When a Sawstop Can’t Save You

My brother is an idiot.

It happened on Saturday. He and his oldest son were in the garage ripping thin strips of wood as spacers for the log they just milled (blog post forthcoming). The wood he was ripping was a bit damp, after being left in the rain a few days before. It was scrap wood, after all. No need to cut the finest.

First mistake.

Dan (my brother) was in Dad’s shop, using Dad’s tablesaw–a Sawstop. The only tablesaw on the market that has the capacity to detect flesh. Within milliseconds of an electrical interruption, a brake cartridge is launched at rocket speeds into the blade–immediately retracting the blade beneath the tablesaw. Countless people have told stories about how the sawstop saved a hand, or a thumb, or a finger.

Not Dan.

You see, Dan knew the wood was wet. The moist fibers would cause a misfire in the Sawstop. So what did Dan do?

He turned off the safety feature.

Second mistake.

So Dan begins his first cut by lining up the workpiece next to the blade. He lowered the blade so the top of the teeth reached above the wood only an eight of an inch or so. He paused. You see, the blade is quite dull and though it’s safer to leave just a fraction of an inch above the workpiece, it also made the saw work harder to slice through the wood. So Dan paused, thought for a moment. Yes, it would be dangerous. Yes that danger was compounded by the fact that the safety feature of the Sawstop had been overridden.

But Dan would be careful, of course.

So he raised the blade, leaving nearly an inch of teeth exposed above the workpiece.

Third mistake.

You see, after working with a Sawstop for several years, it’s easy to become complacent–to rely on such an amazing technology to do the thinking for you. And yet Dan prided himself on his lack of carelessness. He was even using a pair of pushsticks to guide the workpiece past the blade.

But then something unusual happened. Somehow, internal tensions within the wood were released with his last fateful cut. The workpiece was pinched between the riving knife and the fence. It was stuck. So Dan did as he’d done countless times before. He reached with his left hand across the spinning blade to free the workpiece.

But this time was different.

This time, the blade was higher by nearly an inch than it typically was.

This time, the safety feature had been removed.

This time, Dan would lose a thumb.


A sharp pain. Everything froze. A sickening dread filled his stomach.

Oh no, he thought. Oh God no. 

An involuntary shout escaped his mouth. He grabbed his thumb.

“No,” he said aloud. “No, no, no, no!”

What was the damage? Something minor, please. Something minor.

Terrified to look, he nonetheless pulled his right hand away. The tip hung loosely, dangling independent of the rest of the thumb.

Faintness set in. A sudden wooziness, coupled with the horror of what he just saw.

A dangling thumb.

“Dad!” his oldest cried.

Yes, his son was there. He saw it all. Saw the ghost-white tone of his dad’s face.

The horror on his son’s face kindled a feigned serenity.

“Go get your mom, son. I believe I need to go to the hospital.”

Minutes later, Dan lay on the living room floor, clutching his thumb. He fought the overwhelming sense to pass out. His son, the only witness, wailed.

“It’s my fault Dad. I should have been watching.”

“No son. It’s all my fault. It’s all me. You did nothing wrong.”

And it was his fault. All his fault. The wet wood. The too-high blade. Overriding the safety feature. Reaching across the blade.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Dan hated himself. He had overridden the safety feature. He’d had the blade too high.

Stupid stupid stupid.

And now it had cost him his thumb.

Over and over, he replayed that moment of realization–that sickening thunk, that sharp pain, the sight of his mangled thumb.

If only he hadn’t disabled the safety feature.

If only he hadn’t raised the blade so high.

If only he hadn’t reached across a spinning blade.

If only…

Alas, it’s too late for Dan. That $2,000 safety feature was useless that evening. And perhaps the tip of his thumb will be as well.

As of now, the tip was sewn back on in the ER. There’s about an eight of an inch of bone missing from his thumb. With luck, the bone will grow back. Tomorrow we will know more, after speaking with a hand specialist.

when a sawstop fails

After that event, Mom barred all projects for a two-week period. I expected Dad to protest, but I think we were all a bit shaken up by this. Fortunately, I have some old drafts I haven’t gotten around to that I should be able to post, so I’m hoping I won’t go silent.

In the mean time, please remember that technology is no substitute for common sense. You can’t outsource safety. It seems we humans are dumb enough to find ways to mangle our appendages, even with the most sophisticated technologies.

So don’t be dumb.

Go out there–build something, make something, be more self-sufficient, stick it to the crony capitalists (as Dad would say). But do so safely.

Because, in the end, nobody’s self-sufficient when they’re at the mercy of the ER.


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