Still thinking about getting the radial arm saw for your projects? Well, if you haven’t already known yet, as of today, only one company still produces it.
Before the 1970s, when the idea of the compound miter saw has not yet been conceived, the radial arm saw reigned supreme among woodworkers. It was once the go-to tool every woodworker turned to in his workshop for crosscuts, miter cuts, bevel cuts, and even rip cuts.
However, as soon as the power miter saw was invented in the 70s, its production and use underwent a huge decline.
Nowadays, you’ll find yourself lucky to find one in any woodworking shop or local hardware store sitting there being used or available for purchase.
What happened to this once popular woodworking tool? What happened to the Radial Arm Saw?
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In 1922, Raymond Dewalt of Leola, Pennsylvania, founder of the now widely popular Dewalt tools invented the radial arm saw, which he called the Wonder Worker.
His invention, the wonder worker was a circular saw blade driven directly by an electric motor held in a yoke. The yoke slides along a horizontal arm hanging some distance above a horizontal table that serves as the work surface.
This radial arm saw or Wonder Worker as Dewalt called it sold successful before the 70s because it does one thing exceptionally well more than table saws and other hand saws. That is cross-cutting lumber.
Table saws then and now are best for ripping large wood stocks lengthwise, but cross-cutting lumber or pushing a long piece of wood widthwise through a table saw is not only awkward but also highly ineffective.
The radial arm saw however made it possible for woodworkers then to easily crosscut lumber, because unlike table saws where you have to push the stock through the saw while the saw remained stationary, the stock remained stationary with the radial arm saw while you pushed the blade through it when making cross cuts.
When the compound miter saw was introduced in the 1970s, the radial arm saw began to lose its popularity.
Although radial arm saws performed many functions such as making crosscuts, miter cuts, rip cuts, dado cuts and so on, the compound miter saw became the primary power tool for making crosscuts and miters.
One of the main reason craftsmen favored the compound miter saw to the radial arm saw at that time and even now is because the miter saw is quite safer to operate.
Every miter saw comes with a blade guide that covers the whole blade as you make crosscuts and miters with it. The radial arm saw’s blade is also covered but not totally covered like that of a compound miter saw.
Apart from that, compound miter saws are also cheaper compared to radial arm saws. Thus, it’s easier and more affordable to own a compound miter saw even now than to own a radial arm saw.
Agreed, a radial arm saw has more functions than a compound miter saw, but if you own a compound miter saw and a table saw, you wouldn’t need the radial arm saw.
That is not to water down the importance or usefulness of a radial arm saw, because one can also argue that it can perform the combined function of a miter saw and a table saw as well.
However, when it comes to personal preferences, I’d prefer to use a miter saw today for my crosscuts and miter cuts, and get a table saw for my rip cuts than to own one radial arm saw.
Radial arm saw vs table saw vs compound miter saws
How does the radial arm saw compare with a table saw and a compound miter saw?
Well, if you’ve read up to this extent, you should have known some of the differences or the major difference between a radial arm saw, a table saw and a compound miter saw.
Like I’ve mentioned before, the main purpose or use of a radial arm saw is for making cross cuts and miters like a miter saw.
However, if you really know your way around the tool, you can use it to make rip cuts, dadoes, cut tongues and grooves, make open mortises, taper cuts and even rabbets.
Equip it with a few accessories, and you can even use it as a router tool, a shaper, grinder, horizontal drilling or boring machine, disk or drum sander and even as a surface planer.
It tips on all its axis (except the vertical slope) making it a very versatile tool for carrying out woodworking projects.
Unlike a table saw which practically needs to be placed at the center of the workshop so it can be operated, the radial arm saw can be backed up against the wall just like some compound miter saws and thus takes up less space and footprint than a table saw.
Disadvantages – Why the radial arm saw fell so hard from the favor of many woodworkers
Every tool has its disadvantages, especially power tools, if most are not handled carefully, they can cause serious injuries.
However, it seems the disadvantages of the radial arm saw where too much to be ignored, and with the invention of similar tools like the compound miter saw, many woodworkers quickly moved on from it.
Here are some of the disadvantages of the radial arm saw that caused its demise.
The first major reason why most woodworkers moved on from the radial arm saw is due to safety concerns.
This safety concern is the way the blade rotates. It rotates toward the operator, which in turn causes the motor and blade to walk or self-feed towards them.
Because of this, most people are scared of using the saw, and that is quite easy to understand. A saw that can jump or move by itself towards you should be feared. Right?
Another reason why most people moved on from it today is that it’s quite expensive compared to compound miter saws and contractor styled table saws.
So, instead of spending over a thousand dollars to get a radial arm saw, you can get a compound miter saw and a contractor styled table saw for that same amount, and that will give you more value for your money.
Thirdly, the main reason why people used radial arm saws was that it used to be the best tool for making crosscuts and miter cuts.
Since the compound miter saw was invented in the 70s however, it took the place of the radial arm saw as the best tool for making cross cuts and woodworking miters.
Finally, the last but not the least reason why it’s not so popular anymore is because using it means you have to be replacing the wooden table that comes with it every once in a while.
The blade tends to cut through the table when making full depth cuts. That means you have to replace this table periodically.
When using miter saws and table saws, you never have to replace their tables, hence further reason why the radial arm saw lost the love of many woodworkers.
Should you get the radial arm saw?
The fact that so many woodworkers don’t use it today does not mean no one is using it. In fact, the tool is still being manufactured in the United States by the Original Saw Company in Britt, Iowa.
So, if you feel you need one for your projects, you can always get one as long as you know your way around the tool and you observe all safety measures required for operating it.
Image Credit: Philip Fibiger / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0