Give This Saw a Hand

Cutting-edge technology saves fingers (and other indispensable body parts).

Of course, early on it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that SawStop would work (much less succeed in the marketplace), and owing to the nature of the device, extensive product testing was out of the question. “You can’t get 500 people to shove their hand in a spinning blade to see if it works every time,” notes Gass, stating the obvious.

Perhaps this explains why established saw manufacturers were hesitant to adopt the initially-unproven technology, prompting SawStop to begin developing its own line of branded products. In 2004 the company released its first model—a thirty-seven hundred-dollar cabinet saw intended primarily for professional contractors and well-to-do individuals—and inevitably, users soon began having accidents, as they would with any power saw.

Keith Dier, 46, project manager for Network Construction and Installation Inc.—a general contractor and custom cabinet installer in Beaver Creek, Oregon—is one of those individuals. An experienced woodworker who has operated power saws since he began helping out in his grandfather’s cabinet shop as a young boy, Dier was working in his boss’ garage when the incident occurred. “I was splitting a piece of wood, got distracted by a car in the driveway and got my finger in the blade,” he recalls. It was his first time using a SawStop saw, and the resulting injury (or lack thereof) made Dier a believer. “All I got was a little nick,” he begins. “If it hadn’t been for SawStop, the outcome would have been a heckuva lot worse.”

Naturally, Dier’s boss wasn’t happy about the mishap, but was thrilled that SawStop prevented a bloody, expensive-to-treat wound. And all that was necessary to get the saw working again was a new blade ($60) and a replacement brake cartridge, which SawStop provides free in exchange for the spent cartridge and a filled-out-form describing the circumstances of an accident. According to Gass, the downloadable data contained on each cartridge is precious. “It’s a little like a black box, as we can see electrically what happened, and that helps us to further refine the algorithms,” he says.

Over the years, incidents like Dier’s have proved that SawStop works reliably, yet all other manufacturers have thus far resisted licensing the technology. Gass can recite a laundry list of reasons why his competitors claim it can’t or shouldn’t be utilized on all saws, the most vociferously offered argument being that it would give SawStop a monopoly.

“It’s an argument that essentially says it’s unfair if SawStop gets some kind of a boon from this. But to me it’s neither here nor there as to whether it should be implemented from a societal standpoint,” he stresses. Gass points out that according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) there are upwards of 40,000 table saw injuries a year that require medical attention, accidents that cost society $2 billion in injury-related costs. With gross annual sales of table saws in the $200-$300 million range, “these products are doing something like ten times their purchase price in economic harm every year,” he begins. “The injuries cost far more than it would cost to prevent them. If [manufacturers] spent a little extra and put our technology—or something like it—on their saws, you would get at least ten times the payback to society.”

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