Graphical Construction Glossary >> Tools. >> Power Tools >> Radial Arm Saw

Radial Arm Saw
A woodworking workshop machine for cross cutting timber. Can make angled cuts (sometimes compound cuts) and it takes a range of cutters in addition the saw blades. Sometimes called a docking saw.(As in docking to length).

A sketch of a radial arm saw
A small sketch of a radial arm machine.
  • The main support pillar has a section or a rack and pinion that allows the height of the arm and the saw that hangs off it to be
  • The arm itself swings on the pillar, so it radiates from the pillar at any angle.
  • The motor and the body of the saw slide in and out on the arm making straight cuts.
  • In the sketch here the body of the saw can swing on a vertical axis. This swing is used mainly when the saw is swung parallel to the fence and the saw can then be used like a small rip saw.
  • The body of the saw can also be swung on a horizontal axis, so that compound cuts can be made.

I tend to think that these saws are not as common as they used to be. Time was when every joinery shop had at least one. I know that at one time we had three. The rise of the sliding table saw and the construction of kitchen cupboards etc. out of flat MDF sheets has made them somewhat redundant in many shops.

However they are not entirely relegated to history, and some manufactures are still making them.

The reason for the continued use of these saws can be stated in one word. VERSATILITY.

Like the shaper (spindle moulder) they can do so many things.

  • After cyclone Tracy in 1974 I cut the hardwood timber frames for 300 new three bedroom houses with a saw similar to the one above except that it did not have the compound feature. (I later bought an old Robinson that looked just like the sketch but 99% of it's work did not use the compound swivel.
  • Using maybe 25ft benches either side with a series of home made hinged stops screwed to the back fence, the radial arm saw cut to length mainly 3"x2" but a lot of 5" and 6" x 3" Kapur, a really resinous and gritty Malaysian hardwood.
  • Top and bottom plates, studs at 18" centres, noggins, window and door openings. Thousands of them.
  • Changing over to a dado head I made halving joints and then 1/2" check outs at every stud location.

Never fall into the idea that machines like this cost money. They don't! They make money

The Nolex saw that I used for that job paid for itself in the first couple of weeks, the use of it for the next few years was all cream.

In addition to using it as a docking saw and for trenching framing; it saw use for making hundreds tenons. When turned sideways parallel to the fence it did a few ripping jobs when the bench saw was busy. We used to make timber door and window frames and the dado head again was invaluable.
I've made a few frames since I got rid of all my workshop gear and believe me it is an absolute pain to have to use a router when you know how easy it can be with the right tool for the job.

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Adam Smith 1723-1790

"When we build, let us think that we build for ever."John Ruskin 1819-1900

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