SawStop: A Show Stopper

SawStop: A Show Stopper

About a year ago, at the big woodworking show in Atlanta, everyone came back from the event talking about a little booth in the back of the showroom floor and a thing they were calling the “hot dog saw.” If ever there was a misnomer for a woodworking tool, that was it. And in the interests of full disclosure, this eZine used that label too, mostly because we couldn’t resist.

Anyway, in a day and age where every new product is labeled revolutionary, the SawStop actually fits the bill. It was, very simply, a device that would jam a brake into a table saw blade if the blade encountered anything other than wood, i.e. a finger or hand. The tiny company that demonstrated this amazing safety device would demonstrate it by strapping a hot dog to a piece of wood and running it into the blade. A loud bang would sound, the blade would stop, and the nick out of the hot dog was the kind of wound you could imagine fixing with a simple bandaid.

We caught up with Steve Gass, the president, founder and inventor of the SawStop about a year later to see how things were progressing. He and his team of co-founders dropped out of their previous jobs as patent attorneys to start this business (much to the chagrin of their spouses). The goal was to convince all the saw manufacturers to look at this device and eventually agree to install it on their table saws. Right now, Steve and the guys are “in talks” with most of the major saw producers-after winning many awards and even more attention for the device.

Contrary to what you may think, Steve did not have a close call with a table saw before inventing this. He did have a run-in with a jointer when he was four, but that’s a different story altogether. Steve is a physicist as well as an attorney, and has been woodworking ever since he could remember. He was looking at his table saw one day and saw how scary it can be to work with. “I thought, ‘you know, I wonder if you couldn’t stop that thing fast enough if you ran your hand into it that wouldn’t cut your fingers off?'” he said to himself.

He did some calculations about blade speed, weight and how much energy was involved in the system. It was possible, he concluded, and about 30 days later, he had a prototype that actually worked. “There’s nothing, if you’ll pardon the pun, cutting edge about it. The electronics in it are basically electronics that have been around for 30 years,” says Steve.

Now Steve has set up SawStop’s world headquarters in his shop. When he mentioned that his shop was currently two stories and took up 4,000 square feet, we had to ask, “so how nice is this shop?” He hedged a little bit, so we finally asked if Norm would be jealous. “Norm might be jealous,” he admitted.

And with the list of tools he rattled off, we had to agree. He says he built the shop himself, so he doesn’t have a lot of guilt about its size and accoutrements.

So what’s Steve been up to in the meantime? He’s developed a prototype for a SawStop that works on a band saw. In this case, instead of trying to brake the tires of the band saw, there is a device that essentially shears the blade completely, right below the table. It’s not as flashy, he admits, but it actually stops it quicker than the table saw SawStop. He’s also designed a working prototype for an industrial saw called a pneumatic miter saw. This was a saw that had more than its share of really bad accidents. “Somebody told me I couldn’t do it, so I sort of took it as a challenge,” admits Steve.

The next tool he is working on is the compound miter saw. It, too, has a lot of accidents associated with it, so it’s an obvious choice.

The question everyone asks Steve about the SawStop is whether they can fit one on their existing saw. Right now, he says, there’s no economical way to do it. There’s not enough room under the table of older saws to even fit this braking device, let alone make it work the way it’s supposed to. He thinks it might be economical, someday, to fit this on some of the higher end saws, but even that’s speculation.

Nevertheless, he gets calls from professionals and schools all the time saying they will replace all of their saws the same day they can buy a table saw with his device on it. He thinks that there will probably be at least one saw on the market by the end of 2002 fully outfitted with the SawStop, but he hopes it will be sooner.

“It’s a tough thing for the manufacturers,” he says, “I don’t want to give them too much credit because I think they should do it and I think they should do it right now. I understand their hesitancy because they are having to redesign their whole product line.”

He also wonders if the manufacturers would have come up with this on their own. “I think the technology like this probably would not have ever come from the manufacturers themselves. They don’t have enough incentive to do it.” One of the problems for manufacturers, he explains, is if they did research and development on a product like this, it would have opened them up to a lot of suits from people who hurt themselves on table saws in the meantime. And manufacturers would have lost those suits, Steve says confidently.

Steve is very optimistic about the future. Now that the technology is out there, he’s hoping that people amputating fingers and hands with a table saw will slowly become a thing of the past. Right now, he says, ten people every day cut off fingers using the table saw, and he hopes that his device will take some of the fear out of woodworking for a lot of people. Imagine, he says, letting your teenager go out to the shop to cut some wood and being confident that they will be OK (for the most part). This, he thinks, may open up the hobby to whole new groups of people, and these people won’t need to be frightened by-just respectful of – the tools they will use.

– Bob Filipczak

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