What Side of the Table Saw Should The Fence Be On?

What Side of the Table Saw Should The Fence Be On

The best estimate available for the percentage of people who are left-handed is 10%.  It’s difficult to measure this with any great accuracy because the variance in preferences and skills from task to task is great and because left-handed people were forced to learn to write with their right hand when young.  Conformance to the majority was imposed on left-handers at an early age.

Both quill pens and fountain pens are difficult for left-handers to write with because their hand is dragged across the ink before it has a chance to dry.  Left-handers know what we’re talking about.  

And yet, left-handed pitchers are at a premium in Major League Baseball, and a strong left arm that can throw in the upper 90s – low 100s is a true catch (pun intended).  

What does all that have to do with woodworking?  Honestly, nothing.  But the question of left-handed woodworkers may have some interest to you as it relates to the use of power tools.  With 90% of woodworkers likely right-handed and manufacturers wanting to sell their wares, less thought is given to them when it comes to power tool design, no different than many of the products in all disciplines and fields.

Specifically considering the table saw, this may very well be the case.  Fence positions do tend to be on the right side of the blade, and this is a concession to the majority of people being right-handed.  The question becomes, is that really necessary?  We’ll see.

What is A Fence On A Table Saw For?

Your table saw fence, which is also referred to as a rip fence, is intended to serve as a guarantee of an accurate cut.  That guarantee depends on the woodworker’s proper use of the fence and knowing how to push a workpiece through the saw.

It usually sits to the right of the blade, and when it is aligned correctly, it will be parallel to the blade.  This is how it can guarantee a straight and accurate cut as you rip cut with the grain of the workpiece.

It’s a great aid in ripping 4 x 8 sheets of plywood, and dimensional lumber, into the desired sizes.  Table saws can be dangerous if proper care is not exercised in their use, and these workpieces are big at the start of the cuts, making them potentially cumbersome in the process.

The rip fence keeps the large pieces and wide boards in line with the blade as they are moved through it with a push stick or block (to keep your hands away from the spinning blade.

Even cross cuts (against the grain, not with it) benefit from the proper use of a rip fence.  With smaller workpieces, a sled to support it as you push it through the blade becomes an easy cut.  The fence and the sled will help make the cut accurate, assuming you have measured carefully and well, and the cut will be safe.

Table Saw Safety Features

All table saws today are required to include a riving knife for safety in ripping long or large pieces.  The riving knife is a metal blade (no teeth) that attaches to the blade housing and extends above the table on the saw.  

As a workpiece is pushed through the blade, the riving knife keeps the kerf open throughout the cut.  This prevents the kerf from closing around the blade and being kicked back at your head or face.  As you can imagine, a kickback is a dangerous thing, and injuries occur when it happens, sometimes serious injuries.

Additional safety features on a table saw can include a blade guide that covers the blade from above so you can’t carelessly let your hand or arm come in contact with the spinning blade and open the skin, if not worse.

Riving knives should be a bit thinner than the blade you are using.  You don’t want the knife to be opening the kerf any wider, as this will interfere with a clean cut or even cause the workpiece to split during the cut.  That presents its own danger if it happens and is to be avoided.

Riving knives serve you better than a splitter because of their constant proximity to the blade. That distance is usually at around ⅜”, as distinct from a splitter which can be an inch or 2 from the blade, and this has everything to do with the way a splitter attaches to the arbor (the rod that holds the saw blade in place.

The Astin Martin of safety features on table saws, of course, is the SawStop safety feature – the high-end system that protects the skin by stopping within 5 milliseconds of accidental contact.  Many fingers, hands, and forearms have been saved by this great safety feature.  We’ve written about SawStop in part articles, most recently here.  We’ll let you read more there rather than paraphrase it here for you.

By the way, we think the Astin Martin is the primo automobile on the market, with so much of it hand-made.  The most recent model in the James Bond series of movies is a thing of beauty.  This is merely a personal opinion, but if we had the money, that would be our personal vehicle of choice.

The Table Saw Fence As a Safety Feature

We consider the fence on table saws to be a safety feature as well.  Perhaps more so for the project piece than for those who work with wood, but the fence does play an important role in a table saw’s use.

It aligns in parallel with the blade, enabling us to make a straight and true cut if we have measured well and carefully. It is a feature that enables us to use our table saw with confidence.

Here are some of the other values to keep in mind when cutting with your table saw:

  • Pressure.  Your table saw may well have come with a push stick or push block.  Be sure to use it.  If not, create your own and use them –  yes, them.  You want to use 2 push sticks.

One push stick will push the workpiece through the blade; the second push stick will push the workpiece against the fence.  Make sure the pressure from the second stick is ahead of the blade, not behind it, as the workpiece moves through.  

This means you will have three pressure directions:  forward through the blade, downward (same push stick) to keep the workpiece flat against the table; and inward against the fence.

Among these three pressure directions, you will find safety.  Just as a chef lets his knife do the cutting as he moves it through food, let the table saw blade do the cutting.  You simply move the workpiece against the blade and keep the push slow and steady.

In this way, the fence provides safety as you cut.

  • Against the Tooth.  In cooking, the term “against the tooth” refers to cooking pasta, the al dente degree of doneness.  In table saws, there is the pressure we put against the teeth of the blade.  

That pressure, described above, should come with the support of either the push stick or sled on the workpiece.  That pressure should be applied on the workpiece between the blade and the fence, with the cut off being allowed to either fall off or to the side after the cut is complete.

This keeps the pressure against the fence, not against the blade, and this is an important safety precaution both for you and for the workpiece.  Otherwise, you’ll cause the board to bind and end up not being straight.  That is a wasted cut, and you will have to cut a new piece for your project.

  • Free Hand Cutting.  No.  Just no.  Use the fence.  That’s why you have it.  Your hands, fingers, and workpiece will thank you.

Does the Fence Need To Be On The Right Side of The Blade?

Not necessarily, no.  However, if you read the sections above that speak to the pressure needing to be applied when using your table saw and fence, you can see there is an important role for the left hand equal to the role of the right hand.

The inward pressure we wrote of earlier will come from the left hand, and it is important to table saw safety and cut accuracy.  Again, you should view the table saw’s fence as a safety feature whose role is as important as the table saw riving knife/splitter.

It may not be the optimal reason to convince left-handers that a right side fence is a good idea, but it does make sense generally, and it makes safety sense.  And it contributes to a straight and accurate cut.

Here’s a video that speaks to many aspects of table saw administration, including a right side fence.  You can see in the video some of the benefits of a left-side fence for some cuts, too.  An ambidextrous presentation, if you will.

Does the fence need to be on the right side?  No, but it really does help, both for the reasons we cited and as presented in the video.

No matter what you decide, though, always cut safely.  Safety first is not just a slogan.