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I have the flesh-sensing SawStop but I still never use it without a good push handle and the blade guard or riving knife installed. All of this can't protect us fully if we refuse to protect ourselves.
Click photo to enlarge

The Biggest Danger In Woodworking Is Still Us

Whine and sue all you want, you know that it’s true

Text and photos by Tom Hintz

Posted – 7-6-2012

It just stands to reason that when working with equipment that will cut hardwood so effortlessly, there will always be some level of danger to soft-skinned operators. I am just as sure that the majority of the overall danger in woodworking today is the sole responsibility of the operators and not the manufacturers. Of the many injuries I hear about directly every year almost none of them could be considered a certainty if the person operating the machine had been using the safety equipment prescribed by the manufacturer in the instructions and supplied with the machine when it was new.

Almost inexplicably one of the favorite targets of woodworker’s ire regarding equipment safety is Stephen F. Gass, Ph.D., President of SawStop, LLC. Gass is one of the major minds behind the flesh-sensing technology that makes the SawStop line of saws so remarkably safe. Some say that the fervor with which he promotes his technology is driven purely by greed while others believe he is pushing safety. Since none of us actually live in Mr. Gass’s head we can speculate all we want but that is all that it is. The brutal fact in all of this is that it is the actions of the woodworkers themselves that justify Gass’s efforts. If woodworkers would use the equipment described and provided by the other manufacturers, it is unlikely that the SawStop machines would have drawn the attention or sales they enjoy nor the marketplace foothold they were initially handed. In fact, the justification for Gass and company to invest the huge amount of capital necessary to develop their flesh-sensing technology in the first place was because of the frequency with which woodworkers were putting their flesh in contact with the cutters. The SawStop machines are no quick fix but rather a complicated system that involves a whole new trunnion and electrical system.

Compromising Blade Guards

I often hear people say that if the manufacturer had included an effective blade guard they could not have gotten their hand to the blade or cutter in the first place. This might actually be true to some extent because most guards and shields that currently come with our machines (and are often removed by the woodworker) will in fact keep your hand out of the cutter if that hand is gripping the push device that the manufacturer prescribed in the directions that are often not read art all or disregarded.


When guards or other blade protectors have to let the wood in they will also let your empty hand in (left) which is roughly the same thickness needed to move the guard. When you have the push device prescribed by the manufacturer (or your common sense) you are usually too tall (right) to open the guard but even if it does open you have another layer of protection between you and the cutter.
Click images to enlarge

When using the bare hand to push wood through a machine, if the wood kicks out, as happens in many cases resulting in a contact injury, the hand continues to the cutter. Since a human hand without a push device in it is roughly the same thickness as the wood we most often work with, the hand simply opens the guard or shield. With the push device in the hand even if the guard or shield would open you have another layer of protection between our flesh and the cutter.

I’m an Idiot

If you haven’t heard this (repeatedly) yet, hang on, it’s coming now. When I did the now infamous kickback to show the forces present I used a push block because it allowed me to be pulling my hand AWAY from the blade as I used the pad to pivot the wood into it. Lots of people never read that part of the story and just assumed I was an idiot for doing it. As it turned out, that push block took a hit meant for my hand but I was still an idiot – for doing the test at all. The push block still reduced my exposure to the blade, just enough as it turned out. If I had been pushing that wood towards the blade with another device rather than pulling my hand back away from it, the video would likely have been gory and never seen by you. There was method to the apparent madness of using a push block in that situation at the table saw.

Nonetheless, I am sure that this story will draw the idiot accusations once again and I am OK with that if reading this also gets you thinking about using the equipment that can keep you safe, or at least reduce the injuries you might sustain. I have totally changed how I do woodworking since I showed you (and me) what happens during a kickback and those changes have not caused a single problem in getting projects done. You can also work safer if something gets you to listen to reason. I am hoping that this story is that little bit of reason for some of you. I already know about the naysayers whom are nothing if not predictable!

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