Are electronics the future of carpentry?
In the early spring, I was up in Oregon straightening out my fly line—sometimes that takes a week or more, if you know what I mean. While I was up there, Brandon Vaughn from SawGear invited me to his office for a peek at their new automatic length measuring tool.
I’d heard about the SawGear, and played with it a little at the JLC Live show in Providence last March. Mike Sloggatt had dragged me over to the saw he was using, with my heels smoking. I kept saying: “Who needs a computer for measuring at a miter saw? All you need is a tape and a #2 1/2 pencil.”
But Mike was serious and convincing: “You have got to see this. It’s the future. You know how younger guys are more and more into computers? And the guys we’re getting on the jobs know less and less about carpentry? This thing’s the answer.”
I spent the better part of a day with Brandon, getting a private tutorial on how the tool was developed. I met some of the engineers and received one-on-one training. Ever the skeptic, my last words were: “Send me one and let me work with it. I’ll let you know what I think.” Brandon showed me how it cut casing, but I wanted to get it in my shop, make a cut list for baseboard and crown, and really see if it worked.
Here’s what I learned in my shop.
Setting up the SawGear
Setup on my saw stand was a snap. In fact, it took a lot longer to unpack the new tool than to set it up. All I did was screw the two mounting brackets down to my wooden extension wing.
The fence snaps into the brackets.
|Two knobs lock it down.|
|A long spindle on the bottom of the Controller—the brains of the tool—mounts to a matching gear in the top of the fence.|
The Controller is locked to the fence with two pivoting cam locks. Rotate the levers parallel with the fence to engage the locks in the channel, then rotate the levers perpendicular to the fence and lock down the cams (below). It’s that easy to set up the Controller.
Once plugged in, you simply push the on-off button and the screen lights up with questions, like “Which side of the saw is your fence on?” You can use the SawGear on either side. After picking your language and units (metric or inch), the Controller prompts you to push the START button.
Honestly, when the flip stop suddenly came alive and hummed out to the end of the fence, I was thrilled. That’s the first step when you start up the saw—it measures the length of your fence and enters that measurement in the Controller. You’re asked to confirm the length, which is also included by the manufacturer on a tag at the back of the fence.
Calibrating the Controller
There’s only one more step to go: calibrating the saw so it knows the distance from the stop to the blade. And that’s easy. Just make a cut and measure it precisely. Then press the CALIBRATION button. I like to call it the Distance button, maybe because there’s a D on it? (see photo, left) Enter the length of the piece you cut, then press the START button. Now the SawGear is ready to cut—at least ready to cut any butt-cuts.
The more precise you are about measuring and entering the distance to the blade, the more precise the SawGear will be. I never learned to count thirty-seconds—I just called them a “hair” strong or a “hair” weak. And sixty-forths? Right.
One easy way to set the saw precisely is by using the INCREMENT button. Here’s how I do it:
Make a mark at an easily identifiable measurement—like 12 in.
Enter 12 in. into the SawGear and press START.
Put the piece of wood against the fence, and then push the INCREMENT button until the saw blade is lined up perfectly with the measurement mark.
For some carpenters, it might be easier to make a small kerf and align the blade with the kerf by pressing the INCREMENT button. On my Kapex, I calibrate the distance to the laser, which is adjusted to cut right in the center of my pencil lines.
Cutting casing is like cutting cake
Cutting casing with the SawGear is different than the technique most carpenters use. Since the SawGear is really a computer-controlled flip stop fence, instead of measuring to the short point, you have to measure to the long point. But you don’t have to do the math. The SawGear does that for you.
Start by pressing the WIDTH button, then enter the width of the molding (see photo, right). Once again, the precision of the tool is dependent upon the precision with which you measure the molding. Enter the width of the molding then press the START button.
To use the SawGear while cutting casing legs, either the long point of the casing will be against the flip stop, or the butt end of the casing will be against the flip stop. Be sure to press the correct X or Z button prior to pressing the START button, so that the stop will be positioned in the right location.
Cutting head casing is just as easy. Simply cut a miter on one end, then press the Y button and enter the short point length (see photo, left). The SawGear will calculate the length of both miters and set the stop accordingly.
One word of advice: be sure to check the calibration of the saw before you start making repetitive cuts! Right—measure twice. If the length of a miter cut isn’t precise, it’s easy to re-calibrate the saw for each of the X, Y, and Z angles.
Start by pressing the CALIBRATE button, then choose the X, Y, or Z buttons (whichever angle you’re working on). Make a cut, measure it precisely, and then press the START button to enter the length of the cut in the Controller. Now you’ve calibrated the Controller precisely for that angle/cut.
Laser etched digital precision
I couldn’t help but ask how the thing worked. I was surprised by the answer, even more surprised at how computers and technology have changed the way we work and the way we will work in the future.
The motor on the SawGear is etched with 3,000 laser marks every inch. An encoder reads those marks as the motor turns, and the flip stop races along the fence. That’s how the Controller always knows precisely where the stop is located.
Cutting Baseboard and Crown
Cutting baseboard and crown using the SawGear is much different than cutting casing. For one thing, it’s easier—you only have to push an angle button when you’re cutting with the long point of an outside corner against the fence.
But cutting baseboard and crown molding also reveals a minor hiccup with the SawGear.
Ironically, the kink in this system isn’t related exclusively to the SawGear, but also involves the saw you use. I’ll get to that below. First, I’ll explain how to cut baseboard and crown using the SawGear.
Most miter saws are designed to pivot around a single point, and that point is flush with the line of the miter saw fence.
Therefore, when measuring for cuts on the left-hand end of material that is standing up (cutting baseboard and crown in-position), or when cutting bevels in material that is lying down flat (cutting baseboard on-the-flat), you don’t have to enter any angle information—you don’t have to press the X,Y, or Z buttons—if the right-hand end is a butt cut or an inside corner. If the right-hand end isn’t an outside corner, all cuts on the left-hand end of the molding are measured as if they’re butt cuts.
Let me say that again: When using the SawGear, you push an angle button only when there is an outside corner on the RIGHT end. Here’s why:
For pieces that have an inside corner on the right end, you measure to the long point of the miter, which is the same as measuring for a butt cut.
But for pieces that have an outside corner on the right end, you measure to the short point of the miter, so the Controller must be programmed to add the thickness of the molding.
Therefore, when cutting pieces that have an outside corner on the right end, you have to press the Z button and then enter the measurement before cutting the left hand end. Of course, before you do that, you must first calibrate the SawGear for the molding you’re cutting: Press the WIDTH button then enter the thickness of the baseboard.
If you’re cutting crown molding, press the WIDTH button and then enter the projection of the crown molding.
You might have already guessed that the functionality of the SawGear is dependent on the miter saw’s engineering: If the saw isn’t designed to cut at a single pivot point—and not all saws are!—then cutting crown and baseboard with the SawGear isn’t as simple. Here are a few examples.
I made test cuts on my Kapex in the miter position first. The measurement for the inside corner and butt cut was dead on, but the measurement for the outside corner was off by 1/16 in. After adjusting the saw fence and moving it back just a hair, the measurements were within 1/32 in. (see photo, left). When I tested the bevel cuts, all the measurements where within 1/32 in.
I tested my Milwaukee chop saw, too (model #6950-20). Cutting miters, the measurements were dead on, but cutting bevels, the butt cut measured 8 3/16 in., the inside corner measured 8 in., and the outside corner measured 8 1/4 in. Definitely not within an acceptable tolerance range (see photo, right).
I also tested my old DeWalt 706. The miter cuts were within 1/32 in., but the bevel cuts weren’t. The butt cut measured 9 3/16 in., the inside corner cut measured 9 3/32 in., and the outside corner cut measured 9 1/8 in.
Finally, I tested my Bosch 4410. Both the miter and the bevel cuts were within 1/32 in., which really surprised me. I’ve adjusted and calibrated the miter angles on all my saws. To adjust the miter angles on Bosch saws, the fence must be moved incrementally (see “Miter Saw Tuneup.”)
Surprisingly, even though I’ve tapped my fence around a few times, the saw still cuts almost dead-on using the SawGear.
Is there a workaround?
For most carpenters, 1/32 in. isn’t a deal-breaker. And from what I’ve found, that small error occurs only during one cut—usually the outside corner cut. It wouldn’t be tough to learn that you have to push the INCREMENT button once to adjust the flip stop for outside corner cuts. The default measurement for the increment button is 1/32 in. (that can be calibrated, too!). So each time you push the increment button, the flip stop moves 1/32 in. to the left or to the right.
However, if your saw doesn’t pivot almost perfectly around a single point, the workaround isn’t easy or full-proof. While you might be able to program the X and Y buttons for making butt cuts (you can’t re-program the Z button because you use that one for cuts with outside corners on the right end), inside corners, or outside corners on the left-hand end of moldings, those “special” programs would make it impossible to cut casing simultaneously, or even crown and base simultaneously. Those special programs would also have to be figured out and entered each time you cut that particular molding, slowing down productivity. Understanding and entering these ‘special’ programs might also be beyond the ability of some crew members.
The manufacturer claims the SawGear will cut labor costs by 30%. I haven’t tested that. I’m not sure how I could. But I do know that once the tool is set up, it’s MUCH faster than using a tape measure! The 8-foot system will run you $2,200, and the 12-foot system goes for $2,500, making the SawGear a pretty expensive tape measure; but I suspect we’re seeing an early preview of what the future holds for carpentry: laser measures, automatic digital mitersaw fences, bluetooth, iPads….
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Please don’t try anything you see in THISisCarpentry, or anywhere else for that matter, unless you’re completely certain that you can do it safely.
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