Making A Silk Purse Out Of A Sow's Ear

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Before we get too far into this, let me answer the question posed in the title: You Can't! Get over it. Now let's begin.

There is probably nothing so easy to come by cheaply as a Craftsman 10" table saw; vintage anywhere from 1950 until last week. It's almost, “if you can't get one of these for $100, you might as well turn in your bargain hunter's badge.” There have been thousands of them sold; it seems like there must be one in every garage or basement in America. On most of the woodworking or tool forums in the internet you will find a lot of Craftsman bashing—some of it richly deserved. But if you are willing to accept some compromises, you can turn an inexpensive product of American mass marketing into a useful tool.

Quite often the question arises from the new owner of a Craftsman Table Saw, “what can I do to make this thing perform better?” A fence is probably the first upgrade to hit the wallet. Almost everyone has heard of the belts & pulleys improvement, and even PALS are well known now. So what else is there? Well, I did it all. My Sears saw is a vintage 1950s version (download the manual), but I don't think the design changed much over the years, just some cheapening of some components to maintain a price point. Here is a list of the major tasks to make your saw a useful tool:

I ranked these in order of importance, with pulleys and belt being a tie. Following is a short discussion of each.

Before you take any other steps, check the arbor. There shouldn't be any slop in it, either axial (in the axis of the arbor) or lateral (sideways). Fortunately, bearings in this saw are common and easily replaced. However, not too many of these saws were abused to the point of needing bearing replacement. Also, check the flange for true and check for runout. With the price of Chinese dial indicators in the $20 range, there is no excuse for not having one, so when you get yours, measure both parameters with it. Again, runout shouldn't be a problem, but the flange might need some work. If you have to ask what a flange is, you had best take it to a machine shop. People that know what a flange is might be able to true it up on the machine with local tools.

The miter slot alignment is the most important part of the process. If you don't get this done well, you might as well not bother with the rest. There are four or six bolts that hold the trunnion assembly to the table. You need to loosen all of them to make the adjustment, but leave them tight enough to partially collapse a split type lock washer (the lock washers are usually star type), in other words, tight enough to keep the table snug against casual bumps, but loose enough to be able to move if persuaded. If you have a good collection of socket wrenches you will be happy you made the investment, as things like universal sockets, 18" extensions, and floppy head ratchets can make getting to some of the trunnion bolts a lot easier.

Crank the blade as high as it will go. Mark a tooth on your blade with pencil or magic marker. With the marked tooth toward the front of the opening in the table, measure the distance from the tooth to the miter slot. Then rotate the blade so that the marked tooth is toward the back of the table opening, and measure the distance from the tooth to the miter slot.

Equal is perfect. Since you are unlikely to get that in the first try, loosen the trunnion bolts very slightly and using a block of wood as a punch take a tap on the trunnion assembly with a mallet. Snug up the bolts and measure again. Repeat this procedure until you get it as close as possible. You probably won't be able to get closer than about .005", which is good enough.

I confess I haven't done the PALS conversion yet, although I did purchase the kit. For those that don't know, PALS is a pair of studs that replace the rear trunnion bolts, teamed with an aluminum angle bracket with allen screws. The whole assembly is designed to add some precision to the process of aligning the saw blade with the miter slot. A brief and basically uninformative description and pricing from Woodcraft is available at their web site.

The fence that comes with almost any Sears saw from the 50s (and maybe earlier) until just before they dumped Emerson (their major floor tool supplier for > 30 years) is, well, inadequate. Replacement fences run the gamut from the Sears XR2424, available from Sears for about $150 and the same as the one on the Ridgid saws, to the Accufence, at about $200, to the Vega, about $210, to the Biesemeyer, about $250 for the short one. Of course if you want the wider rip capacity, you'll pay more. I'll add some philosophy to the discussion as to which fence below.

Although you can purchase a kit with both the pulleys and the link belt, I had the pulleys long before I became aware of the belt, so I bought the belt separately. Figure $25 for the belt or $50 for the whole kit. There are several suppliers, including Woodworker's Supply of NM-WY-NC, Woodcraft, Rockler, McMaster-Carr, and Grainger.

Make yourself a zero-clearance throat plate. It's pretty easy to do; clickhereto go to the instructions.

I was fortunate that the crank handles on my 50s saw were still metal and not too bad, but they are not as nice as the accessory ones available now. I may upgrade, but when you read my philosophy discussion you will understand why I might not. They are definitely worth considering if you have some of the newer crappy cranks.

Okay, indulge me on this one. I believe that even if you can't be good, you can at least look good. My saw came with a silly little toggle switch; I mean one of those like you'd put on your radio if you were building a radio. Not a real shop switch with large, clear “On/Off” markings or red and green buttons. It was mounted on the chintzy stand it came on, which I'm not sure is even a Sears stand. It was inconvenient and goofy. After years of trying to find a nifty switch, my friend Jim Delaney clued me into one from Jet, which I purchased for about $11, but I don't believe they offer it anymore at anywhere near that price.

text The latest Grizzly catalog, however revealsthis version(left) for around $13, which is perfect. And for the same price, you can get what appears to be the same switch with a largeStoppaddle (right). If I were doing it again, that's the one I'd get.


Wow! After installing the Jet switch, my saw now had the same type switch as my Delta tools (bandsaw, drill press, and jointer), and as ditzy as it sounds, I now felt like I was powering up my longed for Unisaw or PM66 every time I lit up the Sears. (Note: I was recently reminded that the screw spacing on the Jet switch is not standard duplex outlet spacing. I drilled and tapped a new hole in my outlet box. Another solution is to order the companion box from Jet. I don't know the model # or price.)

text This is a closeup of the installation. The switch is mounted in a 2x4 handy box, and a ¾" pipe nipple is attached to the top of the box with two standard electrical box nuts. The top of the nipple is screwed into a standard pipe flange, and two flat head machine screws secure it to the saw table by way of threaded holes I drilled and tapped into the cast iron.

The stuff you can see at the top of the upper picture is the XR2424 fence handle. Note on the left of that picture, you can see much of the Husky combination wrench I use for blade changes. I took my friend Dave Arbuckle's advice and relegated the object originally supplied with the saw to the role of a pattern and took it with me to the borg to get the right size in order to fit the saw with a proper wrench. Thanks, Dave.

Now, philosophy time. I have long dreamed of a Unisaw or Powermatic 66 for my shop. I've been able to afford one for a long time. In fact, when I move and get my next shop started, that's one of the first new purchases I plan to make. After all, why pay to move it twice? The hard reality is I don't have room for them in my current shop. So getting and keeping this old Sears has been a fair compromise for me. But as I have often said, no one will mistake it for a Delta or PM saw.

As I have tuned and accessorized, I have even considered not selling it, but using it for accessory work in the new shop; dedicated setups or molding. I can even transport it to a work site (I may be helping my daughter with some home renovation in the next couple of years), since it will run on 120V, even though I've been running it on 240V since I got it. The point is, with a few improvements and a couple of minor convenience features (new on/off switch), this saw is an eminently usable tool in my shop.

Now, if your future includes a $1000 or more expenditure on a serious saw, then beware of trying to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. It's like putting a Porsche engine in a Volkswagen—when you're done, all you have is a fast Volkswagen. Each of those dollars I put into the saw I had to weigh against the price I paid for it (i.e. the practicality of buying a $300 fence for an $85 saw), and when you tot up $20 for PALS, $50 for pulley and belt, $200 for fence, $50 for cranks, etc., then you have to ask yourself, “what do I have?” The answer is “a fast Volkswagen,” and if that's okay for you, fine. But if you think you're going to turn a $300 tool into a $1300 tool by throwing money at it, stop now, before it's too late.

If you're going to keep it, or if it's what you need to use for the time being, then it's probably worthwhile. I'm actually getting real pleasure out of using my saw now (I opted for the XR2424 fence—well worth looking at). But I sure did a lot of Craftsman cursing for a time. Just keep focused on what you're getting for what you're spending and find your plateau of practicality.

Full disclosure: I sold my Craftsman saw in 2006 after having purchased a Unisaw in 2005. Nothing in the preceding material is obsolete, however. The sentiments and the advice remain the same. I just don't have to compromise any more.

Last updated: 23 August 2010

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