I’m often asked my advice on choosing the right table saw. It seems a lot of new woodworkers looking for their first saws, and even longtime woodworkers looking to replace existing saws or making poor decisions when it comes to choosing the right type with the right features and at the right price. A table saw isn’t a small investment, so the worst thing you can do is settle for something less than you should have, only to have to replace it again later.
So if someone who has tried just about every kind of saw out there and who has no dog in this fight, I feel like I can help you make the right decision. We’re going to go through the pros and cons of before most common types of saws out there. I’ll throw in observations and opinions based on my personal experience, and I’ll wrap up with my recommendations, some of which may surprise you. So let’s get started.
Portable Table Saws
Bench Top Table Saws
For a short time, I owned a portable benchtop saw. At first, I thought it was great. It was lightweight and compact. I could put it on a shelf. I could throw it in a trunk of my car, set it on some saw horses outside. Pretty handy, right? But it was also woefully underpowered. It struggled to rip hardwoods. The aluminum top was small and not even close to being flat. The fence was flimsy and nearly impossible to keep parallel to the blade. The direct drive universal motor was loud, and the saw vibrated excessively. I came to realize it was more of a saw shaped object than a proper table saw, but at least it was easy to throw away.
Job Site Table Saws
Later we got a Bosch portable job site saw, and after that bench saw this thing felt like a dream. You have to give credit to Bosch. They revolutionized portable saws with bigger motors, better fences, and smart features like extendable rip capacity, and those altering stands at fold-up easily. If all I ever made were small projects with thin hardwoods, I might have been able to make do with that saw.
But while the fence was better, it still didn’t lock down reliably parallel to the blade. The table was still small. It’s lightweight, didn’t dampen vibrations efficiently, and with only 24 inches of rib capacity, it was challenging to work with sheet woods.
The bottom line on portable and site saws is you may get by with one if you’re a contractor or an occasional hobbyist. But to get a good one you have to spend about as much as you would and a larger contractor saw.
Unless space and portability are significant issues, I will pass on the portable saws.
Shop Table Saws
Contractor Table Saws
My first real table saw was a used Delta Rockwell contractor saw from the 1970s. They called these contractors saws because they were smaller and lighter than the big cabinet saws. Technically you could remove the motor that hung out the back and then lug the thing to a job site, but you wouldn’t want to do it very often because they’re pretty darn heavy.
Mine had a cast-iron top, which was way better than my father in law’s old craftsman with its crappy aluminum top and the stamped steel wings. Cast iron stays flatter, and the added weight dampens vibration better. Unfortunately, the wings on mine were cast aluminum, but it was still a great saw.
I occasionally see old cast iron contractor saws available on Craigslist for a couple of hundred bucks. Even today, that’s a lot of saw for your money.
Contractor table saws typically have one and a half horsepower motors that hang out the open back, which is terrible for dust collection. Still, it provides plenty of power for most hobby-level woodworking. The fences on older models are usually junk, but there are excellent aftermarket options available. They do vibrate a bit both from their relatively lightweight and they’re single belt drive. They can be a little difficult to align and keep that way because you have to adjust the trunnions inside the saw instead of the tabletop itself.
If you spend two or $300 on a quality used contractor saw with a cast iron top. Add another two or $300 for a high-quality fence system. You might have a saw that will do everything you need for less than a quarter of the price of a cabinet saw
Cabinet Table Saws
Cabinet saws take their name from the cabinet that fully encloses the motor within the base. They’re big, heavy, powerful, and expensive. These saws are for professional woodworkers and serious hobbyists. The tops are larger, the internal mechanisms are heavier duty, and the motors are more powerful. They’re built to absorb vibration and remain precisely aligned despite cutting through the thickest, hardest woods all day long. Their enclosed bases are also better suited for dust collection. Fences on these saws are usually robust and more accurate, and their motors are at least twice as powerful as contractor variety.
Every serious woodworker wants a cabinet for obvious reasons, but they aren’t without drawbacks. For one thing, they’re expensive. Even good used ones may cost you $1,000 over more, and new ones can be as much as five grand. They usually require 220 volts on a dedicated 30 amp circuit. So your workshop might not have the capacity for it. Their size and weight also make them difficult to move, especially getting it into the shop in the first place.
I recommend cabinet saws for anyone who can afford them, but I do admit that they may be overkill for many hobbyists. If you’re on a budget, like a lot of people are, and you work mostly with three-quarter inch thick materials and you only build smaller projects and maybe the occasional piece of furniture, you may not need a cabinet table saw.
Hybrid Table Saws
Hybrid saws are relatively new to the woodworking world. They combine some of the features of a cabinet saw like the enclosed motor and often more substantial bearings and trunnions. However, these saws offer a smaller footprint, and the lower price point of a contractor table saw. They’re easier to align and to keep aligned to then a contractor saw, but they feature less powerful motors than cabinet size.
The bottom line is they are a step above a contractor saw, but a step or two below a cabinet zone.
So Which Saw Is Right For You?
I usually say buy the best tool you can afford, but that advice can lead you astray in this area. If all you can afford is a $50 aluminum top portable saw with a bad fence, you’d be better off waiting and saving a bit longer than wasting your money on something that will be detrimental to your craft.
If money is an issue, I highly recommend that you patiently save and watch for a used cast iron top contractor saw in the $200 – $400 price range. They made millions of these things over the last half-century. They’re out there. You have to be willing to expand your search and be prepared to drive. You can get by without cast iron wings. Stay away from anything with an aluminum top. Don’t overpay. If the fence is junk, save some cash on an excellent aftermarket T style fence. That’ll cost you at least $200 or $300, but that is the single best upgrades you can make to assault. It is a real game-changer.
Now a saw like that may last you a lifetime. Yes, it will cost a bit, but this isn’t a cheap craft. The last place you want to compromise is one of the most essential tools in your shop. Of course, if you have the extra cash and you want to invest in a new saw, I would consider a hybrid saw instead of a contractor saw. They’re a bit more expensive, but the increase in quality makes it worth the investment. Finally, if you do a lot of woodworking at a high level, a cabinet saw might be for you. A three horsepower model with a 52-inch fence will be enough for most, but it never hurts to go for the extra horses if you have the extra cash.