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  • Peter Hay

An Unfortunate Encounter With a Table Saw

Updated: Apr 15

I feel kind of vulnerable sharing this, but I think it's an important cautionary tale. It’s been three weeks now, and I’m finally ready to write about the accident.

I’m OK. I didn’t lose any fingers and my hand is healing nicely, but Holy Mother Goddess that was terrifying.

I have a good table saw. It’s a DeWalt job site saw with all of the conventional safety features. Solid. Sturdy. And it’s safe…sort of the way crossing a busy street is safe as long as you look both ways, or a loaded gun is safe with the safety on and kept pointed at the sky. It’s safe if you don’t make any mistakes.

I made three.

I was working on a bookshelf to go over the desk that I recently refinished. The side pieces have grooves for the ends of the shelf to fit into. Now, there are a few ways of making grooves in wood. You can make two parallel cuts and chisel out the space between them by hand, or you can use a router table, but the easiest way is to use a dado blade—a stack of special saw blades like a stack of pancakes turned on its edge that can cut a swath up to ¾ of an inch wide with nice clean edges.

I had already made the side pieces, but I decided that the groove needed to be deeper to hold the shelf more securely. Before deepening the cut on the actual side pieces, I decided to make a test cut on some scrap wood. I set the fence on the saw to the same width I’d used before, raised the dado a little higher than it had been, and proceeded to feed my piece of scrap wood through.

Mistake #1: I used a push paddle instead of a push stick. The paddle had always worked fine before, and because the blade is always below the surface of the wood, it should have been fine. Right? Except this was a deeper dado cut than I’d ever made before, and the wood started to encounter more resistance than I expected. I got part way through the cut and the paddle began to slip.

Mistake #2: Every table saw has a big red OFF switch in front of your left knee so you can turn it off quickly. I knew this, I’ve always known this, but I’d never had to use it in an emergency before and I blanked on it. They call it “state-specific learning,” you learn something in one mental or emotional state and it’s harder to remember in a different state. Ask me calmly about safety features and I can recite them all, but when it’s an oh-shit-this-looks-bad situation…

Mistake #3: You should never ever let go of a piece of wood part way through a cut with the blade still spinning, because the most dangerous thing about a table saw isn’t actually the blade; it’s kickback. Let go, and the wood will come shooting out fast enough to punch through sheet rock or severely injure anyone unlucky enough to be standing behind you. This it true. Normally. But there was nobody else there to get hurt and nothing terribly fragile behind me. Given the resistance I was encountering I should have just lifted the paddle and let the wood fly, but all my instincts told me not to do that. Besides, I was already most of the way through the cut and I thought I could just power through—lean harder on the paddle to give it more friction and just push it that last inch.

The wood slipped a little more, the saw kicked it out and the paddle came down on the blade, then the saw kicked the paddle out and—

(Skip the next two paragraphs if you’re squeamish.)

My immediate reaction was horror. Incredulity. And then intense waves of shame. I know how to use a table saw. I’ve had training, taken classes. My lab science students all knew me as a safety fanatic. How could I have been so stupid? But there’s no going back. I’d just permanently destroyed an important part of my body.

I looked down at bone and bloody flesh and it looked like there was more wound than there was finger. I thought it likely that I would lose it.

Cat heard me yell "Motherfucker!" She says next time it would be good if I yell "Help!" instead. She thought probably I had just ruined a nice piece of wood, but she came to check anyway just in case. She gave me a cloth to wrap around my hand and I held onto it, afraid the finger might fall off if I let go. Mercifully, we live only a five-minute drive from the hospital.

In the car, I kept saying “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” feeling I had let her down, failed to keep a commitment I had made to be safe in my shop. She told me to be gentle with myself. “Imagine if someone you love had done this. Be as gentle with yourself as you would with them.” It was about a day and a half before the shame began to subside and I was able to start doing that.

In the ER, I kept praying, “Mother Goddess, be gentle with me,” over and over again while Cat held my uninjured hand. The doctors were great. The nurses were great. I found myself reading all of their name tags and thanking each of them by name as they tended to me. The doctor stitched me up and told me I would probably not lose the finger, though I had destroyed one of the knuckle joints. He said it was the first time he’d used the word “obliterated” in a medical chart.

The hand surgeon who saw me the next day told me that when she’d seen the X-rays, she couldn’t believe the ER doctor’s report that I still had sensation and good capillary flow out to the tip of the finger. She checked, and I do, thankfully. It seems the nerves and capillaries all run along the palm side of the fingers and because of how I was holding the paddle I’d come down on the blade with the knuckle side. If I’d slapped the blade instead of punching it, I would definitely have lost the finger.

Artificial finger joints exist, but she said they’re not very stable in cases where there is significant soft tissue trauma. Instead, what she did was pin the bones to bring the middle and proximal phalanges together so they’ll fuse. I won’t be able to bend that knuckle anymore but the finger will set in the slightly bent position it needs for typing. For a writer, this is important! I’ll wear a splint for another month or so. In the meantime, I’m getting really good at doing a lot of things left-handed.

I’ll be getting a SawStop--expensive, but it should make this kind of accident much less likely in the future. I STRONGLY RECOMMEND IT to anyone who does woodworking if you can possibly afford it.

Looking at them online, I found it perversely comforting to learn that there are 60,000 table saw accidents a year, or one every nine minutes. I’m not happy that people are getting hurt, but at least I’m in good company. When Cat was telling her friend Beth about the accident over the phone, she heard Beth’s husband in the background call out, “Peter is the most careful person I’ve ever met!”

Yup. I was. I am. I always will be.

Stay safe, everyone.

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