Table Saw Safety Accessories

A long discussion on the utility and practicality of guards, splitters, and automatic blade brakes. November 26, 2007

I've got a friend (another professional woodworker) who recently customized his left hand. I think he just removed a few of his extra fingers. Although he does not yet want to discuss it, I have to imagine that this was done on a table saw that probably did not have a splitter or a guard. I would also guess that his employer might be visited soon by OHSA. I'm at a loss to understand why any of us, especially any of us with employees working in our shops, would not use both splitters and guards. I visited three local professional shops over the past week and none of them used splitters or guards, and they all had lame excuses why they did not. Why does it take an accident to convince so many of us that it might be a good idea to use the safety features that our machines require?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor D:
I run a splitter built into my shop-made throat plate. I also have the Excalibur dust collector/guard. Even with these safety devices, I always tell my employees to never, ever reach behind the blade with their left hand. I am curious to know if left hand injuries are the most common, or is it the right hand thumb (for right-handed operators)?

From contributor M:
I never used my guard on my Unisaw. Now I have a sliding saw and I won't use it without the riving knife and guard. You can't stop a 7 1/2 hp motor from binding. Guards are like earplugs - you just have to get used to them. They should always be used.

From contributor I:
Has anyone tried one of the Sawstop table saws (hotdog stop saws)? I am considering replacing a few of my Unisaws for obvious safety reasons. I have seen them up close at the wood shows and they seem to be well built. Any thoughts on these saws?

From contributor R:
We have one and are very pleased.

From contributor F:
I think in large operations where a saw is used for a basic single task, it may be difficult to conceive why anyone would run without guards and splitters. In a one man custom shop like mine, where there really is no standard product, the table saw is the heart of the operation. It is used for rabbeting, resawing, ripping, tenoning, tapered angles, crosscutting with sleds, as well as other tasks requiring custom sleds designed for one-off purposes.

I started in this trade in the 1970's and although I have worked in over a dozen different woodworking operations, only the very last one where I was an employee ran 10" saws with a guard. There was no splitter and the guard was the very user friendly type that is suspended from an adjustable overhead bar.

As far as splitters go, I think they must be handiest for those who work without jointers or run crooked against the fence. After ripping solid wood for over thirty years, aside from my first year or two as a novice, I have never found a board I couldn't pass through the blade on a saw without a splitter.

If I had to have an employee in this lawsuit happy society of ours, I suppose I would have to operate differently. For the record, I don't want anyone who reads my words to get hurt on a table saw. It is capable of ruining and changing the rest of your life! In my experience, the vast majority of laceration or amputation injuries on a table saw only occur because a saw operator placed a hand on the out feed side of the blade and in-line with it. Left hand mostly, but right hand too, in the case of ripping narrow stock with no push stick.

If you new guys can remember not to put a hand on the outfeed side of the blade and in-line with it, you can avoid the most common way to get hurt on a table saw. I have been hurt, but thankfully I have all of my fingers on both hands. Back in the day, a workman saw the risks as part of the trade. Many men have been hurt on the job and in large industrial projects such as dams, skyscrapers, pipelines, etc., it was considered common for a certain number of deaths to occur during completion of the project. Modern thinking is more toward an entitlement to zero risks on the job, or I'll sue!

From contributor J:
I guarantee you your friend will be checking out the Sawstops with a huge cast and bandaged arm and hand. I was looking at them last year at the same time two other guys who had just cut themselves pretty badly were... Go figure! If you're even thinking about getting one, don't hesitate or wait until something happens. Sure, they're a little more, but well worth it. I have purchased four Sawstops - three for the school where I teach, and one for my home shop. They are by far the best saw I have used, which includes both Delta and Powermatic. I really believe they are the best saw on the market even if you forget about the safety features.

For those of you who "need" to remove the guard for certain operations, the Sawstop guard will come off in literally a few seconds with no tools needed. It's the neatest thing, and one of its better features.

From contributor C:
I do not have a Sawstop, but can attest to the incredibly positive safety factor they provide. There is no other system that can even compare. I have seen a blade and a spent Sawstop cartridge and was thoroughly impressed. There is no substitute for training. You must never think you know it all, and must never forget every safety lesson you have been taught.

From contributor K:
I think the problem with people removing the guards on table saws is largely due to the fact that on older and lower end saws like the Delta, the Powermatic, and the myriad of imported copies of these saws, the guard was added with minimum effort and design to meet the mandate of OSHA and other agencies. They are poorly designed, difficult to adjust (riving knife), and hard to work around. They were added not as a safety feature, but because the manufacturers were forced to. You get into the Martin, Felder, Altendorf, etc. grade of saw, and the guards are actually a very useful safety feature. I guess those of us using the lower end saws should look into some of the aftermarket add-on guards (or a better saw).

From contributor F:
I can't resist contributor J's comment. My reply is that if you have never had the "need" to remove a saw guard, you haven't done much woodworking, or much variety, at any rate. I do understand you teach for a living and must protect the students.

From contributor P:
Guards are a pain in the butt. There, it's been said. After that, I blame old habits. How many of us actually learned to use a table saw with a guard in place? I use a splitter in the throat plate, but I'll admit that the guard has never been attached to my saw. It's poorly designed at best, doesn't work with a thin kerf blade, doesn't work with most cuts, and is difficult to get on and off, just as most of them are.

All that said, I have a slider and the overhead guard is always in position - the table saw has been dedicated to grooving and the traditional guard doesn't work for that operation, anyway. An overhead guard is a completely different animal than the junk that comes with most cabinet saws, but even then there is an adjustment period. I'm still not used to working with a guard in place and for a long time felt less safe not being able to see the blade spinning. Figure that one out.

From contributor Q:
I have a question for anyone who rips solid wood without a splitter or riving knife. Have you never had a board pinch on the blade as it binds back into the kerf? The splitter or riving knife also helps to keep the board straight against the fence once the leading edge has passed the blade, cutting down on saw marks. There are times when you have to remove a splitter - dadoes, tenoning, etc. But I just can't see any rationale for not spending a few seconds replacing a guard or splitter for cuts when it's not going to be in the way. Also, the anti-kickback fingers on the splitter can prevent a nasty injury. I've had cut-offs kick back and go through the paneled wall behind my saw when I was too lazy to replace the splitter. Only my practice of not standing directly behind a work piece kept me from having a stick in the belly.

In my shop, guards and safety glasses are required in the machine room. I use Board Buddies on the table saw - they work very well, and I'm adding them to the shaper as well.

The one thing everybody needs to consider is that it's not the thousand times that everything goes right that you have to worry about. It's the one time that something goes wrong that will cause you the problem. So why on earth should you not prepare for that one time?

From contributor H:
I just visited my door maker's shop. Of all the table saws, about 4 Unisaws and 1 Sawstop, not one of them had a splitter or a guard. The Sawstop comes with a riving knife and they removed that. Personally, I use an Excalibur over-arm guard and a splitter on my Unisaw. I still am looking into adding a Sawstop and using the Unisaw with the sliding table just for crosscuts. You can never be too careful.

From contributor L:
With a riving knife and an over-arm guard on a quality slider, how could you hurt yourself? I can rip 1/8" strips all day long in perfect safety; I'd like to see that done on a Sawstop.

From contributor J:
My apologies if my remarks came off as snide. I was simply trying to get the point across that the Sawstop guard was easily removed. As to removing the guard, yes, I understand it is necessary for certain operations. Over the years I have moved my students away from some of the more dangerous operations on a table saw to safer machines such as routers and miter saws. I had a 14 year old kid zip 3 of his fingers off doing one of those operations where the guard had to be removed. Please don't question my experience; I'm not an old timer, but I've been there.

About the only thing we do on the table saw now is rip. When we have to resaw, I assist them very closely. When we cut dadoes, we use a router; box joints, router; we use a shaper to cut grooves; we do mortise and tenons with a router and a hollow chisel mortiser. All crosscuts and miters, with little exception, are done on a miter saw or radial arm. As you can see, all of these machines are safer with the possible exception of the shaper. It takes longer, but to me it's worth it to never to see another kid get hurt.

Don't get me wrong, all my students are instructed well on the table saw and what it can do as well as how dangerous it can be. I choose to give them other options that will keep them safe beyond me.

From contributor E:
I worked in a larger shop for a little while where guards had to be in place for OSHA. When I say "had," what I really mean is the guard had to be close enough that you could get it back on if needed. Even with the flip up guards, you would still need to remove them for certain operations. Riving knives were nonexistent, and the only pawls that I believe would truly stop a kickback were on the custom made guard for the Tanny. Most of the pawls I've seen provided with saws seem to be too rounded at the ends to catch, but then I've never tried to prove this.

I do believe there's a certain amount of added risk using the saws without their guards, and certainly would not recommend it for a beginner. I also believe there's a lot to be said from contributor P's comment, "The one thing everybody needs to consider is that it's not the thousand times that everything goes right that you have to worry about. It's the one time that something goes wrong that will cause you the problem." This is so very true.

Though I still wouldn't use a riving knife on my saw. I'm also in the habit of not standing behind the work, and know in the back of my head a piece could come flying back anytime I'm ripping. It hasn't happened in years, and if it does, I'll let it fly and move on to the next piece (guess I should add that I'm a one man operation at the moment!). I hope that doesn't sound reckless, but I think everyone who's used a tablesaw for any amount of time has had a kickback or two. A bit scary, but if you're working safely, not harmful. Not worth the time and effort that would be involved in installing a riving knife on my saw. Now if I had the Sawstop with that fancy setup... Maybe?

At the end of the day there's probably not a very good reason for not using the guard when able to. There's a certain amount of risk with using any power tools, guarded or not. For most machines I leave the guard on, but it's really knowledge, awareness, and concentration that keeps you from having an accident. The guard just adds some extra insurance if you get sloppy.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all of the great responses! I've only been doing woodworking since 1990, so I don't have the decades of experience that many of you have. Since I am still new to this I have always used a splitter and almost always used a guard. I have never had the thrill of a kickback on any of my saws since my splitter prevents that. I still would not stand in harm's way (just in case) and I use nice long push sticks. I have almost always had the benefit of owning European saws with sliders which were designed with safety in mind. I was also taught early on that the splitter was the most important safety feature on a table saw. Work safely and prosper!

From contributor F:
No worries, contributor J. I don't envy your position. Your job is to teach young people how to make a living working with wood products. Unfortunately, due to the inherent danger of the process, you have to teach some methodology that the student's future employers may have to "un-train" them from. I don't blame you and I can imagine how horrible it must be to have a serious accident in a school shop class.

Perhaps in the future, the basic arbor and blade will be seen only in museums. Until then, anyone who pursues the craft for the long run is going to have to work at a blade and arbor and hopefully understand its behavior enough to become one with it, through practice and respect for the danger. I think extreme fear of it is just as bad as carelessness. I worked for a self-taught woodworker once who was so afraid of his table saw that he stood on the right hand side of the fence as he fed the stock! Even this man cut his finger a few years ago.

I turn on a personal internal alarm system whenever I have my hands in the area of a spinning cutter. I am much more worried about cuts than flying wood. I have never used splitters and instead I have learned how to ensure a safe cut by dressing the edge of the material and keeping it tight to the fence. Even on the odd occasion where a twisted board rocks and tries to bind up, my ears, hands and arms are well trained to keep the board moving to the cut's completion. Only experience and a kickback or two can teach this.

Stay alert, keep your hands out from behind and inline with the blade. If you notice cracks in the wood, be careful, especially when ripping narrow pieces. A blunt piece that kicks back will bruise you... A sharp one might run you through.

From contributor V:
There is a lot of info here, and some of it is about a saw which, as you may know, has a device on it that its inventor tried to sell to other manufacturers. Our local Woodcraft store sells them and I think they should be used in schools. We use our guard on our newer Powermatic table saw. When we can't, we don't - it's as simple as that. You learn and train on whatever is available, pain or no.

From contributor Y:
I have worked for 12 years in the construction business and have plenty of hours on the table saw. I have also been teaching in high school and a college environment for about another 12 years. I have taught weekend warriors, as I call them - many housewives and office workers who have never touched a power tool, let alone a table saw. I agree most factory guards are a pain, which is why I replaced mine with over-arm guards. As far as splitters, I love them, since they prevent the #1 accident I see in class. This is kickback on panel products when the operator allows the leading edge to come away from the fence. Despite all my best efforts to explain this issue to my students, invariably someone slips up... But with the splitter in place, kickback is stopped.

As far as not standing in line with the material being cut... I have read this recommendation in many texts, and teach my students to ignore it. I want them to position themselves so they have the best control over the material they are feeding and never lose control over the material between the fence and the blade. I have also banned the use of the traditional "S" shaped push stick after a student had one pull his hand into the blade while using one (just a nick, thankfully). I now use a 1' long piece of 2x 6 solid stock or 1x6 plywood with a stop notched into the end. With this push stick I can even safely rip 1/4" strips by just running it over top of the blade. These changes to my technique have made my shop classes a lot safer, and allow me to sleep better at night.