Table Saw Safety and Calculated Risks

Hank talks table saw safety and taking the occasional calculated risk to get things done in a pinch.

Sometimes you act without thinking, and sometimes you act only after carefully thinking it through. In both cases, you can win, and in both, you can also lose — depending on how it plays out. One of our loyal readers, Elton Brakhane, an experienced woodworking teacher from Glendale, Arizona, wrote a well-appreciated and heartfelt note to me in response to a photo (pictured at left) that ran on Page 75 of the November/December 2012 issue. In this case, the photo was mocked up to give an indication of how I sawed the tenon cheeks for some cabinet legs — I actually made the shoulder cuts after the cheek cuts, which have already been made in this photo.

Elton wrote this:

“Using a table saw to cut tenons is great. However, the picture shows a very unsafe way of cutting them. Build a jig to hold the leg, no matter how long the leg is. Kickback can occur even when doing things safely. Also, the picture shows no saw guard when cutting timbers — again, another very unsafe way of doing this.”

Elton’s sentiment is absolutely correct. The safest way to make those cuts on the table saw is with a jig that will simultaneously hold the legs vertically, while forming a sliding saddle over the fence. These jigs are easy to make; I thought about making one for those legs and didn’t do it. I didn’t do it because the legs were heavy and long, and I didn’t have the MDF material on hand that I like for making jigs. So I proceeded by thinking through each of the cuts and anticipating potential problems — even the most dangerous ones. I took a calculated risk and it worked out, but I can’t recommend that when making these kinds of cuts on the saw, you do the same.

My first table saw experiences occurred more than 40 years ago with a homemade, fixed arbor job. There were no guards, the blade was fully raised, and it didn’t tilt. The fence consisted of a board and a pair of clamps. That saw and a slightly less primitive commercial version after it served me for many years (through the building of several wooden boats), and never once did I experience kickback with them. The only time I experienced kickback was using a modern tilting arbor saw with the guard in place. Like Elton, I would not recommend that you routinely saw without the guard — if you have to do it, calculate the risks beforehand.

I am in favor of safety devices and for teaching their proper use. I am not in favor of substituting safety devices for fundamental knowledge and respect of the machines to which they are attached.

Seatbelt laws in Great Britain and the United States were invoked to reduce injury to passengers. It’s true that passenger injury was reduced — but pedestrian injury from vehicles increased. Experts concluded that drivers felt safer and therefore took more chances when buckled up. I wear the seatbelt in my power-ABS-brake-lacking 1964 pickup. I’m the guy who’s not tailgating you on the freeway — now you know why.

No amount of safety gear can replace thoroughly thinking things through, knowing and respecting your equipment, and being smart — even more so when you find yourself in a pinch and need to get real work done in less than ideal circumstances. Be careful out there.

Whether you live in town or on 1,000 acres, we’d love to know what you’re up to this season. And if you’ve gotten yourself into any situations where carefully calculating the risks and taking them got you out of a jam, we’d love to hear them. Send us a short letter (editor@grit.com) — and a photo or two if you can — and we just might publish it in the magazine or on www.Grit.com.

See you in March,