By now, if you haven’t seen it, you have certainly heard about it: a saw that cuts wood but won’t bite people. Thousands of attendees at woodworking conventions have watched as operators fed a hotdog, standing in for a human finger, to the spinning blade of a table saw, only to have the blade stop abruptly and drop down below the table, leaving the wiener with only the tiniest of nicks. This seemingly hermetic safety device wows woodworkers who see it, yet, unlike ubiquitous seat belts on cars, it has not been widely embraced by manufacturers.
Hailed as a finger saver when it was first revealed, it has weathered a storm of controversy as to how it should, or should not, be delivered into the hands of the public. Some felt it should be on every saw, and others saw it as having the potential to lull woodworkers into more dangerous habits. When the inventors proposed the idea that their device should be mandated by law, it raised a storm of reaction, much of it on the dangers of letting government regulations intrude too far into the woodshop.
Rather than continue the fight on that level, the inventors took a step out on their own and created the SawStop table saw, replete with not only their patented safety device, but a whole lot more. In fact, the saw is so well designed and packed with features that it could easily sell on its own merits without the safety feature. Granted, it is more expensive than some of its competitors, but there are a lot of reasons for that. First, a bit of history is in order.
Steve Gass, the founder and inventor of SawStop, boasts both a Ph.D in physics and a law degree, and is a lifelong hobby woodworker. One day, about six years ago, he was in his shop wondering whether he could devise a way to make a blade stop when touched. Like many woodworkers, he had had close calls but no disasters, but he knew of others who had serious injuries. He began looking at the problem from a physics point of view, looking at speed, force, what it would take to stop a blade and how quickly it could be done. Within a month he had invented a working prototype and joined forces with two colleagues at work, a physicist and a mechanical engineer. Together, they refined the design. At the time, Steve was a practicing patent attorney, which was probably quite handy, since many patents surround the device.
“Simply put, SawStop technology senses when a finger or any body part comes in contact with the blade,” explained Paul Carter, vice president of business development. “That triggers the brake cartridge, which immediately does three things. It stops the blade by jamming a brake pawl against it, drops the blade down below the surface of the table, and shuts off the motor. All this happens in five milliseconds. That’s faster than an airbag deploys in your car, faster than you blink and, most importantly, quick enough to prevent major injury. It goes so fast that, watching a live demonstration, you may see nothing but the end result: a stopped blade.”
In 2000, the SawStop group took their invention to the International Woodworking Fair show in Atlanta and started doing their now famous hotdog demonstrations. The response was staggering. They decided to license the technology, and set out to find companies interested in incorporating it into their saws. They spoke to the bulk of manufacturers, but were unable to come to an agreement with any of them.
“That took a number of years,” recounted Paul, “and, around the end of 2002, they decided to bite the bullet and make saws themselves. But for them, making a saw with their safety device was not good enough. By the end of 2004, they had what they wanted, and started to produce the SawStop table saw.
“Rather than simply stick an amazing safety feature on a typical saw, they decided to aim higher, creating a saw with a stack of features that makes it worth the extra money on its own merits. To name just a few, it boasts a European style riving knife, long known to reduce kickback without impeding dado or stopped cuts, a low profile guard that allows narrow cuts without removing the guard, and a power switch with an oversize stop paddle that you can hit with your knee while both hands are engaged. Both the knife and the blade guard are easily and quickly interchangeable without the need for any tools. Down below, there’s an improved shroud for better dust evacuation, heavy castings on a very stable trunnion and a slick, gas-assisted riser for raising the blade easily.
“The saw itself is made in Taiwan, but the cartridge electronics are made here in the U.S. Distribution is selective; we want dealers who can explain the real advantages of this saw and not just take orders. Still, there are over 100 locations throughout the U.S.”
“We feel strongly that everyone should buy this saw: schools, hobby woodworkers, professionals and maintenance shops,” Paul insisted. “In short, anyone who risks losing a finger, and everyone who has an employee that might. For employers, it is not only an ethical issue, but also a flat-out economic one. It is far cheaper to invest in SawStop than to pay the costs of even one accident.
“Many people say that table saw dangers are the nature of the beast, but that time is over,” claims Paul. “The cabinet saw does not have to be your biggest worry. You don’t have to live that way anymore.”
For the future, you can expect to see a contractor’s saw version by the end of the year, and perhaps a benchtop saw and a larger cabinet saw later. The company currently numbers about 20 employees, and over 3,500 saws have already been sold. There are some 80 verified saves already recorded. Even accounting for those who were too embarrassed to admit it, that’s a lot of fingers that are still on hand thanks to this technology.