I got very impatient to see how the green blob over there on the left would turn out so I set aside the cake plate project for the time being to work on this new one. It didn’t look all that promising when I started out, and I had some issues with the thing as I started to work with it. But finally I ended up with something with a relatively pleasing shape and look to it, fitted the lamp into the thing, and the end result is below.
I still need to make a top for it. Rather than go for a high polish I left the translucent parts a mat finish. I think it looks better that way.
And it has some problems. If you look at the middle photo you’ll see some cracks in the top wooden ring. I don’t know if those were in the wood to begin with and I didn’t notice them, or if they developed as I worked on the piece.
All things considered, it’s not too bad for my third attempt at this. I’ve made quite a few mistakes but at least I’ve ended up with three projects that weren’t too bad for a beginning. And I’ve learned a lot.
I really need to do more experimenting with color mixing. I’m not at all satisfied with how some of the colors turn out.
It’s been sitting in the pressure tank for about 48 hours now, so let’s open that sucker up and see what we got…
Eeewww… Well, that’s not too encouraging looking
Yeah, not sure about that color. Not at all
Demolding requires large rubber hammers. Did you know that? Well, I require them. Great fun beating on large hunks of plastic with hammers. And now that I got it in decent light, that color doesn’t look too bad. Let’s get it out of the mold
Ooo, I kinda like that. All shimmery and stuff. It still needs to sit another 24 hours before it can go on the lathe. It’s still tacky to the touch.
Meanwhile I got this going…
This is going to be the top plate for a pedestal cake stand. I hope. Maybe. This puppy is literally nearly touching the bed of the lathe. About 12″ across. Damn, this better work. I’m not even going to tell you how much that hunk of wood cost me. If all goes well, this is going to be a Christmas gift for MrsGF. Or it will fit nicely into the neighbor’s firepit if it goes bad.
So we got winter now? So it seems. This is what it looks like outside this morning. Sheesh – it’s way too early for this, but, well, this is Wisconsin so we never know what we’re going to see out there when we get up in the morning.
Wood Finishes – I’ve become disillusioned with the finish I used to like, which was a mixture of beeswax, tung and cedar oil. It put a beautiful finish on the pieces, but unfortunately it didn’t stay nice. After several weeks the finish started to get dull looking, even rather nasty. I was really disappointed with that because I liked the satin finish it left.
So I’ve been using a different technique. I make my own shellac and I use that as a base coat on the wood, scuff it with 0000 steel wool to smooth things down, then put down a coat of hard carnauba wax and buff it out at high speed. It’s a bit more work because I have to sand down the wood to a higher grit than I normally would. I used to sand up to a 340 grit, but for this to work I have to go up to 600 grit because the high polish will show even tiny defects. But so far the results have been pretty nice.
Early results are encouraging. And there are no nasty chemicals in any of this. The shellac is just shellac flakes dissolved in alcohol, and the wax is pure carnauba. So far it seems to be working pretty well. But time will tell. The beeswax finish I used looked good at first too.
I finally broke down and bought a band saw. I’ve wanted one for a long time but always talked myself out of it, claiming I could get along with a table saw and miter saw. But I’m working with a lot of 3-4 inch thick wood now and I just can’t cut that stuff without one. The one I really wanted cost over $2,000 and wouldn’t fit into my workshop. And I’m sure MrsGF would give me that look if I showed up with a $2K bandsaw some afternoon. (You really don’t want her to give you that look. Seriously. It’s scary.)
It’s a Rikon and it doesn’t seem bad at all. It was easy to put together and get set up, it runs smooth and seems to be pretty well made and reasonably sturdy. It will cut up to 5″ thick stock. I’d have liked to have a larger capacity than that, but wow, do prices go up fast in the larger size saws. A saw with just one inch greater capacity, 6″ instead of 5″, would be twice or even three times the cost of this one, and I can’t justify that. This one was under $500 and it seems to be pretty good quality for that price. But time will tell.
Rikon has a fairly good reputation, so it will be interesting to see how this saw works out. The only other Rikon tool I have is my low speed grinder that I use for sharpening my lathe tools.
I just read yet another overly hyped article about the miracles of 5G and how it is going to “transform” my life, and well, enough is enough. I just had to throw my two cents in on the whole 5G cell network nonsense because I’ve been hearing so much hype and, frankly, pure B.S. that I can’t stand it any more.
Look, all that stuff about gigabit speeds and a revolution in data communications because of 5G? Don’t believe any of it. Pretty much none of it is true, certainly all the hype you’re hearing from the cell phone companies isn’t.
5G does indeed deliver impressive speed. Theoretically it is faster than the internet connection to your house. (Well, hell, just about anything is faster than the connection I have at my house which often drops to speeds not much faster than what I could get back in the 1990s with a 28K modem. Just one of the “joys” of the government protected internet/cable tv monopolies we have.)
But that’s the key word, isn’t it? Theoretically. In the laboratory. In testing. Out in the real world 5G almost never reaches those speeds. In fact, it doesn’t even get close. Real world testing of newly installed 5G networks is showing that they are operating at speeds that are no better and often worse than the old 4G network. Seriously. Real world test results where the new 5G network is supposedly up and running are showing that in a lot of areas 5G is slower than the existing 4G/LTE network. And that doesn’t surprise me at all
I know a bit about radio, and that is exactly what the cell phone system is, radio. I know how propagation works, how radio waves at specific frequencies behave, how they can (or more importantly can’t) penetrate things like buildings, windows, etc., I know something about transmitters, receivers, antennas and all that guff. I know all that because I play with that stuff almost every day. And system just will not, can not, deliver the bandwidth and speeds these companies are claiming it will except under ideal circumstances which almost never exist out here in the real world.
Some of their transmitters at certain frequencies have a range of a whopping 150 yards. That’s it. Some of the frequencies being used are blocked by, well, everything, even glass. In difficult areas at some frequencies the companies would have to not only install equipment every few hundred feet, they’d have to install repeaters inside of large buildings to get coverage. Trying to fully implement this network to make it capable of what the cell companies claim it will do would cost massive amounts of money, trying to get permits, locate transmitters, etc would be a nightmare. So outside of dense (and high profit) urban areas, it just ain’t gonna happen.
Sure, it has a lot of potential, especially in rural areas. The system that runs down in the 600 mHz band has a lot of potential. It won’t get anywhere near gigabit speeds, but it does promise to deliver speed in the 30 -40 mbs range, which is a hell of a lot better than what most of us out here in rural areas are getting.
But all that other stuff about pushing up to gigabit speeds with ridiculously low latency times? Don’t believe it. The only places where you’ll see those kinds of speeds are in the most densely populated areas where the companies can maximize their profits.
And then there is going to be the cost. That seems to be one thing everyone is forgetting to mention. What is this going to cost us? You can be darn sure that the cell/data monopolies are going to try to suck every penny they can out of you. There are going to be data caps, speed throttling, and eye watering overage charges. They’re going to milk this for every penny they can get. And if you think they won’t, I should remind you that one of the big cell companies drastically throttled back the speeds and capabilities of some of California’s emergency services, including the fire departments a year or so ago. In the middle of a state wide fire emergency while whole towns were burning. Even though they paid extra for “unlimited” service. So yeah, they’re going to charge you through the nose for it.
5G has huge potential. The problem is that for most of us out in the real world we’re never going to see that potential fulfilled because of a lack of infrastructure, poor implementation by the carriers, and sheer greed on the part of the companies.
Just thought I’d keep you up to date about the resin experiments. I started this about a week or so ago and, of course, I entirely forgot to take photos. Sigh… But I can show you the end result and tell you that it worked out reasonably well for something I just threw together.
I did all of this just to see how the whole system worked and to discover any quirks or issues I might not have been aware of. It all worked surprisingly well.
The resin I’m using here is from Naked Fusion, their “Deep Pour” formula, and it was really easy to work with. I had no problems at all with mixing it or coloring it. You might remember this was the stuff that got damaged in shipping and started leaking on my front deck. The hardener bottle got punctured. The resin bottle was fine, and I managed to salvage about two thirds of the hardener, putting it into sealed glass jars. Anyway, I do like this stuff a lot now that I’ve had a chance to try it. It has no VOCs and virtually no odor at all. Some of this stuff is so nasty you have to wear a respirator just to work with it. I had no such problems with this. It mixes easily, was easy to use with coloring agents, and worked just fine.
I took a bunch of small wood scraps and shoved them into a plastic container, mixed up about 30 oz of the resin with some coloring in it, poured it over the top of the wood, then chucked the whole thing into the pressure tank. I pumped it up to 65 PSI and let it sit for 24 hours. After that I released the pressure on the tank and checked, and it was still a bit, well, squishy. But I expected that. Naked Fusion says it can take up to 72 hours or even longer to fully cure, depending on the temperature, quantity of material being used and some other factors.
So I put it back in the tank and pulled it out after another 24 hours hours and was able to peel the mold off it. The epoxy still felt tacky to the touch so I waited another 12 hours, by which time it seemed fully cured. That’s pretty much spot on according to the instructions.
The tank seemed to do its job of eliminating bubbles. I didn’t see any noticeable bubbles in the epoxy when I looked at it under a strong light.
I stuck it in the lathe and flattened one end, used a 2″ Forstner bit chucked into the lathe to drill a mortise into one end to fit my 4 jaw chuck, and got to work because I what I really wanted to see was how well this stuff could be shaped with my equipment and tools.
Wear a respirator if you work with this stuff. Seriously. Do I really need to tell you that you do not want to be breathing epoxy dust? Or wood dust, for that matter.
It machines pretty darn well, but dear lord it’s messy! I should have taken some photos or a video of it because holy cow it was a mess! I had long, thin strings of epoxy flying off everywhere and getting into everything. I looked like I was covered in tinsel after a few minutes, and so did everything else within three feet of the lathe. I had to vacuum my hair afterwards, for heaven’s sake. And change all my clothes, including my socks. I can see I’m going to need to rig up some kind of frame to hold the nozzle from the shopvac close to lathe to try to suck this stuff up before it gets all over everything the next time I do this.
I’ve heard people claim you can only work this stuff with carbide tools. I’ve heard other people claim you can’t use carbide tools and have to use HSS tools. So I tried both and it doesn’t matter. My traditional steel roughing gouge and bowl gouges worked just as well with this stuff as my carbide tipped tools. The only issue I noticed is that the epoxy can chip if I started to try to make too deep of a cut. Using a traditional bowl gouge works a wee bit better, but only because the “U” shape of the tool guides the material away from work. With the carbide tools waste material tended to build up right at the cutter head and I’d have to stop more often to clean things off so I could see what I was doing
Sanding this stuff is a major hassle. Sanding worked ok up to about 120 grit, but finer grit sandpaper clogs up almost immediately. I can see that if I want to get a good, glass smooth finish on this stuff I’m going to have to resort to wet sanding. I didn’t want to go through all the the mess involved with that for this experiment so I only sanded up to 120 grit and then quit.
Normally I use a beeswax/tung oil blend to finish off my wood pieces because I like it. I personally don’t like wood with mirror like finishes on it because I think it looks ridiculously artificial. I like wood to look like wood, and the beeswax gives it a nice finish without ending up with something that looks like it was dipped in plastic. The finish on this is also an experiment, using a carnauba wax product. That worked out pretty well too. I don’t think it’s any better than the beeswax/tung oil finish I’ve used before, but it isn’t bad at all. And for some reason it smells like blueberries? Seriously?
All things considered I think this experiment was pretty successful and I’m confident enough now to want to try more serious things with this system.
Are there drawbacks? You bet. Some serious, like the cost. If this looks like something you want to try yourself, I’ll warn you right now it ain’t cheap. That one and a half gallon resin kit up there will set you back about $170. If you want to color the resin you need to buy dyes, powders, etc. and that’s more money. That pressure tank used to reduce bubbles in the resin will set you back about $400. There are cheaper tanks on the market but I wouldn’t trust them. You can get a pressure pot from a certain well known ultra-cheap tool vendor that I won’t name that costs less than half what my CA Technologies tank cost and, well, I personally don’t know anyone who has had a cheap pressure tank explode on them, but stories about these things failing and actual photos of failed tanks pop up all the time. Plug the phrase “resin casting pressure pot failure” into Google search and you’ll quickly find out which brand I’m talking about. If you need a pressure tank for resin casting you very, very much want to avoid the cheap brands and the home made ones you see out there.
Then you need molds, of course. You can try to make your own. There are silicon molds in various shapes and sizes that you can buy. Since I was going to be machining this stuff anyway I wasn’t worried about the mold shape. I just ordered a bunch of cheap, disposable plastic mixing cups off Amazon in various sizes and those work quite well.
Let’s talk about the resin for a minute. There are a bewildering variety of brands and types out there. Every different type has its advantages and disadvantages. If you want to do stuff like this, do your research before you start buying anything. I can’t emphasize that enough. Most of the “art” rosins are only good for very thin pours, 1/2 inch or less, often only 1/4″ thick. If you want to do stuff like that tea light up there, you need a “deep pour” resin that can be poured at least 2″ thick. Some resins cure so fast I don’t know how people can actually work with them. Others, like this one from Naked Fusion, can take days to fully cure. Some put out nasty fumes. Some produce considerable heat during the curing process. You get the idea. Research, research, research!
And I suppose before I wrap this up I should add the usual disclaimer. I do not get free material from manufacturers, I do not accept advertising, I am not paid by the makers or dealers of any of the products or tools I talk about here. All of the stuff you see here was purchased by myself. If I recommend a specific product it is because I personally have used it and liked it.
There’s no way to get around the fact that table saws are expensive. If you’re buying new, you’re looking at around $500 for a decent contractor style saw, up to several thousand dollars or more for a high end cabinet style saw. Can you buy used? You bet, and you can save a significant amount of money doing so, and even come up with some pretty good deals. But you need to be really, really careful when buying used because it’s easy to end up with, frankly, a piece of junk that may look good but is really completely worn out and will require expensive repairs before it can even be used. But I’m not going to get into used equipment in this, I’m going to stick with new saws.
Of course the first question is do you really need one? These things are big and expensive, so can you get along without one? That’s a question only you can answer, really. I’ll just say this – if you’re doing any kind of semi-serious woodworking, the table saw is pretty much the workhorse of any woodshop. It’s used for cutting boards to length, ripping boards to width, trimming panels, framing cabinet doors, making tenons, dadoes… The list goes on and on. If you think you need one, you probably do.
So let’s say you’ve decided you do need one. Before you max out the credit card, there are a few things you need to think about before you ever buy one. Things that most people don’t seem to think about until it’s too late.
First thing to think about is the amount of space you have. These saws are big. They take up a lot of floor space. That’s my 15 year old Jet saw in that photo up there. It is 3 feet deep and 5 feet wide. So it is physically large. Plus you need enough clear space around it so you can work safely. If you want to rip a 6 foot board, for example, you need at least 6 feet in front of that saw, and 6 feet behind that saw, in order to slide that board through the saw. So you really need a minimum of at least around 14 – 15 feet. Cross cutting isn’t quite so bad. You’re almost never going to try to cross cut a board more than a few feet long.
Now most of us don’t have a lot of space to work in. I certainly don’t. My shop is a spare room down in the basement. It’s a good sized room, but if I didn’t have my big tools on wheeled bases so I can move them around there is no way I could fit everything in that room and still have room to work. Wheeled bases like the one on the left under my saw can be really helpful. But they do have drawbacks. They have to be sturdy enough to handle the weight of the tool, which can be hundreds of pounds. They absolutely must have lockdown levers you can work with your foot like mine do because you do not want that tool moving when you’re using it. So they can help, but you’re almost always going to be better off if you don’t need to add wheels. These tools ideally should be bolted directly to the floor because that makes them safer to use and helps to reduce vibration. But most of us don’t have ideal conditions, so you do what you need to.
The second thing you need to be concerned with before you buy a saw or any big piece of electrically powered equipment is your electrical service. Can the electrical service in your home, garage or wherever handle the load that will be placed on it by that saw? Look at the specifications of the motor on my saw in the photo up there. It draws 18 amps. But the average electrical circuit in most houses is only rated to handle 15 amps. Go look in your service panel, the circuit breaker box of your house. Chances are good that all the breakers, except the ones feeding an electric clothes dryer, central air system or electric stove, are going to be 15 amp. So just plugging that saw in and turning it on is going to exceed the rating of the average household electrical circuit. If you try running that saw you’re probably going to be tripping the breaker on a regular basis and in extreme cases even causing the wiring to overheat.
My house was completely rewired from top to bottom when we bought this place and we installed separate service panels specifically to feed the garage and my workshop so they could handle the extra load. I have 20 amp circuits feeding the outlets in the shop, not the normal 15 amp, so it can handle this kind of thing.
So before you buy a table saw or other big power tool, make sure your electrical service can handle the load. If necessary talk to a professional electrician about improving the capacity of your system. If heating up a cup of water in your microwave makes the house lights dim, you really, really need to talk to someone about doing some upgrades before you try to bring in a big power tool. I’m not telling you to rewire your whole house, but having a separate 20 amp circuit run to your work area is something you should consider if your equipment is a power hog like mine.
The third thing you need to be concerned with is just getting the thing home and into your workshop area. These saws are big and heavy. How are you going to get it delivered to your location? How are you even going to get it off the delivery truck? How are you going to get it into your workshop? How are you going to get it assembled? Getting my equipment into my basement workshop was a royal pain in the butt that involved hand carts, in one case a cart used to normally transport big vending machines that I had to rent with a powered stair climber built into it. And that’s not counting the bruises, strained muscles, smashed fingers and considerable amounts of foul language.
Sidenote: 120V versus 240V. If you look at the motor up there, you’ll see it can be rewired to run on 240V instead of 120. A lot of tools in this classification will have motors like that. Some will even require 240 only. Why? I won’t go into the technical details but generally speaking a motor runs more efficiently on 240 and there are advantages to going that route. But do you need to? Probably not. First you almost certainly aren’t going to have a 240V circuit in your house, and having one added is going to cost a significant amount of money. And second, you probably don’t need it anyway. Unless you are running a commercial production shop or something like that, the average woodworker isn’t going to need to jump to 240V tools.
SO let’s get on with this and talk about actual saws. Choosing a saw can be a bit overwhelming because there dozens of different types and brands on the market, each with it’s own advantages and disadvantages.
There are three basic types of table saws; contractor saws, hybrid saws, (which I think is actually a ridiculous and misleading thing to call them) and cabinet saws. To confuse things even more, I’m seeing what are really hybrid saws being marketed as contractor saws, and hybrid saws that look like cabinet style saws. I really think that classification system should be scrapped entirely and we should be using things like the saw’s capacity, but let’s ignore that.
Contractor saws are generally smaller, more compact, and often come with folding stands and wheels to make them easier to move around, and you’ll often find them at job sites being used by, well, contractors (duh). Once upon a time contractor style saws were, well, to be brutally honest they were almost all pretty much junk. But wow, have things changed in the last twenty years or so. Oh, the really cheap ones are still pretty much junk. But the better quality contractor saws are now damn near as good as the other types of saws. They’ve become more powerful, much better made and genuinely good. If you look at the major brand names and the higher priced models, well if I didn’t have my Jet I wouldn’t mind having one of these. The only real drawbacks are that they are still a bit less durable because they have to be light weight to be more or less portable. And because they have to be small, they don’t have the capacity of the full sized table saws. But that smaller size and lighter weight can be a genuine advantage for those of you who don’t have a lot of room for a saw. And the smaller capacity can be gotten around by building your own stand with infeed and outfeed extensions, side wings, etc.
Makita, DeWalt, Delta and a few other manufacturers make some pretty darn nice contractor style portable saws. They’re definitely worth looking at, especially if you have a tight budget. But as with any of this equipment, research, research, research! Get online and read reviews, evaluations, get on YouTube and look at the videos. Make notes about things you like and dislike. After all, even these “cheap” saws are going to set you back around $400 – $500 or more for a really good one.
I’m going to do something I probably shouldn’t and toss the whole classification of cabinet saws out the door and forget about ’em. Why? Because cabinet saws are big, heavy, and securely bolted to a concrete floor once they’re put in place. They take up a lot of room. They often require 240V power. They generally require a fixed and high power dust collection system. And they’re expensive. You can expect to drop at least $2,500 or much, much more on a decent quality cabinet saw. And I think that’s utterly ridiculous because that saw isn’t going to work any better for the average woodworker than a $1,000 saw will.
And let’s just junk that whole “hybrid” classification too while we’re at it because it’s just silly and I have no idea why people started using that term anyway. And no one seems to actually adhere to the mostly nonexistent standards of that classification system anyway.
No matter what you call ’em, this style saw is a full sized table saw with a pretty hefty motor, usually 120V but often the motors can be rewired for 240 if you want, good sized tables that will handle just about any normal sawing job you need to do. And generally it has an open frame holding it up like my Jet up there in that photo and not a fully enclosed cabinet base, although as I noted, some are now coming with enclosed cabinets. It’s going to have a 10″ saw blade, a tilting arbor, hand wheels on the front and/or side to raise and lower the blade and to change the angle of the blade, a pretty good quality rip fence, a miter gauge that is most likely a piece of junk and should be replaced with one that is actually accurate and safe, and, of course, safety gear designed to keep you from cutting off bits of your body while using the saw, like anti-kickback devices, a riving knife, shield over the blade, etc, and a flat (hopefully) machined heavy steel or cast iron table with side wings to support larger pieces of wood.
Speaking of safety, I’m going to be talking about SawStop saws at the end of this just to give you a heads up
And no matter which brand you look at, they are all basically pretty much the same. I’m sure DeWalt, Jet, Delta, and the other major brands would argue with that, but when it comes right down to it they are. They’re all going to have similar features, have similar build quality, similar capacity, similar size, weight, everything. Personally I have a lot of Jet equipment, and I like it a lot, but I’m not going to tell you to run out and buy Jet because Jet’s saws aren’t going to be any better or worse than those being sold by Delta or Shop Fox or the other brands. And they’re all going to cost about the same as well, with no more than a couple of hundred bucks differences in price between saws with similar specifications.
So I’m not going to recommend a specific brand or even a specific model. Instead I’m going to talk about what you need to look for, and the things you may need to add or replace once you do buy it.
Stuff you should look for
The table should be nice and flat, well machined, and smooth so wood will slide easily over it. If it has table extensions as my saw does (those white plates on either side of the plain metal table) they should be absolutely flush with the surface of the main table
When the angle of the saw blade is set to 0, the table should be at exactly a 90 degree angle to the table. This is easy to check. Just raise up the saw blade and put a square on the table and butt it up to the blade. If it isn’t you should be able to do some fiddling to get it to that point. Hopefully you won’t have to.
The hole in the table the saw blade comes through is called the throat, and the removable plate that fits around the blade is the throat plate. It should be perfectly flush with the surface of the table, and there should be some way to adjust it to make sure it is flush. If you look at mine, you’ll see the throat plate has leveling screws recessed into the plate itself to allow it to be adjusted. If it isn’t perfectly flush with the table you can have the wood catching as you slide it through the saw and that can be dangerous.
The arbor is the shaft that the blade itself is bolted to which, in turn, is mounted on an assembly that permits the arbor and blade to be raised and lowered and tilted. The arbor should look and feel sturdy. There should be absolutely zero play when you try to move it, especially not in the bearings nor in the lifting and tilting mechanisms. Reach in there and grab the saw blade (carefully) and try wiggling it back and forth. The saw blade may flex, but ignore that. If the arbor, the bearings, the shafts, anything under there wiggles, moves, shifts position, makes clicking noises, anything that doesn’t seem quite right, avoid that saw like the plague. If any of that equipment down there isn’t absolutely perfect, you’ll never get that saw to work right.
The threads on the shaft should look relatively, oh, robust, shall we say? The pulley on which the drive belt rides should be perfectly square to the shaft itself. If it isn’t it is going to cause vibration problems.
Oh, and how easy is it to get at that arbor? You’re going to have to change that blade sooner or later. You may also want to swap the blade out for specialty blades as well. So you want to be able to have relatively easy access to the arbor to replace the blades.
Then there is the safety equipment. All saws will come with at least the minimum, which is some kind of splitter or riving knife to keep the wood from pinching on the blade, anti-kickback devices of some kind, and a shield over the blade.
You would think that the most dangerous thing about a saw is that spinning blade, and it is indeed very dangerous, but what can be even more dangerous is what is known as kickback. When the fibers in wood are cut, this can, oh, disturb the balance of forces in the piece of wood, so to speak. Internal stresses that were balanced before, become unbalanced when the fibers are cut, causing the wood to move, and squeeze around the saw blade, pinching against it. This can cause the wood to be launched at high speed directly back at the person using the saw. This isn’t just painful, it can literally be lethal. Some years ago a guy at a factory in Fond du Lac got killed when a piece of wood kicked back on the table saw he was using. So when I tell you that you never, ever take the safety gear off your saw, I mean you never, ever take the safety gear off your saw.
If you look at that photo up there you’ll see what looks like a wing with teeth just to the left of the throat plate. That’s an anti kickback pawl. There are two, one on each side. I would much rather have a riving knife, but that wasn’t generally available when I bought this saw. Riving knives are now considered to be one of the best ways to avoid kickback, and if you can get that on the saw you’re looking at, do it.
The rip fence: Once upon a time, when you bought a table saw generally the first thing you did was throw away the rip fence it came with and bought a good one. Seriously, they were often that bad. Fortunately those days are long gone, and the rip fences on modern saws, at least the better saws, are generally pretty good, even outstanding, and possibly nearly as good as the aftermarket ones.
Unless someone sets the saw up for you, you will almost always have to fiddle with it to get it properly aligned and square, but that’s generally not a difficult job.
A couple more things about rip fences. First, many, like mine, have distance indicators that supposedly show you the distance between the fence and the blade. Mine even has a dopey little magnifying lens built in and a “micro adjustment wheel”. And, well, yeah, don’t rely on any of that guff to actually work. Just get out your handy tape measure and actually measure the distance from the fence to the blade. Remember the old adage: measure twice, cut once.
Second, some people, even people who really should know better get freaked out when they find out that the back end of a lot of these fences don’t lock down when you push down on the locking lever. The front does, but the back doesn’t, and actually it will flex a bit if you push on it hard at the back. They believe this makes setting the distance between the blade and the fence inaccurate somehow. And wow, some of them get weird, even a bit obsessive about it and think this is the most horrible thing ever, and because it isn’t locked down their cuts aren’t going to be accurate.
And I suppose it would be a problem if there were any actual pressure against the back end of the fence. But there isn’t. Or shouldn’t be.
Think about it for a minute. The only thing you should really care about is the area of the fence that lies in front of the blade and the point at which the wood is in contact with the blade. That is what controls the distance between the fence and the blade, not the back of the fence. The back of the fence doesn’t do anything except provide a smooth route out of the saw for the wood and keep the board straight. It has nothing to do with the actual cut. There should be very little force against that fence in any case, and most of that force is going to be before and at the point the cut is actually being made. That is where accuracy is an issue. Not at the back end of the fence after the cut has been made.
If that fence is deflecting, then you do have a problem because it shouldn’t be. If it is, that means there is something mechanically wrong with your fence or its lockdown mechanism, or you are pushing the wood against the fence with way too much force. That fence is there to be a guide. Period. You shouldn’t be putting any kind of significant pressure against it as you guide the wood through the saw.
In fact, there are valid reasons not to lock down the back of that fence, IMO. The primary one is safety. There is no such thing as a perfectly aligned saw. If that fence is locked down tight at both ends and can’t give a bit at the back, and the saw blade isn’t absolutely, perfectly, 100% aligned with that fence, and the wood isn’t absolutely straight with perfect grain, under the right circumstances it’s going to cause the wood to bind up between the back of the blade and the fence and this is not a good thing. Having a bit of deflection at the back of the rip fence can be a good thing.
Now that being said, some saws come with fences that do lock at both ends, and you can get a lot of aftermarket fences that do, and people like them and even think they are absolutely necessary. I think they’re wrong, but well, hell, I think so-called “american cheese” should be banned because it is neither American nor cheese, and that hasn’t happened yet, so there you go. And don’t get me started on “Canadian bacon” or “English muffins”…
Oh, wait, I’m getting off topic, aren’t I? What was I talking about? Oh, yeah, saws. Let’s see, where did I leave off… Okay, I finished that up, what’s left? Oh, miter gauge.
A miter gauge is a special device you use to measure those funny hats that bishops wear…
Oh, all right, I admit it, that was a really horrible joke but I couldn’t help myself. A miter gauge is, well, one of these things over there on the left. It’s a type of guide. You butt the hunk of wood up against it and then push it forward into the saw. It sits on a long rectangular shaft that slips into a groove ground into the table of the saw. In theory, it keeps your wood at the proper angle as you feed it into the blade. Normally you keep it locked at 90 degrees, but you can adjust it so you can make angled cuts as well.
Note that I said “in theory”. That’s because most of these are, frankly, junk. They’re usually way too small to adequately support the wood you’re trying to cut, hard to adjust, the angle settings are inaccurate, and they are just generally not very well made all the way around. I mean, come on, look at mine over there. The pointer is basically a roofing nail they soldered into a hole and bent over for heaven’s sake.
Don’t worry, though, I’ll talk about miter gauges in detail when I get to the “optional stuff” section of all of this coming up soon.
Very soon, I hope, because you’re probably getting just as bored with this as I am by this point.
Now I was going to show you a picture of the on/off switch on mine saw but I seem to have lost it… Oh, wait, there it is. Here we go, that’s it over on the right. I will not pull any punches here. That switch totally sucks. It isn’t the “Start” button that’s the problem, it’s that “Stop” button. It’s in an awkward position. I have to fumble around for it if I’m not at the right angle to directly see it. It’s wobbly and I have to fiddle with it to get it to work. It’s potentially dangerous, even, because in an emergency you need to shut that damn saw off RIGHT NOW because you need to pick up the finger you just cut off and get to the ER so you don’t want to have to be standing there fumbling around trying to find and then push the damned button. You want a nice, big, easy to find and easier to push OFF button. Granted I could retrofit this thing with a much better kill switch, so to speak, but, well, I’m lazy, I’m cheap… Well, you get the idea. Most modern saws come with much better switches than this one has. Or should.
Finally let’s talk about dust. Table saws are really good at turning very expensive wood into great, heaping piles of sawdust, and you need a way of dealing with it. One of the advantages of cabinet saws is that most of that dust is confined in the cabinet where it can be easily sucked up with a dust collection system.
Dust collection on saws in this class is pretty much, well, to be honest it’s pretty much a joke. Mine makes an attempt at it. It has a plastic plate that bolts to the bottom of the saw body with a big hole in it to attach a vac or dust collection system. But since the whole back end of the saw is open (has to be because the motor mount and belt run through there) I get dust flying everywhere whether I bother to hook up the vac to the port or not. True, having the vacuum on helps a lot, but it still chucks a lot of dust out the back. It isn’t as bad as, oh, a big power sander or a lathe, but these saws do produce a significant amount of dust and you need to be prepared to deal with it. Breathing this stuff is most definitely not good for you. And if your shop is inside of your house, it’s going to get everywhere. Be prepared to change your HVAC system filters a lot. A dust collection system would be nice, but most of us don’t have the money or space to stick in an expensive dust collection system. I certainly don’t. My dust collection system is a big shop vac and a 21 inch fan in the shop window sucking the stuff out of the house before it can get into everything.
There are a lot more things about table saws I could get into but these are some of the important things and I imagine you’re getting just about as bored as I am by this time, so let’s get on with this.
Money, money, money… So much money…
So, what is a decent table saw in this class going to cost? Well if you thought that spending $500 on a contractor style saw was bad, you might want to go take a lie down before I drop some of these prices on you. When I bought my Jet about fifteen years ago, I spent somewhere between $500 to $600. That was a lot of money. Well, still is a lot of money. My model saw isn’t made any more, but to get one with capabilities you can expect to pay somewhere between $1,100 to $1,500. A Jet in the same class as the one I have looks like it is selling for over $1,400. Yeah, that $500 contractor style saw is starting to look a bit better, isn’t it? I knew these things had gone up drastically in price since I bought mine, but it wasn’t until I started doing some research to write this that I realized that they’d doubled in price in the last fifteen years. Ouch.
Can you get cheaper ones? Sure. Should you consider the cheaper ones? Definitely. But be very, very careful out there.
If the price sounds too good to be true, it is. Stay away. I’ve seen saws with silly, even ridiculous brand names that I’ve never heard of before selling for just a couple of hundred bucks. There is a reason why that saw is selling for $700 less than a Delta or Powermatic or Shop fox or the other well known names, and that reason is that it is a piece of junk. You cannot make a 10 inch table saw of any kind of decent quality and sell it for $200. I’m sorry, you just can’t. Even if you find reviews online claiming that these things are the best thing ever, don’t believe it. Stick with recognizable brand names and buy from reputable retailers. Delta, Shop fox, Rigid, DeWalt, Jet, Grizzley, Milwaukee, Bosch, SawStop, Powermatic all make pretty darn good saws.
What about used? You can get some really good deals on used table saws, but be careful. You can pick up a real gem at a good price, or you can get burned. But do your research first. There are forums and articles and videos galore out there with advice on what to look for when buying used, so go do some digging.
Oh, one final note before I move on. I want to talk for a minute about so-called benchtop saws. If all you’re doing is, oh, cutting up 2″x2″ square bits of wood to make pen blanks or building HO scale models, one of these might be useful, but generally speaking they’re utterly useless for any kind of serious woodworking.
Now, let’s talk optional equipment and addons and other goodies people will try to sell you after you have a saw. Let’s get back to that crappy miter gauge first.
Like I said, most of them aren’t worth much. If you’re doing work that requires accurately cutting angles and doing it safely, you’re going to want an aftermarket miter gauge like the one in the photo over there on the right. That is an Incra 1000SE. I’ve had it for a lot of years now but it is still in production. It is very, very accurate, easy to use, extendable, with built in hold down. The thing is just nice. Everything is adjustable so you can fine tune it to ridiculously tight tolerances. If you make fine furniture, picture frames, do cabinet making, anything that requires very accurate cuts, you need to consider throwing away the miter gauge that came with the saw and getting something like this. Kreg makes one that’s just as good as Incra’s and sells for a bit less.
And I’ll warn you right now it ain’t cheap. That thing is selling for around $190 right now. And you probably don’t need one as elaborate or accurate as this one is. I make furniture and picture frames and boxes and other things that require highly accurate cuts. I’d still encourage you to look into upgrading the miter gauge, though. There are much less elaborate versions that are significantly better than the ones most saws come with that sell for under $75.
Dado saw blades: Well, first what’s a dado? Basically it’s a groove cut in a length of wood that will make a place to stick another piece of wood, like cutting slots in the carcase of a bookcase that the shelves will sit in. Rather than trying to chisel all that stuff out and probably screwing it up (I know I would) you get out your trusty dado blade, put together a stack with the right blades and shims to get the proper thickness, bolt it onto your saw, run the boards through, instant slot. Neat, clean, fast. Well, sometimes it’s neat, clean and fast. In actual use it’s a bit more difficult than that, but if you need to cut long grooves in wood, a dado blade comes in very handy. That’s my Freud in the photo up there. A set like that costs around $130 – $140. Do you need one? Heck, I don’t know. If you need one, you need one. If all you need to do is cut a slot in two boards, get a cheap one. If you need to make a lot of dadoes, get the more expensive, better quality ones. They’ll make a better cut with less chipping.
And if you do get a dado blade, you’re going to need a different throat plate for your saw because it ain’t going to work with a 1/2 inch stacked dado cutter. You don’t need to buy one, though. You’re a woodworker, remember? Make your own. I do. All you need is a bit of hard maple (oak or ash would work too), a thickness planer, a jigsaw or scroll saw, and some sandpaper. Get a nice bit of hardwood. Use the thickness planer to shave it down to the thickness you need. Slap your existing throat plate onto the board and trace out the outline, then cut it out with a scroll saw and sand it down to get the fit right. Lower the saw all the way down. Slap the new throat plate into place, move the rip fence over the top of the new plate to hold it down, and with the saw running very slowly raise the blade up to cut through the new plate. Instant custom throat plate. Well, okay, not instant, but you get the idea.
Push sticks – Do I really have to tell you that you do not want to get your fingers anywhere near a saw blade spinning at about a gazillion RPM? I don’t? Good. You need push sticks to hold down and push the wood you are cutting. I buy ’em, make ’em myself, whatever. They’re easy to make, but they’re also really cheap to buy. I must have a dozen or more laying around because I keep misplacing the darned things. I have some I made for specific uses, like cutting larger panels that have fancy hand grips. Of course I couldn’t find them when I wanted to take a picture.
Stuff people will claim that you need but you really probably don’t
Special drive belts: If you start scrounging around on the internet or through woodworking magazines and the like sooner or later you’re going to run into an “expert” who will claim you need a special drive belt for your saw, specifically something called a “link belt”. They will claim that your standard V-belt is an abomination that is causing nasty vibrations, thumps and bumps and, oh, heck, I don’t know, probably causing the ice caps to melt, tuna to go extinct and my hair to fall out for all I know. Personally I think it’s a crock. I’ve used saws that were equipped with belts like these and I didn’t notice any difference at all in vibration, noise or anything else when compared with similar saws using normal V-belts.
Expensive aftermarket rip fences: Go back and read my comments about rip fences earlier. Most modern table saws in the price range I’m talking about here already come equipped with pretty good fences. I don’t see any need to “upgrade”. If you’re saw has a poor rip fence, by all means look into replacing it. There are good ones out there. Again, do some research.
Anti-vibration gubbins that bolt to your blade or arbor or on the legs of your saw: For a while I was seeing these things advertised all over the place, but it seems to have faded a bit in the last ten years or so. The claim was that your saw blade is a weak, wimpy thing that shakes and rattles and vibrates and is hurting the accuracy of your saw. Yeah, sure it is. If you have a decently made, good quality saw blade, no, it isn’t. And if you have a cheap, crappy, badly made saw blade, these things aren’t going to help in any case. Basically the ones I’ve seen are little more than big washers that do literally nothing. Clamping a big steel washer to the side of your saw blade is going to do nothing to balance that blade. And since the majority of the blade isn’t supported by that thing, it is still going to flex and shake if it isn’t well made.
Specialty jigs: There are a lot of companies out there who will gleefully sell you all kinds of jigs that are supposed to make life easier for you. I have to be honest and admit I’ve fallen for it and bought some of them. Learn from my mistakes. Most of them aren’t worth it. I make a lot of mortise and tenon joints for furniture, and I went and bought one of those things over there on the right, a special jig for making tenons. I dropped, oh, heck, it was probably around $130 or so on that sucker. Does it work? Uh, well, sort of? To be fair, yeah, it does. But here’s the problem. It takes so long to get it set up, takes so many test cuts to make sure the depth and width is set properly, that by the time I got the thing set to accurately make the actual tenon, I could have cut a half dozen of them using just my dado cutter and miter gauge. Seriously.
That’s the biggest problem with these jigs for making speciality cuts, they work but often are so fiddly and take so long to get set up that you’re better off not bothering and doing it by hand, especially if you only have to make a few cuts like that.
Of course on the other hand I did drop over $400 on my mortising machine and I wouldn’t give that up for anything. But if you’d ever had to make dozens of mortises the old fashioned way with a drill, wood chisels and a mallet, you’d know why.
The last thing I want to talk about are SawStop saws. I will say right up front that I like Sawstop saws. A lot.
The SawStop system consists of an electronics package together with a gadget that is something like the disc brake system on a car, only more so, and a drop system. Electronic sensors constantly monitor the saw. If it senses that you just shoved your finger into that saw blade, it instantly stops the saw and drops the blade down through the table. The demonstrations are undeniably impressive. They usually take a hotdog or piece of raw chicken and just barely touch the blade and Bang! It happens so fast that the saw just barely nicks the sausage or chicken before it stops and drops.
The system is, well, damn, it’s impressive. Look at the brief demo below.
I have worked with SawStop saws and they are very, very nice. We had them at the school district in the high school technical/engineering department. They are very, very safe. They work exactly like they show in that video. The merest touch of skin and BANG!, the saw shuts down virtually instantly.
But you’re going to pay for that safety. The cheapest one I’ve seen is $1,400 for their portable job site style saw. A “contractor” style saw goes for $1,700 (All things considered, that’s not really that bad of a price), and the cabinet style saws can run over $4,000.
So the safety system is impressive, but how does it work as an actual saw? Like I said I’ve used these things and they’re very good. The quality all the way around was well above average. They were accurate, powerful and pretty much top of the line saws.
Would I buy one? In a heartbeat. That’s how much I like them. If I personally was shopping for a table saw, the first one I’d be looking at is one of the Sawstop saws, probably that “contractor” style one for $1,700 or so. If I ever need to replace the Jet I have now, it will be a Sawstop that takes its place. No, I am not getting paid to say that. I like the saws that much.
The system isn’t cheap, obviously. If it does trip, the guts of the thing have to be replaced. There is a cartridge type thing you have to replace that will cost you about $70, plus the saw blade will have to be replaced. So let’s say it’ll cost you about $200 total to replace the cartridge and blade if it trips.
And it does have false alarms occasionally. We had it trigger when trying to cut pressure treated lumber, green lumber, things like that. But the false alarms were very rare. If I had one I’d buy a spare cartridge or two to have on hand just in case.
And here’s the thing you have to ask yourself, how much are your fingers worth? Spending $200 to replace a cartridge and saw blade is a hell of a lot expensive (and less painful) than a trip to the ER.
That’s it for now. Next time thickness planers and jointers and whatever else I can shovel in before I get bored.
This is what I found on my front deck the other day.
Fortunately I got out there in time to keep the stuff from soaking into the wood on the deck. There were two plastic bottles in that box, a 1 gallon and a 2 quart, containing the epoxy resin and the catalyst. The catalyst bottle had a dent in the bottom that was leaking, and the plastic bag the bottle was in which is supposed to keep stuff from leaking out failed too.
I suspect it made it through shipment until the moment it hit the porch. The delivery driver seems to have just tossed it onto the deck, at which point it hit just right to punch in the bottom corner of the bottle and crack it. I was in the basement and fortunately heard the thud when it hit the deck and got up there before it soaked into the wood. It looks like it was badly packed. Someone threw in some of those plastic air pads, shoved the bottles in, put a bit more packing on top and sealed it up, leaving the bottles laying loose so they could move around and work their way around the padding.
Amazon’s response was great. Seriously great. I got on line to report it and within a minute I had a real person on the chat line and within another minute or two they issued me a full refund. No red tape, no arguments, no need to send photos or try to return the stuff (that would have been interesting, trying to return a leaking jug of resin) just an apology and asking me how I wanted them to send me a full refund. A short time later I got a confirmation email from them. The email told me that I was free to do whatever I liked with whatever I could salvage from the shipment.
I got to the leak before I lost a lot and transferred it into glass jars. There was a gallon and a half total before the puncture happened, and it looks like I have at least a gallon plus a couple of cups left that’s going to be useable, which is a good thing because I waited two weeks for this stuff to come in.
It might sound like I’m getting a lot of free resin out of the deal, and I suppose I am, but this could have been a complete disaster if I hadn’t been home and heard the thud when it hit the porch. If that stuff had soaked into the wood deck I don’t know what we would have done. I suspect we would have ended up having to replace a significant amount of wood on the deck. That catalyst is thick, sticky, and doesn’t dry by itself. The wood would have been ruined.
Anyway it could have been a heck of a lot worse, and I have enough of the stuff left that I can play with it and see how it works.
I got the new lathe so of course I had to start fiddling with it right away, hence this really, really bad video
The video was made with sunglasses that have a camera built into them. The video quality isn’t all that good, but hey, they were really, really cheap and they actually work surprisingly well. Although taking video up close like this makes them hard to keep aimed properly.
The end result of all that mess is this:
That little finial is going to be the handle for a lid I’m making for a bowl I’m making.
Since I started fiddling with lathes a few weeks ago I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned, for example, that my upload speeds aren’t much faster than they were back in the days of using modems to transfer data over phone lines. It took me over half an hour to upload that stupid video to Youtube. Half an hour! The actual MP4 file was 0.5M, 500K long. That means my upload speeds here are less than 1 meg per hour.
Anyway, with upload speeds like that you can see why I don’t put videos up on the blog here.
Some of the terminology, customs and traditions of amateur radio are a bit, oh, opaque, shall we say, to an outsider. Some of them seem to make no sense on the surface, and some even seem silly. But we’re stuck with ’em. And from time to time people ask me what something means, or why something is done a certain way, etc, so I thought I should explain some of this stuff. Sometimes things get a bit silly. But that’s all part of amateur radio. I can’t cover all of the terminology used in amateur radio, but here’s a few that people have asked about the most in the last month or so.
Let’s start with “elmer”. In the amateur radio world, the term has come to mean a person who is a mentor, someone who helps a newcomer (or even someone not so new) learn something, troubleshoot a piece of equipment or otherwise give assistance that is related to the hobby. So how in the world did a mentor come to be referred to as an “elmer”? A whole mythology has sprung up about the term. I’ve talked to people who claim the term is a 100 years old and goes back to the early days of radio.
The term actually isn’t that old. It certainly doesn’t date back to the early 1900s as some people have tried to tell me. According to the ARRL it can be traced back to 1971. The references I’ve found say it was started by a single reference in an article in QST magazine when a writer referred to a ham who had once helped him with something. Elmer “Bud” Frohardt is apparently the person in question here. The writer of the article mentioned about how disappointed he was that more people hadn’t known someone like Elmer to help them overcome problems, and wished there were more like him. And for some reason the amateur radio community immediately latched onto this and started calling their mentors “elmers”. Why? I have no idea.
While I imagine Mr. Frohardt was pleased to be recognized, the fact of the matter was he preferred to be called “Bud”. Mr Frohardt, I should add, passed on not that long ago, 2016 I think, at the age of 93, and by all accounts he was a wonderful person and very active in amateur radio for most of his life. But…
This is a term that I don’t use and to be honest it makes me wince whenever I hear or read someone using it because to me the name “Elmer” conjures up images of a short, bald, fumbling, bumbling and very stupid hunter who, every Saturday morning, failed to catch Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck. Yes, I’m talking about Elmer Fudd. In my world, especially when I was a kid, being called an “elmer” was actually an insult. Perhaps that’s why Mr Frohardt preferred to be called Bud? Still, the term “elmer” is one that we’re stuck with and it will probably never go away.
Now I’m going to wander off into the realm of editorial commentary here because, to be completely blunt, amateur radio contesting is one of the most ridiculous things ever.
Usually when I start trying to explain radio contesting (at least they seem to have stopped trying to rebrand it as “radiosport”, thank goodness) people get this blank look on their faces and start shaking their heads and they mutter stuff like “Wait, you people actually do this?” and they have a point. Contesting is is one of the silliest things ever. It ranks right up there in silliness with things like, oh, golf. No, I take that back. It’s even sillier than golf. At least in golf you get to hit something with a stick which can provide, oh, minutes of entertainment. I just don’t get contesting. I’m not the only one. I know a lot of hams who actively hate contesting and would love to see it go away. I have no animosity towards contesting, myself. I just don’t see any point to it.
Basically you fire up your equipment, sit down, and for a specific period of time, let’s say 48 hours, you try to contact as many other amateur radio operators as you can. And when it’s all over you send your logs recording the contacts you made off to whatever organization is running the contest.
And that’s it.
Oh, it’s a bit more complicated than that, of course. There are various categories you can enter depending on your equipment, how you want to operate and things like that. There are bonuses and multipliers and other things that can enhance your score. But basically that’s it, just make as many contacts as you can in the time allotted.
And if you win you get a car …. Well, no, you don’t. You don’t get anything, really, except maybe a $2 plaque to hang on the wall or they email you a certificate you have to print off yourself.
The organizations that run these things, like CQ magazine and the ARRL, would dearly love to have you believe that contesting is popular. They publish page after page of interviews with contesters, photos of contesters, talk about the equipment and antennas they use in depth, and publish page after page of scores in microscopic type. And they are so desperately trying to make contesting look interesting and popular that it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous because virtually no one actually enters these contests.
I am not joking. If you look at the actual number of amateur radio operators who actively engage in contesting, the percentage is so small as to be statistically insignificant. Still, that doesn’t prevent CQ Magazine from using the term, “wildly popular”, when referring to one of it’s contests. But if you look at the actual data, contesting is perhaps one of the most wildly unpopular activities amatuer radio operators can do. If you look at the actual percentages, contesting is about as popular with amateur radio operators as, oh, wearing underpants made of angry bees.
Let’s look at the numbers.
In the latest worldwide contest from CQ, the magazine claims 30,000 people “participated”. But even that is extremely misleading because only about 5,000 people actually bothered to submit logs in order to actually enter the contest. I don’t understand that, either. If you participate, why the heck not finish up and send in the logs so you’re actually in the contest? Not sending in your log is sort of like entering a marathon, getting within two feet of the finish line, and then you stop, shrug, say you just can’t be bothered, and turn around and go home.
So that means there were only about 5,000 actual contestants. And while 5,000 sounds like a lot of people, let me point out that there are about three million, amateur radio operators in the world according to Wikipedia. So they claim that having 5,000 actual contestants who entered the contest out of 3,000,000, is “wildly popular”. Seriously? Let’s run some numbers and look at the percentages… Oh, dear… the calculator tells me that it is… Oh, my, is that right? Let me run that again. Well, this is a bit embarrassing, isn’t it? It’s 00.16% Not even two tenths of one percent of amateur radio operators participated in the contest.
Now I’m sorry, but if you’re getting a participation rate of less than two tenths of one percent, whatever you are doing is most definitely not “wildly popular”. If this kind of thing sounds like fun to you, heck, go for it.
For a time they were actively trying to rebrand contesting as “radiosports”. There were supposed to be “teams” and special contests and events and… Well, to be honest pretty much no one cared except the people who were actually trying to promote this silliness.
If you hear anyone ever using the term “radiosport” when referring to contesting, do this to them:
Oh my, how to explain what a “lid” is. A lid, in amateur radio jargon is a, well, how can I put this politely?
The term seems to go back a long, long way, and certainly predates radio. It turns up back in the days of the old wired telegraph system, and originally it seemed to refer to a rookie telegraph operator, but it was adopted by the amateur radio community almost as soon as there was an amateur radio community, and it rather quickly turned into a term to describe a ham who was, well, a jerk, an idiot, someone who either deliberately or through ignorance operated in such a manner as to cause interference to other operators. It can also be used to refer to a certain type of person who is fond of buying used police cars, outfitting them with dozens of antennas, multiple radio monitoring devices, badges, insignia and other official looking stuff, even appearing at emergencies wearing what looks like a uniform and wanting oh so desperately to have people take them seriously. You’ll know one when you see one. Or hear one on the radio. And the best advice I can give you is that if you encounter one of these odd creatures, run away as fast as you can.
If you have a radio receiver that can tune into the amateur radio bands, you’ll eventually hear something like “I’m getting QRM can you QSY?” Now if you read that and immediately translated that as “I’m getting interference. Can we move to a different frequency?” well, good for you. You’re well on your way to being a genuine radio nerd/geek.
The Q codes developed out of necessity to make early radio transmissions easier and less confusing, and are over a hundred years old, being developed originally in 1909 by the British government for use by ships and coastal stations, and they were quickly adopted within a few years by international radio operators. Back then the only way people could communicate via radio was with morse code, which is slow and often hard to accurately copy under poor conditions. The Q codes made essential bits of information easier to sent. Sending QSY takes much less time and is probably going to be easier to copy by the listener than sending “I am going to change frequency”, for example.
The Q codes are all three letters long, and always start with the letter Q. Why Q? Probably because the letter Q is one of the least used letters in the English language so it stands out more. These are not acronyms. The letters used in the code have nothing to do with what they stand for. If you want to know more about Q codes than anyone probably ever wants to know, you can go look it up over at Wikipedia.
The Q codes are still in use today, especially among those of us who use CW (morse code). As soon as people started to figure out how to use voice instead of just CW, the Q codes jumped over to that as well. Even though the use of Q codes is discouraged except when using CW.
PSK, FT8, RTTY, JS8Call, WTF??
All of the above are acronyms for different modes of communication. Well, except for the last one up there. All of them are the same in that they use radio to send communications from one person to another. But they differ in how the communications are sent. Instead of just talking into a microphone, a computer is inserted into the mix. You type on a computer keyboard, a program encodes the letters you type into tones, triggers the transmitter to transmit the tones via radio. A radio receiver at the other end hears those tones, feeds them into a computer which translates it back into plain text that you can read. This is ridiculously simplistic, of course, but essentially that is how most of these modes work.
So why insert a computer into the mix when all you really need to do is just pick up a microphone and talk? Well it’s because most of these digital modes are more efficient in terms of their use of the spectrum, for one thing. Radio signals take up space, so to speak. They don’t just sit on a single frequency and use only that frequency. They sort of spread out. A standard AM voice signal takes up about 6 kHz (kilohertz). A single side band (SSB) signal takes up about 3 kHz, while a CW signal takes up only about 150 Hz. Generally speaking, the narrower the bandwidth of a signal, the better. Sometimes. Maybe. Sort of. To give an example, you can have dozens and dozens of FT8 signals occupying the same bandwidth as a single AM signal. So the digital modes are generally far more efficient in terms of bandwidth than a standard voice transmission.
They are also generally better under poor conditions. You can often still communicate using some of the digital modes under propagation and noise conditions that would completely obliterate voice transmissions.
So why doesn’t everyone just use digital modes and forget about voice? Well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, as they say. Using digital modes adds a another layer of complexity and expense to things. You have to have a computer. You need special software. Often you need some kind of interface to connect your computer to your radio. You need special cables to connect all that gear together. And if all you want to do is chat with your friend Susan down in Beloit, well, why bother with all that when all you need to do is turn on your transceiver and pick up a microphone and talk?
QRP: Less is Sometimes More
QRP is one of those Q codes I talked about a few paragraphs ago. Its original meaning was “reduce your power” or if sent with a question mark, “should I reduce power?”. But it has also become a term for those of us who enjoy the challenge of trying to communicate using as little power as possible. Officially operating QRP means using 10 watts of power or less. Often a lot less.
The average amateur radio HF (short wave) transceiver puts out a maximum of 100 watts. The more expensive high-end models may push that to 200, but most will only do 100 watts. And that’s generally enough for most amateur radio operators. If you want or need more power than that, amateur radio operators in the U.S. can legally run up to 1,500 watts maximum. (Just for comparison, a commercial FM broadcaster often pumps out 100,000 watts.)
If you do want to run higher power, you have to get an external amplifier, and those can be very expensive, often running over $4,000. They’re also very big, very heavy, and often won’t run off normal house voltages and require you to install a 220V line. And as a lot of amateur radio operators will tell you, including me, how good your antennas are is often going to be more important than how much power you’re running.
But a lot of us go in the other direction. We’re more interested in trying to communicate using as little power as we can. (I not using the editorial “we” here, I use “we” because I’m one of these gluttons for punishment who likes to run QRP) Why? Because of the challenge of it. A lot of QRP’ers look at the high power guys as, well, like fishing with a hand grenade. You dump enough power into an antenna and someone, somewhere, is going to hear you. But running 5 watts? Or 2 watts? Or less than 1 watt? Into an antenna that’s little more than a bit of wire hanging from a tree? Now that’s fun.
Well, okay, it might not be your idea of fun, but there are enough of us who enjoy this kind of thing that there is a lot of hardware out there designed specifically for QRP operators, either kits or ready made QRP transceivers like the FT-818 like mine, antennas and other goodies.