Choosing a table saw poses some questions for a new woodworker or someone unfamiliar with table saws. Many people are not aware that there are different table saws made for different purposes. The type of table saw you choose will depend on how you will be using the saw most of the time.
The three main types of table saws are as follows:
- Jobsite saws. Lightweight, compact, portable, and relatively cheap.
- Contractor saws. Larger, robust, less portable, and more expensive.
- Cabinet table saws. Highly accurate, extremely heavy, very expensive.
Woodworkers have differing needs for most power tools, including table saws. For this reason, manufacturers have combined different feature sets in different saw types to cater to the variation in cutting needs. Understanding the differences in these saws will help you choose the right saw needed for your application.
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The Three Main Table Saw Types
The table saw is a revolutionary woodworking power tool that has made the simple task of cutting wood into an efficient and accurate aspect of any project.
Whether you work with wood as a hobby or a professional woodworker, or a contractor, there is no doubt that a table saw is a huge time saver, especially when it comes to producing a multitude of repeatable cuts.
There are three broad types of table saws, each made with a different type of woodworking in mind. We will investigate each table saw type to understand the differences and make an informed decision regarding the best table saw for your requirements.
The three main table saw types are as follows.
- A Jobsite table saw.
- A Contractor table saw.
- A Cabinet table saw.
We will take a look at the main features of each type of saw and what separates each from the other. The features of each table saw type will indicate their best woodworking application.
Jobsite table saws have go by a variety of names, including the compact table saw, benchtop table saw, micro table saw, and of course, the jobsite table saw.
The main identifier here is portability. All jobsite saws are compact, robust, and portable.
The idea behind a jobsite table saw is that it is lightweight and portable, allowing it to be easily moved from location to location on a job site where the table saw is needed, rather than taking the job to the saw.
Most importantly for hobbyists, jobsite saws are the least-expensive table saws on the market, so they’re a good entry point for new woodworkers who want to be able to cut larger pieces of wood quickly and accurately, but don’t want to drop $500 on a saw.
They’re also popular because they can easily be packed away when not in use due to their compact size, which if you’re working out of a small garage or basement, can be really important.
Many jobsite table saw models come with a lightweight stand on which the table saw can be wheeled around the job site to where it is needed. The saw can easily disconnect from the stand, making the transport of the saw and stand with a truck or a van a simple undertaking.
Jobsite table saws are sometimes referred to as contractor saws because many contractors use them due to their rugged construction, reliability, and portability. However, a jobsite table saw is much smaller and compact than a conventional contractor table saw.
Pros and Cons of the Jobsite Table Saw
The primary advantages of jobsite table saws is that they’re affordable and portable. Otherwise, they’re inferior to other types in pretty much every way.
While jobsite saws have a decent motor and fence, contractor and cabinet saws have better versions.
Additionally, jobsite saws have a pretty small table area. This makes it difficult to cut large pieces of wood safely and accurately.
Often times, you’ll see hobbyist woodworkers with jobsite saws build workbench/outfeed tables that surround their jobsite saw in order to get more flat space for feeding the wood.
This table by Bitter Root DIY is a great example of that.
I’ve actually never owned a jobsite saw – my first table saw was a used $50 contractor saw. It ultimately cut off my thumb (both because of my stupidity, and some safety features issues) so I’m not sure I’d go that route either.
(Also, don’t worry, they stitched my thumb back together, and it lived. My left thumb now looks a little funny and doesn’t bend in the middle, but I’m as pleased as I could be with that outcome.)
A contractor table saw is larger than a jobsite table saw. They are also bulkier, heavier, and less portable than the jobsite table saw.
The motor on a contractor table saw is designed for larger, heavier-duty work. The workpieces that can be processed with this saw are significantly larger than for a jobsite saw.
The contractor table saw usually comes with an integrated stand, which offers a stable, rigid work surface for processing larger lumber. The stand usually has integrated wheels to move the saw around, but the portability of this table saw is limited.
The primary way to identify a contractor saw is that it has an open base.
The above picture is of my old contractor saw. Do you see how the bottom half is completely open? That’s how you can differentiate a contractor saw from a cabinet saw.
These table saws have larger motors, often with the blade being driven by a belt system rather than directly by the motor.
You can see this in the above image – the motor hangs out the back of the saw, and if you look closely, you can see the belt that connects it to the blade.
Pros and Cons of the Contractor Saw
Contractor saws are pricier than jobsite saws, but they have better motors and more accurate fences.
However, if you’re a hobbyist woodworker, there’s one main reason I don’t love them – contractor saws generally don’t have dust collection ports.
I don’t know why that is, but it drove me nuts when this was my main saw. If you look in the photo above, you’ll see a massive pile of dust underneath my saw.
If you live somewhere warm and work in a garage, this might be okay. Open the garage door, get good ventilation, and blow the dust out.
But for someone working in a basement, having a giant pile of dust appear anytime you used the table saw was terrible, especially if you need to make dado cuts (which create even more sawdust!)
What Are The Features Of A Cabinet Table Saw?
A cabinet table saw is a thing of beauty, and every woodworker would love to own one at some point, or at least get to work on one!
A cabinet table saw is a stationary table saw. This is the type of table saw that stays in your workshop. Once it is set up and positioned, it will not be moved from site to site of job to job. This is a precision machine that will stay put.
Cabinet table saws of so named because they’re often built into a large cabinet type structure that offers a large work surface and a safer operation.
The stand can be cast iron, making it very heavy and difficult to move. This machine is highly accurate and extremely powerful. It is designed to process wood all day long, even at an industrial level if required.
Dust collection mechanisms on these machines are normally superior to all other table saws. They are normally driven by large induction motors requiring 3-phase electricity. Generally, the blade is driven by rubber belts rather than a direct drive from the motor.
After I cut off my thumb, I invested in a SawStop Cabinet saw. I figured it was around the price of my health insurance deductible, so if it prevented injury even once, it would pay for itself.
The easiest way to tell a cabinet saw from a contractor saw is the enclosed base. If you compare my two saws, you’ll see that the contractor saw has an open base, while the cabinet saw is entirely enclosed.
Pros and Cons of Cabinet Saws
If you can afford a cabinet saw (and you’re not a contractor that needs the portability of a jobsite saw,) get a cabinet saw.
They’re nicer, safer, more accurate, and cut hardwood like butter.
I highly recommend the SawStop if you’re splurging – I’ve had it about 9 months and using it is still a luxurious experience. Plus the whole retracting-blade safety feature thing is nice too.
Cabinet saws have higher-powered motors, high-quality fences, can make every type of cut possible, and are safer to use. The dust collection is powerful, and other safety features like the riving knife and blade guard are unobtrusive and easy to operate.
That said, they’re also incredibly expensive. I spent around $4000 for my SawStop, and while other brands are cheaper, you’re still looking to pay $2000+.
And because they’re so big and heavy, they’re a pain to transport to your home. I recruited my dad, and we had a whole plan for getting it from my driveway into the basement.
Cabinet saws also require some assembly. The process itself actually wasn’t that bad, but there was at least one time where we had to lift the 400 pound saw, which was difficult to say the least.
It’s also worth noting that while some cabinet saws require a 240 volt outlet, not all of them do. You can get a high-quality, 1.5 HP SawStop Cabinet Saw that runs on a 120 volt outlet.
I opted for the 3 HP, 240 volt saw purely because it was easy for me to do so, but that’s not a requirement of cabinet saws.
How Should You Choose Between The Table Saw Types?
The main way you should select the best saw for your needs will be to assess the type and frequency of use you will put the saw through.
The second main decision-making factor will be the space. How much space do you have in your workspace or workshop for the saw?
The last factor to consider is the price. Jobsite table saws are robust, reliable, and cheap. Contractor saws are hardworking but lack portability and dust collection, and are more expensive than jobsite table saws. Cabinet table saws are amazing to work with but require plenty of space, and a large bank balance!
Cabinet table saws will generally last longer than contractor saws, and contractor saws will generally outlast jobsite saws.
Regardless, I think the real answer is the nicest, safest saw you can afford to buy.
If that’s a jobsite saw to start – great!
If you come across a used contractor or cabinet saw, and you can verify that the safety features (riving knife, blade guard, etc.) work correctly, awesome!
And if you’re in a stage of your life where you can afford to splurge on a nice cabinet saw, do it!