Table Saws: The Right-tilt vs Left-tilt Debate

Woodworkers – like any group of craftsmen – are a passionate, opinionated lot, and one of the most common equipment debates centers around the direction in which your table saw should tilt. While there are valid considerations, oftentimes the discussion is concluded by simply stating that the choice boils down to “personal preference” – without all that many facts being added to the mix, or with the bulk of the explanation omitted. The goal here is to understand the issue and the steps leading to a decision – in a manner that you can articulate – and not just parrot back someone else’s conclusion.

By way of example, I once heard an adult use the phrase, “It’s a doggie dog world.” This is one of those cases where you get no points for effort. Just as the etymology of a phrase provides a deeper understanding (or even an inkling of meaning), so, too, does a thorough comprehension of the factors involved in making an informed decision. There must be some reason to choose one thing over another. There must be some reason why more than one flavor of something exists – beyond just the boredom of the design community. If it’s not obvious, and no one can immediately tell you, do some digging. If nothing else, the research will be educational.

Consider this comment: “Left-tilt saws are safer and easier to use than right-tilt saws because the blade tilts away from the fence.” This is rather disingenuous, since the only time this factor is relevant is when the blade is actually tilted – in most people’s case, a small percentage of the time compared to conventional 90° cuts. Never forget that a table saw is a dangerous tool. No matter which direction it tilts, it will still be dangerous. But hopefully, by understanding the factors involved in the direction of tilt, the use of your table saw can be rendered somewhat less dangerous.

The issue of blade tilt can be divided into several clearly defined categories: safety, usage, access, and ergonomics. Of these, the most commonly discussed consideration is safety.

Safety:

1a Right-tilt: When using the fence to rip bevels on narrow pieces, there is a risk of the blade coming too close to (or even hitting/nicking) the fence if the blade tilts to the right.

1b Left-tilt: Because the blade angles away from the fence, this issue is moot.

2a Right-tilt: When ripping bevels on narrow stock, there is a possibility of these thin cut pieces being trapped between the blade and the fence and launched back towards the operator.

2b Left-tilt: Since the cut piece falls to the outside of the blade, this type of kickback is eliminated. (Technically, this is not the conventional definition of kickback.)

These two points are the most common arguments in favor of left-tilt saws, however most fence systems (regardless of tilt) will allow you to swap the fence to the opposite side of the blade. This allows you to make a beveled cut away from the fence on a right-tilt saw. The argument against this technique is that it requires the operator to work “backwards” – applying force to the left instead of the right in order to move the work – and requires greater care and attention since your stance is opposite that of every other operation.

There are further considerations regarding the ability to squeeze push sticks or other safety aids into tight spaces between a spinning blade and the rip fence. These exist whether or not you’re making bevel cuts, so be careful and always make sure to stop and think.

The same concern about direction applies when you’re making beveled cuts with the miter gauge. For safety’s sake, the blade should angle away from the miter gauge so that the cut piece ends up under the blade and flat on the table, as opposed to dancing around on top of the spinning blade. On a left-tilt saw, this requires you to switch to the right-hand miter slot. This may feel awkward, but the concern is far less relevant if you’re in the habit of using crosscut sleds.

Usage:

To prevent tear-out on a thin and delicate beveled edge, the long edge must be at the top of the cut. (This is sometimes referred to as the “good” or “finish” side of the material.)

1a Right-tilt: To keep the good side up, the work must be supported on the table to the left of the blade. Usually, this space is about 8″, and while you can use outboard support on the left side of the saw, extended rails generally add width to the right side of the machine, so there’s no easy way to get the rip fence any further out than the stock configuration.

1b Left-tilt: The work rests to the right of the blade, which at minimum is 24″ and with a typical extension table provides more than four feet of support.

2 Right-tilt: In order to cut wide stock, the work piece has to be flipped over (good side down). This will prevent you from seeing the line to which you are cutting, and if the table isn’t clean, it may also result in transferring contaminants to the work.

Access:

A left-tilt saw has the motor mounted on the left side of the machine. For most people, this is the outside edge of the saw, as the right side is sometimes blocked in by a cabinet supporting an extension wing or router table. Should you ever need to open up the saw – to change belts, for instance – it might be less of a hassle to get into from the left. How it works, or if it works, all depends on the configuration of your floorplan.

Ergonomics:

Where are your controls – and where do you prefer them to be?

1a Right-tilt: The tilt wheel is on the left of the machine, which also generally means that it’s behind the power switch. This isn’t all that big of a deal, since you should never adjust the angle while the saw is running, but it does mean that you have to reach around the bulky switch assembly to get to the wheel.

1b Left-tilt: The tilt wheel is on the right side – handy, if you’re right handed – so you can use the same hand for both controls.

2a Right-tilt: The arbor shaft has left-hand (i.e. reversed) threads.

2b Left-tilt: The arbor shaft is threaded with a “standard” right-hand twist.

While certainly not a make or break factor in a purchasing decision, some people find it hard to remember which way their threads go.

The Unique “Disadvantage” of Left-tilt Saws:

The saw’s measuring tape is zeroed to the right edge of the blade. Since the motor and arbor on a right-tilt saw mounts from the right, the arbor flange is a fixed position relative to the fence. Conversely, left-tilt saws mount from the opposite direction, and any change in blade thickness – swapping from a normal blade to a thin kerf or dado, or even tuning dado width – alters the distance and throws off the calibration of the scale measurement between the blade and fence.

Because of this inherent behavior, it’s a good idea to calibrate your saw with the most commonly used blade. That way, you’ll only have to compensate for shifts in measurement when you change blades. No matter which way your saw tilts, it’s not an unreasonable habit to use the fence scale to get “close” to your desired measurement, and then fine tune the adjustment with a graduated rule.

It used to be that the direction of blade tilt depended on the manufacturer. If you had to have a Delta, then you were getting a right-tilt saw – because that’s how they came. Dylan was right, though: the times, they’ve changed. Now days, anything that might once have counted as competitive differentiation or market advantage has generally been blurred by companies desperate to be all things to all people. There are almost too many decisions to make, and very little objective data provided on which to base your choices. When it comes to table saws and the way they tilt, the final result may still come down to personal preference – but at least you’ll have a clear idea of the considerations involved.

Glossary:

Miter cut : material is tilted in relation to the blade.

Bevel cut : blade is tilted in relation to the material.