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How to Use a Table Saw: Ripping Boards Safely

Learn the right way to make rip cuts

FH03DJA_RIPSAF_01-3Family Handyman

Almost all table saw injuries are avoidable if you use the proper ripping techniques. Learn the safe way to make a variety of rip cuts including long rips, skinny rips and even rips to straighten a crooked board.

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Install the blade guard that came with your saw

Photo 1: Lower the blade to the wood

Adjust the blade height so the bottom of the saw blade gullet is even with the top of the wood you’re ripping.

A blade guard assembly that includes a splitter and an anti-kickback pawl is standard equipment with every table saw. If you’ve set yours aside, now’s the time to dust it off, dig out your instruction manual and reinstall it. Keeping this safety equipment on your saw and in good working condition is crucial for safe cutting. The plastic guard keeps your fingers away from the blade and deflects flying debris. The splitter keeps the board from pinching the blade and kicking back at you. Kickback danger is further reduced by the anti-kickback pawl, which has little teeth that grab the board and prevent it from hurtling toward you if the blade pinches or binds during the cut.

Safe ripping starts with adjusting the blade height. In general, the less blade exposed, the safer your sawing operation. Photo 1 shows the safest height for good cutting performance.

Save your fingers with a push stick

Photo 2: Keep boards tight to the fence

Hook your thumb behind the board and keep your little finger in contact with the fence to rip boards 6 in. and wider. Concentrate on keeping the edge of the board in full contact with the fence while you push it through the blade at a slow, steady rate. Push the board completely past the blade and kickback pawl. Then switch off the saw, being careful to stay out of the path of the blade in case the ripped board or cutoff piece catches in the blade and kicks back.

Push stick

Use a push stick for narrow rips.

Push shoe

A push shoe works like a push stick, but the wide handle gives a better feeling of control.

Even with a blade guard in place, you don’t want your hand anywhere near the spinning blade. A moment’s lapse in concentration or one little slip is all it takes to lose a finger. Push sticks allow you to keep your hands a safe distance from the blade while ripping skinny pieces. Woodworkers we talked to prefer the push shoe design (Photo 4) over the push stick. The handle on the shoe shape gives you a better grip for more control over the wood and reduces the chances of your hand slipping off. Make a push shoe using the pattern we’ve provided in Fig. A, or buy one from a store specializing in woodworking supplies. Always make push sticks out of plywood, not lumber that could split and fall apart while you’re pushing. Push sticks and shoes are the only safe way to guide a thin board past the spinning saw blade. Make a habit of keeping a push stick or shoe within easy reach whenever you use the saw.

While there are no hard and fast rules about how narrow a strip you can rip before needing a push stick, it’s a good idea to establish a safe distance and stick to it. We recommend using a push stick for any rip narrower than 6 in. (Photo 2).

Save your fingers with a push stick

Support long rips with an outfeed table

Photo 3: Set up an outfeed table

Rip boards narrower than 6 in. using the same technique as for wider boards. When your right hand reaches the edge of the saw table, pick up the push shoe and hook it over the back edge of the board. Stand to the side of and not directly behind the blade as you’re ripping. Use a table or other outfeed support to hold the board as it leaves the saw.

Photo 4: Keep the push stick at hand

Complete a narrow rip by pushing the board past the blade and anti-kickback pawl with a push shoe or push stick. Switch off the saw before retrieving the ripped board.

Ripping long boards is tricky because the board falls off the backside of the table, tempting you to reach over the spinning blade to catch it. To do it safely, you must support the end of the board as it comes off the back of the saw. You can buy manufactured stands that incorporate rollers and other devices to support this “outfeed” lumber. But a better solution is to build a small table that’s the same height as your table saw (Photo 3). Or if room permits, build a permanent outfeed platform. Just make sure to support the lumber behind the saw so you’re not tempted to reach over the blade to catch it.

Follow These Commonsense Safety Rules

  • To avoid being hit by a board if it kicks back, stand to the side of the blade when you’re cutting, not directly behind it. Also keep onlookers away from this danger zone. If possible, orient the saw so that doors, windows and walkways aren’t in the blade’s path in case a kickback occurs.
  • Unplug the saw whenever you perform a blade change or adjustment that puts your fingers close to the blade. Also unplug the saw when you’re not using it.
  • Wear safety glasses and hearing protection. Wear a dust mask if you’re sawing in a confined space.
  • Unplug the saw before resetting a tripped circuit breaker or replacing a fuse.

You can rip thin strips safely too

Photo 5: Use extensions for thin rips

Clamp the L-shaped plywood extension to your fence. Adjust the fence to the desired ripping width. Rip the thin strip by guiding the board along the plywood fence extension.

Photo 6: Push the strip through

Complete the rip by using the L-shaped push block to push the thin strip past the blade and anti-kickback pawl.

A table saw is the best tool for cutting thin strips of wood for plywood edging, jamb extensions or lattice. The problem is that the blade guard assembly interferes with the fence and doesn’t provide enough space for a push stick. Photos 5 and 6 show how to rip thin strips with the blade guard in place using a couple of easily constructed table saw accessories.

Build the fence extension by screwing a 3/4-in. x 2-1/2 in. strip of plywood to the long side of a 10-in. x 24-in. rectangle of 3/4-in. plywood. Simplify fence adjustments by ripping the finished assembly to exactly 10 in. wide. Then simply add 10 in. to your desired ripping dimension when you set the distance from the blade to the fence. Glue and clamp a 1-3/8 in. wide strip of 1/4-in. plywood or hardboard to a 6-in. x 8-in. rectangle of 3/4-in. plywood for the push block. Don’t use metal fasteners to attach the thin strip.

Here’s a trick for straightening crooked boards

Photo 7: Fasten the curved board to plywood

Rip a 6-in. wide strip from the straight factory edge of a sheet of plywood. Use screws or finish nails to temporarily attach the crooked board to the plywood strip. Keep the fasteners away from the edge where they might come in contact with the saw blade.

Photo 8: Push the plywood through

Set the fence to remove the least amount of material and trim the attached board. Using the standard ripping procedure shown in Photo 2, guide the edge of the plywood against the fence as you run the board and plywood through the saw blade. Unscrew the board from the plywood and rip it again with the newly created straight edge against the fence.

Have you ever wanted to rip a straight edge on a crooked board, or rip an odd-shaped piece of wood like a stair baluster in half? The trick is to attach your workpiece to a straight strip of plywood. Then run the straight plywood edge against the fence to create a perfectly straight edge on your crooked board or odd-shaped piece.

This technique works only for boards with an edge that isn’t straight. Don’t try to rip boards that are twisted or cupped. They’ll likely bind in the blade and could kick back.

Figure A: Homemade Push Shoe

To make your own push shoe, print this template out or draw it on graph paper, then enlarge it on a copier until it’s roughly 12-in. long. Tape the enlarged copy to a piece of plywood and cut it out with a jigsaw.

Make sure the heel is thinner than the wood you’re pushing so the heel doesn’t catch on the saw bed as you’re pushing.

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Clamps
  • Table saw
Make sure you have the blade guard and a push stick or push shoe. Use an outfeed table for long rips and large pieces.