Making and Using Push Sticks
19th in a series of articles by Barb Siddiqui
If you've been bitten by the woodworking bug at all, sooner or later it's going to lead to a deep desire for machinery. Even for hand tool work, stock preparation will most likely involve machinery, whether it is new, used or inherited. Using it safely is the key issue to a rewarding experience in the craft.
Push sticks serve to keep one's digits away from the indiscriminate cutting action of a fast-moving bit or blade, and they are commercially available in many shapes and sizes. Making them, however, will save you twenty to thirty dollars to put to better use, and be a good starter project to give you the sizes most needed for the particular work you are doing.
Think of these shop helpers as disposable items, as they will wear out, and make them in batches while you are set up to do so. It's nice to have push sticks in several different widths, because a narrow 1/4" stick may be needed to pass between a table saw fence and the blade guard if working narrow material. One-half inch thick is more common, though some people have even a 1/8" wide push stick on hand. That may be too slender and flexible to be considered secure for controlling any stock through a spinning blade, and narrow stock that close to a table saw fence could usually be better handled by a cutoff sled anyway.
The typical birds' mouth push stick, with a rounded head and notched opening similar to a bird's beak, can be anywhere from 6" to 24" long, and acts more as a guide to keep stock running against a fence than as a hold-down. Longer handles serve to keep hands further from the action, so before cutting one from plywood, gauge where you want your hand to pass above or beside the table saw's blade guard, and at what angle. Try a pattern of your desired push stick in heavy cardboard first, and play with cutting the notched angle in the end of it, so it comfortably allows the motion of passing the workpiece past the blade. Table saw setups can vary, according to what type blade guard arrangement is in place.
Consider, too, if you mostly work with small plywood and pre-cut pieces from a big box store, or need to rip long boards in stubborn, kiln-dried hardwoods that need a lot of guidance and attention. The former will be manageable with basic setups of infeed and outfeed support plus a push stick to guide it against the fence. The latter case may require extensive preparation, elongated push sticks, and even an extra pair of hands to assist in placing a wedge in the saw kerf after it has passed the blade.
Another popular style of push stick is the shoe style, made in many sizes, but usually about 12" long. You could actually trace the pattern off the outline of a man's shoe for this push stick if you need to, as it resembles one that closely. This style acts as a holding force, securing the workpiece flat against the tabletop by virtue of its full length coming into contact with the piece being cut. It is notched at the heel end to push work forward, and you can either cut a large opening in the top to fit as a handhold, or trace the handle of a handsaw to grip it by. Making one taller than! needed will allow you to recut the bottom notch a few times, after it is cut up by coming in contact with the saw blade. Some woodworkers glue a small block onto the bottom edge instead of notching it, making it easily replaceable when it is no longer effective.
Push sticks are not only for table saws. Working with a band saw also necessitates keeping your fingers clear of the blade at the end of a cut, and having a shaped handhold in a push stick allows better control than holding scrap wood to finish off the cut you are making. A router table also requires a variety of push sticks to move stock past the spinning router bit and keep it flush to the fence and table surface.
One final point for safety: when you set up a cut on any machine, but especially on a table saw, train yourself to use two push sticks, one in each hand. This will serve the purpose of filling your hands, and in that split second when something goes suddenly wrong, your impulse to stop the shifting workpiece with a free hand will be prevented. You should have a bump switch in place, to be able to turn off a table saw with your knee. That way, using two push sticks won't interfere with shutting a machine down, and just may protect you from reacting too quickly, and too closely to the danger zone. Always think safety first, and if you are uncomfortable with a planned procedure, find another way to do it.