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    A Tablesaw Primer: Ripping and Crosscutting

    With its flat, circular spinning blade doing the hard work, the tablesaw can make all sorts of cuts, among them grooves, dadoes, rabbets, and a variety of other woodworking joints. However, the tablesaw most commonly is called upon to do just two basic tasks: make wide boards narrower, a process called ripping, and make long boards shorter, a process called crosscutting. When ripping, the fence is used to guide the stock. Crosscutting is done with the aid of the miter gauge.

    The parts of a tablesaw. Most tablesaws have similar types of controls and accessories, no matter if they are small benchtop units, contractor's saws (shown), or heavy-duty, floor-standing cabinet machines.

    Because so much tablesaw run time is spent ripping and crosscutting, it's especially important to have good work habits while making these two fundamental cuts. After all, when used properly, a good tablesaw can produce remarkably smooth and accurate cuts safely and with little effort.

    The saw must be set up properly for best results
    A tablesaw won't cut easily, accurately, or safely if it's improperly set up. So before making any rip-or crosscut, make sure the saw is in good working order and properly adjusted. Also, the table of the saw should be flat, with any deviation limited to no more than 0.010 in.


    Tablesaw setup. Before making a cut, make sure the machine is properly set up. The rip fence, the tablesaw blade, and the miter-gauge slots must be parallele to one another.

    The same goes for any extension tables. And when assembled, those tables all should be flush.

    Then, too, the sawblade should be sharp. A sharp combination blade can produce good cuts when ripping and crosscutting.

    Use the blade cover, splitter, and pawls--The saw must have a guard that includes a cover, splitter, and pawls. Granted, such a guard system isn't a foolproof device, but it does improve safety. The cover itself acts as a barrier, helping to block any misdirected hand or finger from contacting the spinning blade. That's a big plus. Also, the splitter and pawls minimize the chance of kickback or ejection.

    Kickback occurs most often during a rip cut, usually when the workpiece twists away from the rip fence just enough to contact the teeth of the back portion of the blade; those are the teeth just coming up through the insert after traveling under the saw. When that happens, those back teeth can grab the workpiece, lifting it and instantly launching it, usually right back at the operator. But a splitter behind the blade helps prevent the workpiece from contacting the back teeth, so kickback is less likely to happen.

    Avoiding Ejection and Kickback
    Ejection occurs when a cutoff piece gets pinched between the blade and the rip fence. If the piece isn't supported by a push block or pawls, it can shoot straight back. Stand clear of the ejection zone--the area between the fence and the blade.

    Kickback occurs when a workpiece twists into the upward-spinning blade teeth. The teeth can launch the piece at your nose in an instant.

    With a splitter behind the blade, kickback is less likely to occur because the workpiece can't easily contact the back teeth of the blade.

    Ejection occurs most often when ripping a relatively narrow piece, just after the sawblade cuts the piece free. At that point, if the piece should tip, twist, or bend, it can become pinched between the blade and the rip fence. And if the piece is not supported by a push block or pawls, the force of the spinning blade can send the piece straight back at warp speed. Indeed, I’ve seen photos of a 3⁄4-in.-square by 4-ft.-long piece that shot back 6 ft. and fully penetrated a sheet of 3⁄4-in.-thick plywood.

    Flat, square stock is a must
    A warped board or a board with uneven edges can be difficult to control when ripping or crosscutting. Such boards are likely to rock during a cut. When that happens, the wood binds against the side of the blade. At best, you end up with a rough edge that isn’t square. At worst, you get kickback or ejection.

    Before you make any tablesaw cuts, check that the face surfaces of the board are flat. Also, any edge that will meet the rip fence or the miter gauge must be straight. If the flat surface or straight edge is missing, the stock needs to be handplaned or jointed.

    The Right Way to Rip

    When making rip cuts, stand to the left of the blade, with your left hip against the front rail. Keep the push block close at hand. Feed the stock with your right hand, keeping your right arm in line with the board. Apply enough downward pressure on your left hand to keep your palm anchored on the table. Then push with your middle finger and forefinger to keep the board against the fence. Once the end of the board has moved past your left hand, it is a good habit to remove that hand from the saw table.


    How to avoid kickback or ejection while ripping
    Smooth ripcuts can become routine if you follow a few basic cutting techniques. Not only will you get smooth ripcuts, but you’ll also be able to get them with a better degree of safety. That’s important, especially when you consider that most tablesaw accidents occur during ripcuts. A safety point: Don’t rip a board that is wider than it is long. With the shortest edge of the board bearing against the rip fence, the board easily can twist away from the fence and into the side of the blade, an invitation to kickback.

    When you’re faced with making a narrow ripcut, typically one that’s between 1-1⁄4 in. wide and 3 in. wide, the blade cover usually ends up interfering with your right hand as you use the push block to feed the board through the blade. To avoid that problem, use a tall push block, which puts your hand well above the cover as the stock is pushed along.

    For the narrowest ripcuts, between 1⁄8 in. wide and 11⁄4 in. wide, use a notched sled when the stock is less than about 24 in. long. A handle on top helps you push the sled while making sure the edge of the sled stays against the rip fence.


    Ripping narrow short boards. When ripping parts less than about 1-1/4-in. wide, use a notched sled, guided by the rip fence, to push the stock through the blade. A handle makes for easier pushing.

    To set the width of the cut, simply measure the distance from the sled's inside edge to the sawblade's inside edge. For longer parts that require a narrow ripcut, clamp a short auxiliary fence to the rip fence.


    Ripping narrow long boards. A shopmade L-shaped fence mounted to the rip fence creates extra space between the blade cover and the rip fence, making it easier to feed the stock, especially when a tall push block is used.

    The short fence allows the stock to slide under the blade cover. However, when the front of the push block reaches the cover, you’ll have to stop pushing and go to the back of the saw. The pawls will keep the stock in place. Once at the back, you can complete the final few inches of the cut by pulling the narrow piece through the blade.

    Crosscutting: use a firm grip
    The most common crosscut is made with the miter gauge set at 90° to the miter-gauge slot, resulting in a square cut. However, consistently smooth, square crosscuts don’t happen automatically. You need to follow a few basic procedures.

    How to crosscut

    The starting position for a square crosscut is about the same as the one used for ripping. Stand in front of the miter gauge with your left hip against the front rail. Use your right hand to push the gauge toward the back of the saw. Hold the board against the miter-gauge fence with your left hand. For safety, keep fingers at least 6-in. from the blade cover. The miter gauge works just as well in either of the two miter slots. But because most people are right-handed, the majority of tablesaw users push the miter gauge with their right hand, so the gauge has to go into the left slot.

    Position the board on the miter gauge—Place the board on the saw table. Use your left hand to hold the board against the miter-gauge fence and slide the gauge forward with your right hand until the leading edge of the board almost touches the blade. At this point, use one or two hands as needed to align the sawblade with the cut line on the board.

    Use an auxiliary fence to crosscut long boards
    A typical miter-gauge fence is relatively short, so it doesn't offer a lot of support to long boards. An easy solution is to screw a long auxiliary wood fence to the miter-gauge fence. You can make the wood fence to any length, but just be sure it's flat and straight.

    Push the board through the blade—When everything is aligned, use your left hand to hold the board firmly against the miter-gauge fence until the cut is completed. The holding force you apply should be straight back, and your fingers should be at least 6 in. from the blade cover. Slide the board an inch or two away from the blade before starting the saw. Use your right hand to push the gauge toward the back of the saw, and feed the board at a steady speed. Stop pushing once the cut is finished, but continue to hold the board firmly against the miter-gauge fence.

    Pull back the board—Once the board has been cut, continue to hold the board firmly against the fence, and pull both the board and the gauge back to the starting position. Once back to the starting point, you can relax your hold on the board and shut off the saw.

    Oftentimes, as the board and miter gauge are pulled back, the spinning blade will slightly touch the cut edge of the board and cause a little extra splintering. To avoid the problem—and if the board is small and light enough—I’ll use my left hand to shift the board 1⁄8 in. to 1⁄4 in. away from the blade before pulling it back. Bigger and heavier boards, however, won’t move as easily. So if I’m cutting a big board while in splinter-phobic mode, I simply shut off the saw before removing the board and pulling back the gauge.

    Add a stop block to the rip fence when cutting several short pieces to the same length—It’s not uncommon to need several short pieces of wood, each one the same length. When that’s the case, I clamp a stop block to the rip fence. Then the fence is positioned so that the distance from the block to the blade equals the length measurement you need. To avoid kickback, the block must be far enough from the blade so that the board isn’t touching the block when it starts being cut by the blade.

    Repeat cuts for short parts
    To save time, clamp a stop block to the rip fence when you need to cut several short pieces of wood to the same length. Position the fence so that the distance from the block to the blade equals the needed length measurement. To avoid binding the cutoff piece between the blade and the stop block, which could cause kickback, the block must be far enough in front of the blade so that the board isn't touching the block during the cut.

    Add a stop block to the auxiliary miter-gauge fence when cutting longer boards to the same length—Make sure the distance from the block to the blade matches the length you want. First, though, using only the auxiliary fence, cut one end of each board square. Then butt the square end of each board against the block and cut one piece at a time.

    Repeat cuts for long parts
    When you're cutting several boards to the same length, a stop block clamped to the auxiliary miter-gauge fence will ensure uniformity. First, cut one end square on each piece. After that, clamp the stop block to the fence, making sure the distance from the block to the blade matches the length you want. Then, one piece at a time, butt the square end of the board against the block and make the cut.

    Another versatile jig that gets a lot of use in my shop is the crosscut sled. The sled makes crosscutting even more accurate and safe.

    Once you’ve mastered the basic techniques of ripping and crosscutting, you’ll be ready to tackle the other various tasks suitable for the tablesaw, such as cutting miters, tenons, and tapers.

    Drawings by Jim Richey

    From Fine Woodworking #167