Table saws are powerful tools, but also heavy and expensive space hoggers. If you’re a starting woodworker, you may be asking yourself: do I really need a table saw?
This article tells what a table saw is really useful for and when you’re fine without one. Shortly put: A table saw is the best tool for resizing lumber and highly recommended if you’ll work a lot with solid wood, making classic furniture, complex framing or custom trim. However, a table saw can be replaced by a track saw and a router if you mostly work with sheet goods or standard lumber in framing or modern cabinetry, and by a band saw in antique furniture and decorative woodworking.
Below, we go through how the table saw fares in different types of cuts and what to replace it with. We finish with an application summary.
Resizing lumber: Table saw essential
When it comes to ripping boards or other lumber down to dimension, the table saw is king: just set the fence to the target width and push the boards through.
Pros: Works great with standard lumber all widths and thicknesses up to around 2½”. Fast and ergonomic, as you can work standing up.
Cons: Ripping long boards requires outfeed supports and a lot of space (2 x board length).
Alternatives: None are very good. A track saw or a circular saw do the same ripping but are slower to set up and tricky to use with narrow stock. A band saw works but is slower and less accurate.
Sheet goods: Table saw loses to track saw (usually)
A table saw is a often a decent choice for cutting sheet goods such as plywood, MDF, OSB and particleboard. It is best suited for fast ripping of small-to-medium sized pieces, but less optimal for full sheets or thick sheets. A track saw can handle more cuts and is more accurate, although a bit slower.
Pros: Fast in small-to-medium sized ripping, ripping capacity typically to 3 ft width. Great accuracy for very small workpieces with a cross-cut sled.
Cons: Impractical with full- or half-sized sheets, or thick sheets (>1″) – these are cumbersome to lift and support on the saw. Less precise than a track saw.
Replace with: Track saw or circular saw – handier with large sheets and cut with better precision and finish.
Cross/miter cuts: Table saw not optimal
Table saws can be used for cross-cuts and miter-cuts into boards and other long stock. A table saw is practical here mainly with short workpieces on a cross-cut sled, but impractical or even dangerous with longer pieces or without the sled.
Pros: Handy and very accurate cross- and miter-cuts with small workpieces and a cross-cut sled.
Cons: Impractical for cross-cutting long boards (ends hang). Unsafe without a cross-cut sled.
Replace with: A miter saw is the best saw for cross-cuts and miters. Track saws and circular saws also work, although achieving accuracy takes more care.
Rabbets and dados: Router can too
Table saws are also pretty good in two special cuts: dados and rabbets. This is true particularly when the saw is fitted with a special dado blade. (Rabbets are shoulder-like reliefs on board or sheet edges; dados are long slots cut into sheet or board face.)
Pros: Table saws very fast and accurate when fitted with a dado blade.
Cons: Swapping in a dado blade takes some time; dado blades legally restricted in some jurisdictions due to safety concerns.
Alternatives: Dados and rabbets can also be cut with a track saw or a router. Both are slower but safer to use. They are also more practical with very large workpieces.
So which types of woodworking call for a table saw? Here is a quick summary:
Classic furniture: Table saw highly recommended. Lot of resizing, laminating.
Antique furniture: Some use for a table saw, but not essential. Cuts mostly curved, a band saw is better.
Modern (sheet good) cabinetry: Some use for a table saw, but not essential. A track saw more optimal.
Decorative woodworking: Table saw probably not needed – a band saw better for cutting blanks.
Framing: Some use for a table saw but not essential. Circular saw handier for most jobsite ripping. Complex framing may require.
Finish carpentry (trim): Table saw often recommended, e.g. for trimming profiled wood to width.
Table saw substitutes
Circular saw: Better than a table saw with sheet goods and in cross-cuts. Lighter, smaller, cheaper. Not the best for resizing lumber.
Track saw: Better than a table saw with sheet goods. Lighter and smaller, often cheaper.
Band saw: More cutting capacity, better multi-material capabilities. Can do curved cuts. But slower and less accurate, even bigger and more expensive than a table saw.
Router: A safer option for rabbets and dados; wider selection of profiles and can also profile curved pieces. Slower than a table saw, and cannot really saw.
A table saw is never absolutely needed – there are always workarounds using other tools: a track saw, a band saw, a router or something else.
But workarounds are not good as a daily practice – if you plan to resize lumber every day or make a lot of furniture, get a table saw.