DIY Tools Workshop

Radial-Arm Saw

The radial-arm saw is a versatile saw that can do a lot of things in your workshop.
Bob Vila Avatar

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There are always ongoing debates within a universe of people who are committed to their work. One such argument among woodwork­ers pits the radial-armers against the table sawyers.

One side holds that the table saw is the perfect workshop center­piece. The design is ingenious and it’s easy to use and maintain. The table saw rips and crosscuts, and happily divides large sheets of stock into smaller panels. They say the radial-arm saw is difficult to adjust and, unless everything is perfectly aligned, makes cuts that are less than true.

The radial-arm saw contingent argue that their favored tool is much more versatile than the table saw. It’s unsurpassed at accurate, easy cut­off work (no doubt that’s the reason it’s sometimes referred to as a cut­off saw). They say it can sand and plane and, like the table saw, rip long boards at a single pass.

So which is right for your shop? If you can’t make up your mind (and you have enough space), maybe you need both.

The radial-arm saw is, in essence, a right-side-up portable circular saw mounted on an adjustable arm (or overarm) that slides the sus­pended blade over a fixed cutting surface. Blade and motor are con­nected to the overhead arm by a yoke, which is adjustable along both horizontal and vertical planes, enabling it to swing in any direction. Adjustment is crucial:  Follow the instructions in your manual to the letter.

The radial-arm sawblade can be tilted for cutting angles by releas­ing the bevel lock (usually at the front of the motor housing) and read­ing the desired angle off a protractor gauge. It will also swivel right and left for mitering, and the blade and motor housing can be turned a full ninety degrees to right or left, meaning that the saw can be used to rip boards with the miter clamp releasing the yoke. (For some operations, like ripping, the saw is fixed in place and the stock pushed through the blade.) The motor and blade can also be raised or lowered (via a crank, either on the overhead arm or beneath the cutting surface). The saw will lock into any of these paths for precise work.

Radial-arm saws are identified by the size of the blade for which they are designed. Like many table saws, most radial-arm saws use ten-inch blades. Typically, they cut stock up to three inches thick and will cross­cut pieces more than a foot wide. Radial-arm saws will also take mold­ing and dado heads for cutting molding profiles and rabbets.

The fixed worktable over which the radial-arm saw is suspended has a fence at the rear for holding work firmly in place. On some models there are two fences (one set behind the other for ripping work), while others have a single fence but two or more positions at which to locate it.

An ideal position in a workshop for the radial-arm is against a long wall, more or less centered, with extension tables on either side of the saw. The fence should extend along the flanking tables, too.

Blade guards are essential: above and below and, when ripping, with adjustable antikickback fingers in place. Ripping is tricky and, if not done properly, can be dangerous on a radial-arm saw. If you use a molding or dado head, a shaper guard should also be in place. A brake, too, should be in functioning order. Preferably it’s automatic (bringing the blade to a halt the moment the power stops), but at a minimum your saw should have a manual brake that can be engaged when a button is depressed.

Options. The radial-arm saw can also be equipped with optional blades and accessories so that it can function as a drum or disk sander, router, or drill press. Even planer and jointer heads are available for some models. Check your manual or with the manufacturer of your saw to determine what options are available.

Keep in mind that every change from one operation to another (say, from sawing to sanding and back again) requires setup time. The more serious you are about your workshop and the projects you do, the more likely you are to want to acquire specialized tools. Then it’s a matter of moving from one station to another, rather than retooling a machine as you shift tasks.

Radial-Arm Saw Safety. Take special care when you use a radial-arm saw. The nature of its design – the sawblade itself moves – makes it trickier than, say, a table or band saw.

Never position your hand in the path of the saw. The tremendous power of this saw can tend to jerk the blade forward when it encoun­ters variations in the wood. The same goes for the area behind the blade, too.

Perhaps it should go without saying but… don’t remove the guards. And always wear safety goggles, since the saw has been known to throw out loose stock at an amazing rate. Ear protection is crucial, too, since, according to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), the biggest radial-arm saws are the loudest tools in the wood­worker’s shop.