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GI Tablesaw review

 

(Spring, 2002)

April is tax time, which in our household is good news, as the government invariably owes us some money. Now I'm no fan of giving the government interest-free loans, so I'm always eager to relieve their consciences by retrieving my money as soon as possible each spring.

This year as the refund time approached I entered into delicate negotiations with my beloved wife and she eventually consented (or was that relented?) to my plan to purchase a new table saw for myself.

About seven years ago, when I started to do some woodworking at home, I bought a 2nd-hand table saw. I still think this is the wise approach for budding woodworkers. When you are just starting out, this keeps the investment down, and still gives you a quality tool. If you later decide that woodworking just isn't for you, then you haven't spent that much money. For $2-300 (Canadian Funds) you should be able to find a full size contractor's-style tablesaw with a solid cast-iron top. In contrast, if you were shopping new, you'd be restricted to the smaller benchtop-sized saws. I myself purchased a 20-yr old Rockwell/Beaver saw, and have happily used it for almost 7 years. I was now beginning to become dissatisfied with the saw. The fence was always fiddly, and buying a new fence would be a significant investment.

I like to do careful research, and I like reading, so I checked various sources to read up on table saws. This can be challenging, since I live in Canada. Most woodworking magazines are US based, and only a few brands -- and those are usually the pricier brands -- are found both in the States and in Canada (Delta, General, Ridgid). Almost all of the import saws that are reviewed in US magazines can't be found in Canada. There are two Canadian woodworking-related magazines , and neither one publishes reviews of large power tools. Consequently, a lot of my reviewing involved browsing Internet web sites and discussion groups.

Over the previous few months I'd become convinced of the need to have a splitter on my table saw. A recent article in a fall 2001 issue of Fine Woodworking, and others like it, has helped with that decision. My old saw had no guard or splitter on it. As I was shopping around, I could see that every new saw was (of course) equipped with a splitter and guard, which also caused me to think about the subject. I still have all ten fingers, and I want to keep it that way. Yet over the last 5 years I can recall at least twice that I've had an incident with kickback, and I know of at least once when my dad (A carpenter who used the same model Rockwell saw for decades) was injured at his saw.

As I said, my old saw had no splitter, and does not appear to have any means of adding a splitter. The table insert is so small, that when the blade is raised to it's full height, it almost fills the insert from front to back. So I was sure that I could not make my own splitter.

(That is a link to a FWW short article by Kelly Mehler, an author and woodworker who crusades for woodworker safety. Here is a photo of the result, which should be self-explanatory, just in case the above link goes stale)


Okay, I think that's enough introductory text, don't you? I'd better stop and get on with it, or the background will be longer than review. Hmm, I might already have done that.


As you've already figured out, I purchased a General International 50-185 deluxe builder's saw. I bought it at Federated Tool here in London, Ontario. It's a fine store and I recommend them to others. The cost was $899.

We're All Clones... Aren't we?
Yes, this is yet another Taiwanese-built saw, like oodles of other import saws on the market. It's built in the same factory (maoshan, I'm told) as several other brands. So why did I pick this saw? There are a number of features which set it apart from those other saws.

Tilt?
I had intended to pick up a right-tilt saw, for the well known reason of always having the rule on the fence be accurate, no matter the thickness of the blade. However I discovered that on the right-tilt saw, the 90-degree stop on the blade tilt mechanism has flex to it, making it difficult to know when to stop turning the crank. On the left-tilt saw, the 90-degree stop is a solid steel pin, which contacts the cast iron table top. There is no flex there.

Call Your Friends:
The saw weighs 300 lbs. They used a forklift to put it in the back of my van. I managed to ease it out of the van onto my garage floor by myself. (It wasn't dropped, but once I started lifting it out of the van, down was the only direction that box was going.) It wasn't going to move any further in one box. I then opened the box and proceeded to cart the pieces down the stairs to my basement one at a time. I still called my neighbour over to help me cart down the top. That's a lot of big iron!

Some Assembly Required:
Like all stationary power tools these days, they arrive unassembled, and you've got to put them together and tune them up. The instructions are usually minimalist, and these were also. But I expect that most woodworker types are reasonably handy people who can figure it out. I anticipated this, so I did my best to not be in a rush, and to take my time. The fact that I've had another saw for a number of years, and have read several "tune up your saw" magazine articles (and sections of books) over the years was also a help to me.

As The Wheel Turns:
Above, I mentioned the heavy/solid metal wheels. They are nice, they're also large, and pretty close to the top of the saw. I have found that I have to be extra careful how I grip the blade height adjustment wheel, or I will bash my knuckles on the underside of the fence rail. That was unexpected. I am working on always gripping the handle from below -- it's tough to explain, but I'm just trying to be conscious of the need to hold the handle of the wheel palm-up, so that most of my hand is below the handle of the wheel when I crank it. This is one issue that I think would be difficult for General to fix.

First Impressions:
(just remember I'm comparing this to a 25 year old Rockwell/Beaver) The fence alone is almost worth the upgrade. I installed it, and got out my tools to make adjustments... and then put them all away again. I admit I don't have dial guages or super thin feeler guages, but I do have some decent squares and they show the fence as perfectly perpendicular to the table, and parallel to the blade, as installed. It slides nice, it locks down easily, and doesn't flex. Very nice.

The table is flat, and that is the most important thing for it to be.

The motor is quiet and powerful. No I haven't tried the nickel test, is that a gimmick or is it a useful metric? I'm probably going to leave it as a 110 motor, rather than rewiring it for 220. So far I've got it on a shared 15amp circuit, but I will be installing a dedicated 20amp circuit as soon as I'm sure of it's final location.

These are first impressions. In a few months I might add some more long term use thoughts to this document..

Nit Picks:
If you haven't figured it out yet, let me clearly state that I am well pleased with this saw, and especially with the fence. It is a pleasure to use. However there are always areas for improvement, some small some not, and I will list those now.

Dust Hood...
A dust hood is included, but it doesn't quite fit. I would presume that it is just a standard sized item that they picked up somewhere. But it needs to be about 1" wider in both directions to properly cover the bottom opening of the saw.

Fence + Miter Guage brackets...
Also included are some simple brackets to mount on the legs of the saw, to hold the fence and the miter guage when they are not in use. There are no instructions on how to mount them. I know it's pretty obvious how to do so, but they are not even mentioned in the manual. (I told you some of these were nit picks)

110/220...
The motor comes wired for 110, can also be rewired to run at 220. (I won't tell you which is better, I don't know, and there is little agreement on that point in the Internet discussion groups) Once again, there is no explanation of how to do so. Perhaps they are worried about violating electrical safety rules? They could at least point out if the On/Off switch is a dual-pole switch which will work for either wiring method. (I've had a few people report that it is. But you may want to check for yourself)

Speaking of the On/Off switch...
And again, there was no explanation at all of how to mount the power switch to the saw. (Is there a theme here?) Again, it was pretty obvious where to put it. Unfortunately it didn't fit. I had to drill a hole in the switch mounting plate to enlarge the hole used to mount the on/off switch to the fence rail.

(My wife was present for this and was quite shocked that I would have to get out a drill and do something like this to a brand new piece of expensive equipment. She's absolutely right, we shouldn't, but most of us have become used to the fact that large woodworking tools are in some ways "kits" that need to be put together, and may require tweaking.)

Extra Nuts and Bolts...
I'm used to receiving extra nuts and bolts with equipment. And I can understand especially with a saw like this that there would be some extra bits, as there are more than one way to assemble some of the parts. However I am more than a bit annoyed when there are NOT ENOUGH nuts and bolts.

First, the cast iron wings are mounted to the table with six large bolts, except the sixth bolt in my kit was the wrong size. And Second, the motor mounting instructions stress the importance of using spring washers to mount it firmly to the mounting plate, yet there were not enough washers provided. Sigh.

So Much For Guards:
This saw comes with a fairly standard combination blade guard/splitter with anti-kickback pawls. And as I mentioned before, I was keenly interested in improving the safety of my table saw. Unfortunately, the average guard/splitter is just not up to my standards. I had it on the saw for a few weeks, and then took it off.

One of the most useful jigs that I built for my first table saw was a cross cut sled. I used it regularly, and found it to be much more safe and useful than the stock miter guage. But you can't use that jig with the stock guard/splitter. The guard/splitter is bolted into place, which requires a few minutes fiddling with a wrench to mount/unmount. This is not acceptable to me. I require a splitter which either removes quickly or is built such that it doesn't interfere with my sled. (I've never seen one in "the flesh", but from what I've read of them, I think the delta/biesemeyer pop-up splitter is probably the best solution yet for a table saw splitter.)

I ended up making my own splitter out of a metal shelf support. It bolts onto the same mount, and it doesn't need to be removed when I use a cross-cut sled.

For now then, I no longer have a blade guard on my saw. I've read a few web sites where people built their own and hung them from the ceiling. That is an interesting idea, which I might consider pursuing in the future.


Conclusions:
I'm happy with my purchase. It works well, and appears to be a well built piece of equipment. The fence is outstanding. I'm only a hobbyist (with young kids doing their best to eat up my spare time) so it will take me a few months at least to form a more experienced opinion on this saw.

December 2002 Follow-Up: Occasionally, people email me to ask if I have any more thoughts on the saw, now that I've had it for a number of months. First, let me repeat that I'm only a hobbyist. I don't use this every day.

Now, with that said, I'll will make two points. One, if you're at all thinking about a mobile base, I suggest that you get it at the same time as the saw. I bought one six months later. Trying to shift a 300lb saw onto a partially completed mobile base is tricky, to say the least. It'd be much better to buy them at the same time, and assemble the saw base at the same time as the mobile base, before you put the top on the saw! I am very glad that I bought a mobile base. It is rather convenient to be able to keep the saw close to the wall, out of the way most of the time, and then swing it out into the middle of the room when I need to handle a larger piece of wood.

Second, the fence rules supreme. A flat table, a perpendicular and parallel blade, and the fence are the key things in a good saw. I can't imagine life without this fence. My days of fiddling, measuring, fiddling, locking, measuring, unlocking, shifting, locking again, and measuring one more time... are gone.

So in summary, whatever saw you get, make sure it has a good fence!

 

Thanks for reading!