A table saw is a type of mounted circular saw with an open blade mounted beneath a flat cutting surface. An adjustable rip fence next to the blade lets you set the width of the cut. You then feed the wood you want to cut between the table saw's blade and the rip fence, resulting in straight, even cuts every time.
Portable or stationary?
The most basic choice when shopping for table saws is whether you prefer a portable model or a stationary, workshop model. Portable table saws are generally considered the budget choice, but there are advantages and disadvantages to each kind of saw.
On the one hand, portable table saws are much smaller than stationary saws, which makes cutting plywood and other large stock a challenge. Look for supports that extend from either side of a portable table saw that let you support larger pieces of wood, as well as nail loops in the feet that let you secure the table saw to a work surface. Some portable table saws include stands, and while these are useful in a remote setting, they're not as stable when you're dealing with pieces of wood that are long or wide.
On the other hand, portable saws are better when you are working at multiple job sites because you can take it from one workshop to the next. Whether you're a home carpenter who likes to help neighbors with their projects or an up-and-coming craftsperson who takes a lot of woodworking classes, portability might be a high priority for you.
Most portable table saws have plastic or metal cutting tables mounted on top of a metal base. All-plastic table saws should be avoided, because they lack stability.
Stationary table saws are built for permanent installation. These table saws offer iron or steel construction for superior stability, but they're not designed to be moved once they've been set up. Stationary table saws transfer fewer vibrations, and they're quieter than portable table saws if the motor is mounted inside a cabinet.
If you're considering a stationary table saw, think about the dimensions of the largest pieces of wood you need to cut and how much space you have in your shop. A table saw that's built to handle plywood will take up a lot more space, but it won't perform any better than a smaller table saw if you're only cutting pine or floorboards. You'll also want to think about power, as larger motors require a dedicated 220 volt outlet.
Table saw drives
There are two basic types of table saw drives: direct drive and belt driven. Direct drive table saws have the blade mounted right on the motor, which allows for the greatest transfer of cutting power. Belt driven table saws have a motor that turns the saw with a belt, which reduces the chance of the wood bucking when the motor jams and also prevents sawdust from accumulating in moving parts.
Belt driven table saws require a bit more care to use, as you need to periodically inspect the belt to make sure there are no cracks. Both belt and direct-drive table saws need to have their motors cleaned and lubricated periodically.
A table saw's horsepower is a good gauge of cutting power, but it's seldom worth spending a lot for extra horses. Most portable table saws have 1 HP or 2 HP motors, which is enough to easily cut plywood up to three-quarters inch thick. Stationary table saws have motors ranging from 3 HP to 5 HP that will handle thicker, denser material. If you're cutting hardwoods or thick plywood and boards, look for extra horsepower to reduce the chance of the table saw binding up during use.
Adjustments and blade size
The accuracy of a table saw's rip fence is the greatest factor in getting consistent results. The best designs use a rip fence made of firm steel that travels on a pair of bars mounted on either side of the cutting table. This ensures that the rip fence is always parallel to the table saw's blade. Look for reliable cam or pressure-locking mechanisms that hold the rip fence securely in place.
Table saws are measured by their blade size. The 10 inch size is the most common and is the best choice for general use. Larger, 12 inch table saws are needed only for specialized commercial cutting, and 8 inch table saws are too small to handle thicker woods, although they can be a good choice if you need an extremely portable table saw for thin flooring or finish work.
Both the height and the angle of a table saw's blade should be adjustable. A good table saw will have a crank or wheel for height adjustment and a miter gauge with positive stops at 45 and 90 degrees. Look for table saws that can tilt the blade to the left or right for the greatest ease of use.
Look for a smooth table surface made from durable metal, such as steel or cast iron, that won't scratch or pit. Table saws should have retractable blade guards that snap back into place once cutting is finished.
Consider the location and operation of a table saw's power switch. Many table saws now use a switch that pulls to turn power on and pushes to stop the motor, which is simple to operate while you're cutting. Look for electronic brakes that reverse the motor to stop it quickly when the power is shut off.
Advanced woodworkers should consider the arbor size of a table saw and whether it allows specialized blades to be used. Some table saws can work with stacked dado blades, an ability which makes furniture construction and joinery quick and easy.
As your woodworking skills increase, you may decide to tackle larger or more complex projects. A 10-inch portable table saw provides a great step up from your trusty circular saw. Portable table saws bridge the gap between hand-held circular saws and full sized table saws.
Upgrading your table saw rip fence will improve the precision and consistency of your table saw.