Portable table saws have come a long way over the years. From cheap, sloppy alternatives to the heavy duty saws that could be found in commercial woodworking facilities, they have evolved to high quality, precision tools that under the right circumstances can rival the output of their more massive cousins.
What makes a compact table saw?
What is the difference between a compact saw, a benchtop table saw, and a jobsite saw? Depends on who you ask. For many people the terms are interchangeable. They are all small table saws that are compact and light enough that they can easily be moved from place to place. From a corner of the garage to a bench in order to quickly rip a couple of boards for a home project, or from your garage to a job site when you need a table saw at the ready.
These days nearly any saw produced by a reputable manufacturer going to draw 15 amps from a 120 volt power source and produce at least 2 horsepower. Portable saws will have a direct drive motor, both to save on size and weight, and because they are not as finicky to set up or throw out of adjustment.
For those who like to make distinctions, here are the accepted general characteristics of the three types of saws.
Benchtop saws are small, light, and relatively inexpensive. These saws sacrifice weight for durability. Constructed primarily from cheap plastics and minimum spec metals, they are fine for occasional use around the house but are not likely to last long under any kind of heavy use.
Compact saws are still somewhat smaller than a saw designed primarily for heavy duty contractor use. They are a definite step up from the benchtop saw in that they put an emphasis on quality materials and construction. The difference between this class of saw and the job site saw is largely a matter of degree (and of personal opinion). Many will come with an optional base.
Job site saws ride the line between compact saw and a full on contractor saw. They are somewhat larger than the other two, but still relatively easy to move around. Anyone can tell you that hauling any type of saw with a fixed base is a two man job at best, so most jobsite table saws will come with folding bases. They are constructed of quality materials and the workmanship is such that they can be used in the construction of the fanciest of homes. They are also the most likely saws to be able to remain in tune given how often they are likely to be moved from job site to job site.
A note on contractor table saws – there is some confusion about what actually makes a saw a contractor saw. Some define it has come to mean a heavy table saw with a fixed base. A saw that could be (just barely) considered portable, but in real terms, much too heavy for that. However, for many people (perhaps you) a better saw to call a contractor saw might be the jobsite saw. After all, that is the saw that most general contractors use most often.
What to look for in a benchtop table saw?
The first thing to decide when you are looking to buy a compact saw is just how you are going to be using it. In broad terms, is it going to be a hobby table saw, or might it be more properly considered a professional table saw. Do just need a table saw around to drag out from under the bench every now and again to make a few close cuts? Are you going to be using it every weekend (or every day) to make a bunch of precision cut?
That choice will dictate which end of the table saw spectrum your purchase will fall in. Small, light and cheaply built, or a bit heavier, with a quality fit and finish and a folding base. Or somewhere in between.
Here are some features to consider:
Power – as we’ve already noted these saws come standard with a 2hp direct drive motor drawing 15 amp. You should really accept nothing less.
Fence system – aside from basic build quality, the single feature most likely to dictate the quality of the work you can put out is going to be the fence system. The portable table saws are going to have fences that clamp to a ruled front rail and the back of the table. Chances are that the clamping pressure on the cheapest models will be too light to hold the fence securely in place under repeated operations. The key to a quality fence system on a jobsite table saw will depend on the design of the front rail and the firmness of the clamping. Some will also have a wider clamping base that does a much better job of keeping the fence parallel to the blade. You want to look for ease of operation, an easy to read scale, solid clamping pressure, and easily repeatable positioning.
Blade – 8, 10, or 12? The lion’s share of folding table saws are going to have a 10″ blade. And with good reason, like the 10″ miter saw, a 10-inch table saw gives enough depth of cut to handle almost all tasks required of it without the size and weight penalty a 12-inch table saw suffers.
Weight – only you can decide. The better the saw, the heavier the saw. Mostly.
Stand – If you want one. Some prefer to forego the stand in order to save weight and just set the saw on the floor or ground at the job site. If that’s not you then you’ll need to decide what features you’d like to see in a stand. Can you get by with a simple sheet metal folding stand? They tend to be lighter, but not overly steady or durable. The best of the folding stands not only fold smartly into a compact unit with the saw, they also come with wheels and handles that make moving the saw into and out of jobs a breeze. When locked in place they also offer a very sturdy base for your cutting operations.
Tilt and Height Adjustments – The best saws have large wheels that smoothly raise the saw blade and set the angle of operation. It can be a joy to set the blade where you want it. Jobsite saws typically only have one wheel – the one that raises the height.The angle of cut is set by sliding the wheel along a curved track with degree markings on it. Look at the size of the wheel and smoothness of its operation, both to raise and angle the blade. These are critical to ease of use and precision of placement.
Table top – It’s going to be aluminum. Unless you come across a cheap model with a phenolic top. Don’t buy that one.
Rip Capacity – How far can you get the blade from the fence? This dictates the widest you can piece of wood upi can rip with precision.
Miter Gage – The miter gauge slides along a slot in the table and allows you to push a piece of wood through the blade. The pusher has angle adjustments. This is how table saws are able to cut angles on boards – a handy feature if you have wood to cut that is wider than a miter box can handle. A wider head is a plus since it makes it easier to hold the piece steady. Look for ease of adjustment and how well it locks into place at various angles. You don’t want the miter gage adjusting itself from cut to cut.
Safety – All table saws sold today should have a blade guard and a splitter. The guard keeps you from pushing your fingers through the saw, and the splitter (the vertical piece behind the blade) keeps the wood from binding on the blade, which causes kickback. Guards vary in how well they allow material to feed into the blade, and how tall a piece of material they will accept. The easier a guard is to use, the less likely you will be tempted to remove it from the saw. Another good safety feature is a paddle switch of some sort – something you can easily slap to shut the saw off in an emergency.
Extension Table(s) – Most portable saws will have a sliding extension to adjust the width of the table in order to steady larger pieces of plywood.
Once you have decided on the features that are the most important to you, you can begin to hone in on your future table saw.
First, unless you are purely concerned with price, stick with the well-known brands. Brands that are known for quality work hard to keep their reputations. Not only is this some guarantee of the fit and finish of the saw you are buying, it also means that if there is a problem, the manufacturer or their representative should be likely to work with you to resolve it.
Next, jump over to the most reliable source of customer reviews available. Amazon’s review system is designed to give you the most comprehensive gauge of customer satisfaction currently available. Remember that people are much more likely to leave reviews when they are unhappy with a purchase than if they are happy. This means that you are likely getting the worst possible evaluation of that saw. If the reviews are good the chances that the saw is a quality unit are very likely.