Safety Man Mike Gililand tells you how to deal with this sawing danger

Of the many reader questions that I received in response to my first safety column ("What your owner's manual can do for you," WOOD® magazine, October 1995), one from woodworker Victor Baker of Jefferson, Ohio, really caught my attention. Vic's photo, vividly depicts what can happen (ouch!) when you try to rip wood incorrectly on a radial-arm saw.

Vic had a binding or misalignment problem, both causes of kickback. To avoid them, be sure the blade—a sharp one—is parallel to the fence before you rip. Check the alignment often (radial-arm saws become misaligned more easily than tablesaws). Here are some other guidelines:

  • Always stand at the infeed side and out of line with the workpiece (as Vic luckily did). Keep your hands there, too.
  • Never reach around the blade to pull at the board.
  • Use a pushstick to feed and a feather board to steady the work.
  • For radial-arm saws, set the nose (infeed side) of the guard to just clear the work. Also set the antikickback fingers and spreader at the outfeed side.

Along the same line, William Belz, Jr., from Cheektowaga, New York, wondered what is the best thing to do if the wood you're ripping does start to bind. In this case, "best" may be a relative term, but here's what I do if it happens during the cut: Hold the workpiece firmly in place—don't let it move—and turn off the saw. When the blade stops, remove the wood and correct the problem. Trying to retrieve a bound board with the saw blade moving only worsens the situation. And remember to always check the blade-to-fence alignment after repositioning the fence. It takes just a few seconds to correct for potential binding.

Remember, too, that a binding board might kick back. If you believe it's inevitable, get out of the way! One great woodworking tragedy is the sacrifice of personal safety for the sake of a piece of wood. No matter what the board costs, it's replaceable. Your fingers (or worse) are not.

For ripping, owner's manuals tell you to keep the wider portion of the board between the blade and the fence. That's to encourage you to push that part of the board. Pushing on the part outside the blade can result in kickback. (Look at Vic's photo if you doubt how serious that can be.) But this requires always readjusting the rip fence. Rushville, Maryland, reader Kent Drew wants to know a safe way to make repeated narrow rips without readjusting the fence.

There are several ways, Kent. And you can make a number of fixtures to help you, but they mostly require removing the blade guard. Here is one method I like that retains the blade guard for added safety.

Clamp the auxiliary fence (shown in drawing bottom image) to the saw's rip fence with C-clamps. Use the pushblock (see Pushblock, shown in drawing, top), resting on a flat part of the auxiliary fence, to do the feeding. With a pushstick in your free hand, guide the board carefully without applying pressure against the blade. Of course, follow all other safety instructions on ripping, too, including using the blade guard and standing out of the line of a possible kickback. Also, use only unwarped, knot-free wood to avoid splintering and binding. And as a rule of thumb, I recommend starting with a board that is less than six rips wide. Stability is harder to maintain with a board wider than that.


Drawings: Roxanne LeMoine Photographs: Victor Baker; Ann Gililland