The table saw is the heart of any workshop. Purchasing the right table saw is critical as it will affect the quality of your work, your productivity and the limits of what you can actually build in your shop.
Table saws come in four categories and I’ll explain each one and outline the pros and cons of each one. The table saw you ultimately purchase will be largely influenced by your budget, this space you have available and in some cases the actual type of floor that you will be working on.
Portable Table Saw ($150 to $300)
Portal table saws are the most popular selections in most home workshops because of their cost, weight and size. These models can be installed directly onto a workbench or a floor stand. They’re easy to handle, transport and move around the shop. Some woodworkers with tight spaces will actually stow them away under their benches, in a corner or even in a closet. Although these table saws offer low cost and portability these saws have several drawbacks. Although adequate for the novice woodworker, cutting accuracy is somewhat limited. Inherent play in the work guides and a small cutting a table may create acceptable cuts for many projects but may be an issue with larger and more sophisticated work. To save cost portal table saws have direct drive motors that operate on 110 volts and are typically limited to one horsepower. Thick heavy cuts are usually beyond the capabilities of this type of table saw. I have found that extensive use of these small saws eventually results in motor burnout, and the motor is not replaceable. Although limited in power, the saws are also quite noisy and usually start with an abrupt jolt of the blade. One last issue with the saws are their blade angle systems. Most use a crude pivot system that is difficult to set and may get rapidly clogged with sawdust making the mechanism stiff. Although these saws that serve a purpose, you will likely want to upgrade as your woodworking skills evolve.
Contractor Saws ($600 to $1,000)
These units resemble larger versions of the portable saw variety but with some significant improvements. Although usually mounted on a stand with wheels, these units are not portable and are limited to rolling around the shop at best. Weighing in most cases over 250 pounds they’re not portable. Most of their weight is in the motor and table surface. Larger motors up to 3 horsepower and larger cast iron tables offer bigger cutting capacities. Well designed cutting guides with low tolerance levels offers much more accurate cutting as well. Most contractor saws operate on 220 volts and use a belt driven motor system. Starts and stops are smoother and quieter and if in the future if you wish to increase the size of the motor or replace a burnt out one, the process is easy and straightforward. Most contractor saws also have worm gear driven blade tilt systems that are more accurate and less prone to jamming due to sawdust buildup. One drawback of contractor saws is their open cabinet design, much like the portable saw. This makes dust collection difficult to control. In spite of this drawback, contractor saws offer many great features for the intermediate woodworker. Even as your skill levels evolve, contractor saws can offer you many years of reliable service.
Hybrid Saws ($1000 to $2000)
These are a relatively new addition to the class of saws available on the market. They’re a cross between contractor saws and larger cabinet saws, and usually offer more of a cabinet structure to the floor over the contractor saw configuration. These saws will usually house the belt driven motor within the cabinet. This makes dust collection more efficient, and the saw runs quieter as well. These saws are heavier, typically in the 350 pound range and feature larger motors starting at 3 horsepower. Like the contractor saw they have worm gear driven blade tilting systems and larger cast iron tables. Many hybrid saws can be fitted with table extensions to make cutting larger sheets easier.
Cabinet Saws ($2000-$10,000)
Cabinet saws are both amazing pieces of equipment and prohibitively expensive for most hobby woodworkers. They’re heavy and require a solid cement floor to rest on. Cabinet saws also take up a lot of space especially when fitted with large table extensions. All run on 240 volt power and motor sizes vary from 3 horsepower to 6 horsepower. Some expensive industrial units even run on three phase power, not available in a home. They offer the maximum in cutting accuracy and capacity and although most of the saws discussed use a 10″ blade, some cabinet saws operate with a larger 12″ blade that even further increases cutting capacity. The cost and size of this woodworker’s dream limits these units to large shops with solid cement floors and big budgets.
If you can afford to purchase a new contractor saw outright, consider this one of your best options. A good contractor saw will serve you for many years to come and turn out quality work. If it’s not in your budget consider a portable saw as a temporary measure with the plan to upgrade to a contractor’s saw in the future. Think carefully before you make the leap to a hybrid or cabinet saw. Justify the expense and make sure you have
Forty years ago, I bought my first portable table top saw from an ad in the newspaper (the internet wasn’t invented then!). The kind man sold it to me with a stand for $20 and I was able to get started in woodworking. Over the past four decades I have owned every type of saw outlined in this article depending on what work I was doing and the space I had to work with. I still believe that the best bang for the buck is the contractor saw. A few years ago a fellow was selling one on Kijiji and I was able to buy his hardly used contractor saw for the price of a new portable saw. Obviously the contractor saw was a much better deal, and has served me well since 2012. I have two other contractor saws that I have used for over 25 years. They have proven to be solid and durable saws that enable me to turn out good quality work.
One Last Word on Table Saws
When purchasing a table saw, look at the blade tilt direction. These days, the majority of saws are left tilt however some models are configured for right tilt blades. I will go into more detail in another article on all the advantages and disadvantages of these two different configurations. However in general, right handed woodworkers are more compatible with left tilt models. Also, when it comes to beveled cuts, left tilt saws are safer to use. Although right tilt models have some measurement and production advantages, most woodworkers will find left tilt blade saws easier and safer to operate.
Always try to buy the best saw type you can afford. Cheap portable saws can create limitations and tend to wear out quickly under constant use. Consider the dust collecting capabilities of the you are considering as well as power requirements (do you need to install a 240 volt outlet?).
There are many lightly used saws out there. Consider buying a better designed used saw over a cheaply made new one.