Track Saw or Table Saw – The Final Showdown

The last Track Saw vs Table Saw article you will read

It seems the table saw vs track saw comparison is becoming one of the age-old debates among carpenters and woodworkers. In this article I will make the case that the debate itself is a false comparison. I will describe the different types of saws that fit into this comparison, their strengths and weaknesses, what some comparable alternatives are, and help you decide which tool is right for you.

Types of table saws

Before starting to draw comparisons between the table saw and track saw, it is worth pointing out that there are a wide range of table saws available, from the battery powered portables, to the 3hp+ industrial behemoths. Size, cost and capabilities vary and the saw you might own, or are considering buying, will impact your decision. For brevity, I have classified table saws into three broad categories.

Compact / Bench Top / Portable Saws

These saws are generally for light duty work and are designed to be tucked away when not in use, or carted from job site to job site. The size of the table and fence limits the size of material they can handle, and the motors limit the thickness of wood you can cut.

These saws are great for the hobbyist that might spend their weekends making cutting boards, bird houses, picture frames and similar types of crafts, or doing smaller jobs like ripping down wood or laminate flooring, or even light-weight sheet goods. This class of saw includes saws such as the battery powered DEWALT DCS7485T1 Flexvolt 60V Max Table Saw with an 8-1/4” blade, which might come in handy if you’re working on a site with no power and don’t want to bring a generator, the SKILSAW SPT70WT-01 10″ Portable Worm Drive Table Saw or the SKIL 3410-02 120-Volt 10-Inch Table Saw with Folding Stand. Some people have taken the step to build these saws into a table top to increase in-feed/out-feed surface and increase the capacity of the saw, but you will still be limited in power and will not get the same level of output and quality of a larger saw. These saws are generally equipped with less precise and durable miter gauges and fences and will not provide the kind of durability and accuracy of a larger saw. They often are not equipped with T-style miter slots which make using the miter gauge more difficult.

Check out my tutorial on the Kreg K5 Pocket Hole Jig

Contractor/Jobsite saws

This class of saw is commonly used by contractors on a job site where more power and capacity are required. Equipped with a 10” blade, these saws can handle full sheets of plywood and heavier ripping/cross-cutting. They are not easily portable but can be moved around by a couple people.

Contractor-style saws generally have an open or semi-enclosed cabinet and an outboard motor. Structurally, these saws have lighter weight trunnions (the apparatus that holds the blade and enables raising and tilting) and the trunnion is bolted directly to the underside of the table. This makes adjustment of the saw difficult and is not as rigid and structurally stable as a cabinet saw. At the high end of the price range is the SawStop Contractor Table Saw. Another solid option is the Delta 15 Amp 10 in. Table Saw.


These saws also have larger tables than the compact/portable class and can have similar rip capacity to a cabinet saw. The increased weight makes them more stable, but they will still be much louder and have more vibration than a larger saw. Some will use aluminum, composite or sheet metal for the tabletop to reduce weight, but this does reduce stability and accuracy.

Contractor saws are not known for dust collection. Given that the motor is protruding through the back of the saw, it is difficult to keep the dust under control.

Upgrade your table saw with a zero-clearance insert

Contractor saws are often in the 1 – 1.75hp range. Beware of the advertised horsepower on many of these saws though – they can be misleading. If in doubt, look at the amperage rating on the motor. That will indicate the max current draw, and for a 110V saw that is going to be 15 amps max. That equates to a ~1.75hp output motor, depending on the motor efficiency. (Voltage X Amps = Watts. Watts/746 = Horsepower).

For many contractors and hobbyists these saws are going to get the job done. The more modern versions have improved mobility using advanced mobile bases. One of the top saws in this class is the SawStop Contractor Table Saw. The safety aspect and build quality make it hard to beat, and the price reflects that. Ultimately, what you give up in power and precision, you gain in size, portability and dollars, but these are a great option for the budget conscious hobbyist and DIYer.

Hybrid / Cabinet Saws

For most woodworkers, the cabinet saw is the dream. These are the same saws that live in professional wood shops all over the country and they offer a level of precision, power and capability that the smaller saws can’t match. This class of saw has a large cast iron top and a heavy steel cabinet base. The defining feature of the cabinet saws is that the trunnion is mounted to the cabinet, not the table. A great value in this class is the shop fox brand or Grizzly Brand. For a more premium offering Sawstop make a very high quality saw with the best safety feature in the game (check it out).

Hybrid saws appear very similar to cabinet saws, but there are some important differences. Hybrid saws are typically lower power (110V, 15A – 1.5 to 1.75hp), and they often still have the motor trunnion supported by the table, which can cause the tabletop to sag over time (even cast iron). This also makes adjusting the alignment of the saw more difficult. They are still a significant upgrade from the contractor style saw in that they are sturdier, quieter, and have heavier duty trunnions and bearings, but they lack the power and features of most cabinet saws.

Types of Track Saws

Dedicated track saws (also called plunge saws) are much more similar in product offering. They are all similarly sized in terms of power and capability. The features that separate them are more subtle, such as small differences in blade diameter and adjustments. These saws all have a cutting depth in the range of 2 – 2-1/4”, all can be fit to tracks that can be ordered in various lengths and also connected together to extend the cutting length as long as required.

Dedicated Plunge

The dedicated plunge saw is the real benchmark here. It is what most people are comparing to when the topic of table saw vs track saw comes up. The brands in this category start with Festool, as they invented the track saw in 1964. Festool saws are considered the top brand in the category, but they are priced accordingly. Dewalt, Makita and Mafell also make premium brand track saws, and all receive solid reviews from their users. Over the past few years several other brands have entered the market with respectable offerings, such as Bosch, Kreg, Triton, Grizzly, Wen and Shopfox.

Alternatives and Accessories

Shooting Boards

In order to complete the comparison, I think it is necessary to describe some of the alternatives to the track saw. Many woodworkers who already own a table saw have made do for years using a decent circular saw running on a shop-built guide. This is not nearly as versatile as a track saw, but it can tackle one of the main challenges that the table saw has, and that is breaking down large sheet stock, as well as completing non-parallel (angular) cuts.

Check out this video on how to make your own saw guide:

Adaptive table systems

Adaptive cutting systems combine the size and portability of a track saw with the functionality of a table saw. They seem to be an interesting option for those specifically looking to avoid owning a table saw, and many people sing their praise for versatility and accuracy. There are plenty of options for expanding their capabilities with routers etc… Too many to cover here, but worth looking into the many reviews and YouTube videos on the subject. Festool makes a complete system that adapts the track to a table, allowing much more functionality. Similarly Eureka Zone makes a versatile system that can be highly customized.

Festool Multi-function Table

 

 

Eureka Zone Guide rail system

Capabilities of a Table Saw

For many woodworkers, the table saw is the workhorse of the shop. It is arguably the most versatile power tool in a wood shop. So, what can the table saw do?

Ripping

The table saw excels at ripping large and narrow stock. The larger saws can handle thick hardwoods and, with added in-feed and out-feed support, large sheet goods.

Crosscutting

With a basic miter gauge, the table saw excels at accurate and repeatable cross-cutting. Wider, longer board can also be accurately crosscut with the addition of a miter sled. Smaller miter sleds can be used to do very small and delicate work accurately as well.

Joinery

The table saw is capable of cutting many different types of joinery using the basic miter gauge and fence, as well as with additional jigs.

Miters: Cutting miters can be done accurately with a well tuned saw using the miter gauge or a miter sled.

Tenons: Using the miter gauge, or a tenoning jig, the table saw can cut accurate tenons for mortise and tenon joints.

Dovetails: Although not super-common, some woodworkers choose to cut their dovetails on the table saw. Unless you have a specially ground blade, you will still need to finish the tails with a chisel, but the pins can be completed entirely on the table saw. Watch this video for a demonstration:

Finger joints:  Finger joints, or box joints, are almost always done on the table saw. A simple jig on the miter gauge and some careful setup is all that is required. Watch this video for a demonstration:

Half-Lap Joints: This joint can be completed easily with a standard blade, or more efficiently with a dado stack.

Rabbets, Dadoes, Grooves, Bevels: These types of cuts are similar in that they involve a partial cut along the length or width of the board. All can be cut efficiently and accurately on the table saw.

Quick Setup and Repeatable Cutting

One of the main benefits of the table saw is how easy it is to setup and perform repeatable, accurate cuts. Once the saw is set-up it stays true and accurate even after long sessions of cutting.

Application of Custom Jigs and Fixtures

I mentioned a few above, but the table saw can be fitted with many types of jigs or fixtures to complete all types of cuts; from tenons, corner splines, kumiko, dovetails, box joints, to even cutting circles and crude turning. The basic principal of a flat surface and spinning blade is really only limited by the imagination.

Cove Cutting

Cove cutting is a great example of a unique application of the table saw. It involves running a board across the blade at an angle to create an elliptical cut. Watch this video for a demonstration:

You can even buy special, dedicated blades for cove cutting if it is something you plan on doing a lot. CMT Cove Cutter

Shaping

Shaping is not something I see done often, but it is one of the many operations that can be done on the table saw, and you can buy special cutters to do so. Watch this video for a demonstration and see below for a link to some shaping heads purpose built for the table saw.

CMT Profile cutters

Corob molding heads (compatible with Craftsman molding head)

 

Shortcomings of a table saw

Now having said all that, where does the table saw struggle?

Handling Large Sheet Goods

Although I stated above that a large table saw with good in-feed and out-feed support can cut large sheet goods, it is a real struggle to run a full ¾” sheet of plywood through a smaller saw without all that support. It is probably the main reason why most people buy a track saw, or build a shooting board. It is simply difficult to manhandle large stock through a table saw accurately.

Cross-Cutting Large, Heavy Items

With all the people out there making river tables, and live edge slab furniture, imagine the difficulty of trying to crosscut a 7ft long by 2ft wide by 3” thick slab through the table saw. It could be done in theory, with help, or maybe even with a jumbo-sized miter sled, but it is not going be easy, or necessarily safe.

Plunging

Anyone who has tried making a stopped cut (a cut that doesn’t extend through to one or either edge of the board) knows the nervous feeling of trying to carefully lower the board down over the spinning blade to plunge through. It’s not how the table saw was designed to be used, and many would say it’s not a very safe procedure.

Portability

With the exception of the bench-top/portable category, most table saws are stationary tools. This means you are bringing the material to the tool. If the project is not near the shop that could be a big inconvenience.

Safety

This topic could be an entire website on its own. Many will argue both sides of this point, but the fact is that table saws cause more serious injuries than any other power tool in the workshop. It is extremely important to learn how to use a table saw safely, keep it well tuned, think through what you are doing, be careful and take appropriate precautions, use appropriate PPE, and do not become complacent or cocky. Like many tools, they are dangerous, but certainly can be used safely if you are informed and cautious.

Capabilities of a Track saw

Ripping

Ripping is really the reason the track saw was invented. It is where the track saw excels, especially on large material that is too heavy or awkward to maneuver through the table saw. The track saw can rip very accurately and with an extremely high cut quality. The zero-clearance strip on the track saw, the precise guiding and a high quality blade results in a cut quality that usually exceeds that from the table saw. A unique advantage to ripping with a track saw is that it does not require a parallel edge to run against a fence. This means that the track saw can effectively act as a jointer, creating a straight and square edge on an otherwise rough cut board.

Crosscutting

On larger slabs, the track saw can be used on its own to effectively crosscut, in fact this is probably the best tool for that task. On narrower stock you can add a track square to perform square or angle cuts, but it can be a bit awkward, especially with a longer track.

Bevel Cuts

Cutting a bevel along the edge of a board can be done reasonably accurately with a track saw under the right conditions. It is important that the work piece is well supported, lying flat, and that the track is also secured flat against the work piece.

Angle Cuts/Non-square Cutting

One thing a track saw can do that a table saw just cannot do at all is cut wide angle cuts. For example, cutting across a sheet of plywood at 45°. Yes, a table saw with an angle cutting jig can cut smaller pieces at slight angles, but a track saw is unlimited in this respect.

Plunge Cuts

The other name for a track saw is a plunge cut saw. It’s in the name and so it goes without saying, a track saw is perfectly designed to perform plunge cuts stopped at both ends. Most track saws have accurate depth stops to perform non-through cuts, and some saws also have a scoring preset to at ~2 mm to pre-score the surface to further reduce tear-out.

In-situ Cutting

This is another area where there is no comparison. The portability, and the ability to take the track and lay it or clamp it to a counter-top or a wall or a cabinet, or lay it on the floor and get an accurate, super clean cut is one of the real standout features of the track saw.

Safety

Track saws seem to have a reasonably good safety record. Against the table saw there is no comparison. Table saws do account for the majority of workshop accidents, more than most other common power tools combined.

Shortcomings of a Track Saw

It may not be fair to call them shortcomings, but in comparison to the table saw there are some tasks that it either can’t do as accurately and efficiently, or simply can’t do at all.

Cutting Small Stock

It is nearly impossible to take the track to small work pieces. The exception is if the track saw is fitted to a cutting system that incorporates work-holding fixtures into a table. It doesn’t give you all the capability of a table saw.

Cutting Depth

Most track saws can cut to just over 2” at 90°, compared to the table saw at just over 3”.

Power

Since track saws are all either 110V or cordless they do max out on power at about 1.5 hp. This is comparable to some of the smaller table saws, but cannot match the power of the cabinet saws at 3 hp. Given that the track saws mostly use smaller diameter blades they are still able to handle heavy cutting.

Ripping Narrow Stock

It can be done, but not really with the track saw alone. You will need to set up additional track support or use a table system along with the track. It’s not nearly as efficient as running boards through a table saw.

Any kind of Joinery

People might try to get creative here, but I feel comfortable saying that track saws are not designed for, or capable of, cutting joinery.

Repeatability

Track saws are typically lined up to a pencil line, so they are only as repeatable as your ability to measure and mark accurately. You could build setup blocks or spacers, but repeatability is not built into this tool.

Quick Setup

This is another area I find inefficient with a track saw. Basically, every cut has to be measured and laid out. For breaking down sheet goods you need substantial floor space to setup a support system, like a foam sheet or some sacrificial boards. Sometimes it feels necessary to clamp the track down too, which means you need clearance below the sheet for the clamp. It’s just not the tool for high volume, repeatable work.

Can you Compare Based on Cost?

I suppose you can compare anything on cost, but given the wide price range of both table saws and track saws and the fact that they mostly do different things, I don’t think cost is the relevant metric.

What are the Alternatives?

It is good to know what your options are. Both table saws and track saws are capable and accurate tools that can come with a hefty price tag. But if your reason for buying one or the other is to complete a specific task that can be done with a simpler, cheaper option, then that would be valuable information. So let me tell you, the are several alternatives that can accomplish some of the same tasks as both the table saw and the track saw.

Edge Guides

Edge guides can be used with standard circular saws to cut down sheet goods with decent accuracy. The cut quality will not match a track saw’s, but it allows you to break the sheet down to a more manageable size before bringing it to the table saw.

The EZSMART Edge guide has mixed reviews. Most issues are attributed to the installation of the saw to the base.

EZSMART Universal Edge Guide with Universal Saw Base

 

 

 

The Dewalt Edge guide is specifically designed for use on certain Dewalt circular saws. Its rip capacity is limited to 12″ / 14.5″. It’s a simple and super-compact option to increase the capability of your Dewalt circular saw.

 

The Milescraft Edge Guide System is a universal edge guide. It will fit to most circular saws. It also fits jig saws and can be used as a circle-cutting jig.

Track Systems

Track systems allow you to use a standard circular to a track system. Several manufacturers make these types of systems. Reviews vary. As with the edge guides, the cut quality is not going to match a track saw.

Kreg track system

Bora system

Which tool is right for you?

So, it’s decision time. Unlike most of the ‘table saw vs track saw’ articles out there, I am not going to recommend one or the other, because I believe the answer lies in the buyer’s intended use. But if you are reading this article, then you are obviously looking for information to help make your decision. Consider what your last few projects entailed, or what your next big project calls for. If you were ripping down dimensional lumber all day to build furniture and cabinets then the table saw is the right tool for the job. If you are cutting down expensive veneered plywood, I would be very nervous making those finish cuts on the table saw – and the track saw would execute that job perfectly. If you want a tool that will do almost all the tasks described above, consider a solid table saw and complement it with a circular saw and a shop-made shooting board. If all you do is build cabinets from sheet good, invest in a good track saw and some guides and accessories, and buy a compact table saw for the smaller jobs that a track saw can’t handle.

 

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One Response

  1. Grant Twitchett June 13, 2020