Saturday, February 18, 2012

Colbert on Table Saws

No, not fed across the table and the blade - although that has occurred to me - but on the topic of the Saw Stop and mandates that all saws must have this technology.  Warnings for crude, juvenile humor, imagery and speech (it is Colbert, after all).  Also note the very peculiar attitude Colbert takes and the strange perspective on the question.

For background: (from here):
The woodworking tool industry is in crisis right now.  A few months ago, a lawsuit was won against Ryobi tools' parent company, for producing a "defective" table saw.  The plaintiff was awarded $1.5 million when he sued for $250,000.  The defect?  It did not include an expensive safety option that was invented around year 2000; (the modern tilt-arbor table saw was invented in 1939; the basic idea goes back to 1813).  In 2000, an inventor produced a technology called a Saw Stop that senses when flesh touches the blade and stops the blade in milliseconds.  In the process of stopping the saw as fast as it does, it destroys the saw blade, and possibly other parts of the saw.  The user still gets cut, but typically will require stitches instead of having a body part cut off.  He shopped this invention to the major tool makers and none of them agreed to license his invention.  Their major concern was that the idea was untested; they had no idea how durable it would be (contractors' tools live a rough life); they had no idea if it could be added to existing products (were they rugged enough to survive the abrupt energy dump that destroys the blade?), or how to roll it out across their product lines.  The inventor started his own company, and sells table saws with this feature.  

This suit will end the production of low-priced and bench top table saws, seriously impacting hobbyist woodworkers as well as the tool industry.  Professionals will buy the more expensive saws and raise their prices to you and me.  
For the record, I have a table saw in my garage, and it's an old Ryobi without any such safety mechanisms.  I have all 10 fingers still intact and couldn't tell you how many thousands of feet of wood I've cut on it.  (On particularly bad days, I have considered using it to cut off the end of an arthritic finger, figuring it's a few hours with very intense pain instead of years of annoying low level pain, but that's another story for another day).  The inventor and owner of Saw Stop says table saws send 40,000 people per year to emergency rooms, and 4000 partial amputations (the rest presumably from kickback - all saws have anti-kickback devices on them, that are routinely defeated by their owners).  By rough WAG, there must be millions of uses of a table saw in a year in the US. 
(the Saw Stop mechanism)
The question here isn't "the right to cut my finger off" as Colbert puts it, the question is whether the government should force this onto the market and cut off (pun intended) hobbyist-priced saws.  For a quick check, note the prices on Amazon (they're convenient) for a Saw Stop saw vs. the competition.  You can get into a good beginner's table saw for about a quarter of the price of a Saw Stop saw.  You would expect that a beginner would be more likely to hurt themselves on a saw than a professional (which isn't necessarily right), so that they would want to pay for the protection, but should that be their choice?  Likewise, a cabinet shop might decide that a few thousand spent on Saw Stop saws might head off hundreds of thousands in liability from a few moments of inattention - and their insurance companies might not even allow them to buy any saw but the ones with Saw Stop technology.  As you expect (well, I do) other designers have hopped into the fray and are offering technology to compete with Saw Stop.

Is the Saw Stop a good idea?  Heck no, it's a great idea.  But I think the Whirlwind that stops the saw without contact from your fingers is an even better idea.  If it would be possible to stop the blade without destroying it, destroying the Saw Stop and maybe the saw itself, it would be even better.  The point is, it shouldn't be someone else's decision, it should be the buyer's.  


  1. The saw stop does not destroy the blade, at least not the blade I know which stopped twice against the aluminum block. Carbide teeth are harder than aluminum, and it is soft enough that the carbide does not shatter. needs to buy both a new block, and, unless the electronics have changed since several years ago, the electronic gizmo which makes the Saw Stop stop. Several hundred dollars if I recall. The second time it stopped was someone touching the kerf splitter with a utility knife. The change in electrical resistance was read as "not wood", and "Wham!" No wonder the manufacturers didn't want to buy it.

  2. Cool - thanks for the input. What I heard about the blades was not that the aluminum "impact absorber" hurt them, but that stopping from full speed in a couple of milliseconds caused some blades to shatter and even tore parts off some saws. One guy said it was like a thousand G deceleration. Might have been defective blades, but I saw that a while ago and didn't see it today.

    Contractors job site saws live a very tough life, bounced around in pickup trucks and put in all sorts of places. The big companies weren't sure they could survive that.

    I think you can hardly blame them for being uncomfortable putting someone else's technology on their products, and being responsible for supporting it forever. All because some judge decided every saw made in history is "defective" because it doesn't have a technology made available 12 years ago.

  3. You don't want the rest of us to have to pay for all those amputations, do you? Of course we're going to mandate this. (/left)

  4. regt_2000@yahoo.comFebruary 19, 2012 at 1:21 PM

    Next: all firearms will be forced to be modified to sense human flesh in front of the barrel, and will be unable to fire if flesh is present. Think of just how many lives that will save.

    Many years ago, Isaac Asimov wrote one of his "robot" stories of our society in the future wherein we were no longer able to engage in woodworking or other "unsafe" hobbies (First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.)

    The liberals would love such an unintended consequence. Or would it be unintended?

    1. Yeah - the logical conclusion of the three laws is to round up the humans and put them in safe places, so that no harm could come to them, right?

      There was an I Robot movie a while ago, and while it wasn't true to any of the books, it was true to the concepts and was ending with this one.

  5. As a carpenter, who has done lots of trim and casework using table saws, I agree fully that it should be the buyers perogative. I have been very careful with mine and never came close to an accident. My miter saw is a different matter. Good post. I too like the saws but they are not cheap and if I was young again and buying a new saw, I might consider a saw stop. Right now, my Delta contractors saw labors on.

  6. First thought: The dot gov has no business getting involved in this. If they can successfully mandate Saw Stops on every saw, there is no limit to what they can mandate. But that's old news, and I fear we've lost that battle and the war around it.

    Second thought: I'd expect Ryobi to appeal as far as they can, on whatever grounds they can, with support from the power tool mfg association, because this is a cancer that will destroy all aspects of all their businesses.

    Third thought: Just as cars that get save money by getting better gas mileage wind up being driven farther, as people adopt safety equipment they become less risk averse; it would not surprise me if power tool accidents - all types, not just table saws - increased once this type of safety equipment becomes common, whether mandated by the dot gov or delivered by the marketplace. Jigsaws and utility knives will never have Saw Stops, but once users learn that they can take liberties with table saws that mentality will spread to other power equipment.

    Not to mention that there are millions of undefined-age table saws in circulation that do not have, nor can they be equipped with, Saw Stop-like safety devices. Expect more lawsuits as Doofus loses a finger on a saw made 20 years ago because his employer should have bought a new safety-equipped saw or the XYZ Tool Company should have produced a retrofit kit, or taken the old saw in a free exchange for a new one.

    Don't sell your old Disston and Stanley hand saws, we're going to need them if we ever want to build anything.

  7. If you really want to make the "Colbert Nation" understand the implications of this type of thinking (if that were even possible) then equate it to video game manufacturers placing daily limits on how much time they spend playing. Of course you'll be drowned out by the arguments of how "that's different" but maybe on a case-by-case basis you might actually get a few to look at things from the standpoint of principle. Probably not worth the frustration though.

  8. Looking at things from the standpoint of principle: back in the good old days of the industrial revolution, when the Nanny State didn't force manufacturers to implement safety devices if they didn't want to, thing were a little different. I recall reading of a particular case where a small child (no child labour now - another infringement of our rights!) was expected to crawl under the cotton processing machinery to clean up bits of cotton. Her dress got caught in the centre spindle - no safety guards - and with no emergency cut-offs, all the other workers could do is stare in horror as she was wound tighter and tighter on the shaft, listening as her bones snapped under the mounting pressure. Seat belts, airbags, electrical and building codes - all of these are examples of government 'interfering' with peoples choices. But if you take a look at our own history or even other countries today, can you really say it's always a bad thing?

    This particular case may be a poor example: I'm not sure that mandating technology that is, as noted, still pretty young and untested is always wise - remember the deaths and injuries caused by first generation airbags? Similarly, though, would we have ever gotten to second-generation airbags without the huge investment made by making them mandatory? Maybe a law like this is the push we need for manufacturers to create lighter, cheaper, less destructive technology that could be implemented on small benchtop saws.

  9. Anon - first let me explain that I moderate comments on older posts so that I know they've been posted. I don't go back and read older posts looking for comments.

    That said, you raise interesting points. While I think it's wrong to rule something that has been in use for most of a century as "defective" because it doesn't include a recent invention, it might be good to call it "obsolete". But that doesn't get the lawyers a butt-load of money. And the "4000 serious cuts per year from table saws" has to be weighed against the incredibly large number of times they are used. It's a standard tool of woodworking. I wouldn't be that surprised if a hundred million cuts were made on all the table saws in the US in a year. Suddenly that 4000 doesn't seem that disproportionate.

    The modern table saw has had continually improved safety features and more will be added as time goes by. I don't believe a law is required to get manufacturers to look into cheaper/better ways of stopping the blade and making saw safer. I believe that just the knowledge a blade stopping technology is out there there will get it adopted. It may be workman's compensation insurance companies demanding a blade stopper, or simply offering a discount to shops that have it. It may be Saw Stop will take over the market if their saws are durable and precise and all the other things cabinet shops look for - along with being safer.

    As I said in the article, I think the Saw Stop is a great idea. I also think it's a first generation device that isn't going to survive in its current form. I think a device that stops the blade a bit less destructively and without even knicking the operator will win out.

  10. It's all about economies of scale. If all saws include this technology, overall saw prices won't change significantly. It's not a complicated piece of machinery. It just takes a bit of design work to implement. And once implemented, economies of scale won't make for much of a price differential.

  11. What an article. I totally agree with Jason Dick's comment.