There are fewer tools that can boast the versatility of radial arm saws. Whether you have the biggest workshop or the tiniest space, a radial arm saw does the job of several stationary tools. Ask any serious woodworker, and they will tell you that radial arm saw uses far outweigh that of other more expensive options.
We take a trip into the world of radial arm saws to give you the information you need.
Radial arm saws are versatile. They are used mainly for crosscuts, but they also make rip cuts, bevels and miter cuts. If you are looking for a tool to cut dadoes and rabbets, a radial arm saw can handle that too. They are less maneuverable than miter and circular saws, so are best suited to workshops and lumber yards.
What is a Radial Arm Saw?
A radial arm saw is a cutting machine with the circular saw mounted on a sliding arm that extends over the workpiece. It is unusual because the motor and blade move towards the stock unlike with other stationary cutting tools, where the stock approaches the blade.
It also locks into position when making rip cuts, so that the stock approaches the blade.
The radial arm saw was the brainchild of Raymond DeWalt in 1922, after he was asked to increase production at a sawmill without adding to the workforce costs (1). He decided that if you couldn’t expand the workforce, you had to improve the tools they used to increase productivity.
As a result, he came up with the world’s first radial arm saw, a design known as the “Wonder Worker.”
What Is a Radial Arm Saw Used For?
Radial arm saws make crosscuts, but they are capable of rip cuts, bevels, miters, rabbets and dado cuts.
Ensure that you set the depth of the blade just below the base of the stock you are crosscutting. You have to expect that the sacrificial tabletop may suffer a few minor cuts on the surface if you are a beginner.
Make sure you lower the blade to the stock when the saw is up to full speed and never free-hand with a radial arm saw. Always push the stock firmly against the fence.
As you pull the saw towards the material, the blade spins away from your body. It means the sawdust is blown behind the machine, giving you a clear sightline of the stock. However, the downside of the blade spinning away from you is that the saw motion can snatch the stock as it lurches forward.
Always apply pressure on the material to stop the saw dictating the speed at which it cuts, which keeps you in control.
One way to counteract this grabbing motion of the blade is to pull the saw towards you and then push it away from your body as the blade saws through the stock.
It is always preferable to perform rip cuts on a table saw because it is easier to set up. Nonetheless, a radial arm saw, once configured for rip cuts, is a useful tool. It does have limitations of rip capacity width, but that aside, it will perform the task admirably.
Make sure that you make use of the riving knife and the pawls to decrease the chances of kickback. The riving knife helps to keep the stock from binding, which is a significant reason why kickback occurs.
The pawls grab the stock and prevent it from kicking back if the material becomes wedged in the blade during a rip cut. Both these devices are part of the radial arm saws anti-kickback safety system.
Always set the depth in accordance with the stock you are working on.
Miter and Bevel Cuts
If you are cutting miters, a radial arm saw typically cuts both left and right at 60 degrees and bevels at 90 degrees but only in one direction. Judging the angles on a radial arm saw is more challenging than when using a miter saw, but it still gives the saw the ability to make more complex angles than a compound miter saw.
Dadoes and Rabbets
Radial arm saws are excellent tools for making dadoes and rabbets. Before you offer up your dadoes, check the depth of the miter saw blade with a scrap piece of wood. If you are happy, stack your dadoes to the height you want, making sure they don’t exceed the depth of the blade.
When you are happy with the set-up install the blade guard, and start cutting. Cutting dadoes and rabbets is just as easy as making crosscuts.
Radial Arm Saw Safety Tips
As with all power tools, there are safe practices you can use to reduce the risk of accidents.
- Set Up the Saw Correctly: Always set up your radial arm saw at a slight angle, leaning away from you. It stops the saw sliding towards you under its weight.
- Blade Speed: Make sure that the saw blade is spinning at the maximum speed before you start making any cuts. It stops the blade binding and ensures you have a clean start to the cut without any risks.
- Keep Hands Safe: Whenever you need to move your hands, always bring them back to your body first. That way, you ensure they are away from the spinning blade. Never swing your hands or arms around when the saw is operational. This increases the risk that you will snag a piece of clothing on the saw blade.
- Remove Blockages: If something becomes lodged in the blade, always make sure you shut down the saw and unplug it before attempting to remove the blockage.
- Practice Emergency Shut-Off: Know where the shut-off is and practice reaching for it in an emergency. That way, if a real emergency occurs, you will be reaching for that button like a ninja.
- Size the Table: When setting up the saw, make sure the table it sits on is wide enough to accommodate the saw. Never allow the saw to overhang the table when fully extended.
- No Loose Clothing: A radial arm saw blade spins away from the user, so if you are wearing a loose-fitting shirt, or have loose cuffs, there is a strong possibility that you could become entangled with the blade.
Are Radial Arm Saws Obsolete?
They aren’t obsolete, but they are certainly less popular. Radial arm saws are large and bulky, not forgetting they are also expensive. Miter saws and circular saws have eaten into the traditional fan base of radial arm saws because they are lighter, easier to use and more maneuverable.
Why Is a Radial Arm Saw Dangerous?
Radial arm saws are dangerous because you are working with a powerful machine that spins a razor-sharp blade at 3,000 RPM. As with other power saws, there are so many hazardous variables that safety is paramount.
The blade could become stuck. You could snag clothing on the blade. Fingers and hands are close to the saw blade. And if an accident occurs, it is likely to be serious.
Can a Radial Arm Saw Replace a Table Saw?
There are advantages and disadvantages to both tools. A radial arm saw can cut in either direction, so you only need clearance on the left and right, but with a table saw, you also need clearance on the front and back.
It means that if you have space concerns in your workshop, a radial arm saw will do all of the same cuts as a table saw, but take up less room. That said, a table saw is easier to master and is better at making rip cuts.
So, in essence, a radial arm saw can replace a table saw, but if you are making a lot of rip cuts, a table saw is still your best option.
Do You Push or Pull a Radial Arm Saw?
When making crosscuts, it is always advisable to pull the radial arm saw towards you. It is possible to pull the saw towards you and then push the saw blade across the stock when making crosscuts, but the preferred technique is always to pull.
It is better to pull the saw because as the first teeth make contact with the wood, it pulls the stock towards the fence, clamping it in place. This is because the blade spins away from the user.
If you were to push the blade towards the wood, the first teeth to make contact do the opposite and try to lift the stock off the table, meaning you have to increase the pressure to hold the workpiece in place.
If you visit a commercial lumber yard, you will typically see the pull technique in use
Radiate Some Love for the Radial Arm Saw
Times have been hard on the radial arm saw of late. The new kids on the block, like the sliding compound miter saw and the lightweight circular saw, have made life hard for the radial saw. Today’s tool addicts are concerned with maneuverability, price, weight and convenience. Some people don’t have the luxury of having a workshop, especially if they live in the city.
A radial arm saw requires space and a dedicated home. They may be down, but they are not out just yet.