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DeWalt’s New Saw: The Inside Track!

Cregg Sweeney takes DeWalt’s new DWS520 for a spin.

www.dewalt.com :: List price $499

About 18 months ago I bought the Festool TS 55 track saw. I’ll admit that I was skeptical about all the buzz this tool was getting, but very interested to see how this saw performed. After doing everything from accurately ripping and crosscutting full sheets of plywood, to trimming new doors to fit old openings, to mitering maple butcher block countertops, ripping 45° bevels on cabinet face frames and end panels, and ripping long tapered extension jams, I have to say this saw met and exceeded my expectations.

(Note: Click any image to see a larger version. Hit “back” button to return to article.)

A saw and guide rail system may not replace your table saw, and it certainly won’t replace your regular circular saw for free-hand cuts, but for tricky demanding work, such as remodeling cabinets, cutting compound angles, or taking just this much off a sheet of plywood, nothing beats a guide rail system. In fact, there are a lot of times when I leave my table saw at home and just bring my saw and guide rail system, especially on jobs where I’m working in tight quarters, or when dust is a huge problem.

Given my experience with the Festool saw, the guys at TIC asked me to review DeWalt’s new version of the track saw, the DWS520 (see photo, above left). The saw came with two lengths of track, one 59 in. and the other 46-in. (different lengths of track, including a 102-in. version come with different kits, and are also available separately from DeWalt), a connecting bar, two track clamps, a T-square and an angle cutting attachment.

Out of the box

After opening up all the boxes and checking out all the parts, it was time to assemble the track sections. A connecting rail with four set screws (two for each piece of track) joins the sections together (see photo, right). The rail is positioned with its length split between the tracks, and as the set screws tighten, chamfered edges on the rail align with chamfered edges on the track.

I thought this set up might be a little flimsy with only one connecting rail, but the tracks aligned well. Now, I have to say that even with the connecting rail tightened securely, I noticed some slight play in the tracks along their length, but this very small movement did not cause any issues with the cuts I made. By the way, I noticed this same movement with the Festool tracks.

DeWalt provides a step-by-step photographic guide with the saw, which describes in clear detail how to place the saw on the track and adjust it so there is no side-to-side play. The saw has two adjustable cams, one at the front of the saw shoe and another at the rear. Two adjusters (thumb screws) rotate the cams. The idea here is to remove side-to-side play of the saw on the track, yet still have the saw move freely down the track.

The next step in the set up process was to place the track on some scrap material and cut through the anti-splinter strip. The zero-clearance cutting ability of this system depends on the anti-splinter strip, so it’s important to make the first cut through this material correctly.

Unfortunately, even though DeWalt provided very clear instructions for making this cut, in my haste I didn’t set the depth of the cut to 3/16 in., which is required so that the riving knife doesn’t spoil the start of the cut. It’s a good thing DeWalt’s track is usable from both sides (a nice feature that I discuss later), so I had another opportunity to get it right. By the way, the anti-splinter strip, friction strips and guild strips on top of the DeWalt track are all replaceable, just like the Festool.

Riving Knife, “straight plunge” and kick back

Like the Festool, the DeWalt saw has a spring-loaded riving knife that drops down into the cut once there’s clearance for it. To help prevent kickback, this knife needs to be thicker than the body of the blade but narrower than the teeth, and has to be aligned perfectly with the blade. The instructions included an adjustment procedure, but it wasn’t necessary with the saw I had.

Probably the only complaint I’ve heard about the Festool track saw is the fact that kickback can be a problem. These plunge cutting track saws can climb out of the cut for a number of reasons, nearly all of which can be remedied. On one of my first cuts with the Festool saw, the tool kicked back and gouged a nice saw kerf in the aluminum track. And I know I’m not the only one who had done that!

One of the biggest things to note with this or any plunge saw is that they rely on a spring to lower the motor and blade into and out of the cut smoothly. Plunging usually is not a problem if you have good control of the saw, but often you find yourself reaching as you finish a cut, which is where that strong spring can lift the blade out of the cut and cause problems. Along with supporting the material on both sides near the cut, it is important to maintain control with your weight over the saw as it travels through the cut, which means walking the saw through the cut while keeping both the cord and dust collection hose from catching on the track (see photo, right).

Another technique that helps prevents initial kickback when making a plunge cut, is letting the saw motor’s rpms get up to speed before starting the plunge. Never drop the blade into the work until the motor is turning at maximum speed.

When designing their track saw, DeWalt took steps to help prevent kickback. One added feature is the anti-kickback knob located on the rear of the saw’s shoe. Unlocking this knob releases a pin that prevents the saw from moving backward on the track (see photo, left). I didn’t intentionally try to create kickback with this feature engaged, but it did stop the saw from moving backward on the track. We tried to force the saw backwards with the pin engaged and couldn’t budge it.

Another thoughtful feature and major difference from the Festool saw is the way that the DeWalt saw plunges into the work. The Festool saw pivots from a hinge point at the rear of the shoe, which momentarily increases the hook angle on the saw teeth, making the blade grab more aggressively at the start of a cut. The DeWalt saw is also hinged at the rear of the shoe, but the motor and blade are held off the base of the saw by two arms that allow the motor to stay parallel to the base of the saw as it is plunges down. This plunging motion took a little getting used to, but it provides good control at the start of the cut.

Making sawdust

After the quick set up, I was ready to make some cuts. I had some cabinets to build for a current project, so I started by ripping several full sheets of pre-finished maple plywood to width.

The saw cut through the plywood fine, but it made a loud vibrating noise that I first thought was the blade wobbling. I expected to see a wavy cut, but was surprised to find that the cut was pretty clean. I heard this vibration noise on every cut. It lessened a little bit when I replaced the 48-tooth blade (that came with the saw) with a 28-tooth blade (DeWalt has never been known for their blades!).

Ripping the plywood stock really showed off the biggest advantage of the DeWalt saw.

After a cutting along one edge,
I simply slid the track down and aligned the splinter strip on the opposite side of the track with my next set of marks.
Then I was able to flip the saw in the opposite direction and cut using the other side of the track.

This maneuver with the Festool involves either flipping the track, which can be a pain especially in tight spaces, or adding the width of the saw blade to the measurement, which is never an exact science.

Plastic pointer

After a few straight rips with the blade at 90°, I ripped a length of scrap plywood at a 45° bevel (see photo, left). The saw locks at the desired angle at both the front and the back of the shoe, with a degree scale that goes from 0° to 47°. This scale was tough to read accurately because of the chunky plastic pointer. The vibration noise was even louder while beveling, but again it didn’t affect the cut.

The edges left by both the straight cuts and the miters were pretty good in the pre-finished maple. I also made some straight rips and beveled rips in 5/4 poplar, which came out fine as well. As a final test, I crosscut a 1 3/4-in. Douglas-fir door to see how the saw handled thicker stock that was prone to splintering. The results were very good even at the cross grain of the stiles.

I recommend connecting this saw to a dust collector, preferably one that is tool activated, unless you want piles of sawdust filling up your pockets. The dust port on the tool in the rear of the saw swivels 360°, so the hose can be held off to either side as you cut. Hooking up to a vacuum easily took care of 90% of the sawdust.

There were a few minor things about the tool that I thought could have been better, the biggest of which was the vibration noise during cutting. Again it was more of an annoyance than anything, and didn’t seem to affect the quality of the cuts. I can certainly think of plenty of tools I own that are louder, but after twenty years of cutting you get sensitive to these things.

Another issue was the length of the tracks when ripping full 4 x 8 sheet stock. DeWalt recommends resting the full base of the saw in the track before beginning the cut, and a few more inches of track would have made this part a bit easier. The same is true for running the saw past the end of the sheet comfortably when finishing the cut at the other end of the track. The combined length of 105 in. just wasn’t enough to do both ends properly.

I also thought that the blade change lock knob and spindle lock could have been a little easier to operate. The T-square and miter gauge accessories didn’t seem very useful. I tried the T-square, which slides into the track after the clamp and checked the set up with a framing square. It was off without any apparent way to adjust it. The miter gauge that attaches to the track in the same manner as the T-square, has a scale that is hard to read because of its position under the track. And the thick pointer on the gauge seemed as if it wouldn’t be accurate enough to dial in a specific angle. If I had to make a precise angled cut across a piece of wide stock, I would probably use a Bosch miter finder to set the angle and then clamp the track. By the way, the track clamps, which are modified Quick-Grip style clamps that slip into the track, work very well (see photo, right).

To sum it up, I think DeWalt came up with a saw and track that works very well. I especially like the fact that you can cut from both sides of the track and the “straight plunge” feature is a nice safety benefit that reduces kickback. If I was back in the market for a track saw, I’d definitely give this one strong consideration.

By Cregg Sweeney, owner of Cregg Sweeney Artisan Builders, www.creggsweeney.com, in Orleans, MA.

Read this article in its original format (with more images) at TiC Issue 2!

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