Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Working with a Radial Arm Saw

First a confession:  My first real stationary power tool was a Radial Arm Saw, A 1965 Craftsman model... The kind that got recalled in the early 2000 for a safety hazard with the guard. Apparently you could cut yourself with it... Really!!
This was followed by a bandsaw and later a newer Unisaw.

Circa 90s. Me posing proudly with my first Unisaw, 
the old Craftsman RAS is in the background.

There was a wide range of models affected and the fix was ; Send us the old guard, will send you a new safer one, or in my older model case, send us the complete motor assembly, (the cutting head essentially) and we will send you $100... So you end up with a useless saw carriage and no working tool but with a US $100 check and they pay for the shipping. These carriage would then be destroyed upon receipt by them.
So I thought at the time, Nah, I'll keep risking my life every time I used it instead :-)

But what brought this question forward was one posed by Brian who was wondering how did the RAS worked in my work flow and was it still relevant in today's shop, basically.

My short answer is: Hell Yes!

Radial Arm Saw earned quickly a bad reputation as an unsafe tool, Dewalt forgo the RAS market, Craftsman got brought to court over it, etc.
So what made them so dangerous?? And why would anyone make and use them?

In one word the blade. Yeah really. Because the teeth are riding on top of the board instead of under, like on a tablesaw, it is very good at lurching forward suddenly (a climbing cut); either the saw carriage and blade (crosscut) or throwing out the board and pulling you into it (ripping).

Both aggressive tendencies can be somewhat tamed by using a different tooth geometry on the blade, with should essentially be a crosscut blade.
Similarly on a ripping blade, you would want a chip limiter design for increased safety, but really, RAS are better and safer at crosscutting and cutting dadoes.
The other part of making them safe is to keep control of the saw carriage everytime you turn it on and NEVER put your arms in front of the carriage travel. Yes, sometimes it means using your left hand to control the carriage.

In my power tool shop days, I often left the dado head set up on the RAS while leaving the tablesaw freed up for other cuts. I used a safety dado set with chip limiting tooth geometry.
When I did uses the RAS for initial rough cross cutting my pieces to sizes, I put on a Freud Thin Kerf with anti kickback shoulder design, a TK601 I believed. It made a huge difference in how much easier it was to control, not to mention leaving a nice cut line. Being a Thin Kerf blade it also provided some relief on the motor, which was getting a tad worn out... (slow to come up to speed)

The blade that came with my old RAS, it was a tad frightening to use...
Shown inside the packaging from its replacement, a freud TK

The TK blade from Freud I used in it

I have long been a fan of Freud saw blades, I find them to be high quality, and not too expensive, and besides they go regularly on sale at Canadian Tire and Busy Bee, so.... that is when I buy them :-)

Besides my blade for the RAS, I have both dedicated rip and crosscut blades for the Unisaw, including a special laminate blade, I bought for a previous job in the house.

Work flow using a RAS in the shop

Like I mentioned earlier, having both a tablesaw and a Radial Arm Saw, gives me the opportunity to leave the dado set on the RAS, freeing the hassle to changes blades on the tablesaw during a project.
There are of course limitations to cutting dadoes using such a RAS, up to about 14 in or so in length, but their positions can be on practically any length of work piece, limited only by your available workspace around it. I found that these limitations were never much of an issue in most of my work, and when I required longer dadoes, such as on cabinet sides, then I would switch over to the tablesaw. By being careful to plan ahead my cut sequences, I found that I could go on without the hassle of having to switch often.

Now a days most shops have replaced the RAS by a chop saw or sliding miter saw. In most case you loose some cross cut capacity, but more importantly for me, you loose on the dadoes capability.
In addition, a special class of RAS, with a rotating turret arm can really cross cut long angles, something not possible with a Sliding miter saw.
Delta and General still makes them.

In our base woodshop we have 2 Delta 12 in rotating turret RAS and one new Dewalt sliding compound miter saw. The RAS get used most often as the first tool to cut wood to a more manageable size before being feed thru the planers. As there is really no good reasons trying to managed feeding a 10, 12 ft long board into the planers, we have some capacity to do it, but it is not done very often.

In that shop, I rarely used the sliding compound miter saw, preferring the larger capacity  of the RAS.
In doing the joinery for my barrel stand, it was a lot faster, easier and yes safer, to cut the dadoes and rabbets. I simply used a temporary nailed length stop to cut the initial shoulders on all my pieces, then simply moved the piece in between free hand to make numerous saw kerfs in between.
It took me roughly one hour to sequence my cuts with my temporary stops and the resultant joinery being all lined up properly. Back home I simply used a chisel to clean up the ridges left.

One of the two rotating turret RAS in the wood shop

Resulting joinery. 
Imagine trying to do that on the Tablesaw with an 8 ft piece...

Doing the same on the tablesaw would have been  more problematic, manhandling an 8 ft long piece of 4X4 post. In this case it was a no brainer, the RAS won hands down...

What ever happened to my old RAS?
When I last moved from Greenwood NS to Ottawa Ontario in 2002, I left behind my large stationary power tools with a friend shop, awaiting to buy a place and subsequently moved them about a year later.

The old Gal sitting unused back in NS

Starting to load the machinery for their trip back to their new home in Ontario

All packed and ready to go...
Except I made a big mistake, I did not secured correctly the arm on the RAS.

Having failed to correctly secured or immobilized the arm, its locking pin at the back of the arm broke in transport :-(
It has been sitting idle ever since. I moved it along two more postings, back here intending to get around to it and fixed it .. one day... but that day never happened and it just sat taking up valuable space in my overcrowded garage. So this year it went out with the big Spring clean up garbage pick up. Someone picked it up on the side of the road before garbage day, so it may still live to cut more wood...

Rudy pondering on the loss of the Radial Arm Saw...

So there you have it Brian, hope it answers your questions. Yes RAS are still relevant in today's shop, but strongly recommended to put in a proper chip limiter blade, much much safer that way...

Bob, who still has 10 fingers and two arms despite risking his life with my recalled Craftsman RAS for years :-)


  1. Thanks, Bob! I can definitely see the benefit of combining that with a table saw. There was one in the army woodshop where I first got into woodworking. I was told it was dangerous and to avoid using it at all costs. Likely it was a fantastic German machine with a dull blade.

  2. Hi Brian
    Glad it answered your questions :-)
    Like I said they quickly earned a bad reputation, never mind the fact that most accidents in woodshops happened on the Tablesaw and the Shaper. With the proper blade and used correctly, they are no more dangerous than a chop saw or sliding miter saw. Using the right blade in the right tool for the right application, makes all the difference. That and using common sense...

    Bob, the 10 fingers wonder

  3. Bob,

    Not that I would find a use for one but I is good to read about 'em. I expect before the day is over I will risk life and limb on the TS. Sometimes the machines are worth the risks. Otherwise I'd never get a project finished.