Guest opinion: There is another solution to saw injuries

9_news_deskA Feb. 2 article in USA Today reported that Stephen Gass, a patent attorney who invented SawStop technology, was consulting with the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

In the article, chairman Inez Tenenbaum said, "The safety of table saws needs to be improved in a way that prevents school children in shop class and woodworkers from suffering these life-altering injuries. All options are on the table at this time." It further says that Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, is joining Gass to push for a federal rule requiring all table saws to detect flesh and stop blades before they cut into it. It also notes that Gass's technology, known as SawStop, has numerous patents that make it impossible for saw makers to develop their own version.

Regardless of what anyone thinks about the virtues or otherwise of SawStop, that it exists at all speaks volumes about the abysmal job other saw manufacturers have done with regard to the design, quality and marketing of their products. So we are all on the same page, I'm going to outline what everyone who uses a table saw should know.

On the top of the table there are three components: the fence, splitter and top guard. The fence has to move towards and away from the blade to give the desired width of cut and lock down firmly. It should be able to move forward and backward parallel to the blade and be locked in the correct place for the cut being made. It should have an adjustment system so it can be made parallel to the blade.

The splitter, also called the riving knife, is curved to the periphery of the blade and positioned 1/4" from it. It rises and falls with the blade. Its thickness is about 1/64" less than the kerf. Its width is sufficient to withstand deflection by considerable force. The top guard is designed in whatever way to prevent contact with the top edge of the blade.

These are features developed and made for the safe use of the machine and found on all saws made by the "big iron" makers.

The typical 10" saw made since the 1970s was presumably designed and made to meet a price point. For instance, the fence was sufficiently inadequate that the Beisemeyer aftermarket version became the fence of choice. Finally, some manufacturers got the message and improved their product. But the significance of the splitter seemed to elude saw makers. They combine it with the top guard. The two things have nothing to do with one another and making them into one unit satisfies neither. The outcome of this combo is that most people remove it. The fact remains that a correctly made and positioned splitter is an absolute. In effect, it prevents the situation we refer to as kickback - one of the most common sources of injuries associated with the machine. Yet the mass manufacturers to date have not come close to making it a standard piece of the machine and the idea that you could have different thickness to cope with 1/8" and 3/32" kerfs is a dream.

You can perform four operations on a table saw: rip solid wood; cut sheet goods; crosscut and shape wood. For each operation, the fence and splitter have to be positioned correctly.

All wood going through the saw ends up the same length at the end. Once the end of the wood crosses from space onto the edge of the table, pushing it to complete the cut requires push sticks. These simple sticks were in use before anyone reading this was born. No one can deny their effectiveness. Push sticks are the simple solution that ensures your fingers or hand will never be nearer than 6" from the blade. To not use them is something equivalent to driving drunk, playing Russian roulette or jumping off a 30-story building - eventually you are going to get hurt.

To my knowledge, manufacturers have played little part in telling buyers how to use their products. It seems to me it would have been in their best interests to be sure that a how-to handbook was always available along with giveaway push sticks in the way that paint makers give away stirrers.

Before I end this piece with two paragraphs from the USA Today article, I have to tell you that since I came to the United States in 1973, I've been listening to the virtues of "Yankee ingenuity." In some cases, Yankee ingenuity works. Sometimes, solutions to a problem are offered that are convoluted because no one explained that a solution already existed.

"Now the companies face hundreds of lawsuits over injuries and at least 50 legal claims that SawStop could have prevented the injuries. Last March, a jury awarded $1.5 million to a man who injured his fingers on a saw after plaintiff's lawyers argued SawStop would have saved his hand."

So would push sticks.

Stuart Singer, a lawyer working on the cases at Boies Schiller & Flexner, says the power tool industry "with millions of dollars in resources" should have made safer saws than Gass could "with things bought at Radio Shack."

A safer saw is a correctly designed saw. Radio Shack doesn't sell splitters (at least for table saws). Splitters make saws safer by preventing kickback. A cut finger is an operator error prevented by using push sticks. Correct cutting procedures demand push sticks like car safety demands that safety belts be worn.

Ian Kirby was trained in the British Arts-and-Crafts tradition. As well, he has degrees in furniture design, wood science and technology and furniture materials. His book, "The Accurate Table Saw," is available from Linden Press and

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.

Comments (5) Comments are closed
5 Wednesday, 26 October 2011 20:35
Randy Cochran
I think the key words in this argument are "Patent Attorney". It seems a shame and another travesty of justice that once again the lawyers are the primary ones to benefit.

While Mr. Kirby's comments are right on with those of us who use these machines on a daily basis and who are aware of the dangers inherent in them, somehow the "court" has been swayed that the fault lies with the machine manufacturer. Why is it that the responsibility didn't fall on the supervisor who's job it was to make sure his crew was safe?

It looks to me like the case could be likened to someone having an automobile accident without insurance to back them up and the injured party sues the auto maker.

The question then becomes, not whether we think the actions are reasonable and justified but, how do we inject some reason into the process.
4 Wednesday, 03 August 2011 01:41
Michael Krok
It's like; You get in your car drunk, slam headfirst into a tree and kill yourself. Your family sues the car manufacturer because they did not put a breathalyzer in you car to prevent you from turning the key as standard equiptment.
Dont drink and drive dummy
3 Tuesday, 05 July 2011 15:28
Orin Eisenhauer
I have to agree with the above comments. It is the way we use use saws that make them unsafe. My father ran a sawmill so I have been around saws since I can remember (over 50 years) and I have all my fingers. The only cut I recall getting was in a school shop class on a bandsaw and that was due to inattention not a fault of the machine. The problem is people don't take responsibility for their mistakes or stupidity.
2 Wednesday, 22 June 2011 19:24
Clint Struthers
Mr. Kirby,

You are correct on all fronts. As a daily table saw user for the past 35 years I find all of this hoopla about the sawstop being the only way to prevent injuries and the effort to mandate its use on all table saws to be a terribly misdirected effort, sadly one that will probably soon rule the day.

You mention Yankee ingenuity and here's the thing, we Americans are still fiddling around trying to figure out how we can fix stupid and our lawyers all know that you can't, but they also know that Americans love to throw huge sums of other people's money onto the things that trouble us! So our Yankee ingenuity is going to take huge sums of money from the equipment manufacturers and throw it at guys like the poor fellow who during his misuse of the portable table saw, managed to saw off his own hand. Of course let's not forget that the attorneys take 50% of the award once all is said and done. So it' ain't about safety at all, it's all about the money!

Put shop classes back in the public schools and teach young people how to correctly use machinery and that will do more to prevent injuries than any amount of ridiculous lawsuit settlements or even Mr Gass's Sawstop.

If his objective is truly to prevent injuries as he professes why then does he not make his technology available to be copied and improved upon just like the Beisemeyer Fence was by Mr. Beisemeyer? See, it's all about the money, period!
1 Friday, 17 June 2011 15:33
Charlie Lenz
I would have to agree on the push stick advise, and I would like to add reading the owners manual. I bought Delta Contractor's saw in 1995, and it came with a plan to make a push stick, I made several. I've been a woodworker for about 30 years as a hobby, and a meat cutter for almost 20 years as a full time job. I still have all ten of my digits, complete. Have I been lucky ? perhaps. But at the same time I know what the dangers are, and if you don't pay attention to what your doing around machinery and tools, then you have no one else to blame but yourself. Anyone for a cup of McDonalds HOT coffee ?