Simple Table Saw Tricks for Better Benchwork

The stronger and more stable your benchwork is, the less frustration you will have with your layout (and trackwork especially). 

Last spring I decided to tackle a new challenge by building cabinets for our pantry. While I consider myself pretty handy I am by no means a seasoned carpenter. What I learned in the process of constructing the cabinets though upped my carpentry game considerably, and has resulted in me being able to build better benchwork for North Point Street.

These simple and inexpensive tips will up your benchwork game. Eliminate frustration, improve the strength and reliability of your next benchwork project, and save your money for trains!


Using a Table Saw

Most common benchwork techniques (L-girder, open grid, etc.) built with wood could be done with a Skill (or circular) saw. By using a table saw though, you can build stronger, lighter, more stable, and less expensive benchwork by using plywood instead of dimensional lumber. 

Dimensional lumber that is straight, free of knots and flaws, and that is dry so it won't warp is getting harder to find and more expensive. 

An inexpensive DIY portable table saw doesn't cost much more than a skill saw, and the money saved by using plywood instead of dimensional lumber will more than make up the cost difference. 

And, adding a crosscut sled to your table saw (covered below) likely means that the table saw is the only saw you will need to build benchwork. 

Table Saw Setup:

You don't need an expensive (and often space-eating) table saw for most home DIY projects, and that includes benchwork. There are a few things you can do to improve how an inexpensive saw functions and get better results. I built all of North Point's benchwork perfectly square with clean cuts using a $250 portable saw from a big box store. 

1. Blades. Inexpensive saws come with cheap blades. Invest in a good, finish blade (i.e. more teeth). It will cut more cleanly and precisely, last a long time, and won't twist or buck as much in the saw. I usually have an 80 or 90 tooth 10" Diablo finishing blade in my saw.

2. Vibration. Vibration is the enemy of a good cut. Professional saws have large, heavy table tops to handle the materials, kill vibration, and add stability. Lightweight, portable DIY saws vibrate a lot and are prone to skid around in use - especially if you are pushing larger sheets of materials through them. I fixed both of these issues by building a mobile stand for my saw. It adds weight, brings the saw up to a comfortable working height, and kills almost all of the vibration. Don't bother buying saws that come with cheap metal stands, they're too low and don't add enough weight or stability. Build a simple stand instead for a lot less money.

When I built my stand I added a strip of foam weatherstripping like you'd get to keep out drafts from around a door. The table saw sits on the foam strip, on the lip in the tabletop. This cuts down a lot of the vibration between the saw and the stand and makes everything more stable. 

3. Wax. This was a new one to me. Clean the saw tabletop, apply a light coat of furniture finishing wax, and wipe off the excess. You will be amazed at the difference it makes as your material glides effortlessly across the saw and table. 

4. Insert plate. Remove and set aside the stock plate that comes with the saw. These have wide openings to allow the blade to tilt for angle cuts. The wide opening means that your cut is not supported properly, which leads to tear-out or splintering of material at the cut. Instead, cut a piece of scrap wood to fit in the opening and attach it with the blade recessed in the saw. Turn the saw on and run the blade up slowly through the new insert, cutting an opening for the blade the same size as the saw kerf. If you need to make a bevel or angled cut, just swap the stock insert back in. 

5. Check for square. Use a square and make sure that your blade is at 90 degrees to the tabletop and the front edge. Most DIY saws come with cheap, difficult to align fences so knowing that your blade is at least tuned will help with those straight cuts. 

6. Outfeed table. If you can, add an out-feed table to that setup to receive the sheet goods as you cut them. You will save yourself a lot of trouble. An outfeed table can be any surface the same height as the saw that can take the material as it comes out of the blade. This leaves you to focus on feeding the material in, which is where you get a good, accurate cut. 

Doing these six things will turn your inexpensive DIY table saw into a benchwork monster! 

The Crosscut Sled

The other thing you can do to up your game is to build yourself a crosscut sled for the table saw. As I mentioned in a previous post, this was a game-changer for my woodworking and I use the sled all the time. 

For most model railroad benchwork, a crosscut sled can replace the need for a mitre saw, saving you money and simplifying your workbench. 

The sled is very straightforward to build - you can find lots of examples on Youtube with step-by-step instructions for sleds from simple to fancy. 

This is the simple crosscut sled I built for making accurate, perfectly square cuts in materials. It is just a flat sheet of MDF with a plywood front and back wall. The rear wall is set up to be exactly perpendicular to the blade of the saw and the sled slides in the channels on the table saw top. I made mine from spare wood laying around the basement so it didn't cost me a penny.

Why Not a "Skillsaw?"

Many of you are probably saying to yourself right now that you can do better and cheaper with a good old circular (or "Skill") saw and a jig to rip straight cuts in sheet goods. 

I use my circular saw as well - especially with my Kreg Rip-Cut guide. It is nice to just lay a fresh sheet of ply down and start ripping 8' lengths with it. And the Skill Saw stores away in much less space. But square-end and bevel cuts are much more difficult to do accurately with a Skill Saw than a table saw and sled setup. The table saw is also much better at dust management, saving me from making a huge mess in the layout room. Plus with the table saw, I get all of the features of a skill saw and miter saw without switching back and forth between tools (or even having to own them). 

Everything I discussed here is easily found online and in woodworking videos on Youtube, for example. Give them and try and see the difference it can make in your next benchwork (or home improvement) project!