Workshop Wednesday: Ripping Wood on a Table Saw – The Basics
Today is the first in a series of woodworking basics with master craftsman Bob Card of Greenwood Bay wood studio. He shares his expertise so that you can successfully begin woodworking yourself.
This first post is a primer on how to successfully and efficiently cut long pieces of wood on the table saw:
Table saws are the workhorse of most woodshops. They can make a variety of cuts, including rip cuts, cross cuts, dadoes and rabbets, plus a variety of woodworking joints. Today I want to discuss rip cuts.
Rip cutting is the process of making a long board narrower.
Before we start making sawdust, lets discuss a few safety issues. Each year, thousands of serious injuries requiring trips to the emergency room are caused by table saws. Many – if not most – of these could have been avoided if the operator had followed proper safety precautions. Following is a very brief summary of some key safety tips. Please note that this is not intended to be a complete list or discussion of safety, but rather a primer to raise your awareness, and to point out the importance of safe operation.
Be sure to use all appropriate safety guards when cutting. These include things such as blade guards, splitters (or riving knives) to reduce the chance for kickback, and push boards (when cutting narrow boards) to keep fingers away from the spinning blade.
Outfeed support is necessary when cutting long stock to reduce the likelihood of the board from falling off the back edge of the saw. We use a shop-built outfeed table at Greenwood Bay to provide support for long stock. It is a simple table base made of 2X4’s, and includes a melamine covered top; all of which is attached to the table saw itself. Alternatively, many woodworking suppliers sell portable outfeed supports.
Safety goggles and hearing protection are a must when working around power tools. Safety goggles come in a variety of shapes and sizes (including some with small “reading glasses” built in for those of us at a certain age!). Hearing protection also has a wide variety of options. I like the simple “earmuff” style that simply fit’s over your ears, but many options are available, including some that have Bluetooth, radio, and MP3 capabilities.
Pay attention to your clothing, too. Long sleeves can get caught in spinning sawblades. If possible, wear short sleeves, and no loose-fitting clothing. In cooler months, long sleeves with a tight cuff may be safe. Similarly, pay careful attention to any jewelry: necklaces and other pieces can also get caught in moving parts. In fact, some woodworkers remove rings (including wedding rings). Finally, don’t wear gloves while operating the table saw. These, too, can result in injury.
Also, keep clutter at bay. If there is much sawdust on the floor or on the saw itself, now is a good time to clean it out of your way so you don’t slip while making the cut. Similarly, there should be nothing on the saw itself except the wood you are going to cut, and any safety equipment (e.g. push sticks, featherboards) you will be using. Remove from the saw table anything you won’t be using while making the cut.
With those preliminaries out of the way, its time to make some cuts!
It’s always best to start with straight, square stock. If your wood has a warp to it, it’s not ready to be cut on the table saw. Such wood must be milled (typically on a jointer and planer) prior to taking it to the saw.
Prior to engaging the cut, be sure the wood is supported on the table - and that it will maintain support through all phases of the cut. It should be flat against the fence. Featherboards can be used to maintain slight pressure on the wood, and to assure it stays neatly against the fence. If you are going to be using a push stick, be sure you have it ready before you begin the cut.
Visualize your cut before you turn on the saw. Think through each step of the process. If necessary, you may want to even lower the sawblade until it is below the surface of the table, and actually “walk through” each step of the cut. This can be especially useful when cutting longer pieces, to make sure you will be able to control the piece during each step of the way.
The sawblade should be raised until the teeth of the blade are slightly higher than the thickness of the wood. For a ¾” piece of wood, the sawblade might be about 1” above the table.
Finally, turn on the saw, stand slightly left of the cut (out of the “kickback zone”), and begin making the cut.
As you feed the wood, maintain smooth pressure that is slightly “down” and “to the right”. This assures the wood will remain flat against the table top and the fence. Feed the wood at a smooth pace, and as reasonably fast as you can safely cut it. Try not to let the wood come to a stop, or even slow down too much: either of which can increase the chance of kickback, or can cause unnecessary sawmarks (or burning) of the wood.
Push the wood all the way through and past the blade, until it clears the blade by a couple of inches. This is called “finishing the cut”. You want to “finish the cut” to reduce the chance of kickback.
Remove your hands from the wood – keeping them safely away from the blade, and turn the saw off. For added safety, it’s recommended to let the blade come to a complete stop before removing the wood from the saw top.
You'll notice that I paused briefly in the middle of the cut – this is not what you want to do and resulted in the saw burn shown above. Try to keep your sawing motion smooth and continuous.
Now that we’ve safely ripped a piece of wood, here are a few other tips to consider:
For best results, always work with fully “seasoned” wood. Most wood purchased from commercial lumber yards is already fully seasoned. However, some of the most beautiful wood can sometimes be found a specialty yards, and sometimes it is still “green.” Entire books have been written about drying wood, so we won’t go into all that here.
Allow any wood you buy to “acclimatize” to your shop. If possible, let wood sit for a few days (a week is better) in your shop.
Allow for wood movement after the cut. Cutting wood releases tension, which can cause the wood to warp. The longer the wood, the more likely it is to warp. Similarly, the narrower the final cut piece will be, the more it may be inclined to warp. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to cut the piece somewhat wider than the final desired width, particularly if you are cutting a lot of material off. How much wider? As with many things, the answer depends on a lot of things. But often somewhere between 1/16” and ¼” will suffice. Allow it to sit overnight before continuing. If the wood does warp after the cut (and after it sits overnight) a trip to the jointer is in order. Place the concave side down on the jointer bed, and joint the edge until it is straight. Then go back to the table saw, place the newly-jointed flat edge against fence, with the convex side facing away. Rip the warped edge off, and the board is now square again.
As you can see, there is a lot more to ripping wood on the table saw than simply pushing a piece of wood past the blade. But as with so many things in life, a little time spent preparing will save a lot of time, frustration (and injuries) later.
About Bob Card:
Bob Card started greenwood bay in 2009 after a 25 year corporate career, at which time he decided to follow his passion and devote his time to creative endeavors. A self-trained, life-long woodworking hobbyist, Bob opened his shop in Houston's east end. A chance encounter with a designer led to a commission making a large live edge dining table was followed by other similar work. Soon, Bob and greenwood bay became one of the leading makers of contemporary furniture in the region. His work has been seen on HGTV, the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express, and Houzz. Clients and projects have included Starbucks, the Novogratz Design firm in New York, The Hillel at Texas A&M, the City of Houston Green Building Resource Center, and numerous other designers and clients throughout the US.
See more of Bob's work on greenwood bay's website: www.greenwoodbay.net