Radial arm saws are among the most versatile woodworking machines in the wood shop. They can be used to cross-cut, rip, cut compound miters, cut dadoes and rabbets, and more. They can also be among the most dangerous of all woodworking tools. However, by taking the proper precautions, you can safely use your radial arm saw for numerous tasks on your woodworking projects.
The first step to working safely with your radial arm saw is to wear appropriate clothing. Loose-fitting clothes can become caught in your tools or work, a very dangerous situation.
Pre-Cut Safety Check
Airplane pilots always run through a pre-flight safety check before takeoff, and, as a woodworker, you should always make a pre-cut safety check. This check begins with reading and understanding the owner's manual that accompanies your radial arm saw. This manual will walk you through setting up and adjusting your saw properly.
Next, check your saw blade to be sure it is installed properly and that it is sharp and relatively clean of pitch. At the same time, check to see that all of the blade guards are installed and functioning properly. Your manual should cover this subject clearly.
Tips for Safe Operation
When you're ready to use your radial arm saw to make a cut, always wait for the saw to reach full speed before beginning the cut, and then turn off the saw after completing the cut. Do not move away from the saw until after the blade has reached a full and complete stop.
When using a radial arm saw, always keep your workpiece firmly on the table and against the rear fence. Never free-hand a cut on a radial arm saw. Also, if there are any scrap pieces or sawdust that may impede your cut, always remove the obstruction before turning the saw on.
Cross-Cutting on a Radial Arm Saw
Cross-cutting on a radial arm saw can be a bit tricky because the saw blade rotates in the same direction as the cut. As such, the operator needs to pull the saw through the cut, but, at the same time, keep the saw blade from grabbing and pulling the blade through the cut too quickly. This is an even bigger problem when using a blade that is a bit dull or when using a stacked dado blade set.
To counter the saw's desire to pull through the wood quicker than necessary, the operator must pull at a slow, even pace while simultaneously not allowing the saw to push faster than desired. This becomes easier with practice.
Rip Cuts on a Radial Arm Saw
Many radial arm saws have a rip-cutting feature, wherein the saw's head can rotate 90-degrees so that the blade is parallel to the fence. These saws include additional safety features to make rip-cutting safer. Consult your owner's manual for full instructions on safe rip cutting.
These additional safety features should include a drop-down guard on the front of the blade guard, plus a riving knife and an anti-kickback device on the rear of the blade guard. Each of these should be adjusted appropriately for the cut before beginning the rip. The sawdust port should be pointed away from the operator as well.
When ripping on a radial arm saw, always hold the workpiece securely against the rear fence throughout the entire length of the cut. Featherboards can be a big help with this task. Additionally, always use a push stick to guide the board through the rip cut. This push stick should be longer than the diameter of the saw blade to keep your fingers safely away from the blade.
When ripping, be aware that the workpiece can kick back at any time. The anti-kickback device is designed to help, but, to be safe, avoid standing in line behind the workpiece when making the cut. Instead, stand slightly to one side of the workpiece (which side depends on whether you're right-handed or left-handed). Standing directly behind the workpiece when ripping (and relying solely on the safety features, such as the anti-kickback pawls) is a potential recipe for a projectile injury. Standing to the side will allow any workpiece that gets kicked back to fly safely past your torso.
When cutting long workpieces, be certain that the end of the piece opposite the side being cut is properly supported at the same height as the radial arm saw's table. Also, on long rip cuts, avoid the temptation to push the first half of the cut through the saw and then pull the board past the blade to complete the second half of the cut. Instead, position a roller support to hold up the back end of the stock, and push the workpiece through the entire cut.
Of course, whenever making any cut on a radial arm saw, make absolutely certain that your hands, face, and other body parts are well clear of the blade.