Types of Table Saws: Choosing the Right Tool for the Job

The table saw is one of, if not the most essential tool in the wood shop. Take a poll of random woodworkers. Most will suggest obtaining a table saw should be a priority for any aspiring craftsman. That is before the planer, jointer, or even router. Sure, it is possible to get by with a circular saw and a few well-designed jigs. The no-power-tool purists do just fine with a variety of specialized hand saws. Few tools, however, will beat out the versatility, accuracy, and prowess in cutting and ripping lumber for any number of purposes or projects provided by the various types of table saws.

It’s easy to say why any woodworker benefits from owning a table saw; however, choosing the proper saw is a different task. Those looking to purchase their first table saw likely have many questions, starting with the exact difference between the various types of table saws available. This article aims to breakdown the differences, benefits, and applications of each major class of saw: the cabinet table saw, the hybrid table saw, the contractor table saw, and the portable table saw.

Table Saw Basics

In order to better understand each type of table saw in context, it is important to first establish a baseline. A working knowledge of a table saw’s important components and their operation is important in differentiating between the various features afforded by each class of saw.

At its core, the table saw provides a stationary surface upon which a woodworker can rip or cross cut stock. The benefit of this arrangement is that the operator brings the workpiece to the saw rather than vice versa. The wood is able to glide over the solid table top, allowing for improved control and accuracy versus a handheld power tool.

Table Top and Extensions

The table top of the saw is most commonly comprised of solid cast iron. Cast iron has been the material of choice for decades due to its heft, durability, and ability to be machined flat and smooth. Recently, some manufacturers have begun offering granite table tops. Granite shares many of cast iron’s positive qualities and perhaps rivals the metal in smoothness. It also resists corrosion. Most saws include extension wings made of either cast iron or pressed steel that expand cutting area by offering greater workpiece support and wider rip capacities. Additionally, an extension table, usually made of wood and allowing for even greater capacity, is sometimes included with the saw or can be easily constructed and added by the user.

The center of the table top features a cut out for access to the saw blade. During operation, this cut out is covered by the table insert (or throat plate). A zero-clearance insert provides only enough room for the blade’s kerf, which adds to the saw’s safe operation as well as ability to make thin cuts.

Rip Fence and Miter Gauge

Types of Table Saw Fences

Cutting accuracy is aided through the use of a rip fence. The adjustable fence provides a surface parallel to the blade and is used, at its most basic level, for making accurate and repeatable rip cuts. Combined with a variety of homemade or store bought jigs, the fence’s versatility expands far beyond simple measured rips.

The fence mounts to the table top by way of the fence guide rail. A fence system, which contains both the fence body and its guide rail, is typically made of aluminum or steel. The fence faces, the vertical surfaces that guide wood in a straight line, can be made of aluminum, laminated plywood, or plastic (usually of the HDPE [high-density polyethylene] or UHMW [ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene] variety). Over the years, manufacturers have experimented with numerous fence styles. The T-square fence seems to have won out and is the basis for most modern fence system designs.

Types of Table Saw Miter Gauges

The miter gauge is somewhat opposite the fence. Where the fence allows for control of a workpiece parallel to the blade, the miter gauge is used to assist in control of stock perpendicular to the blade. This is otherwise known as crosscutting. As the name implies, the miter gauge is purpose-built for cutting miters; it can be adjusted through a range of angles. The miter gauge can be supplemented with a miter fence to allow for wider stock.

Motor and Drive Assembly

Types of Table Saw Motors

The motor of the saw provides the power needed to spin the saw blade. This is accomplished by way of the arbor, which is connected to the motor either directly or through the use of a belt drive system. Nearly all table saws are designed for a 10-inch blade and utilize a 5/8-inch arbor. The blade slips onto the arbor and is attached with a retaining nut.

herA saw’s trunnions hold the arbor and motor assembly and keep it firmly attached to either the table top or saw’s base. The trunnions are responsible for lowering and raising the blade through a gear system attached to the saw’s hand wheels. Often made of cast iron, the solid trunnions are also a large factor in dampening excess vibration. This helps stabilize the blade.

Blade Guard and Riving Knife

Types of Table Saw Blade Guards

The table saw is a tool that can be a bit intimidating to the novice user. Most have heard a horror story of a missing finger (or at least a close call). For this reason, manufacturers have made a concerted effort to increase the safety of operating a table saw. Two primary features that have become standard in newer models are the blade guard and riving knife, which often come in the form of a single assembly.

The blade guard does exactly that. It guards the operator from accidental contact with the blade. This is accomplished through plastic leaves that move independently to allow wood to pass under and through the blade.

riving knife is a thin metal fin that attaches to the saw behind its blade. Its purpose is to prevent the kerf from closing around the saw blade, a situation that often results in dangerous kickback. Kickback is when the force of the rotating saw blade flings a piece of wood violently back at the user.

The blade guard is often removable and attaches to the riving knife. A blade guard permanently attached to the riving knife is more accurately known as a splitter. Additionally, many saws feature a set of anti-kickback pawls, which provide another layer of protection against kickback. These, too, attach to the riving knife or splitter and are often removable.

Base and Dust Collection

The inner working of the saw are contained within its base or cabinet. For professional-grade saws, the base is normally fully enclosed. Other saws feature open base designs. The table saw’s base is a vital factor in determining the tools stability. A heavy, solid base absorbs vibration and provides for smoother saw operation.

The design of the base also plays a role in dust collection. Open designs are generally less efficient, while enclosed cabinets help funnel the majority of sawdust toward the saw’s dust port. Standard dust port sizes are 4 inches and 2 1/2 inches. Typically, portable saws lack full-featured dust collection.

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Choosing a Table Saw

Table saws can be expensive, but the right saw could last a lifetime if not longer. Finding the perfect saw isn’t always easy, but it perhaps helps to view the purchase as a long-term investment. A novice woodworker might not see the need for an expensive hybrid or cabinet saw at the beginning of his or her career, but one that quickly gets serious about the craft might soon outgrow a portable or lower-end contractor saw.

As with any major purchase, a saw is chosen based on several factors: the user’s immediate and future needs, the quality of the product and its performance, and, of course, budget. Deciding on a price range immediately narrows down options and allows for easier feature-to-feature comparisons of available saws.

What to Look For…

When it comes to features, any table saw should live up to a few basic parameters. The educated buyer will consider many of the basic elements described in the previous section. An accurate and easy-to-use fence is essential. Will the saw be used for occasional home renovation projects or will it be used to produce high quality furniture? The user will need to make sure the saw has the power to handle the anticipated tasks.

For larger, more powerful saws, proper and effective dust collection is a must. Basic safety features such as a riving knife and blade guard should also be present. A smooth, flat table top and solid construction are other hallmarks of a quality saw. One aspect that should be largely ignored is the blade included with the saw, as most machines ship with a low caliber option that is easily replaced.

New or Used Table Saw?

A properly maintained table saw is a tool that will last for years, so quality used saws are readily available through Craiglist, eBay, second-hand stores, and yard sales. Purchasing a used saw can represent a decent amount of savings over a new saw without a large drop in performance.

High end saws, however, tend to hold their value over the long run, so the savings might not be enough alone to justify going used. Older saws also typically lack modern safety features. Then there is a question of maintenance and adjustments. Perhaps the previous owner was not so great at keeping up on repairs. Parts for many older saws are increasingly difficult to find, so if a major component fails it could be a headache to fix or replace.

Still, a used saw in the right circumstances can represent a true steal and deliver many years of reliable performance just the saw as a brand new machine.

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The Cabinet Table Saw

Types of Table Saws Cabinet Saw

The cabinet table saw is the pinnacle of power, performance, and reliability. As the name implies, this is the go-to tool for cabinet makers due to an ability to handle large sheet goods and heavy stock. Likewise, cabinet saws, also referred to as professional and sometimes industrial table saws, are typically the most expensive class of saw.

Defining Features

Features one would expect to find standard in a cabinet saw include

  • a large cast iron top with cast iron extension wings,
  • a professional-grade steel fence system with extended rip capacity,
  • a powerful induction motor usually rated at either 3HP or 5HP, and
  • a completely enclosed base with integral dust collection.

The cabinet table saw is usually stationary once placed in the shop, thought more and more manufacturers are offering mobile bases as an option for users who need more flexibility. These saws are heavy pieces of machinery that often utilize cast iron in the base and trunnion assembly. This increases stability and dampens vibration for smooth operation.

The powerful motor is connected via a belt-drive system for efficient power transfer. The motor will require a 220V power source, much like that used for an electric drier and other major appliances in the home.

Cabinet Table Saw Uses

The cabinet table saw can be found everywhere from the garage wood shop to commercial production facilities. It is used by avid hobbyists, artisans and craftsman, cabinet makers, and producers or fine furniture. Due to its reliable operation and cutting power, the cabinet saw is a versatile tool ready for nearly any task.

Most who will need a table saw of this caliber rely on the tool for professional applications, though the serious home woodworker can benefit depending on projects he or she tackles.  The cabinet table saw is unrivaled when it comes to crafting larger items like solid wood furniture. Its large capacity handles plywood with ease for cabinet and case makers.

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The Hybrid Table Saw

Types of Table Saws Hybrid Saw

The hybrid table saw is a relatively recent invention. It seeks to bring the pro performance of the cabinet saw to a lower price point through a combination of cabinet saw and contractor saw features. Hence the name hybrid. The result is a saw designed to please the serious woodworker who lacks the need or space for a professional cabinet saw.

Defining Features

The hybrid table saw’s features will be familiar to anyone who has experience with contractor or cabinet table saws. These features include

  • a cast iron top with either pressed steel or cast iron extension wings,
  • steel or aluminum rip fence in varying capacities,
  • 1.5 to 2HP induction motor designed to run on standard 110V power, and
  • a typically enclosed based with compact footprint and mobility options.

By appearance, the hybrid table saw most typically resembles a cabinet saw with its closed base. While it may look like the base of the pro machines, the footprint is usually more compact and the construction is light weight. Some hybrid machines do sport an open base more common with contractor saws. Regardless, it is not uncommon to see hybrid saws ship with an integrated mobile base to allow quick and easy relocation in the shop.

The motor, while not as powerful as that of the cabinet saw, offers about as much horsepower as is possible while still utilizing a common 110V power supply. Hybrid saws take advantage of belt drive systems to offer the smooth performance found in high end machines.

Hybrid Table Saw Uses

Like its design, the hybrid tables saw sees hybrid use. This type of saw is a great addition to the home work shop, but is not limited to hobby use. Plenty of professional craftsmen make great use of the hybrid table saw. It affords the weekend warrior an upgrade over a contractor or portable saw without the asking price of a full-blown cabinet saw. It provides enough power and versatility to serve commercial shops that do not primarily focus on cabinet and production-scale fine furniture making.

Hybrids are plenty capable when it comes to handling hearty stock and sheet goods, but in some cases require a bit more finesse on the part of the user. When outfitted with a quality professional fence, there is virtually no difference in cutting accuracy compared to a cabinet saw.

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The Contractor Table Saw

Types of Table Saws Contractor Saw

Where does the contractor table saw’s name come from? It’s not hard to guess. This type of saw was designed with the contractor in mind. More compact and lightweight than the cabinet saw, the contractor saw was meant to be carried from jobsite to jobsite to perform cutting tasks associated with construction. For those purposes the saw has since been replaced by portable models, but the contractor saw has lived on as a favorite of hobbyists of all levels.

Defining Features

While on its own the contractor table saw could still be considered a bulky and unwieldy piece of machinery, when compared to a cabinet saw its advantage in mobility is noticeable. Features that contribute to this include

  • a cast iron top with either pressed steel or cast iron extension wings,
  • steel or aluminum rip fence in varying capacities,
  • 1 to 2HP induction motor designed to run on standard 110V power, and
  • an open base with compact footprint and mobility options.

The contractor table saw is a mid-powered saw in comparison to more expensive hybrid and cabinet models. It does have the advantage of running on standard household 110V power. The motor is typically a simplified belt-drive system. Some low end and older models do sometimes feature direct drive from motor to arbor.

To provide greater mobility, weight and footprint are reduced through an open base design that utilizes materials like pressed steel and aluminum rather than cast iron. These factors all contribute to a saw that will lack some of the stability and smoothness of a closed base cabinet saw.

Contractor saws often ship with adequate but undersized fence systems. They still feature full-fledged dust collection and safety features.

Contractor Table Saw Uses

Contractors who desire a more robust tool than a portable model still employ the contractor table saw. More common, however, is finding a contractor saw in the garage or basement shop of the hobbyist. This is for several reasons including affordability, mobility, and functionality. Modern, high-end contractor saws are not far off from hybrids and cabinet saws in terms of performance.

While the saw does see some use by professional woodworkers, it is not well equipped for the rigors of production work. It is better suited for the individual craftsman, occasional furniture maker, and DIY enthusiast. A contractor saw is the perfect tool for putting together a built-in bookcase or redoing trim in the house. It is not limited to such tasks, however. With skill the saw can produce finished pieces to the same level as a more expensive saw.

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The Portable Table Saw

Types of Table Saws Portable Table Saw

The portable table saw is the newest style of table saw and often the most tempting for a budget-minded beginner. These saws offer a bare minimum of features in exchange for easy portability and storage. They are offered in both benchtop and job site configurations but are largely the same in terms of operation and performance.

Defining Features

Portable table saws are the greatest departure from the standard table saw design. While they offer the same functionality, more or less, their distinguishing features include:

  • a compact cast steel or aluminum table top without extension wings,
  • aluminum rip fence with a 20-inch typical rip capacity,
  • 15A universal motor designed to run on standard 110V power, and
  • no base (benchtop) or folding base.

Most saws marketed as benchtop models will feature no integral base. Jobsite saws replace the base with a folding stand. Overall dimensions are small, which benefits portability but equates to less ripping capacity. Saws of this class utilize steel, aluminum, and plastic to cut down on weight. This leads to less stability than what is offered by larger cast iron options.

The universal motor of the portable saw is more readily compared to that of a handheld circular saw. The difference in performance compared to the induction motors of stationary saws can be quite noticeable depending on the task.

Many jobsite saws including a telescoping fence to provide larger capacity. Overall accuracy can be more finicky on portable models, especially when working with larger stock.

Portable Table Saw Uses

The overall versatility of the portable table saw is limited when compared to saws designed for dedicated wood shop use. The jobsite table saw is most commonly deployed in the construction trade to provide improved accuracy over hand tools without sacrificing portability.

Many novice or casual woodworkers with limited space prefer a benchtop table saw. This type of saw is also a great choice for DIY home improvement tasks and repairs. For the woodworker interested in creating large furniture pieces, cabinetry, and casework, the portable saw might not be the best option.

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Types of Table Saws Compared

As should be apparent now, often what differentiates one table saw from the other is minor. In fact, what one manufacturer might consider a contractor saw, another might consider a hybrid table saw. What one might consider a hybrid saw might be considered a professional cabinet saw by the other. As with many things, the classification cab be subjective.

Among the four major types of table saw, the portable saw is perhaps the biggest outlier. Cabinet and hybrid saws share many features and contractor saws are no less capable. The three stationary styles of saw provide the most room for growth. Still, a portable saw can be an attractive option for those looking to get test their interest in woodworking or only planning the occasional project.

Ultimately, the choice is up to the buyer, their needs, and their financial constraints. A firm grasp of the table saw landscape goes a long way in making a purchasing decision.


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