Often I hear people ask, “Can a track saw replace a jointer?”. It’s a fair question, but the answer is not definitive and it really depends on what you primarily use your jointer for. Both tools are versatile and have many uses in woodworking and carpentry. And while they vary greatly in there size and appearance, they do overlap in some areas.
What does a jointer do?
A jointer is one of the core foundational tools of fine woodworking. If you are making fine furniture and you are buying rough cut lumber then you likely would not want to go without this essential tool – unless you are one of those “hand tool only” folks (much respect!). So why is this tool so important, and what does it do? Well the jointer has 2 main functions (it can do some other cool things but that’s for another article).
As jointers come in different sizes, the length and width of board you can flatten depends on the the size of your jointer. Typically hobbyists tools range from 4″ to 8″ wide (lengths vary proportionally). More serious woodworker and professional shops will often have huge jointers with beds up to 16″ in width. They can weigh thousands of pounds and be up to 8ft long.
1. Flattening Faces
The jointers ‘unique ability’ is taking a rough, uneven, bowed, cupped or even twisted board and making it flat. It does this by passing the board along a flat surface into a spinning wheel of blades raised slightly higher than the infeed surface. It then follows onto an outfeed table that is set at precisely the same height as the wheel of blades. By repeating this process several times the out-feeding board will become perfectly flat.
2. Straightening Edges
Similarly to a rough cut face, a rough milled board will also have uneven edges. The edges will also be out of square to the face of the board. Typically when finish milling rough cut lumber, you should start with flattening one of the faces, as described above. After flattening one face, you can then proceed to squaring up one edge of the board. The reason to do this on the jointer is because it doesn’t require a straight opposing reference surface to cut a straight edge (like the fence of a table saw, for example).
To straighten and square up the first edge, the jointer will have a fence positioned parallel to the length of the jointer bed, and perpendicular to the width of the bed. By referencing the firstly flattened face to the fence and running the board through the jointer, the rough edge will soon become straight and 90° to the reference face. Once this process is complete, the main job of the jointer is done.
Do not make the mistake of trying to flatten and square up the other face and edge of the board. The one thing a jointer does not do is create parallel surfaces so don’t even bother trying. This task goes to the table saw and thickness planer.
What does a track saw do?
A track saw looks and behaves very differently from a jointer. They look nothing alike. One is a giant stationary machine with large cast iron beds and a rotating planing cutter-head, while the other looks like a circular saw running along an extruded aluminum track.
A track saw is essentially a circular saw, but it’s designed specifically for use with a dedicated track to create very accurate cuts with a fine cut quality. With the right blade a track saw can make cuts beyond the quality of a well tuned table saw.
Mainly, what a track saw does well, is take an accurate circular saw to larger pieces of wood that would be difficult to bring to stationary tools, such as a table saw or miter saw. The track acts as a portable table and allows the saw to move in a very precise, straight line. They also incorporates a zero-clearance feature to the blade so the cut quality is very good.
These saws also excels at making angled cut because it doesn’t require a parallel reference edge, since it has the track to guide it.
What can a track saw do to replace a jointer?
Where these two tools overlap is their ability to cut a straight edge without another reference edge. If you don’t have access to a jointer, you can use a track saw to cut a straight edge on rough cut lumber. Ideally, the track should be sitting on a flat surface. Otherwise it can result in the track rocking and affecting the cut quality. It can also result in kickback of the saw so it is an important consideration.
Unfortunately, the track saw will not replace the jointer when it comes to flattening the board face. You will need to find another method to accomplish that task.
What can a jointer do that a track saw can’t?
Now that you’re all experts, this should be obvious; a track saw cannot plane the surface of a board flat. This is where only a jointer shines. It is what it was designed to do and there are no other tools that can compete with it in this regard. There are some other tricks that a jointer can do but those are another topic all together.
The Final Verdict
It comes down to a simple decision; if you need to flatten the face of rough cut lumber then you need to buy a jointer. Yes, it is possibly to use a thickness plane with a special setup, but this is time consuming. You can make flattening jigs that use a router – also slow.
Or you can muscle up and use a 24″ jointer hand plane – I have done this, and while very satisfying, it is difficult, time consuming and quite hard work. If that’s your cup of tea, go for it! (Keep in mind a quality jointer plan can easily cost as much as a decent 2nd hand jointer).
If all you want to do is make uneven edges straight, then a track saw is a great tool to add to your arsenal, and it has lots of other great uses (Read all about that here). All the best in the next of many ‘which tool should I buy’ decisions in your woodworking adventures.
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