The Differences Between Bench Top, Contractor and Cabinet Tablesaws
Woodworking has been my weekend hobby for about 15 years. I started with nothing - literally no tools - when I bought my first house. After buying the house, my father gave me my first table saw; an old Craftsman that he had in storage.
I put it in my dank, dark cellar, along with an old workbench. That was the absolute beginning of my first home workshop. It was pretty sparse. I had one power outlet for the whole place.
Since that time, I've become a much better woodworker and I've acquired a lot more tools. I've made furniture in cherry and maple hardwoods. Lately I've been into building small boxes using some more "exotic" woods.
I'm no professional though. I aspire to make high quality pieces like you see in all those woodworking magazines, but I haven't reached that level. Despite that fact, I have a pretty nice home shop with a good amount of power and hand tools. Over the years, many friends who are just getting into "do it yourself" projects have asked me what tools they should buy to start their own home workshop.
This article is addressed to all of those people out there who are interested in starting up their own home workshop. It is aimed at novice woodworkers and it is about the three general types of table saws on the market today.
The Three General Types of Table Saws
There are generally three types of tables saws on the market today: the bench top table saw, the "contractor" table saw, and the "cabinet" table saw. They all have pros and cons that the beginning woodworker should consider before investing in one for the new home workshop.
The Bench Top Table Saw
The bench top table saw is a smaller, lighter table saw that is meant to be portable and can be placed almost anywhere: on a bench, on two saw horses, and even on the back of a pick-up truck (which is what some contractors do when they go to work sites).
Of the three types of table saws, it is definitely the least expensive and that's why it can be so attractive to the beginning woodworker. However, bench top models have some drawbacks; a lack of size is, in my opinion, one of them. Because the table top is smaller, you are more limited with the size of cuts that you can make. Mind you, I have used a bench top saw in the past and been able to rip and cross cut decent-sized pieces of stock, but it requires a lot of planning for the cut and a lot care.
Bench top models also tend to be less accurate than more expensive models. You can, however, make adjustments to improve accuracy. They also have less power output in the motor. This can limit you on the thickness of the stock that you cut and can sometimes slow you down when you are working with hard woods like maple and oak. Finally, the fences on the bench top models tend to be small in size and you lose some ability to make stable cuts.
The "Contractor" Style Table Saw
Next in line is the "contractor" style table saw. This type of saw is in the mid-range of prices. While the technical difference between the contractor style and cabinet style is how the motor is mounted on the saw, I like to describe the difference this way: you will usually find a contractor style table saw mounted to a base with four legs - so it is not quite as portable as the bench top model.
Contractor saws also tend to have more powerful motors on them usually ranging from 1 hp to 1 1/2 hp. The extra power output makes it a little bit easier to rip thicker stock and hardwood materials than when using a bench top model. Accuracy also tends to be a little better in some of the "higher-end" models and you usually get a better fence.
The Cabinet Style Table Saw
Cabinet models are like the Mercedes Benz of table saws - they are the high end. Being on the high-end, they come with a much bigger price tag. Again, while the technical distinction between the cabinet and contractor styles is in the mounting of the motor, the obvious difference is in how they look. A cabinet saw looks like it's mounted to an enclosed cabinet base.
The accuracy on these models usually meets the standards of higher end woodworking. Many come with top-of-the-line fences and can certainly accommodate after-market fences. Table size is usually much greater than the other two models, so take that into account if you're working in a very small shop area.
Which is the Best for You?
There's really no "right" answer to this question. If you have a small budget and a small work space, then a bench top model might be your best option.
If you think, however, that there's a likelihood that you'll be in the "do it yourself" or woodworker hobbyist category for the long-term and you'll be taking on more complex projects as your skills improve, then in my opinion the contractor style table saw is a good starting point for your new workshop. As I've described, you'll have more power, a larger work surface and better accuracy than a bench top, but you also won't "break the bank" on your budget.
As time goes by and you find yourself doing higher quality work, then you may be able to sell your contractor style model and upgrade to a nice cabinet saw. Trust me on this, once you've used a cabinet saw, you'll never want to go back to a bench top model. Happy woodworking!