Fixing The Cutting Edge: Innovation Meets Table Saw When you think of new technology, table saws don't generally come to mind, but more and more inventors are trying to make them safer — and David Butler is one of them. His Whirlwind safety brake can stop a blade in less than a second and fits onto any existing saw.
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Fixing The Cutting Edge: Innovation Meets Table Saw

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Fixing The Cutting Edge: Innovation Meets Table Saw

Fixing The Cutting Edge: Innovation Meets Table Saw

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


I'm Robert Siegel. It's Monday, time for All Tech Considered.


SIEGEL: And we go retro in today's segment with a 21st century nod to some old technology. We'll start with an innovation that makes table saws safer. Tens of thousands of people are injured using table saws every year.

NPR's Chris Arnold visited an inventor who wants to change that.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: At his home in Cape Cod, David Butler flips on the fluorescent lights in his finished basement.

DAVID BUTLER: We're in my home workshop. I've been a lifelong woodworker.

ARNOLD: There are a dozen different power saws down here, each with various prototypes of his invention bolted onto them.

BUTLER: And if you walk over here...


BUTLER: This saw,

ARNOLD: Woodworking is a hobby. For his career, Butler has been an electrical engineer. At the age of 18, he was a Navy electronics technician who worked on the Navy's first jet fighter. He then went on to work for IBM starting in 1958.

BUTLER: IBM paid me for eight months to go to school and turned me loose on the world's largest computer, the SAGE air defense system. And it went on and on. I worked for General Electric, for Citibank.

ARNOLD: And here in his basement workshop, Butler has come up with an impressive invention. It's a safety brake for a table saw. We've done stories about a different company called Sawstop, which has a high tech safety brake, too. The broader industry has resisted adapting it. That's despite 4,000 grisly amputation injuries every single year in the U.S. on table saws. Now, along comes David Butler.

BUTLER: Let me start it.


ARNOLD: Now we'll trigger the brake.



ARNOLD: That was quick

BUTLER: That's quick.

ARNOLD: Butler calls his system the Whirlwind. That's because the system uses a blade guard cover that also has a vacuum that sucks away the sawdust while you cut the wood.


ARNOLD: If you touch the plastic guard covering the skinny saw blade that sets off a sensor. And then the brake kicks in.

BUTLER: I can trigger this without the saw even running. Watch.


ARNOLD: What was that sound? Is there a compressor in there or something?

BUTLER: No, it's a sound of - it's electronic braking

ARNOLD: Saw motors run on what's called AC current. But Butler says if you cut that power and then send DC current into the motor in exactly the right way...

BUTLER: Like pulling the plug out of the wall and then hit it with a rapid big surge of DC, you can stop the motor.

ARNOLD: Compared to Sawstop, each system has advantages and disadvantages. But one thing that is nice about Whirlwind...

ROBERT CALHOUN: You don't have to go out and buy a brand new table saw.

ARNOLD: That's Butler's lifelong friend and business partner Robert Calhoun. He says that you can retrofit this brake onto any existing saw.

CALHOUN: So you can go out and your delta saw, which you have in the basement, which is 20 years old, we will have a kit.

ARNOLD: Unfortunately for woodworking enthusiasts out there, you can't buy this safety brake yet. And that's the problem for a lot of inventors. The drawing board to the store shelf is a long road. And the major power tool companies, in this case, so far are not embracing these new high tech safety innovations. When it comes to table saws though, that may change.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has begun drafting new table saw safety regulations. And those may very well require advanced systems such as Whirlwind or Sawstop.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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