Alongside the more popular table saw and miter saw, the radial arm saw (RAS) is probably one of the most recognizable power saws out there. They were extremely common (although not as common as table saws or miter saws) and very useful, which is why so many professionals and DIYers make sure to have a radial arm saw in their workshop.
However, despite being incredibly popular and useful, many people don’t know exactly what role radial saws fulfill in a workshop and how they differ from the other kinds of saws I have mentioned already.
In this guide, I will tell you everything you need to know about radial arm saws, including what they are, what they are good for, and how they compare to both table saws and miter saws.
What is a radial arm saw?
Radial arm saw, as the name gives away, has its blade head attached to a hanging arm. In simple terms it is a circular saw that can slide along a pivoted arm.
Most people are familiar with table saws, where the blade is built directly into the table. With a radial arm saw, the blade hangs over the table.
Another change involves how you actually cut through materials. With a table saw, the operator has to push whatever it is that they are cutting into the blade, which remains at a stationary position. With a radial saw, the blade is moved on to the material.
The operator can also manipulate the material or leave it stationary which is usually the case.
Uses of radial arm saws
A radial arm saw has a wide variety of uses. You can use it for timber framing, building furniture, fine woodworking, wood cutting for DIY projects and home improvement work. While it may not be the pound for pound most versatile power tool around, it’s definitely up there in terms of versatility because of the sheer number of cuts that the radial saw can make.
In this section, I’m going to explain all the various cuts that a radial-arm saw can make.
Rip cuts are a sort of standard cut that a lot of different kinds of saws can make. Rip cuts are cuts that run along the grain of the wood. They are fairly easy cuts to make, and they tend to both be fast and effective.
Using rip cuts is easily the most effective way of cutting larger pieces of wood.
Rip cuts often go deep into the wood. Likewise, rip cuts also tend to leave the wood looking quite damaged and worn. Obviously, this doesn’t matter too much when you are just cutting lumber into size. But it does mean that rip cuts are unsuitable for things like building furniture or other woodworking projects without finishing them with a belt sander.
The accuracy of the ripping depends upon the type of saw you use. As I explained above, radial arm saws are capable of ripping wood.
To do a rip cut on RAS you need to turn the blade into the 90-degree position and lock it. Then move the wood against the rotating blade.
In this sense, they are quite similar to table saws. However, it’s also capable of making a variety of other cuts, something a table saw struggles to do.
Cross cuts are cuts made across the grain of the wood. A radial arm saw is an excellent tool for crosscuts.
Unlike rip cuts, cross-cuts are fairly accurate. Whereas a rip cut will make a long cut into the wood along the length of the lumber, a crosscut will only make a small cut across the width of the wood. In short, crosscuts are not meant for cutting large amounts of lumber or slicing them into large pieces.
However, the crosscut is an essential type of cut when doing intricate woodworking projects. Plus, unlike rip cuts, which leave the wood looking damaged after cutting, cross cuts leave the wood looking in good condition and presentable.
On a radial saw, you will place the length of wood perpendicular to the radial arm axis to perform the crosscut. After that, place the stock against the back stopper (fence) and pull the blade carriage across the wood towards you.
One important factor to be noted here is that you are pulling the blade across the wood and hence doing a climb-cut. A blade with a good negative hook angle is highly recommended.
Miter cuts are a type of angled cut. More specifically, a miter cut is a cut made at any angle besides 90 degrees along the width of the wood. Miter cuts are useful in all sorts of different building projects and are essential for making things pictures frames, tables, etc.
It is very easy to do simple miter cuts on a radial arm saw. All you need to do is rotate the pivoted radial arm to the desired angle and make the cut.
Bevel cuts are essentially slanted cuts. They differ from miter cuts due to the fact that bevel cuts are made along the thickness of a piece of wood. Bevel cuts get a lot of use in carpentry, especially on projects where the operator wants there to be no sharp edges.
Before you start cutting, you should release the lock and tilt the blade to the desired bevel angle on the protractor gauge and lock it in position. In case you want to make a compound cut, you should also swivel the radial arm to the required miter angle.
- Additional Reading: Different types of cuts explained with pictures.
Rabbets and Dadoes
Finally, radial arm saws are capable of cutting rabbets and dadoes. These are uncommon cuts on a RAS, since they are usually done using a router and router bit; but they are extremely useful in certain circumstances (for example, carpentry work and large woodworking projects).
For those who are unaware, rabbets are essentially grooves cut into the edges of the wood. Similarly, dadoes are slots (also sometimes referred to as trenches) that are cut into the side of the wood. These are mainly useful as wood joints and are widely used in wooden cabinets and furniture.
Note that you will need special blades such as dado blades to cut these wood joints.
Advantages of a radial arm saw compared to other kinds of saws
A radial saw has a number of advantages when compared to other kinds of saws, namely table saws, and miter saws.
Here is a quick comparison table between table saw vs radial arm saw vs miter saw.
|Radial Arm Saw||Table Saw||Miter Saw|
|Types of Cuts||Rip cuts, cross cuts, miter and compound cuts.|
Can also be used for cut-off.
|Primarily designed for ripping. Cross cuts can also be done with sledge.||Crosscuts, miter, bevel cuts, and compound cuts.|
|Working Principle||Move the blade along a straight line against the static workpiece.||Move the work against blade at a fixed position.||Move the blade on a swing arm against the stationary workpiece.|
|Safety||Can be dangerous||One of the most dangerous saws.||Blade guard allows safe operation.|
Accurate cross cuts
|Excellent for ripping.|
Table saw fence provides good repeatability.
Simple and robust construction.
Easy to use
Require very less floor space
|Cons||Less robust when compared to table saw.|
Can be dangerous for novice users.
|Require additional fixtures to perform crosscuts and miter cuts.|
Takes-up more floor space.
|Limited to cross and miter cuts.|
Large work-pieces cannot be cut.
Sliding compound miter saws are expensive.
Radial arm saw vs table saw
When compared to table saws, radial arm saws come out quite well. Radial saws are able to make a much larger variety of cuts and with more accuracy.
While table saws can make more than rip cuts, they aren’t able to do so with any sort of real accuracy without the help of additional accessories such as a crosscut sledge or a miter gauge. The RAS can both make a large variety of cuts and make them accurately.
Another benefit of radial-arm saws is that because you are moving the actual saw blade itself, you can cut heavier pieces of wood. With a table saw, you have to be able to push the heavier pieces of wood, which can be hard to do with any sort of accuracy.
In terms of space, radial saws are less bulky and they don’t take up as much space in your garage or workshop. Given that a RAS can do many of the same jobs that a table saw can, this is a pretty significant advantage.
However, there is one area where the table saw excels over other saws; rip cuts. Using a table saw you can rip through long pieces of wood accurately and consistently.
Miter Saw vs Radial-ARM Saw
How well does a radial arm saw hold up against a dedicated miter saw? Well, a dedicated miter saw is going to be able to make more accurate miter cuts. However, unless you are a full-time professional who needs ultra-precise miter cuts, a radial saw is going to be more than serviceable.
In terms of versatility, a radial arm saw wins hands down. The versatility and the number of cuts that a solid RAS can make far surpass the amount that a miter saw can make. They can also cut a wider piece of stock compared to regular miter saws. Of course, you could get a sliding compound miter saw to slice wide boards; however, the sliding compound miter saws are expensive power tools.
The areas where a miter saw truly outshines a radial arm saw are in the ease of use, accuracy, and safety. It’s very accurate and consistent and it’s certainly much easier than making them on a radial saw.
Likewise, miter saws tend to have blade guards, which means that they are a lot safer to use, especially for those who are inexperienced when it comes to power saws. With a RAS, it takes some time to get used to the exposed blade.
- Additional Info: You may also want to see table saw vs miter saw comparison.
How to rip wood on a Radial Arm Saw
Here is the step by step by procedure to do ripping on RAS.
- Step 1: Raise the carriage and move and blade with motor housing to the position where you want to cut.
- Step 2: Unlock and turn the blade head to 90-degree position. Now your blade is perpendicular to the arm.
- Step 3: Keep the board you want to rip against the fence and adjust the position of the blade accurately and lock into position.
- Step 4: Lower the carriage to the appropriate dept.
- Step 5: Start the motor and push the wood against the rotating blade.
Important: The most critical point to remember is, unlike crosscut, during ripping you have to feed the wood against the rotation of the blade.
The above figure explains the correct direction of feed which is against the direction the blade spins. This will result in saw dust flying towards you. So, ensure that you have a dust collection system attached to the machine. Have you noticed the anti-kickback pawls and feather board? They ensure safe operation during ripping.
That leads to the most important factor you should consider; which is safety.
Many consider RAS as an inherently dangerous tool. The truth is that a RAS is relatively safe to use for cross-cutting, provided that you follow the usual safety instructions.
However, ripping on a radial arm saw calls for special care. Accidents often happen due to wrong use of the use especially feeding the work from the wrong direction and not setting-up the guard properly. Please follow the following safety tips.
- Always switch off/unplug the machine while setting the blade.
- Wear safety glasses: Imagine you are ripping and your hands are close to the blade when a wood particle goes into your eyes. You are not only at the risk of damaging your eyes, but also risking your hand.
- Adjust the blade guard close to the board (approximately 1/8-inch from the surface).
- While doing ripping make use of an anti-kickback mechanism to eliminate the effect of kickback.
- During ripping the circular saw blade may show the tendency to pull the wooden board in the upward direction. This may result in chattering marks. To minimize the chattering use your hand to press the board on to the table.
- Make use of dust collection systems.
- Use ear safety equipment. Like any other types of power-saw, RAS will also generate higher levels of noise and you must safeguard your ears.
- If your RAS model has a riving knife, use it during ripping.
Should I get one?
Hopefully, this article has cleared up any misconceptions or questions that you may have about radial arm saws.
Although radial saws are slowly being phased out in favor of table saw and compound miter saws (which are able to do many of the same things that RAS can do), I still feel that radial arm saw is a very useful tool for the right user. If you are not ready to buy a new one, the used Dewalt and craftsman RAS are high.