Maybe we should think about this

Imagine that you are a complete novice who wants to make a patio bench for your spouse. You already have a chop saw but need to do some ripping. So you head off to look at some table saws.

You find saws ranging in price from a hundred bucks to upwards of $400 to $600. You think, “Well, I’m probably not going to use this all that much but the $100 one is obviously a toy and the top quality ones are more than I want to spend, so I’ll just go for the middle one. It’s a well-known brand so it should be of decent quality.”

You get the saw home, set it up according to the instructions and then, before even turning it on, you read the entire manual including the fine print. You understand that you need to have the blade guard installed so you make sure it is. Then you realize that there is no way to measure the blade to fence distance with the guard in place. You attempt to hold it up with your wrist while you measure and try to adjust the fence with the other hand. It’s not working out too well. Being a novice, you are not aware that a decent table saw fence would have a measuring scale which would make this whole process much simpler.

Then you think, “Wait a minute, the blade guard is removable. All I have to do is unscrew that little bolt with the plastic knob on it and off she comes. No problem.” So you remove the guard and finally get the fence set. But when you go to reattach the guard, the little plastic knob strips and the bolt cannot be tightened. So you can’t even put the guard back on. You decide to just go ahead and rip your wood thinking that you have push sticks (little flimsy plastic ones that came with the saw) and, having read the manual, you know never to make a cut without using push sticks. You should be OK.

With the fence set, the saw turned on and your push sticks in hand, you begin to rip your first piece of oak. Halfway through the cut, you notice that the wood is wandering away from the fence. Being a novice, you don’t realize this is happening because the blade is not running true and is pulling the wood away from the fence. You think it’s because you are not pushing it against the fence with enough force. So you try to reposition your push sticks to force the wood tighter against the fence.

Two things happen. First, the wood is being pressed against the side of the wobbling blade. Second, the fence is moving under the pressure because the locking mechanism is completely inadequate. As a result, the whole thing is binding up and you can feel the blade trying to lift the piece up off the table. This is not going well. You realize that the flimsy plastic push stick is going to break if you press any harder with it so you try to toss it aside quickly enough to get it replaced with your hand. At this point, the wood, which has been overheated by the friction from the blade, is starting to pinch the blade. The blade is warping from the heat and the situation is getting worse by the second. Being a novice, you don’t even realize that, at this moment, you are in grave danger and that your best bet would probably be to let it go and duck for cover. Instead you try and force the wood to cooperate but even the small 3/4-hp motor is capable of exerting far more force than your hands and arms.

Let’s leave our well-meaning friend at this point and draw Mark Twain’s “curtain of charity” on the whole scenario. I just wonder what you think about this. Is there any culpability here at all? Can we simply look at our hero as being stupid? Or can we blame the store or manufacturer?



  • BillyJ says:

    I’ve seen this with larger machines – the worker removed the guard even though it was welded on and plainly stated on a large sticker: DO NOT REMOVE – PINCH POINT. In the end, the manufacture was still found to be at fault for the operator’s stupidity.

    You can’t [stop] stupid.

    However, I have a sign in my shop that says, “Stupidity should hurt.” And it does.

  • Gene Kelly says:

    My daughter grew up helping me in my shop. She became modestly competent during that time and in high school took a wood shop where she produced a cherry sofa table which we still use today. She would use all of the equipment in my shop, except the table saw. Not because I wouldn’t allow it, but because she knew that she wasn’t ready.

    Possibly the scenario as you have postulated is flawed by the character who is the active ingredient. Testosterone. The reason that women complain that men won’t ask for directions, testosterone driven pride.

    If, after reading the instruction manual, your novice would have realized that running power equipment is not a skill that is acquired genetically, possibly he would have asked for instructions from someone who has been there before.

  • Aaron Sikes says:

    I’m not ready to accept that estrogen would, necessarily, produce a more safety-minded operator. In David’s example, we’re not dealing with a novitiate’s mistake. We’re dealing with an inexperienced operator. The two are not the same.

    Novices know they’re novices. They have some experience, at least enough to tell them that table saws are big loud scary things that can kill you in less time than it takes to realize you’re about to die. Maybe they, like Gene’s daughter, grew up around a TS and knew from that ancillary experience alone, that the machines are owed a lot of respect. And a healthy dose of fear = safety-mindedness.

    Inexperience operators, on the other hand, are shooting in the dark. Our hero here didn’t even ask a friend or shop clerk at the hardware store. Yeah, he read the manual. But anybody with a smidgen of experience, even just watching other guys do it, knows that the manual is no replacement for even a few words of wisdom from someone who’s done it before you.

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