Table Saw Kickback Prevention Tips

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I clenched my teeth, recalling the table saw kickback that sent my beautiful oak cutting board careening wildly across the shop, leaving a gaping divot behind. Stick with me before you end up ducking behind machinery to dodge wayward wood chunks.

In the next few minutes, I’ll explain the causes of terrifying table saw kickbacks and give you 5 key prevention tips. Soon, you’ll have the knowledge to operate your saw safely and say goodbye to dangerous projectiles.

What is Kickback?

To be clear, the kickback we’re talking about today refers to a woodshop accident and not the under-the-table payments type of kickback. 

As you know, the blade on a table saw rotates towards you.  The cut board is pushed into the blade, usually by hand or push sticks (yes, they are exactly as the name implies).  

Kickback is when the workpiece gets picked up by the blade and thrown back violently on the woodworker.  When it happens, it happens very quickly, and even a cat would be hard-pressed to move fast enough to avoid getting whacked in the face and maybe losing teeth or an eye or opening up a nasty cut on the forehead.

There are safety steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of kickback that can help prevent injuries to your face from flying wood and your hands away from the spinning blade.

Causes of Table Saw Kickback

Kickback and injuries can be caused by several factors, including:

  • When the kerf closes in.  While ripping a board, and in the absence of safety equipment installed on the table saw, the kerf can close in on the blade and pinch it.  Sometimes the blade will simply stall, but, if the table saw is powerful enough, the blade will kick the workpiece back at your head. 
  • Stuck between the blade and the rip fence.  If your rip fence is not set perfectly parallel to the blade, the workpiece will become stuck between them, and the power of the spinning blade will pick the piece up and toss it back at your head.
  • The back tooth.  Sometimes, and in the absence again of safety equipment, the workpiece will be caught on a back tooth of the blade and thrown up and at your face. 

Table Saw Kickback Video Demonstrations

If you can imagine something, you’re very likely to be able to find a video of it somewhere.  Kickbacks are no different, except some people take big risks to make them.  We found one such video for you.

The woodworker in this video purposely created a kickback situation and nearly lost a finger or two in the process.  Watch how quickly the kickback happens – – in regular speed and slow motion.

There’s no blood, but if you are squeamish about watching something that almost cost a finger, cover your eyes.

In the second video, we learn at the outset that there are over 50,000 table saw kickback accidents and injuries in the US every year.  You’ll find more demonstrations of kickbacks and how quickly they happen.

No blood on this one, either, but the warnings are serious.

How To Avoid Kickback on Your Table Saw

We now know what kickback is, and we have an idea of how and why it can happen.  We’ve also mentioned safety equipment.  Let’s look at what you can do to minimize, if not prevent, injuries from kickback on your saw.

Safety Equipment

Table saws today come with safety equipment required by UL (Underwriters Laboratory) regulations.  Among those safety features is a riving knife.

Riving knives are safety devices attached to the table saw’s arbor – the shaft that holds the blade – in a fixed position relative to the blade so that as the blade is raised and lowered, the riving knife moves in unison with it.

They keep the kerf on the board open and prevent the cut from closing in or pinching on the workpiece.  With the kerf kept open, the wood won’t be picked up by rear teeth on the blade and kicked back at you.

If your table saw is older and a pre-riving knife is required, you should install, at the least, a splitter.  Splitters work similarly to a riving knife in that they will keep the kerf open so it doesn’t pinch the wood. 

The disadvantage of a splitter is that its position is fixed; it will not rise and lower as the blade is adjusted, which can cause a wide gap between them.  That gap will not necessarily prevent the rear teeth on the blade from grabbing the wood and spitting it back at you.

Thirdly, there is a blade guard.  It covers the blade from above and prevents you from dropping the workpiece onto the blade, as this can cause a quick kickback at you.  Too many woodworkers remove blade guards, though, as it obscures the blade from view and can lead to inaccurate cuts.

Do Anti-Kickback Pawls Work?

Kickback pawls are table saw attachments that hold a workpiece in place with downward pressure as it is pushed through the spinning blade.  If the workpiece were to get grabbed by the back teeth of the blade, the pawls would act to hold the wood in place and prevent it from flying back at you. 

Avoid Free Hand Cuts

Let’s be smart, people.  You’ve seen what can happen if you watched the videos we linked to above.  High-powered, sharp, spinning blades are dangerous.  And you saw how close the fellow in the first video came to losing a finger or two.

Use the rip fence, or the miter gauge, for your cuts – no free hand cuts under any circumstances.

Cross Cuts

Speaking of rip fences, let’s not use them for cross cuts.  As we mentioned earlier, you will run the risk of the workpiece getting caught between the fence and the blade.  Even if they are perfectly parallel, cross cuts are not advised using the fence, as the board can still become caught, and the spinning blade is going to toss it back at you.

Push Sticks or Blocks

Push Stick

We mentioned them above, also.  They are exactly what the name implies – – a device (wood, plastic, metal) that is used to push the workpiece through the spinning blade.  They keep your hands away from the blade and give you good control of the workpiece.  While it won’t necessarily prevent a kickback, it dramatically lessens the possibility of your hand being drawn into the blade.

Blade Maintenance

Keep your blade sharp.  Pushing a workpiece against a dull blade makes the blade work harder, can cause a warp, and overheat the saw.  Accidents happen when power tools are not allowed to work as they are intended to work.

Be Smart

Don’t try to make your table saw perform in ways it is not intended to perform.  It’s not a magical tool and won’t straighten a crooked piece of wood.  Pushing a crooked workpiece against the spinning blade runs the risk of its separation with the rip fence.  We’ve already addressed free-hand cuts, and that’s what you’ll have on your hands if the workpiece isn’t held in place well by the fence.

Final KickBack Video

We’ve discussed several aspects of kickback on your table saw and offered some safety tips for you to consider.  For a comprehensive video on table saw safety, we found one you’ll likely find helpful.

In short, be smart, take all precautions, and install the safety equipment we recommended in this piece.  For me, it all started in the eighth grade when our shop teacher lost a finger.  I’m happy to report I still have all of mine.

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