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Radial Arm Saws - Unparalleled Versatility

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Radial Arm Saw (c) 2006 Chris Baylor, licensed to About.com, Inc.

When assembling a list of necessary shop tools, the radial-arm saw is often overlooked, or at least relegated to a lower spot on the list of priorities. This is likely due to its relative expense when compared to other tools. However, few woodworking machines are as versatile, especially when one considers the number of operations it can perform. Once you add one to your arsenal of woodworking tools, you may never want to be without one again.

Why Do You Need a Radial-Arm Saw?:

In addition to the cost, there may be many reasons why woodworkers shun the radial-arm saw in lieu of other tools. Radial-arm saws are heavy, bulky, and not typically portable. Usually they are the domain of larger wood shops, where portability isn't a concern.

However, the number of different operations that can be performed with a radial-arm saw are amazing. While it is mainly a crosscut saw, it can be used to rip, cut bevels or miters, dadoes and rabbets, form moldings, and in some cases, even serve as a guide for a router.

Of course, there are trade-offs to all of this versatility. For one, many radial arm saws are more difficult to set up cuts than some other tools. For instance, if you were cutting compound miters, you'd be able to set up a compound miter saw much more quickly and consistently than a radial arm saw. If you were ripping stock, a table saw is a much faster setup. However, a radial-arm saw can handle both tasks with ease, which gives considerable value to it's hefty purchase price.

How to Use a Radial-Arm Saw:

As with all tools, be sure to read and thoroughly understand the instructions that accompany your power tools before you begin to use your radial-arm saw. Making sure that your saw is set up properly as per the manufacturer's specs will not only teach you the features of the saw, but how to use it safely.

When cross-cutting with a radial arm saw, set the blade depth just below the surface of the table. If you're using your saw for the first time, you'll end up cutting some grooves into the table sacrificial table top, so you'll want to lower the blade to the cutting position after the saw's motor is up to speed.

Also, never free-hand any work on a radial-arm saw. Always hold the stock securely against the fence.

Keep in mind that as you pull the saw toward you, through the stock, that the blade's rotation is cutting away from the body. This will push sawdust away from the user, but also can cause the saw to lurch forward as it cuts through the stock. With this in mind, keep a firm grip on the handle and don't let the saw determine the speed of the cut. The motion of pulling the saw toward your body and then holding it back while the blade is cutting can take some practice, but you'll get the hang of it in time.

Cutting Dadoes and Rabbets:

The radial-arm saw is the perfect tool for cross-cutting dadoes and rabbets, particularly when making tenons or slots for shelves in standards. Raise the blade away from the table and install your stacked dado set to the thickness desired (making certain to install it in the proper direction for the rotation of the blade).

Once the dado set is installed and the blade guard reattached, use a scrap piece of stock to help you determine the proper depth of cut for your dado. When the setup is complete, cutting dadoes and rabbets is as simple as a regular cross-cut. The same dado set makes cutting tenons a breeze!

Cutting Miters and Bevels:

A radial-arm saw can typically cut miters of up to sixty degrees, either left or right, and bevels of up to ninety degrees, but typically only in one direction. While this allows a radial-arm saw to cut more complex compound angles than a compound-miter saw, it can also be a bit more challenging to get the angles just right. Be sure to always check to make sure the clamping levers on the saw are locked in place before beginning a cut.

Ripping Stock With a Radial-Arm Saw:

A less popular, but no less useful function of the radial-arm saw is to use it to rip stock. While there are some limitations of widths of cut that can be performed on a radial-arm saw, it is no less difficult to use (once the setup is completed) than a table saw.

When setting up your radial-arm saw to rip, be certain to always make use of the anti-kickback assembly, consisting of a riving knife and pawls. The riving knife is designed to help keep the stock from binding on the blade. However, if the blade were to jam during a rip cut, the pawls are designed to grab the stock and prevent it from kicking back.

As such, make it a habit to always set the depth of the riving knife and pawls too the size of the stock, according to the instructions that come with your radial arm saw. One tip to keep in mind: when ripping melamine or other plastic-laminated stock, the pawls may not grip the stock (as well as other non-coated stock) in the event of kickback.

Radial-Arm Saw Safety Tips:

As with all woodworking tools, safety is paramount when using a radial-arm saw. In addition to the items mentioned above, special attention should be given to the blade guard. The saw should never be turned on without the blade guard securely in place, nor should the lower section of the guard be permanently altered so as to keep it above the base of the table. Make certain that the guard can be easily lifted with the operation of the saw, and that it drops back into place when released.

When setting up your radial-arm saw, it is a good idea to install the entire unit with a slight backward slope. In this manner, the saw will be prevented from sliding toward the user under it's own weight.

Never begin a cut until the saw blade has reached it's maximum speed, and be certain to control the speed of the cut, which will not only be safer, but will produce better cutting results. Always double-check to be sure that the hand holding the stock against the fence is clearly away from the path of the blade, not only when cross-cutting, but also when ripping. Use featherboards and a push stick as necessary.

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