Last Updated on August 28, 2022 by Barry Gray
Working with crooked lumber boards is a painful challenge for any carpenter. Jointers effectively eliminate this frustration by providing a single machine that can flatten and square lumber before the building process begins. But jointers can be expensive machines to buy, and you already have a track saw, so can’t you just use your saw?
Track saws allow you to cut an almost perfectly straight edge, as the saw is locked into place by the track. As a result, a track can replace a jointer to square and joint the edges of timber. However, it cannot completely replace the ability of a jointer to remove bows, cups, and bends.
Because you can cut straight edges with a track saw, it is an excellent tool for jointing lumber edges. But it isn’t exactly the silver bullet to replace all your jointer needs. There are a few things you need to consider and a few tricks to use a track saw to effectively joint lumber.
How a Track Saw Works
A track saw is a circular saw locked into a rail, or track, to guide its path, kind of like a Hot Wheels toy car. The rail of the saw is usually perfectly straight, which allows for cuts to be made straight (provided that you use the correct technique).
Unlike a regular circular saw, the blade of the track saw isn’t exposed. The saw’s blade is “hidden” in the body of the saw, and only once you start to cut is the blade of the saw plunged into the board. After the cut is complete, the blade retracts into the housing.
All track saws have a depth dial, which you use to set the depth of your cut before you begin. You would set it to be slightly more than the thickness of the board if you want to cut through it. Or, it could be set to make shallow cuts if, for example, you need to cut grooves.
A critical factor to keep in mind is that because the saw will follow the rail, its angle of cut will be in relation to the surface the rail is on. In other words, if you’re making a 90-degree angled cut, your cut will be 90 degrees to the rail or, more accurately, the surface of the board on which your rail lies.
Here is a good video on the use and benefits of a track saw:
How a Jointer Works
A jointer uses two surfaces that are inline and in-plane with one another. The one table is slightly higher than the other, and there is a rolling blade in between. The blade cuts away the difference when a board passes from the lower table to the higher one.
In effect, you use a jointer to flatten the surfaces of lumber by removing bows, cups, and bends. Once there is a flat surface, the jointer can square the board’s edges, using the flat surface as a reference.
Have a look at the video below to see what a jointer is and how to use one.
Replacing a Jointer With A Track Saw
As I alluded to earlier, a jointer essentially has two jobs. Firstly, a jointer flattens the surfaces of lumber boards, and, secondly, it squares (or joints) the edges of boards. Boards that have been flattened and jointed with a jointer are pretty much ready to be joined into panels.
So, if we are looking at tools to replace a jointer completely, we need to look at tools that can both flatten the boards and square the edges. As you can probably guess, a track saw will not be able to ‘cut it’ at both those jobs (see what I did there?).
Don’t be discouraged, though. There isn’t any alternative tool that can do both of these jobs; if there were, you logically wouldn’t need a jointer at all. Any alternative to a jointer will come as a combination of a few different tools in your shop.
If you want to flatten boards without a jointer, you can use a thickness planer with a planer sled. The planer will reference the flat sled and plane the top face of the board flat. Then you can remove the sled, turn the board around, run it through the planer again, and be left with a flat board.
Squaring the edges of the boards can be done with a table saw or a track saw. When it comes to squaring edges, the track saw is a superb alternative option to a jointer.
How To Joint Edges With A Track Saw (3 Steps)
Firstly, before you get to cutting away the edges of your expensive boards, you are going to want to make sure that the surfaces are flat. Any severe defects may very well influence how well your cut comes out.
Let’s assume you are building a table and want to join the boards into a panel. If one of your boards has a cup, your cut will be 90 degrees to that cup. So, when you take this board and line up the edges with another, you will be left with a gap from the poorly jointed edge.
Once you have a flat face to set your track on, you can follow the following steps:
Step One: Get a Square Edge
The first step is to create a straight and square edge on either side of your board. Don’t overthink this step – if you cut your board diagonally from one corner to the opposite one, you will be left with a square and straight edge. An unusable board, yes, but a square and straight edge nonetheless.
I suggest lining the rail of the saw up with the corners of the same side. At this point, you will likely see that edge of the board is not entirely visible as parts are covered by the rail. Move the rail inward (toward the other edge) slightly until the entire edge of the board is visible. Hold your rail in this position and make the cut.
You now have the straight and square reference edge.
Step Two: Cutting The Other Edge
There are two options in marking out where to make your cut on the other edge. If you want your board to be a specific width, you only need to measure that width for the edge you have just cut, mark out the line, clamp the track, and make the cut.
If you don’t have a specific width in mind and want to keep as much of the board as possible, you will need to determine the minimum amount of material you can cut away. I suggest using a square for this step. Press the square against the previously cut edge and run it down the length of the board, looking for the narrowest point in the board.
Once you have found the narrowest point, that width will be the width of your board. Copy the measurement and make a reference line down the length of your board, set the track on this line, and cut. You now have two square and straight edges.
Step Three: Cutting The Joint Perfect
This last step is optional and possibly even unnecessary if the previous two cuts came out fine. But if you want to join a panel and, after lining up two boards, are still left with a slight gap, this step will resolve that.
With your two boards lined up, clamp them in place without impairing the path of the track saw. Line up the rail of your saw so that your saw blade will cut both edges of the boards.
Once you have it lined up, make the cut. Because the saw is now cutting a fine amount on both edges, it creates a mirrored edge. This step, if done right, should leave you with two edges ready for joining with almost no gaps at all.
Here is a video showing the effect of this step:
Are There Alternatives To A Track Saw?
Track saws are excellent tools, but like most tools for woodworking, they can be pretty expensive, especially in the higher-end market like Festool. But there are cheaper alternatives.
Companies like Kreg make universal rails that are compatible with most normal circular or Skill saws. So, if you already have a circular saw, this may be a good option for you to consider. It isn’t going to be as forgiving, and you don’t benefit from the plunge functionality, but with some skill and patience, you can get excellent results.
Alternatively, there is the old poor-man’s option of using straight edge as a guide rail for your circular saw. This is something I have done on several occasions with pretty mixed results.
The best results I got were when I took the time to carefully and precisely line up the edge. I don’t advise using this option if you are pressed for time because it is easy to mess it up.
Jointers have two jobs in a shop which is to flatten and square lumber boards. While you cannot use a track saw to flatten boards, it is a great replacement option to cut square and joinable edges.
When using your track saw, make sure the board’s surface is flat, the rail of the saw is lined up correctly, and that, when cutting, you are not pushing or forcing the saw. Let the track saw do the work at its pace, and you will be left with a near-perfect cut every time.