Give This Saw a Hand

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

Give This Saw a Hand

A SawStop cabinet saw. Photo courtesy of SawStop.

On more than one occasion, Stephen Gass has intentionally—and somewhat nervously—placed one of his fingers in the path of the whirring, razor-sharp teeth of his cabinet saw. With any conventional saw, Gass would have been maimed, yet in each case he needed nothing more than a Band-Aid to cover the resulting “nick.”

All ten of Gass’ fingers are still intact thanks to his own invention—SawStop—a revolutionary safety device that detects contact with flesh, then uses a heavy-duty spring to push an aluminum block into the blade, bringing the saw to a shuddering stop in milliseconds. With the technology now almost a decade old, one might think power tool manufacturers would have implemented it across-the-board, but to date it remains exclusive to SawStop brand saws, in spite of its obvious utility.

A lifelong woodworker and a patent attorney with a doctorate in physics, Gass had the perfect storm of expertise necessary to invent SawStop and bring it to market. As Gass remembers it, he was working in his woodshop one day when he glanced over at his table saw and paused to consider whether it would be technically possible to stop the 3,500 rpm blade before it caused serious injury. Inspired, he immediately got to work, and within a month had developed a working prototype—a simple design which “utilized components you could buy at Radio Shack,” he offers.

Convinced of the invention’s commercial potential, Gass and four fellow patent attorneys from his law firm set out to patent-protect the technology—the most difficult, labor intensive and mission critical part of the endeavor. Without their combined legal expertise and do-it-yourself entrepreneurial spirit it’s doubtful SawStop would have ever reached the marketplace. “Very early on we did the equivalent of a million dollars worth of patent work,” says Gass, referring to himself and quartet of co-founders. “If we had to go out and hire someone, it would have been hugely and prohibitively expensive,” he concludes.

Yet it was imperative for Tualatin, Oregon-based SawStop LLC to develop a “very thorough patent portfolio,” because without it no investor would consider backing the company. “Who wants to give you money only to have the power tool manufacturers put you out of business?” asks Gass rhetorically, before noting that three of his co-founders—as well as his legal secretary—ultimately left the law firm to work for SawStop full time. “One of the original four ended up staying in patent law, but the rest of us have been doing this for the last eight years,” he says proudly.

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.”

With this in mind, in 2003 SawStop petitioned the CPSC to mandate “performance standards” for table saws; that is, every saw should have some sort of system to protect the user (whether it be SawStop or some other safety device) because a saw “not so equipped poses an increased risk of severe injuries including lacerations and amputations.” Despite an initially favorable recommendation from two of three commissioners, the potential implementation of any performance standard is currently on hold, pending the appointment of a new commissioner by President-elect Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, competitors continue to invoke numerous “make-weight arguments” (to borrow a bit of legal jargon used by Gass) about why a technology like SawStop shouldn’t be implemented. “My personal favorite is: If we make saws safer it will make them more dangerous,” he quips, loosely referring to the concepts of risk compensation and offset hypothesis, which suggest that users may act less safe in the wake of safety improvements. In the case of automobiles, for instance, studies have demonstrated that people drive more aggressively if their car has antilock brakes, airbags and other safety improvements. “It may be that you don’t get 100 percent of the benefit of making a product safer because some people take additional risks, but to say that the majority of the benefit would be offset by changes in behavior is ludicrous,” he counters.

The irony is that it’s easy to draw an analogy between the automotive industry before airbags and the power tool industry today. “The auto industry didn’t see anything to gain in terms of bottom line by adding a safety feature like airbags,” begins Gass. In much the same way, tool manufacturers like Black & Decker don’t have an incentive to re-design products and implement safety features because they don’t pay the cost of power saw injuries (which are borne by insurance companies and society as a whole). “But that’s a short-sighted view because in practice tool manufacturers could make more money. Auto makers have seen that airbags—and now side-impact airbags—do sell cars,” he concludes.

Certainly, SawStop’s success in the marketplace—not to mention a slew of product awards and the approval of Consumer Reports (“the device worked as promised on chicken thighs and hot dogs we used to simulate real mishaps”)—suggests that users do value the technology. “We’ve gone from nothing—from a dead stop—to being the leading cabinet saw supplier in the country,” indicates Gass, before going on to explain that SawStop recently introduced a contractor’s table saw (a misnomer since it’s aimed at hobbyists), and plans to bring out another less expensive cabinet-style saw in the second quarter of 2009. “We’re also looking at hand-held circular saws and miter saws because the technology is applicable to almost any kind of woodworking equipment,” he advises.

For serious hobbyists and professional woodworkers, an expanded product line probably can’t come soon enough. Dier sums up his sentiment as follows: “There’s a certain peace of mind knowing you’re using a saw that can save your fingers.”