Sawstop and Government Safety Regulation

I present for your consideration: the Sawstop. Watch the hot dog video on that site, and be impressed by the power of clever engineering.

The SawStop, for those of you too lazy to follow the link, is a table saw. Specifically, it is a table saw that is designed to save fingers: it runs a slight voltage through the spinning blade; if flesh makes contact, the saw senses the voltage drop caused by the body’s capacitance and in the blink of an eye – faster than a car’s airbag – shuts off the power to the saw and slams a cartridge into the spinning blade to bring it to an immediate halt. The blade also immediately drops below the table’s surface. The result, as you can see from the video, is an event that would otherwise lop off fingers only gives you a nick shallow enough to repair with a Band-Aid. It ruins your blade and you need a new cartridge after that ($50-100 for a blade, $69 for the cartridge), but that’s cheaper than an ER visit.

I went to a live demo of this sucker a couple of weeks ago, and the video doesn’t do it justice. You can almost feel the force of the cartridge slamming into the blade through the floor when you stand next to the saw. It’s damned impressive.

A little history: Steven Gass, inventor of the SawStop, holds degrees in physics and law and made his living as a patent attorney. He is also an amateur woodworker. One fine day he set his mind to preventing injuries caused by table saws – by far the most dangerous machine, statistically speaking, in most woodworking shops. And he came up with the system described above and patented it.

Mr. Gass invested time and effort in developing prototypes and then took his idea to saw manufacturers. To his chagrin, he was rebuffed. No table saw maker wanted to put the device on their saws, mostly out of liability concerns (manufacturers are insulated from liability for most injuries because the saw is “inherently dangerous” – something that might change if the brake was adopted). Manufacturers also claim Gass wanted too high a royalty for the patent.

Mr. Gass’ next step…well, let me get to that in a minute. It’s where the controversy arises.

Finally, Mr. Gass decided that the only way to gain acceptance for the idea was to actually build and market a table saw, which he has – as you can see from the link above. By all accounts, it is an excellent saw even without the saw brake, comparable to the very best table saws from Powermatic and the like. It has to be; it’s very expensive. It’s been out for over a year now and has garnered numerous awards and has saved many a finger in various pro woodworking shops. The point being: the saw and the saw brake each work, and work very well.

OK, so about that middle step. Gass decided to petition the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to make saw brake technology mandatory on all table saws. For this, he drew the ire of many woodworkers. Being a cantakarous and conservative lot, many of them hate the idea of letting anything but the market sort out whether the technology should be installed. Many say they won’t buy the saw on principle, even though they recognize its quality as a saw and the effectiveness of the safety device.

About two months ago, the CPSC agreed to start a rulemaking process on saw brake technology (the linked article, BTW, contains a more detailed history of this saga, and I recommend reading it).

So I’m curious to get this forum’s take on the issue. Some of the arguments against making the brake mandatory:

  1. It picks a technology winner, and government shouldn’t do that because it’s bad at it.

  2. It effectively mandates payments to a monopoly, since Gass owns the patent.

  3. Sawmakers will eventually have to include this technology or something like it anyway, because the existence of the SawStop on the market opens other sawmakers up to lawsuits for failing to include the safety device on their saws. Thus, regulation isn’t necessary.

  4. “Woodworking is safe if you are careful, and I shouldn’t have to subsidize the careless.” Essentially, the personal responsibility argument.

  5. Government sucks, the free market rules. (The Ayn Rand argument.)

The argument for: there are a metric shitload of fingers that might be saved.

I suggest taking a look at the CPSC briefing package on saw brakes, as it provides some very interesting information. Note that any rulemaking, if undertaken, will not specifically mandate Gass’ patented method, but will instead be performance-based – it would require *any *method of reducing injury when the sawblade contacts flesh, rather than the Gass technique in particular.

Anyway, I find the whole thing just endlessly fascinating, and am curious as to what the SDMB brain trust will say on the matter. So have at it, folks.

[watches “Why Sawstop?” video]
[privately resolves never, ever to take up woodworking as a hobby]


I don’t really have a dog in this fight, but I was curious as to just how many lopped-off fingers per year we’re talking about saving here (how many IS a “metric shitload”? :smiley: ), so I found this, which quotes the CPSC as estimating (in March 2004) that there are 30,000 table saw hand and finger injuries a year requiring hospital visits, and that 3,000 of those injuries require amputation of one or more fingers. So we’re talking about implementing mandatory design features in order to save 3,000 fingers a year. Discuss.

Works for me. I have a tablesaw that terrifies me but I know that familiarity breeds casual use and it is only because I rarely use it that I’m still scared of it.

I’m very impressed by both the hot dog demo video and the “why sawstop” video.


Not to mention that you get to keep all your fingers.


I don’t know how the manufacturers could determine. I imagine, though, it’s probably a pretty mundane thing involving expected income based on sales compared to how much they’d have to pay in royalties. Perhaps the amount he wants is too high to be supported by market.


My guess is that the “cantankerous and conservative lot” are really neither. More likely, IMHO, is that an industry-wide change would probably cost a pretty penny.


I think that’s just a truism and voicing it does more damage than help to the argument.

I’ve heard before that not all monopolies are bad or even illegal. Perhaps this would be a good indicator of that.

I think we can find a fair number of examples that government safety regulations are required to ensure plenty of industries actually do stuff in a safe manner.

See comment to 1.

After seeing the dude with just two fingers on one hand in that video, I think this is by far the more persuasive argument!

I’m with you on that one! Actually, I resolved that quite long ago because I’m very fearful of the consequenses of one distracted moment.

I think we’re tlaking more than 3,000 saved fingers a year, but I could be wrong. You said those visits require that number of amputations, but how many of those visits involve digits already amputated?

p.s. Yes, I do have a warped sense of humor sometimes, thus the use of {lop} instead of {snip} here.

I think what hasn’t been mentioned is that it’s not 100% reliable; for instance, you can’t cut wood that’s too moist because it will trip the sensor. A professional shop can’t have their blades wrecked and work stopped every few hours or days. If it worked perfectly I think more people would support the idea.

American and European table saws are much different. In Europe you must have a blade guard and it is impossible to use a table saw for dadoes. I’d like to see table saws redesigned with things like sliding tables standard. If we had that, we might not need something like blade stop.

I still have all my fingers, but I did have a 1" boad kick back and give me a huge bruise in the groin. An inch or so lower and it would have been really bad.

Couldn’t this be countered by having a sensor built into the tabletop in front of the blade that the wood would touch before it reaches the blade, connected to a visible or audible alarm (but not the cartridge) to let you know that the wood is too wet to proceed?

I noticed that there is an off switch to disconnect the safety feature if one is cutting “conductive material,” which would presumably include wood with a relatively high moisture content.

Moisture meters for measuring moisture content of wood are commonly available, and I’d expect most wood shops would have them. They’d just have to know what the threshold would be to trip the sawstop mechanism.

I’m not sure about the legal ramifications, i.e. regarding government mandates, etc., but I will say this: if I was the owner of any kind of business with a table saw in regular use, after seeing the video, I’d get a Sawstop(s) and sell or scrap the old saw(s) I had.

My dad did a fair amount of woodworking, and had two table saws at one point. He went to the hospital a couple of times after getting his fingers caught in the blade, on one occasion freaking the whole family out (he did it when no one was around, and we found the saw covered with blood and he was no where to be found. Turns out he drove 15 miles to the hospital in our home town, rather than three miles to the hospital near our cottage, where he was working on a project).
We would have made him get one of these things after the first incident if they had been available at the time.

Heck, I have a table saw in my basement now, and the only reason I’m not going to replace it with a Sawstop is that I only use it rarely, and when I do, I am extremely careful about it.

Goddamn. I need to show this to my mom. I think I know what we’re getting my dad for Christmas.

Wether he wants it or not.

The human body is 50-65% water. Very few shops will be dealing with wood which is anywhere near this green. About the only places I can think of which would be are sawmills, and they don’t use 10" table saws.

As for me, I’m going to point out the existance of this device to the local theatre groups and use my voice on the community steering committee, which handles the arts center budget, to recommend we replace our current table saw with a Sawstop. We’ve recently paid off the arts center complex and we have more than enough in the budget to buy this saw, which is mostly used by amateur community volunteers.


The Sawstop people have addressed this. Their saw has a one-time override (ie, the safety feature re-engages when you re-power the saw after an override). Cut your wet wood, and an LED sensor tells you if the brake mechanism would have fired. If it says it wouldn’t, continue cutting with the safety engaged. If it says it would, you’ll have to do the override for each cut.

However, this is a minimal concern. The brake won’t engage unless it hits wood with (IIRC) over 20% moisture content, which is a helluva lot wetter than what woodworkers typically work with.

Also, I’d think your typical pro shop would keep a couple of spare blades and cartridges around.

I think it is a great device. When I purchase my next table saw I’m unlikely to consider that saw. It is too expensive. Proper safety procedures are much cheaper.

In the woodworking community people are very upset this guy is trying to force the technology in. He is trying to maximize the amount of money he can get from his invention. I don’t totally fault him for that. I feel if he tried to be more reasonable in price(to the other saw manufaturers) and marketing, the product would be doing much better then it is now.

I don’t know much about the processes he can use to force this device onto manufacturers. From what I’ve heard it will take many years and would not be forced on users accross the board. Woodworking business can avoid such a requirement

Just to clarify, it’s apparently doing pretty well on its own.

Sawstop is a private company and thus we can’t independently verify their sales figures, but the demo lady said they were actually having a trouble keeping up with unexpectedly large demand. I know, biased source, but it’s the only source that has reliable information on their sales.

The most perverse thing in this whole story (I’ve read about it before) is that table saw manufacturers would increase their exposure to liability by making safer saws. That’s just fucking ridiculous. It’s obviously creating a horrible incentive structure. The stupid thing is that even with Sawstop technology, a table saw is still a dangerous machine. Kickback on the wrong piece of wood can damn near take off your head, and certainly can put out your eye. Only a complete idiot would use a Sawstop table saw without the same level of care as a regular saw (especially given that tripping the safety costs a bunch of money - while not as bad as losing a finger, it’s still something you’d prefer to avoid).

So, no comment on government safety regulation, but I think that liability law has clearly been shown by this case to be poorly structured.

Hear, hear.

I wish I could be sure there wouldn’t be a lawsuit against the Sawstop company from someone who used the saw to trim his hedges or something, and then sued because the warranty said it was 100% safe no matter what.


PS - As to the OP, I am mostly in the #5 camp - if the technology is succeeding on its own, no government action is required. Unless a law is necessary so that current saw manufacturers don’t get socked for not putting this device on all their saws.

A small clarification: Was Gass originally seeking a regulation mandating that HIS DEVICE be used on all table saws built after date x, or merely a regulation requiring that all table saws built after date x have some sort of safety device, which might or might not be his, as others might well develop other, possibly cheaper, possibly better systems to achieve the same effect?

One bothers me, the other doesn’t.

Hmm, if that loud SSSH-BWAK! of the safety startles another worker at the planer into jamming his hand into the blade, could a lawsuit ensue?
Just kidding - that saw is fuckin’ cool.

The latter, out of necessity, IIRC. Not because he wouldn’t like to have his device mandated specifically, but rather because the CPSC only sets out performance-based standards.

He has been pretty clear he wants his invention to be mandated. He has taken out many patents to prevent companies from making a similar device.

Companies like Delta and Powermatic do have the money to develope such devices and could bankrole lawsuits to force their inventions in. They have never seen reason to do so. A table saw has potential to be dangerous as do many other tools in a shop. When used properly it is one of the safest.

The fact of the matter is table saw injuries are hardly a epidemic. I think more people are injured using lawn mowers each year.

I really hate government mandating to me how to safely live my life.