Power saws

Good power saws are an important part of what, for me, makes it possible to enjoy woodworking. They provide fast, accurate, clean cuts that require minimal follow-up work.

Table saw

The table saw is a central tool in a woodworking shop with power tools. My first benchtop table saw was a cheap one; it always scared me half to death as I never felt totally in control when I was using it. Since then I've had three more table saws, each a step better and safer than the previous. Based on that experience, I can definitely recommend getting the best one you can afford, and, if possible, getting the last one you'll ever need as your first one.

SawsStop - front view

In my opinion, the absolute best bet for this tool is a SawStop. It's a beautifully made machine (I heard Charles Neil call it a "sawing instrument" in one of his videos), and features an amazing safety device for what can be the most dangerous tool in a workshop: a brake that instantly stops and drops the blade if it's touched while running. While the saw is expensive, one prevented accident could make it the best bargain ever. They now have a smaller cabinet saw (the one I have) and a contractor model, which are both more within reach for a hobbyist than their original industrial cabinet saw. And the build quality is as good or better than any other saw I've seen.

The more I use this saw, the more impressed I am: it's smooth and precise, and I feel remarkably in control with it. I'm still very cautious when I use it, but less afraid, which enables me to be more aware of what I'm doing; I'm focused on my work, not distracted by fear. That's a big deal for me.

SawsStop - oak edge detailIt seems like I end up tweaking every tool in my shop. With this one, the first thing I did was to fit a piece of oak trim along the left table edge. The cast iron top is nicely finished, but I found the left edge a bit sharp, especially the corners, so I added trim that has beveled edges matching the way the table top's front and rear edges are finished.

Next, I added a small oak arm to hold the secondary dust hose that fits into the blade guard up and out of the way of the wood I'm cutting. The arm attaches with bolts and wing nuts, so I can quickly and easily remove it if I need to cut something wider, like a sheet of plywood.

Then I spent quite a few weekends building a folding extension table for the rear of the saw, using a pile of oak cut-offs that I had left over from a previous project.

When I purchased the saw, the store didn't have the smaller rolling stand for this model, but they did have the larger, very heavy duty hydraulic stand designed for the industrial saw, and there's a conversion kit to fit it to this saw, so I got it. I'm really glad I did, as the hydraulic system makes it super easy to jack up the saw to roll it around (and since I have a small shop, I have to do this quite often).

SawStop - extension table detail

As a bonus, the stand sticks out behind the saw a few inches and has a ¼″ × 2″ thick steel bar running across between the two rear wheel holders, which turned out to be the perfect thing to anchor the extension table support arms to. I created a sort of vise clamp from two pieces of oak separated at top with an oak insert a bit wider than ¼″ that is glued to one of the pieces, then ran bolts through the two pieces below that. The bolts sit on top of the steel bar, and when the bolts are tight, the wood below them is clamped very tightly to the bar.

The trickiest part of the whole operation was getting the arms exactly the right length so that the extension table is coplanar with the saw's table. The second trickiest part was to get the T-tracks to line up precisely with the table's, so that I can, for example, push a sled all the way across without the miter bars hanging. Both turned out well thanks to good tools, and a dash of luck, too!

The arms hold themselves in place; still, for safety's sake I added a 3/8″ bolt and knob to each arm to lock them in place. I can spin off the knobs, remove the bolts, fold in the arms, and fold down the table in moments, so I can quickly tuck the saw away whenever I need the space for something else.

SawStop - extension table folded

Finally, I worked on the legs that hold up the right table wing. This is the one thing I don't like about the saw as delivered: the legs themselves are strong, but the supports that connect them to the table are small, so the legs can easily be bent if you're rolling the table around and bump something with a leg. I like solid! So the first thing I did was to use a wide piece of left over poplar I had to create a brace between the two legs that keeps them from moving forward or backward.

As part of the conversion kit for the rolling stand, there were two ¼″ × 1″ steel bars to replace the longer ones that are designed for the industrial saw. I ended up with the two original longer bars left over, and they were the perfect thing to create a triangle brace between the legs and the table to keep the legs from moving sideways. The saw now has well-braced legs that can take a bump.

SawStop - brace for legs

As another bonus I realized that this would be the perfect place to store my sets of imperial and metric T-handle hex keys, out of the way but easily accessible (my workspace is small, so I need to utilize every square inch). I created a holder that keeps them all in place, lined up by size, and attached it to the brace.

Dust collector

JDS Dust Force with modificationsThe final piece of the puzzle was to get a full-size dust collector with an air flow rating (1,250 cubic feet/minute) adequate to handle both the primary and secondary dust ports on the SawStop. It also needed to be flexible enough to hook up to my other tools. I ended up choosing the canister model of the JDS Dust Force, which I can roll around my shop to hook up to the other machines, as well to clean up the floor.

It's a good machine; its cfm capacity easily keeps both the table saw and my planer waste free, the big 1-micron canister keeps the air clean, and I like collecting all of my wood waste in a way that makes it easy to recycle it by spreading it on our wood chip paths, which wander all around our yard and through the trees.

Of course, I ended up tweaking it: I braced it underneath to make it a bit more stable, added wooden bumpers all around, built a handle to make it easier to roll it around, and moved the switch up on the handle to make it more accessible.

Sliding compound miter saw

[Note: I wrote the following before my Festool customer disservice experience that I mention at the end of this review of the Kapex KS 120.]

I didn't know what I was missing before I added a power miter saw to my shop; it makes it so much easier and faster to work. I also didn't know how challenging it could be to find a good one. Over the course of a few years, I went in-depth hands-on with three leading saws in the 10″ and 12″ categories and was left disappointed with each experience. Finally I tried the Festool Kapex 120, an innovative 10″ saw.

Festool Kapex 120

As soon as I began making cuts with the Kapex, I knew I was dealing with a saw in a class of its own. This is a very precise saw. Using the 60-tooth blade it comes with, I've been able to make very clean, absolutely true cuts. It's easier to set up compound cuts on this saw than any of the others I've tried, it has a 12″ reach, and there's absolutely no wobble or torque movement (torque distortion was an issue with the 12″ saw I had), perhaps because the rails are fixed and the head slides (all the other saws I've used have a fixed head and sliding rails). Its honeycombed magnesium base makes it both light and stable.

As I've been using this saw more, in addition to just plain appreciating how well it works, I've been thinking about some of the reasons it's so precise. One thing I think it has going for it is that the housing that contains the slide pipes is big, making the housing on the other saws I had look puny by comparison. This may be a case where the engineers of some of the other leading brands, looking to cut weight or cost on their more recent saws, shaved off too much. The housings on the Kapex that hold the pipes and the saw head itself are like Rocks of Gibraltar.

Festool Kapex 120

There are already several excellent reviews of this saw online, so it's not worth it for me to spend any more time reviewing it. What I can say is that the reviews are accurate in their shared conclusion of just how good this saw is. Worth the money? Well, if you want precision, as I do, then currently there may be no worthy alternative. (About a year after I wrote this, Bosch came out with their intriguing dual bevel glide miter saws. They just might prove to be a worthy alternative, as long as their build quality is reasonable and the axial arms can hold their own against torque.)

Some reviews of the Kapex 120:

*Note that Justin Fink got the working of the trigger lock and power switch wrong in his video review: you can depress the trigger lock to lower the saw head to the workpiece without spinning it up, in order to align the blade with a mark, something I do all the time.

I built a wide rolling miter saw stand, which enables me to easily handle longer lengths of wood. Right below the saw, I built a sloped ramp into the stand so that the sawdust that escapes tumbles down to the floor behind, though not much escapes the Kapex when a vacuum is hooked up (with the other saws, this was a much more important feature of the stand).

Festool Kapex 120 on custom stand

The stand itself provides storage for some of the sheets of thin wood I use for my shoji lamps. The reason the stand has so many bolts in it is that I initially didn't know how high the stand should be in order to put the saw at a comfortable height for me, so I built it in a way that allowed me to adjust the height. But the joke was on me: the first height I tried was great, so I never had to adjust it! (The saw's table is 37½″ above the floor, and I'm just a bit over 6 feet tall.)

Circular saw

In early 2009 I replaced a Porter Cable Model 447. Over the years, the material painted on its cast aluminum shoe to make it slippery got softer and stickier until it wasn't easy to push the saw anymore. Finally I sanded it off, but the exposed aluminum was sticky, too, so I decided to get a new saw.

I looked for a saw with an electric brake, a must-have safety feature for me. The Makita 5007MGA 7¼″ Magnesium saw stood out as the best fit for me. I paired it with a Freud D0740X Diablo 7¼″ 40 Tooth ATB Finishing Saw Blade. My first cut went well, and the magnesium shoe slides easily. My second cut was a more challenging angled cut through 2 feet of glued up 1½″ thick maple for an end table I'm making. When I finished that cut and looked at the results, and then repeated it several times, I knew I had a good saw and blade in my hands.

Makita 5007MGA circular saw       Freud Diablo D0740X

Update: In 2014, Makita came out with a something really interesting, the XSH01Z cordless, which is a 7¼″ saw that uses a pair of 18-volt Lithium-Ion Batteries. It has a build quality similar to the 5007MGA including a reinforced magnesium base and durable casing, and they managed to pull this off while even shaving a few ounces off the weight of the 5007MGA. I'm impressed. Better yet, they came out with 4.0- and 5.0-amp versions of their excellent batteries at the same weight as the old 3.0-amp version, so you can tackle a job with some impressive power and run time.

I haven't had a chance to use the XSH01Z a lot yet, but my initial experience has been positive. It feels good and sturdy in the hand and runs true.

Makita XSH01Z circular saw


[Note: I wrote the following before my Festool customer disservice experience that I mention at the end of my review of the Kapex KS 120.]

Festool Carvex PS 420 EBQ

The Carvex PS 420 EBQ jigsaw, which replaced a Bosch 1587 DVS, is another case in point. This changes the jigsaw for me from a tool I reached for only when nothing else would do the trick to a tool I want to reach for. There are so many great features. You can read about all of them in some of the in-depth online reviews posted by professionals (for example, Peter Parfitt's 2-part video review: Part 1 · Part 2), but here are a few of my favorites:

There is one criticism I've heard of this tool that I think is a fair one: the angle base for the tool (left image below), which is a winged base that you can adjust from +45° to -45°, offers exceptional control over some types of cuts, for example, if you want to cut a 45° angle along an edge (middle image below), but it doesn't offer very good stability if you want to cut an angle into a flat surface (right image below), as only half of the base plate (about 1½" in width) would be in contact with the surface, which might not offer enough stability.

Festool Carvex PS 420 EBQ angle base views

Perhaps Festool should offer a second base for this case. But I think if I find this to be an issue, I'll just make my own wider base plate wings out of 3/16" acrylic or hardboard. It looks to me like it would be easy to replace the current plastic bases plates with something like that. The current plates are held on by three T15 Torx screws. I think you could drill holes through the new base for the three screw heads, and then glue washers to the inside of the plate for the heads to press down against. Anyway, I'll see if this even becomes an issue, and then deal with it if it does.

I have tried cutting a shallow angle with the base, but I was working on the end of a couple of rough cedar planks, so a wider base wouldn't have helped me. Even under these less-than-optimal circumstances, I got a reasonably good cut.

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