Guest opinion: There is another solution to saw injuries

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A 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.

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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 Amazon.com.

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.

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