There was a time when no woodworker, whether professional or hobbyist, would consider doing without the radial arm saw. It was considered the one must-have tool in the shop, with the versatility to make such a wide variety of cuts that it could stand in for a host of other tools. But sometime during the final decades of the 20th century, the role of the radial arm saw was superseded by the compound miter saw. Today, only a handful of manufacturers continue to produce radial arm saws.
However, a radial arm saw can still play an important role in the modern woodworker's shop. Whether you have an older model radial arm saw you want to keep running, or you're looking to get a return on your investment in a new radial arm saw, you can make this versatile power tool a central player in all of your woodworking projects.
The radial arm saw has been around since 1922, when Raymond DeWalt perfected his idea for a versatile woodworking machine that could do the work of four men. Dubbed the “DeWalt WonderWorker,” the new machine allowed shop bosses to reduce labor costs and increase efficiency. The DeWalt Company continued manufacturing radial arm saws until 1989, when the company ceased production of its founder's invention and sold the rights to the Original Saw Company, which has continued making radial arm saws into the 21st century.
The circular cutting blade and its motor assembly are yoked to an overhead arm that is, in turn, mounted to an upright post projecting from the base of a heavy-duty freestanding shop machine. Along the back of the work table is a fence against which you brace your pieces as you cut them. A gap in the fence allows the blade to slide freely through as you move it along the arm to make your cuts.
Practically every part of the radial arm saw is movable, capable of being adjusted precisely to meet the needs of the project at hand, then locked securely into position to maintain the desired cut. You can raise and lower the arm to adjust the distance of the blade from the table surface, you can pivot the arm to change the angle of the cut, or you can tilt the blade assembly in its yoke to create a bevel. The radial arm saw excels at crosscutting, but you can easily set it up for ripping along the grain by rotating the blade assembly 90 degrees until the flat of the blade is parallel to the fence, then locking the blade array into position at the desired width. You would then feed the board through the cutting blade, similar to the way you would use a table saw, rather than moving the blade through a stationary piece of wood.
Never operate a radial arm saw without a blade guard. When crosscutting, stand on the handle side of the blade assembly and use the hand nearest the handle to operate the cutting mechanism. After each cut, return the blade assembly to its resting position behind the fence before removing the cut stock. For ripping, make sure the saw table is at least twice the length of your longest board.