Table saws available on the market today fall into a number of classes: jobsite saws, compact saws, contractor saws, hybrid saws and cabinet saws. For woodworkers, the last three - contractor, hybrid, and cabinet table saws are of the most interest. While improvements in recent years to "jobsite" saws and compact saws have made them more viable for a number of carpentry tasks, they simply lack the power and accuracy to suit the needs of the professional or serious hobbyist woodworker.
Powermatic® Table Saw w/50'' Fence & Riving KnifeThe Powermatic Model 64B is a "classic" contractor saw with high-end features, including an Accu Fence rail and fence system and cast iron extension wings.
Contractors were originally designed to be portable enough to hauled from jobsite to jobsite. These open-based table saws are characterized by a straightforward design and an affordable price. Contractor saws are relatively lightweight (in the 250 - 350 lb. range) and usually priced within the reach of the hobbyist and homeowner and, until recently, have been virtually the only option for the small shop.
Contractor saws do make a few concessions in the name of affordability and portability. Although most contractor saws have a solid cast iron table top, the extension wings may be made of "open webbed" cast iron or stamped metal. The trunnions, gearing and arbor assembly of a contractor saw are less husky than those found on more expensive saws. The contractor saw's motor hangs off of the back of the saw - a feature originally meant to make the motor easier to remove for transport - and is most often connected to the arbor assembly via a single V-belt.
Contractor saws are still the most affordable solution for the home shop, and are suitable for carpentry, small cabinetry projects, trim work, and basic furniture making. Many contractor saws now come with high quality fence systems. Using the best quality saw blade - and using blades designed for a specific type of cut - can enhance the performance of a contractor saw and bring it up to speed for many more advanced woodworking projects. Buying a contractor saw that's equipped with solid cast iron extension wings will increase the stability of the saw, and help reduce the impact of vibration on the saw's less substantial trunnions and gearing.
Jet, Powermatic and SawStop cabinet saws offer performance and durability the put them in a class by themselves. The SawStop® 10" Professional Cabinet Saw pictured above comes standard with everything you'd expect from a professional-class saw, plus a few extra options and features, like the XACTA router lift that lets your table saw double as a router table, and a left-tilt blade for increased beveling accuracy and safety.
Cabinet saws - so called because of the fully enclosed "cabinet" style base - represent the other end of the spectrum from the contractor saw. Cabinet saws are designed to meet the performance and durability needs of professional woodworkers. Cabinet saws are more substantial in overall construction than contractor saws - they're built using more cast iron and steel, have heavier trunnions, gearing, and arbor assemblies, and more powerful motors than their contractor saw counterparts. The cumulative result is a saw that can cut through even the thickest hardwood stock easily, all day long, with very little vibration to wear on either the saws alignment and settings or the operator's nerves.
A number of features set the cabinet saw apart: The motor is enclosed inside the cabinet base, making it a quieter saw, and the fully enclosed base itself has the advantage of making dust collection an easier matter. The motor and arbor assembly are held in place with heavy duty trunnions that attach to the cabinet base, instead of the table, making it much easier to bring the saw blade into alignment with the miter slot and fence. Cabinet saw are, in general, manufactured to more exacting standards than less expensive saws: their tables are flatter, their bearings and pulleys heavier and more robust, and most often, they're equipped with a more reliable fence system.
A good quality cabinet saw is more of an investment than contractor saw, however. And because cabinet saws use more powerful motors (3 -5 HP as opposed to 1 - 1-3/4 HP for contractor and hybrid saws) they require a 220 volt circuit for operation. They are by no means portable - a full sized cabinet saw weighs in at upwards of 600 lbs. But even with the greater expense, the electrical power requirements, and the physical heft of the machine, because of their superior performance, cabinets saws are still the preferred saw of professional woodworkers and serious amateurs alike.
Jet® ProShop II Table Saw with Cast Wings
Hybrid saws, like the Jet® ProShop II Table Saw with Cast Wings pictured here, combine affordability with cabinet saw features, including a fully enclosed base and heavier trunnions and gearing and more advanced drive belt systems.
In recent years, tool manufacturers have begun to recognize the gulf between the affordable contractor saw and the cabinet saw, and have responded by developing a new class of table saw. "Hybrid" table saws capture some of the most valuable features of the cabinet saw at a price that's still in range for the hobbyist.
Some hybrid saws have a cabinet type of base and others have a shorter base and legs, but in either case, the base is fully enclosed, with the motor mounted inside the base, instead of on the back of the saw. Hybrid saws are equipped with more substantial trunnions and arbor bearings, often a more advanced drive belt system, and better gearing than most contractor saws. In addition, the trunnions of many hybrid saws are mounted to the base of the saw, making precision alignment of the blade with the miter slot and the blade much easier.
Hybrid saws are essentially a scaled down version of the cabinet saw. They're lighter weight and are equipped with motors in the 1-1/2 - 1-3/4 HP range (which means that they can be used with standard 110-volt service). Many believe that hybrid saws represent the wave of the future for home shops, and while they're not quite in the same class as their larger cousins, hybrid saws are sturdy, well constructed, and offer many advantages for the serious hobbyist.