Exploring a SawStop Cabinet Saw
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 and online, 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 currently retails for $4,825. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.