For power tool woodworkers, the table saw is the beating heart of the shop. But it’s also the tool that causes the most injuries.
You don’t want to trifle with an exposed blade spinning at 3000 RPMs…
But getting your fingers sliced isn’t the only thing to be careful of.
Today, I’m going to warn you about 13 Common Table Saw Mistakes to Avoid — so you can stay safe in the shop while getting accurate cuts.
If you’re new to table saws, avoiding these beginner mistakes will go a long way in saving you from injury.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- The Dangers of Table Saws
- Setting Up a Table Saw for Safe Use
13 Table Saw Mistakes to Avoid
- Reaching Towards a Running Blade
- Cutting Freehand
- Removing the Riving Knife
- Standing Directly Behind a Board
- Setting the Blade too High
- Using the Fence to Crosscut Boards
- Not Using Push Sticks — or Using them the Wrong Way
- Putting Pressure on the Outside of a Board Past the Blade
- Ripping Wonky Boards
- Not Supporting the Outfeed Side
- Ripping Thin Strips the Wrong Way
- Not Being In Tune with the Saw
- Not Wearing PPE
THE DANGERS OF TABLE SAWS
The obvious risks of table saws are lacerations and amputations. And you might think avoiding injury is as simple as not touching the blade.
But there’s another risk of table saws that’s far more common: kickback.
Kickback is when a board or piece of wood gets hurled back towards the user-side of the saw.
The force of a kickback is hard to imagine. But it can put a hole in a wall 30 feet away (yes, I know this from personal experience).
Not only can that mean getting smashed by a board…
The force is so strong and occurs so rapidly that your hands can get pulled into the blade in a fraction of a second.
Kickback is most common during rip cuts where you’re cutting a board along its length.
Causes include a board binding, pinching, twisting, or lifting onto the blade (you can read more about kickback here).
Avoiding the mistakes below go a long way in preventing kickback — as well as other common table saw dangers.
SETTING UP A SAW FOR SAFE USE
Making sure your table saw is tuned and set up correctly is just as important as good technique while using it.
You need to make sure the table top, fence, and blade are all square and properly aligned.
It’s not too difficult of a process and doesn’t need to be done often.
But if you just purchased a table saw — new or used — it’s worth a check.
Now, let’s get into the mistakes to avoid.
1. REACHING TOWARDS A RUNNING BLADE
Yes, this one seems ridiculously obvious. But you’d be amazed how often it happens.
All it takes is a momentary lapse of focus. Most of the time, it’s people reaching for an offcut while the saw is still running.
There are two ways to avoid this:
- Always turn off the saw before reaching for cut boards or offcuts
- If you don’t want to turn off the saw, use a push stick to move boards or offcuts far from the blade before grabbing
The moral of the story here is to stay focused.
Don’t make automatic motions, and be conscious of every move you make while the blade is running.
2. CUTTING FREEHAND
Cutting freehand is when you cut a board without any sort of support to stabilize it — meaning no fence, miter gauge, or sled.
For a cut to be safe, a board needs to pass through the blade in a perfectly straight line.
Humans aren’t machines. And by using only your hands, there’s a high chance of rotating the board while pushing it through.
Even a slight rotation can lead to kickback.
Always, ALWAYS use either a fence, miter gauge, or shopmade sled while operating the saw.
Not only is it smart. It’ll give you the straightest and cleanest cuts.
3. REMOVING THE RIVING KNIFE
The riving knife is the thin piece of metal that’s mounted directly behind your table saw blade.
It’s slightly thinner than the table saw blade, letting it ride in the kerf of a board as it’s cut (the kerf is the space of waste removed by the blade).
Riving knives are critical to avoiding kickback.
They help prevent boards from twisting during a cut, and also keep the kerf from pinching the back of the blade.
On most table saws these days, the riving knife moves up and down with the blade as you raise or lower it. So even if you’re making non-through cuts, it won’t get in the way.
If your riving knife is at a fixed height, get another one and lop off the top for non-through cuts.
4. STANDING DIRECTLY BEHIND A BOARD
It seems natural to stand right behind a board as you push it through the table saw blade...
But you actually want to stand slightly to the side.
If there’s a kickback for any reason, you don’t want to be in the line of fire.
This is most critical for rip cuts, but good to keep in mind if you’re making crosscuts where the offcut is unsupported.
Kickbacks happen so fast you won’t ever have time to jump to the side. So be proactive about it.
Obviously, don’t have your feet so offset you’ve got to lean really far to push the board through. The point is to leave enough space for a board to pass if it shoots back.
5. SETTING THE BLADE TOO HIGH
A lot of beginners will make cuts with the blade over a half inch higher than the thickness of a board.
There’s no reason to do this.
It unnecessarily leaves a ton of blade exposed while making cuts, increasing the chances of injury if your hand slips or there’s a sudden movement.
People might do this because they think the gullets (scooped sections between the teeth) need to be above the board — but they don’t.
The blade only needs to be high enough that the teeth reach around ⅛” higher than the board.
Before making a cut, set the board on the tabletop next to the blade. Raise the blade until the carbide teeth poke above it and lock it down.
The gullets will still do their job just fine. The less exposed blade the better.
6. USING THE FENCE TO CROSSCUT BOARDS
Here’s a general rule for table saw fences: Only use it to cut boards along their length, not their width.
Moving the shorter edge of a board along the fence is unstable. The short edge isn’t big enough of a reference surface and the board can twist, leading to a kickback.
Whenever cutting boards across their width, use a crosscut sled or miter gauge.
The other mistake people make is using their fence as a stop block.
They’ll be using a crosscut sled and set the fence at the final distance they’re after. The danger here is the offcut will bind between the blade and fence and shoot back.
Instead, clamp a block at the user side of the fence and use this as the stop to position a board on your sled.
When you make the cut, the end of the board will be free of the stop and won’t bind.
7. NOT USING PUSH STICKS — OR USING THEM THE WRONG WAY
First off, always use push sticks.
Unless the space between the fence and blade is wider than the distance between your outstretched thumb and pinky, there’s no good reason not to.
Need some gear? Here’s a 4-piece safety set with a push stick, push paddles, and a featherboard.
But to use push sticks correctly during a rip cut, you can’t just push a board forward through the blade.
You also need to simultaneously push the board down into the table top and sideways into the fence.
I usually use two push sticks and a featherboard when ripping, depending on the size of the board.
The featherboard helps keep the board snug against the fence (but you still need to add lateral pressure, especially past the blade).
I’ll use one push stick towards the front of the board to make sure it doesn’t lift. For the back push stick, I like to use one with a notch that hooks over the edge to keep forward pressure.
Make sure you’re always keeping pressure forward through the blade, down into the table top, and sideways into the fence.
One long skinny push stick at the back of a board simply isn’t enough.
8. PUTTING PRESSURE ON THE OUTSIDE OF A BOARD PAST THE BLADE
This is another common beginner mistake with rip cuts.
To stay as far from the blade as possible, people will push a board against the fence by pushing on the outside edge.
This can work — as long as you only do it in the section before the blade.
Pushing on the outside edge past the beginning of the blade can pinch the kerf. And that can lead to a kickback.
This is why you always place a featherboard before the blade.
The best way to keep boards against the fence is with lateral pressure using push sticks between the blade and fence.
9. RIPPING WONKY BOARDS
Boards should be properly milled on one face and one edge before taking them to the table saw.
If the edge riding along the rip fence isn’t straight, you won’t be able to make a straight cut.
The board can shift position, twist, and ultimately shoot back.
If the face on the table top isn’t flat, there’s a greater chance of the board lifting up during a cut, or the blade not reaching all the way through.
Don’t worry. You don’t need a jointer to get a flat face and square, straight edge (though it definitely makes it easier).
10. NOT SUPPORTING THE OUTFEED SIDE
Even though they’re designed for cutting long boards, table saws don’t have very big table tops.
That means when ripping boards over a couple feet long, you really need an outfeed table for them to land on.
Sure, you could “muscle through” by putting enough pressure on the back to hold it steady. But that’s adding unnecessary risk.
Outfeed tables don’t need to be sleek and well designed. A piece of plywood on two sawhorses works great.
As long as the outfeed support is about the same height as your table saw’s table top, you’re good.
A little shorter is ok, but you don’t want it taller.
11. RIPPING THIN STRIPS THE WRONG WAY
Sometimes you need to cut a bunch of thin strips of the same thickness.
Your first thought might be to just set up the rip fence really close to the blade. But this isn’t a good idea.
When the fence is so close to the blade, there’s a high chance of the wood binding and kicking back. Even if that doesn’t happen, you’re liable to get burned edges.
The solution is actually to cut your thin strips on the offcut side of the blade.
Set up some kind of stop in the left miter slot. Its distance from the closest tooth on the blade will equal the thickness of your strips.
Butt your workpiece against it, then slide the fence against the opposite edge and lock it down. Remove the stop, make the cut, and repeat for subsequent strips.
We now carry this really cool thin rip table saw jig that doesn’t even have to be removed during cuts.
It locks into your miter slot and has an adjustable slider to change the strip thickness. And the stop has a roller that holds steady but won’t risk binding boards.
12. NOT BEING IN TUNE WITH THE SAW
Even though tools aren’t sentient beings (at least for now), they can still tell you when a cut isn’t safe.
You need to learn how good cuts sound and feel.
If you’re making a cut and feel the board start to bind, or the blade stutters, or the sound gets really gnarly, or you smell burning — turn off the table saw and take a step back.
Try to figure out what was going wrong and fix it. It can be tempting to just power through, but a lot of times that’s asking for trouble.
The more you use your tools, the more familiar you’ll become with them.
You don’t need to be the table saw whisperer. Just learn what feels right — and what doesn’t.
13. NOT WEARING PPE
The best way to protect yourself from short or long term injury is to use personal protective equipment whenever operating heavy machinery.
Ear protection, safety goggles, dust mask — you should store these by your table saw and use them whenever operating it.
I know it can feel like a drag sometimes, and you see a bunch of people online using their table saw without them.
But if even a small piece of wood shoots back at your face, it’s better to be safe than sorry. And you don’t want to have hearing loss or dust-induced disease in 20 years.
I’d even argue that a heavy-duty shop apron is necessary PPE.
I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve gotten from people telling me that their Katz-Moses Tool Apron helped protect them from a kickback puncturing the skin.
We’ve also started carrying these 3M safety glasses that don’t fog up — even when you’re wearing a dust mask.
SAFETY ISN’T A SIDE THOUGHT
I’m very comfortable with my table saw. But even to this day, I do my best to avoid ALL the mistakes listed above.
No project is worth getting injured over.
And as long as you know what not to do, you’ll get great results — and not have to sacrifice any digits along the way.