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Radial Arm Saws tend to be one of the most under-appreciated of woodworking machines which is disheartening, considering how versatile they are in the range of operations and tasks they are able to perform.
Why opt for a radial arm saw
While they may be on the pricier end of the scale, and they do tend to be both heavy and not typically fit to carry around easily. As a result, they are used mostly in professional shops where portability isn’t a priority.
That said, the variety of operations that a radial arm saw can perform from ripping to cutting bevels or miters, dadoes and rabbets, forming mouldings and in some instances, serving as router guides; is nothing short of amazing. However, like any tool there are trade-offs which come hand in hand with its versatility: difficulty in setting up cuts (as opposed to a compound miter) taking a longer time to rip stock (table saws rip faster). That said, the radial-arm saw is able to perform both these tasks, albeit a little slower than other tools, but again, it is a small price to pay.
Using a Radial-Arm Saw
Always, always follow the original manufacturer’s instructional guide before using or setting up your power tool, which applies to the radial-arm saw as well, since using it to the existing specs is usually a step in the right direction.
When using the saw for the first time during cross cutting, you might end up cutting grooves onto the table top. To avoid that, set the blade depth to just below the surface of the table once the saw’s motor is up to speed. Also ensure that the stock is held securely against the fence and remember that when you pull the saw through the stock and towards you, it can cause the saw to lurch forwards damaging either the stock or yourself. As a result, always grasp the handle firmly not allowing it to determine the speed of the cut. While this may take time and consistent practice, you will get it soon enough.
Working on Dadoes & Rabbets
Radial-arm saws are made for cross cutting dadoes and rabbets especially for producing slots for shelves. Before starting work, set your stacked dado’s thickness as desired and ensure the blade is raised away from the table. When setting the dado stack, ensure that it is installed in the correct direction with respect to the blades’ rotation. Once it has been installed and the (blade) guard reattached, find the appropriate depth of cut for your dado using a scrap piece of wood as a guide. The same dado set can also be used when cutting tenons.
Miters and Bevels
While the saw can cut normally up to sixty degrees in either direction in miters and up to 90 degrees in bevels, the trade off is that it is only in one direction. And though the radial-arm saw is able to cut more non traditional angles than compound miter saws, it is a lot more difficult to get the angles of the cut just right. So before commencing, always ensure that clamping levers are locked into place.
Radial-arm saws can also be used for ripping stock and are often no less harder to use than table saws, provided they have been set up properly. During the setup, ensure you use the anti-kickback assembly making use of riving knives and pawls. Riving knives are used to prevent stock from binding onto the blade although should the blade jam, the pawls will grab the stock protecting it from a possible kickback. One important fact to remember: pawls might not grab the stock during ripping plastic laminated or melamine stock, should there be a kickback. In fact any non-coated stock might face this issue.
When using your radial-arm saw, be aware of the blade guard—never turn on the saw without the guard in place and without ensuring the guard’s lower section has not been tampered with. Also ensure that the guard can be lifted easily during the saw’s operation and that it drops back into position on release.
It is usually safer to set up the unit with a slightly backward slope, preventing it from sliding towards you.
Other important tips to keep in mind:
- Don’t begin a cut without waiting for the blade to hit its maximum speed.
- Always control the speed of the cut.
- Ensure that the hand holding the stock piece is well away from the path of the blade.
- Remember to use feather boards and push sticks as and when necessary.
Of all the woodworking power tools in your shop, the radial arm saw is probably the most important tool to make sure you get the right blade for. It is VERY important to have to correct tooth angle and if possible, has anti-kickback features. These will help make the radial arm saw safer to use, give better cuts and make it easier for the woodworker to use.
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