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Sawing Woodworking saws

Do You Really Need a Table Saw?

A table saw is arguably one of the best and most versatile tools you can have in your shop – many consider it an absolute essential for woodworking. But table saws are also big, heavy and expensive, and need a very large working space around them, consuming your valuable shop floor space.

Whether you are just starting out in woodworking or considering a shop reorganization, you may be asking yourself: do I really need a table saw?

When I started out some years ago, I bought all the possible tools: a table saw, a mitre saw, a circular saw, a track saw, and a router. However, over the years I have been considering whether the table saw, the biggest and most expensive of the tools, is actually worth the money and the space.

In this article, I will assess the pros and cons of table saws based on my experience, and compare them against the alternatives. My conclusion, in summary, is that a table saw is a very versatile tool, and the best choice for resizing lumber and cutting dados and rabbets; if these are daily operations in your show, you should probably own one. However, it can always be replaced by a handheld circular saw, a track saw, or a router, which are cheaper and smaller, so that you never absolutely need a table saw.

Below, I go through the main cutting tasks a table saw is used for, and weigh it against the options. For those of you in a hurry, I have also outlined the content in the table below.

I hope this article may help you decide if you really need a table saw in your shop, or if you should rather save the money and space for something else.

Cutting taskTable saw optimal?Replaceable by:
resizing lumberyeshandheld circular saw
cutting sheet goodsnotrack saw
cross- & miter-cuttingnomiter saw
handheld circular saw
dadosmaybetrack saw
router
rabbetsyestrack saw
router

1 Resizing lumber

When it comes to ripping boards down to dimension, the table saw is king – it is the most convenient tool for this task, hands down. Just set the fence to the target width and push the boards through. The table saw allows you to rip hundreds of feet of board in minutes, and is very ergonomic, as you can work standing up.

That said, ripping long boards with a table saw does require supports for the material on the outfeed side of the saw. You should also note that you will need a lot of free space for the moving board: one board length both in front of and behind the saw.

While the optimal tool for the task, the table saw is not irreplaceable in ripping boards. You can accomplish the same task with a handheld circular saw or a track saw. The handheld saws are lighter, smaller, cheaper, and have the additional advantage of requiring only half the space to rip the board compared to a table saw. Overall, however, they are less convenient to use, because they are tricky to run stably on narrow boards, and may need additional supports.

2 Cutting sheet goods

A table saw can be used to cut sheet goods, such as plywood, MDF, OSB and particleboard. It is best suited for applications where speed is more important than accuracy, such as most cuts in construction. While the sheets will often need an additional sawing support at least on the outfeed side of the saw, this sometimes integrated into the saw itself, and relatively easy to arrange otherwise too.

However, a typical table saw is no longer very convenient with full- or oversized sheets, or with sheets thicker than about 1”. These sheets are large and heavy, and lifting them up, supporting them and moving them stably over the saw table becomes difficult.

A standard table saw is also not the best saw when very precise sheet cuts in finer woodworking. This is because the cut accuracy relies both on the straightness of an existing sheet edge and on a good contact between this edge and the saw fence throughout the cut, either of which may be less than perfect in practice.

A table saw can be replaced by a handheld circular saw in cutting sheet goods at a construction site. Compared to the table saw, a handheld circular saw is cheaper, easier to transport and store, and nimbler with large or heavy sheets which are inconvenient to lift on move on the table saw.

Sheet goods in finer carpentry, on the other hand, are most conveniently cut with a track saw. Compared to the table saw, a track saw cuts more accurate and cleaner, requires less shop space during the cut, and is also cheaper and easier to store.

3 Cross- and miter-cutting

Table saws can be used for cross-cutting and miter-cutting boards and other long stock. Although most table saws include a miter gauge, cross-cuts are best made using a sliding table or separate cross-cut sled. With these accessories, table saws achieve excellent accuracy in miters, and are very well suited for detailed work with small workpieces.

However, table saws are not very well suited for cross- or miter-cutting long boards. The free end or ends of such boards have to be supported during the cut, and the supports tend to interfere with the board motion. For this reason, a table saw is not the best general-purpose cross- and miter-cutting saw.

Instead of a table saw, cross- and miter-cuts are in general easier to make with a miter saw or a handheld circular saw. Miter saws achieve high accuracy without accessories, and can handle both short and long boards with ease. Handheld circular saws, in turn, are small, nimble and accurate enough for most cross- and miter-cuts in construction.

4 Rabbets

Table saws are one of the best tools for cutting rabbets: with the standard blade, they are clean and fast; with a dado set, they are even faster. Table saws are also very flexible in being able to cut rabbets of all sizes, and allowing cutting both with the board vertical against the fence, and lying down on the table.

The table saw can be replaced in cutting rabbets by a router or a track saw. While their cut quality and convenience of use are not quite as good as with a table saw, these tools are usually lighter, smaller and cheaper. Further, they are preferrable to a table saw when rabbets need to be cut into very long, large, or heavy workpieces, since such workpieces are difficult to handle on the table saw with the precision required.

5 Dados

As with rabbets, the table saw is one of the best tools for cutting dados. Most dados are relatively narrow and can be cut very quickly with only one or two passes on the table saw. A dado set allows the saw to cut even wide dados in a single pass.

Again, the table saw can be replaced by a router or a track saw in cutting dados. While these tools are not equally fast or convenient to use, they are lighter, smaller and cheaper. They are preferable to a table saw when dados need to be cut to very long, large, or heavy workpieces, since such workpieces are difficult to handle on the table saw with the precision required.

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Conclusion

As my quick run-down shows, a table saw is a multi-talented tool and indeed one of the best, if not the best, choice for many cutting tasks. As such, its reputation as a shop essential is well deserved.

However, the comparison also shows that the table saw is not irreplaceable: all of the cutting tasks listed can be achieved also with other tools. The popularization of the track saw, in particular, has greatly extended the capabilities of lightweight and compact hand-held alternatives to the table saw.

So, while you never absolutely need a table saw, you should consider if one would be worth its keep in your shop. This will depend on

  • what kind of cuts do you do often
  • which tools you already have
  • how much space do you have
  • how much money are you willing to spend

For example, if money and space are at a premium and you work mostly with sheet goods, you will be better served by a handheld circular saw or a track saw, perhaps complemented by a router. If, on the other hand, your work often involves resizing lumber, a table saw will be worth every penny and square foot.