Contractor table saws were fixtures on my jobsites when I was a remodeler in New York City. We'd set them up at the beginning of each job and didn't take them out until the painters spread their drop cloths. These days, you may not see as many around because lots of guys use lighter-weight, more portable models. But contractor saws still fit the bill for jobs requiring a saw with tight cutting tolerances, a large table, and an extra dose of power.
Contractors also use these heavy, stable tools as lower-cost cabinet saws in woodshops. Although they can be as accurate as cabinet saws, they're significantly less expensive and somewhat mobile.
Contractor saws need the power to rip thick stock and the accuracy to effectively cut cabinet parts. I tested six models with the shop and jobsite in mind, knowing full well that if you're going to move one of these big dogs, it'd better stay where you put it for a while. Mobility aside, I paid close attention to each tool's motor and its connection to the blade, blade adjustments, fence movement and accuracy, switching and safety features, and the base on which everything sits. I tested the Craftsman 22849, Delta 36-431, DeWalt DW746X, Jet JWTS-10CW2-JF, Powermatic 64A, and Ridgid TS2424LS.
Assembly. Get out your socket set and Allen wrenches and pack a lunch. When you assemble one of these tools, you deal with lots of parts. Set-up time varied with each tool ranging from 1.5 hours for the Ridgid and DeWalt saws to 3 hours for the Powermatic, Jet, and Craftsman saws. The Delta model, with its standard extension table, took the longest to set-up requiring almost 5 hours to assemble. Ridgid and DeWalt have the best assembly instructions.
Assembly and disassembly time is especially critical if you're going to set up your contractor's saw on a jobsite, since you'll have to take it apart enough to move it. Most manufacturers direct you to remove the fences and wing tables before lifting their saws. That protects those parts from damage and helps you get the saw through a door or around a corner. Remove the base, too, and you're less likely to hurt your back or gouge walls as you go.
The Ridgid model is the most mobile tool I tested. The fence rails slide off quickly so you can get to the saw body and lift the unit without bending anything. And Ridgid provides a mobile wheel base as standard equipment, which makes it even easier to move around. It would be nice if these saws had built-in lifting handles to help the cause.
Motors on the tools we tested range from 1.5 to 1.75 hp. A motor reveals its grit after months of hard use. That's when you find out the quality of its windings, bearings, and dust control.
We didn't use these tools continuously for several months, but we did run their motors until they heated up by ripping 3/4-inch sheet materials, 2-by stock, and some knotted-up, 3-by white oak. None had problems ripping these materials, although the Delta saw did bog down a bit in the oak.
Drive mechanism and alignment.
The Powermatic, Ridgid, Jet, Craftsman, and Delta saws have suspended-motor drive mechanisms. The motor hangs on a plate hinged to the saw body; the motor's weight then tensions the belt and moves where the blade moves. Ridgid, Delta,and Craftsman add springs for additional belt tension. This helps control slippage under load and keeps the motor from jumping, especially if you feed wood too fast.
DeWalt's motor is fixed. It rides in the same carriage with the blade and belt tension is fixed in any blade orientation. DeWalt's drive system has fewer moving parts than the others in this test, so I think it's more likely to stay well-adjusted once set. It also maintains a constant belt tension so the motor can't jump.
After using suspended-motor saws for many years, I've learned that the key to maximizing the motor's grab on the belt is aligning the motor pulley exactly with the blade arbor pulley. If there's even a tiny angle, one pulley can work its way off its arbor over time.
All the drive systems in this test use V-belts. The Powermatic, Craftsman, and DeWalt belts have teeth as well, while Ridgid's is grooved. These belts' extra surface area affords better grip on the pulleys, which helps prevent slippage.
Misalignment often occurs at the hinge connecting the motor to the saw body. Any slop in this hinge causes unwanted motor movement. The Ridgid hinge has the closest machining tolerances and the least slop. I could rack it less than a 1/16-inch, while I could move the Craftsman hinge more than 1/4-inch.
Settings. Blade height and tilt adjustments must be easy to set and reliable. They absolutely must stay put. I've had blade settings shift during operation, so I always use a secondary lock on critical cuts if one's available. Ridgid and Craftsman provide locking levers that freeze the blades in position. The levers work like locks you might find on portable thickness planers.
Secondary tensioning systems on the Jet and Delta adjustment cranks don't lock the blades in place, but make it more difficult for them to move. Although these mechanisms don't totally freeze the setting, they work nicely. DeWalt's wide, deep gearing provides lots of surface area to hold the setting with friction. All the methods worked fine in this test.
Blade adjustment. It's annoying to have to crank a blade adjustment handle a 1/4 turn before the blade starts to move. Most of the saws we tested have tight, responsive action, although Craftsman's depth adjustment has too much play for my liking.
Fence. Smooth, accurate, reliable fences are crucial for doing your best work. Fences on the saws we tested are secured at the front and back rails (descendants of an old Delta design), or secured only at the front rail (descendants of the Biesemeyer design). Both types can work wonderfully or stink. Good performance depends on the quality of manufacturing tolerances, adjustment ability, and the length of the "tee" riding on the forward rail, which helps hold it steady.
The Ridgid, Craftsman, and DeWalt fences grab at the front and rear rails. The Ridgid and DeWalt models are great. They stay perfectly square to the blade and, once locked down, are immobile. I like DeWalt's fence best. The 16-inch-long "tee" gives it a ton of mating surface between the front rail and fence. It glides easily between measurements, and it stays on the mark when you lock it down. It also lets you tune the fence to cut everything from 1/16-inch Formica to rough-sawn lumber. Craftsman's fence is less exact. I could move it 1/8-inch out of square when it was locked down and there was no way to correct it.
Jet's fence locks onto the forward rail. Where a Biesemeyer system uses a square channel rail, the Jet rail has a contoured cross section that increases surface area for grab. The Powermatic saw has a plain Biesemeyer-type fence. Both systems work well, stay square, and adjust easily. Delta uses an actual Biesemeyer fence, a wonderful, durable device.
Switches. The only thing worse than not being able to turn a saw off when you need to is having the machine turn on when you don't want it to. The Craftsman and Ridgid saws have fence-mounted finger-pull switches to prevent those hazards. Craftsman includes a safety key, too, so only approved operators can use the tool.
The Powermatic and Jet saws have dual push buttons mounted on their fences. Their start buttons are partially encased to prevent accidental start-up; the stop buttons are fully exposed and easy to find in a hurry. Delta's saw has a covered, fence-mounted toggle switch. You lift the cover to start the saw, then push the cover down to turn the switch off.
DeWalt's switch is the best of the bunch. It's big and mounted on the base at knee height. You pull it out to start the saw and can easily turn it off with your knee when you're done.
Blade guards. All the saws we tested come with blade guards, splitters that keep wood from binding behind the blades, and anti-kickback pawls. Most jobsite saws I've seen and used have these features removed, but the more I work with table saws, the more I leave them on.
Powermatic's stamped metal guard has slots; the rest of the saws have clear plastic guards. I like to watch the blade cut the line, so I prefer clear plastic guards.
All the saws' guards conflict with the fences on narrow and angled rips. The anti-kickback pawls all seem to work, but they also conflict with close and angled rips. And they interfere when you use a push stick on narrow rips. Manufacturers should concentrate on developing guard systems that don't interfere with the work. When they interfere, they get removed and that's a dangerous situation.
All the saws' safety assemblies attach to the motor mounts, which let them tilt with the blades. The splitter must be in a straight line with the blade; if it's not, it will bind and cause more problems than the device solves. The Ridgid, Powermatic, and Jet saws have cast attachments with good adjustments. Made of stamped steel, the Craftsman splitter is wobbly and tough to align. None of these guards, however, take the place of learning how to operate the tool safely. The Ridgid, Craftsman, and DeWalt manuals provide good operating instructions. Ridgid's even features a great pattern for a push stick.
Vibration. Thanks to its base design and extra weight, a contractor's saw is more stable than a smaller portable table saw. How-ever, if a big saw's base shakes and vibrates, the blade will, too. The heavier and steadier the base, the better a saw performs.
All the bases in this test are made of bolted sheet metal. The DeWalt base is a step up. Round-ed corners on its legs and cast feet enclose the saw's bottom. The Ridgid and DeWalt bases have the largest footprints, contributing to their steadiness under load. To test vibration, I balanced coins on each saw's table. Once at speed, all the saws allowed a nickel to balance on edge on their tables. The DeWalt saw is the smoothest; it let a dime stand up.
Inserts and Blade Changes
Blade changes. The DeWalt and Delta saws use arbor wrenches. The others require you to wedge a block of wood against the blade to unlock the capture nut. I'll take the arbor wrench every time. It's much easier than the wood-block routine, which I usually skip anyway. I generally lock the blade with Vise-Grips when I change it.
Dado head. All the saws give you plenty of arbor length so you can use a standard dado set and have room for the capture nut. None provide enough room to put the pressure plate washer and the nut on a 3/4-inch dado stack, but I don't think that's a problem.
Insert. The clearance between the side of the blade and the insert is critical. A close fit prevents chip-out and lets you cleanly rip narrow strips (with the right push stick). All of these saws have metal inserts that get within 1/4-inch of the blade. You're not only risking some blow-out/chipping with these standard plates, but you might see one of your thin rips dive down along the blade and possibly jam the saw. There's nothing wrong with these stock inserts for most ripping and crosscutting, but I prefer plastic or wood inserts I cut in myself.
Of the six saws we tested, four address dust collection. The DeWalt model has an integral shield surrounding the blade area. A port on the back of the shield accommodates a dust-collection device or vacuum attachment. This is nice because you're ready to hook into your existing system or tie into a vac right out of the box. The Jet and Powermatic models have dust-collecting inserts beneath the saw bodies that accommodate suction hoses. The Delta model has an inclined plane underneath the saw body that collects and drops heavy dust to the tool's rear. However, there's no port for a vac attachment, so dust collection is a pretty loose term here.
The DeWalt saw is my favorite. I like its drive system, fence, and dust-collection feature. You can also order it with a rolling base. It's a bit tough to move, but if you're going to park it on a jobsite for a while or you want a less-expensive cabinet saw substitute, this model's a good bet.
Ridgid comes in second for different reasons. If I had to go to a job and set up a table saw on the second floor, I'd pick this model. It's easy to assemble and disassemble, which is critical for mobility. The stand comes standard with a rolling base. This saw also has a good fence.
The Powermatic and Jet saws are good, accurate tools with decent fences and plenty of power. The Delta is also a good saw, but it takes a while to assemble. The saw I tested has a standard extension table. I wouldn't want it for portable work, but it'd be nice for your shop. Its Biese-meyer fence is top-notch, but the saw could use a stronger motor.
The only tool I'd flinch on is the Craftsman. The machining could use some improvement. There's too much play in the fence and the motor mount, which affects cut quality.
Joe Youcha builds wooden boats in Alexandria, Va., and is a contributing editor to Hanley-Wood's TOOLS OF THE TRADE.