Whether you are an avid carpenter or someone who is just starting out it‘s important to know how to cut wood safely. However, without the proper safety techniques, working with wood and saws can very quickly become a disaster. Saws are powerful tools equipped with blades that spin at dizzying speeds. Although modern saws are loaded with safety features, your safety is ultimately up to you. If you are uncomfortable performing a particular cut or working with a particular saw, don’t do it! There is no shame in asking for advice from someone who has more experience. You will have a better chance of keeping all your fingers as if you do.
After operating a saw a few times, you might become complacent. After all, “familiarity breeds contempt.” It only takes a single careless move when operating a saw for you to do something you will regret for the rest of your life. Before you squeeze the trigger, think about where your hands and fingers are. Be aware of your stance, your center of balance and what is around you. Visualize the cut through to completion. What might get in your way? The sawhorse? The clamps? The power cord? Your leg? This thinking through may be able to save your body parts. Keep reading to learn about how to stay safe when using a saw.
Sawing Board Lumber Safely
Sawing a two-by-four on a job site is usually done using a circular saw or a miter saw. While it is true that the saw does the bulk of the work, there are still things you can do to reduce the likelihood of a mistake.
Match the Blade Depth to the Thickness of the Wood
You can move the blade up and down to expose half of the blade or just a tiny sliver. Make sure that the saw is unplugged and open the blade guard. Gauge the width of the blade in relation to the thickness of the wood you are planning to cut. The saw should barely cut through the wood. If you expose more than a quarter inch of the blade past the edge of the wood, you run the risk of kickback, a dangerous occurrence where the saw jerks back in your hand. The exposure of excess blade can also lead to wood splintering and a jagged cut.
Where Are You Standing?
Be aware of your location in relation to the saw. Many people have been badly injured when their saws kicked back directly into them. Position your body so that you are not in direct alignment with the blade. You should be operating your saw from the side rather than from behind.
Make Sure Your Workpiece is Stable
Sawhorses are great tools to help keep the board steady while you are cutting it. Position the board with the cutting line extending beyond the edge of one of the sawhorses. The scrap end should not have any support to allow it to safely fall when you have completed the cut.
If the piece you are cutting has an overhang of more than a foot and a half, you will do better using a makeshift table. Place a sturdy piece of plywood over your sawhorses and lay the wood to be cut on top of it. Locate your cut mark and slip a scrap piece of wood under the board on the true end of the cut. This will allow the scrap end to separate from the blade and fall safely to the plywood table.
Do not make a cut between your sawhorses. If you do, the two halves will fall in on each other and pinch the blade. A pinched blade will not be able to spin freely and will result in kickback.
Run the Saw Before You Cut
After you plug in your saw, you are ready to go. Make sure the blade is not touching anything before you start the motor. Allow the saw to run for a few seconds to get up to full speed before beginning your cut. Allowing the saw to reach full speed before cutting will extend the motor life and increase your chances of making a smooth and clean cut.
Keep the Kerf In Mind
The kerf refers to the small amount of wood that is removed by the width of the blade itself during a cut. This amount is usually around 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch. Thick blades remove more wood than thin blades. The kerf must be taken into account when lining your blade up with the cut line. Position your saw so that the cut line is on the true end of the board. Mark an X on the scrap side of your line and place your saw blade on the X side of the line. If you do not perform this step, you will end up with a board a fraction of an inch shorter than you intended.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Remember that the blade does most of the work. You are merely guiding it along. There is no need to push the saw through the wood. While you do need to exert minimal pressure, too much pressure can result in binding of the blade. The saw will come to a sudden halt with an accompanying smell of a smoking motor. If you find that you need to push the saw along the wood to make a cut, you might have a dull blade. Change it as soon as possible.
Both Hands Play a Part
Your dominant hand is operating the saw, but your support hand can be said to play a bigger role in making a safe cut. Your support hand should be doing two things: pressing down on the wood to keep it steady and helping the saw to remain in a straight line. Many experienced carpenters place their thumb and forefinger on the saw shoe. The straight edge of a speed square also makes an excellent guide.
Finishing the Cut
As you near the end of the cut, the weight of the scrap wood will cause it to pull away and possibly break off before the cut is completed. To prevent this, you can have someone else hold the scrap end to prevent it from breaking free on its own. If you are operating solo, increase the speed a little during the last half inch or so by giving the saw a quick push. Let go of the trigger and let the blade cease spinning. You can then remove it from your workpiece.
Tips for Ripping Lumber
Cutting across a piece of lumber is easy with either a circular saw or a miter saw. However, you might find that you need to make a cut that runs parallel to the long side of the lumber you are working with to obtain a narrower or thinner piece of wood. As an example, you might need to cut a 10-foot long 2×4 in order to obtain a 10-foot board that is still 1 ½ inches thick but is now only 3 7/8 inches wide. This technique is known as ripping a board and is a little trickier to do since you are cutting with and not against the grain.
Keeping the Cut Straight
The hardest part of making a rip cut is keeping the cut in a straight line. In order to keep the edge straight, align two marks at each end of the board. Connect the marks with a single long line using either a pencil and straight edge or a chalk line. Clamp a metal straight edge or another long piece of lumber along the wood to serve as a guide for the saw plate while you are cutting.
Jigsaws and Table Saws
Jigsaws can come in handy if a circular saw is insufficient. You can also use a table saw if you have access to one. Follow the proper safety techniques to prevent injury.
Cutting Plywood Sheets
If you need to cut large sheets of plywood, you are certain to need to reposition yourself and your grip on the saw midway through. A locked down straightedge will make cutting sheet goods much easier. You can also use a long piece of scrap wood as a guide for your shoe plate.
Consider using a strip of masking take over the cut line to keep the wood fibers from tearing/breaking during the cut. Make sure the tape is stuck firmly to the plywood to prevent it from gumming up your blade. Remove the tape as soon as you are finished to ensure a clean, splinter-free release.
Best Face Down
When cutting sheet material, be sure to “put the best face down.” In other words, place the side that will be exposed upon installation face down and measure and mark on the side facing you. That way, when the inevitable splintering occurs along the cut edges of your wood, the best side remains clean.
Score Your Wood
Even with plywood blades, using a circular saw on plywood can lead to splintering. To prevent this, consider scoring your wood before making the actual cuts. Set your saw to make a shallow cut in the wood and make your first pass. Readjust the blade to cut all the way through the wood and make the final pass.
Building a chicken coop or a shed from raw materials is a satisfying process that can be enjoyed by anyone, whether you are a carpenter by trade or for recreation. Following healthy safety precautions will help protect you while you are using your saw.