The Radial Arm Saw is perhaps one of the most controversial tools around these days, with diehard users who make the RAS sound like a religion more than a tool… and with woodworkers who are just as quick to tell you how dangerous the RAS can be.
If you’re curious about the radial arm saw and are just beginning your research there’s a quick way to tell if the RAS is a good fit for your personality.
Quick Test: Is the Radial Arm Saw Right for Your Personality?
Are you a “learn as you go” kind of person who likes to open the box on a new “toy” and figure things out as you go along or do you carefully read the manual – perhaps more than once – before getting started?
If you’re more of a cautious “read the manual” type of person then you’re more likely to fit well with the RAS. Or even better – if you’re a “read the book” type of person you’ll come to love your RAS even more (there are a couple of great books written about using Radial Arm Saws).
If you tend to just open the box and go then the RAS is less likely to be a safe tool for you to use.
One other quick test – the RAS is more likely to require more tuning and maintenance than newer tool designs. Further, to maximize its versatility you’ll be building jigs, adding accessories and generally tinkering with it quite a bit to get it working well.
If you enjoy tinkering with and caring for machines then again, the RAS could be a good fit.
If you just want to cut wood and build your project and not have to tweak and maintain your tools then the RAS again may not be right for you.
The Dangers and Limitations of the RAS (in the wrong hands):
The bias of this article definitely leans towards promoting the RAS so long as you’re the type of woodworker who reads instructions thoroughly and also enjoys maintaining tools.
That said, it’s important to hear from the anti-RAS camp a little just for fair warning before launching into the wonderful world of RAS ownership. And to be fair – in a recent survey the Radial Arm Saw ranked high on the list of most dangerous power tool, right up there with the table saw and shaper.
1) Ripping is Deadly?
There’s a widely held belief in the woodworking community that ripping is a very dangerous activity on the Radial Arm Saw. The blade has a tendency to grab wood and fling it across the room like a missile (this is definitely possible, especially if you feed the wood from the wrong side of the blade). Even more dangerous, the possibility that your hand could be yanked in too, or worse, your whole body.
Even amongst those favorable about RAS you find those who choose to never rip with their RAS, or who simply prefer – especially for sheet goods – the good old table saw.
2) Only Good for Squaring Stock and Cutoffs
Those unfortunate folks who own a RAS and probably shouldn’t are the same folks who feel like it’s only safe enough – or good enough – for the most menial of tasks… as a sort of immobile, less versatile alternative to the miter saw.
If you feel like the RAS is good only for these applications then there’s a chance that your saw is untuned… or worse… you’ve never read the instructions or gotten yourself a good book on Radial Arm Saws.
3) The Dangers of Diagonal and Compound Cuts
Even the most seasoned of RAS experts say that the RAS can be especially dangerous on both diagonal and compound cuts… Remember that your angles are getting really narrow and the blade has a tendency to get a little closer than you’d think on those diagonals!
The Safety and Versatility of the RAS (in the right hands):
Though some claim it’s a dying tool – and certainly the decline in new RAS sales could end up making it more or less a dead or specialty tool – there’s a great deal of versatility that can be gotten out of a radial arm saw, and if you’ve got the right personality for it you could become one of those RAS converts who claim it’s the only tool a woodworker really needs.
1) Good for Limited Space
The small foot print of most radial arm saws – about the size as your compound miter saw – make it a desirable tool especially for those woodworkers who have small shops. Especially if you’re willing to learn about the saw, tune it, maintain it and get to know its extreme versatility.
2) True Versatility
The range of cut types for the RAS include rip cuts (use caution – make sure the blade is square with the fence and use a ripping jig specially designed for your specific project), miter cuts, dados, cross cuts (make sure you’ve got true 90 degree angles) and even shaping work if you’ve mastered the tool. Don’t jump in expecting to make all of these cuts at once, as they typically require jigs – some of which you’ll have to make yourself – or accessories that are getting harder to find as time goes on.
To get the full range of versatility from your RAS you will certainly have to spend time setting up and breaking down. This is one reason why some woodworkers prefer to keep the RAS for only a few specialized types of cuts.
3) RAS Specialties: Wide and Long Stock
The true specialties of the radial arm saw are cross cuts on particularly wide or particularly long stock. Some woodworkers who are comfortable with the RAS but don’t care to take the set up time for rip or miter cuts keep their RAS around for wide and long stock.
Your Radial Arm Saw Recap
Are you eager to learn all the ins and outs of a radial arm saw?
Does the idea of spending hours reading through manuals, woodworking forums, and guide books inspire you?
Do you enjoy tinkering with tools?
Do you need high versatility and have a tolerance for the time it takes to set up?
Do you need to cut very wide and very long stock?
If you answered yes to these questions then the Radial Arm Saw could be your dream tool. Keep your blades sharp and your tables tuned and enjoy making that sawdust!