frame parts. The cover is clear so you can easily see through it and watch your work.
[caption id="attachment_13907" align="aligncenter" width="350"] All of SawStop's table saws come equipped with a riving knife, which prevents the wood from pinching and maintains the distance between blade to knife.
In addition to the blade guard, the SawStop includes a riving knife. Use the riving knife in cases where you can’t use the blade guard. It’ll prevent the wood from pinching in on the blade behind the cut. Riving knives typically work better than conventional splitters because as you raise and lower the blade, the riving knife goes with it. So the distance from blade to knife is always the same. The blade guard also has a riving knife-style splitter.
[caption id="attachment_13911" align="aligncenter" width="350"] The blade in a SawStop table saw is surrounded by a dust shroud with a hose going out to the back of the cabinet where you can connect to a dust collector.
The saw blade is completely surrounded by a dust shroud. The shroud does an excellent job of capturing dust. Because a hose goes straight from the shroud to a dust port on the back of the saw cabinet, you can’t fill the cabinet with dust. In fact, you need to have dust collection on the machine whenever you’re using it; otherwise, the built-in hose The T-square style fence is solid and includes a nice feature called T-Glide. On many T-square style fences, the fence position changes slightly as you lock the fence, due to wiggle room between the lock and the fence rail. The T-Glide feature minimizes the gap between the fence and the rail. As a result, once you locate the fence’s cursor on the ruler and lock the fence, it stays put on the cursor location.
Will the Brake Break It?
Some woodworkers I talk to are concerned about potential negative effects of activating the brake, wondering if the sudden stop will affect the saw’s accuracy. The folks at SawStop told me, “In testing, we’ve repeatedly activated the brake mechanism on a number of our saws and haven’t seen any negative effect on the saws’ accuracy.” Remember that these folks are pushing a hotdog into the blade many times a day at their demos, so they’ve had plenty of opportunity to check this feature out.
While activating the brake shouldn’t have any ill effects on the saw, it is hard on the blade. The blade and brake come together with such force that they typically fuse together. So, each activation of the brake costs you a blade plus a new brake cartridge. (But you just saved a finger, right?)
False Fires are Possible
Is it possible for the brake to fire for some reason other than a finger? Sure. A common cause of misfire is cutting through an incorrectly positioned aluminum extension fence on the miter gauge. Another is incorrect positioning of the brake. If it’s touching the blade when you power up, the mechanism will fire. These are simply operator errors you need to watch for, not problems with the saw or its design.
The Bottom Line
In all honesty, I couldn’t find anyone with bad things to say about the SawStop table saw ... from retailers who sell the machines to cabinet shops that own multiple machines to individual woodworkers, reviews were great. In my own opinion, SawStop has done an excellent job of engineering a top-quality table saw that includes an innovative brake system.
The only real complaint I heard was the sticker price. In that regard, each woodworker has to define individually the value the brake system will bring to a shop.
New SawStop Products
[caption id="attachment_13913" align="aligncenter" width="350"] The SawStop contractor saw employs all the same safety features and as of its 2008 release cost between $1,500 and $2,000 depending on features.
The next thing to hit the market will be a SawStop contractor saw, scheduled for release in summer 2008. This machine will retail for $1,500 to $2,000, depending on the fence system and accessories you choose. The brake system will be exactly the same as the one used on the cabinet saw.
[caption id="attachment_13914" align="aligncenter" width="350"] For more mobility out of your saw, SawStop also offers a unit built on a wheelbarrow-type base, perfect for small shops and job sites.
For those of you who need a “saw on the go” for job sites, look for the SawStop contractor saw with the wheelbarrow-style visible-xs-inline base.