What are the downsides to buying an antique Unisaw?

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Forum topic by jaminjames posted 04-15-2017 03:32 PM 3152 views 0 times favorited 15 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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21 posts in 1459 days

04-15-2017 03:32 PM

Topic tags/keywords: tablesaw

Hello all, first post here. Long time lurker, finally felt like I should join your ranks, so it’s nice to meet everyone!

If you’re in a time crunch and checking the forums in that blissful, quiet time between the moment you’ve gotten in bed, and your wife or girlfriend is still in the bathroom performing her mysterious evening ritual behind closed doors, (or if you’re just lazy like me, and don’t want to read a short novel written by an internet stranger) I’ll start out with CliffsNotes® version of my post. However. If you’re bored, lonely, feeling especially generous, or if your wife or girlfriend has an alarmingly long evening ritual in which she utilizes an entire cosmetics isle worth of creams, spritzes, and gadgets, please read ahead. In any case here is the short version:

Me (fairly new to quality woodworking and little to no mechanical repair experience) would like to buy a cabinet saw but cannot afford a new one. Near me there are several Unisaws from the 50s and 60s for sale, condition is hard to determine, not restored saws. While I know the quality is top notch, wondering if an antique saw may prove to be too much of a headache to maintain, repair, find parts for, etc. Weighing the pros and cons of instead buying a new hybrid saw (of the Grizzly variety) that while of a lesser quality, may prove to be less headache because of readily available parts, service manuals, warranty repairs, customer service department, compatibility with other modern accessories, etc. At the end of the day both saws will cost near to the same price, the Unisaw possibly more if the fence needs to be replaced, and I account for cosmetic restoration, any repairs, and having a 220v outlet installed in the garage.

The end.

And now for the feature presentation.

I’ve recently gone from the “I build crude boxes to store things in” kind of woodworker, to the “I only know how to build crude boxes to store things in but want to learn how to build less crude boxes to store things in, and some less crude things to store books in, and also some less crude things to sit at and eat dinner on” kind of woodworker. Needless to say, I’m green. The moisture content is high in this one.

Within a few hours drive from me there are several antique (1950s-1960s) Unisaws for sale. They range in price from $400 to $650. They are in the condition one would expect of an unrestored, 60 year old saw, but all are reported to be fully functioning and running smoothly.

This is my first “real” saw, and I feel lost deciding between something like these Unisaws, and a new hybrid Grizzly, probably the G0771Z. (Kind of settled on Grizzly because there is a showroom 2 hours a way and I can forgo the shipping charges, something that’s harder to find for other saw makers in that price range. At least in my area.)

I am fully aware that the Grizzly is the inferior saw. My only concern is that I don’t have any experience working on things mechanical. I really enjoy tinkering and working with my hands, but my day job involves sitting at a computer for 16 hours a day composing music. Needless to say, I don’t have any mechanical experience, don’t have a very large tool chest (a few wrenches, mismatched socket sets, screw drivers, etc) though I’m a pretty quick learner and think of myself as fairly mechanically minded.

I haven’t been able to pry a TON of information out of the guys selling these saws. Apparently the breed of gentleman who has a 65 year old table saw gathering dust in his garage, is also the breed of gentleman who isn’t much up for chit chat. Most replies regarding their saws don’t consist of much more than “It cuts good. It’s a good saw. It’s heavy.” None of them have been able to tell me if the saw has had any recent maintenance. None of them can really remember how long they’ve owned their saws. One of them thinks he might be the original owner, but can’t be for certain. The fact he can’t remember leads me to believe he probably is, and the old timers memory isn’t what it used to be. Apparently none of them have much of an eye for photography either, because in most of the pictures they’ve texted me, the saws are out of focus, and the only thing in focus are long-accumulating junk piles in the corners of their shops. What I’m trying to clarify here is that it’s pretty hard to tell the condition of these saws, and because they’re all a few hours a way, I can’t drop in on them. (I apologize if anyone reading this happens to be one of the gentlemen I’ve been corresponding with. Your quiet ways and carefully chosen words harken back to a day when men were men, and talking too much was a sign of weakness. Also, I’m sure the junk pile in your shop isn’t junk at all, but instead a carefully curated collection of extremely important odds and ends that will certainly be used sometime soon on an unplanned but definitely happening upcoming project.)

Are these saws easy to work on? Are there service manuals out there for them? Can you still find parts for them? I’ve done searches on YouTube about restoring them, but there isn’t anything detailed, more just montages of the restoring process (Surprise! these guys aren’t winning academy awards for their camera work either. I really wanna see which bolt you’re making sure I understand is crucial to putting on correctly so the blade doesn’t come sailing off. Less interested in the close up of your watch band.) Are there any good resources out there for maintenance and repair? Can someone like me, with limited mechanical experience, learn enough to keep mine running?

I guess if you boiled all of this down, here is my main concern:

I’d like to own a cabinet saw. I cannot, however, afford a new fancy one. Also, it seems there is much love for the older cabinet saws because they were made in America back in a time when men knew how to build saws from cold, hard american iron, and didn’t have time for trivial matters such as talking and photography classes. My fear is that I’ll be in over my head with an antique saw and won’t have a warranty to fall back on if something breaks, or a customer service line to call and bother with countless questions, or a new parts department to send me the wrong part 3 times before they finally get the right one in the mail. (Clearly I am NOT from a time when men were men. I have admittedly spent more money thus far in my life on organic, cold-pressed green juices than I have on tools. Also I enrolled in an evening photography class at my local community college. But! If you ever buy a saw from me and request additional pictures, you’ll probably gasp a little when you receive them, and feel an unshakable desire to immediately run from your house to your shop, select the finest scrap hard woods from the carefully curated pile in the corner, and build a frame using nothing but antique hand tools you restored yourself, so that you can proudly display the pictures over your live edge mantel.)

Thanks so much for bearing with me. I hope sooner than later I can contribute to this forum in a meaningful way, instead of just clogging it up with brainless questions. Until then, if anyone needs information on music composition, organic cold-press green juice, or anything a mans-man would be unfamiliar with, PM and I’ll do my best to answer. Though if you inquire on a Tuesday or Thursday evening, my response may be a little delayed as I’ll be in photography class.

(After trudging your way through all of that, if your better half is STILL not in bed next to you, if the bathroom door is STILL shut, and if you can STILL hear the occasional clinking of tiny, yet somehow astronomically expensive little glass vials on the countertop, all the while you hear her singing quietly to herself as she runs a brush through her hair for 1,346th time… take note. This feeling of confusion and isolation that you feel from the woman you love is identical to the feeling she experiences nearly every time she’s ready to turn in, and peers wonderingly out the kitchen window across the back yard to your shop, only to see your silhouette through a saw dust encrusted window, as you hunch over your workbench measuring out the cuts for a jig that will only serve to make measuring out the cuts for an even bigger, much more important jig, just a little bit easier. However. If she’s still in there 30 minutes from now, you may have a more serious issue at hand. Lucky for you, there’s probably a forum somewhere online you can join, where you can argue with other like minded men about what the REAL issue is. Good luck with that.)

15 replies so far

View Loren's profile


11141 posts in 4700 days

#1 posted 04-15-2017 03:38 PM

They hold up pretty well. If the saw’s been abused
in a production environment it usually looks
beat to hell.

View Planeman40's profile


1541 posts in 3813 days

#2 posted 04-15-2017 03:57 PM

Most of my shop is equipped with “antique” Delta machines, most from WW-2 vintage to 1970’s era. As long as the machine all there and as Loren says “its not beat to death”, most require only some clean-up (I always re-paint mine with some Sherwin-Williams gloss oil-based enamel mixed to the Delta standard gray color). The worst that can happen is new bearings are needed and these are readily available at any bearing supply. I have NEVER needed any new bearings.

I have been woodworking for 60 years now and I love the good old light industrial machines of the past like Delta and Walker-Tuner. Even the old Sears machines of those eras weren’t bad, just more cheaply made. If you have $2,000 to $4,000 burning a hole in your pocket and want bragging rights, buy a new SawStop ot Hammer sliding table saw, but if you want a good solid woodworking machine and need to watch your cash, go for one of the old ones and clean it up!

P.S. Make sure the motor is SINGLE PHASE (it will say so on the motor) and 220 volts is preferable if your shop can take it. Three phase is only for industrial areas that are wired for it. No residential area has three phase current. You can buy a three phase converter to convert 220V three phase to single phase for around $200 to $300. Used three phase machines are usually a good bit cheaper than single phase machines because there is a smaller market for them.


-- Always remember: It is a mathematical certainty that half the people in this country are below average in intelligence!

View Fred Hargis's profile

Fred Hargis

6919 posts in 3545 days

#3 posted 04-15-2017 04:54 PM

Given your self admittance to no being all that knowledgeable on the saw or it’s mechanics, I’d say look for a slightly newer one, maybe from the 80’s up to the 2000+. The older machines are great, but sometimes the effort to get it to turn key condition can be considerable. The price still may workable with the later models, though it sometimes take a lot of patience.

-- Our village hasn't lost it's idiot, he was elected to congress.

View jaminjames's profile


21 posts in 1459 days

#4 posted 04-15-2017 05:24 PM

A lot of great info here in these replies. Trying to figure out this forums method of replying directly to comments so I can ask a few direct follow up questions.

View MrUnix's profile


8505 posts in 3251 days

#5 posted 04-15-2017 05:29 PM

The Unisaw has remained virtually unchanged since they were introduced in the late 30’s, and parts are available from lots of different sources. I would suggest taking a look at the OWWM site (Old woodworking/metalworking machine site), which has a wealth of information about the Unisaw. Manuals, parts diagrams, how-to’s and lots of other documentation can be found at the VintageMachinery site.


PS: The older machines were built like tanks and are very hard to kill. Even machines that were in production environments can be found in great condition needing very little in the way of work, usually just bearings, belts and a clean up.

-- Brad in FL - In Dog I trust... everything else is questionable

View splintergroup's profile


4969 posts in 2274 days

#6 posted 04-16-2017 12:03 AM

As a 1998 model Unisaw owner, the only thing I’d question is the utility of the fence system. I haven’t used one of the older versions, but they look a bit persnickety. Actual owners certainly could affirm/deny this, only my opinion.

View Planeman40's profile


1541 posts in 3813 days

#7 posted 04-16-2017 12:07 AM

I had no problem with my 1970’s era Unisaw fence. It was one of the best things about it.

-- Always remember: It is a mathematical certainty that half the people in this country are below average in intelligence!

View Carloz's profile


1147 posts in 1643 days

#8 posted 04-16-2017 12:15 AM

The biggest drawback with the old saws is the absence of a true riving knife and reliable choice of aftermarket one. Splitters mitigate the problem to some extent but are not as effective as a riving knife as they are too far from the blade.

View Pmh30097's profile


16 posts in 2386 days

#9 posted 04-16-2017 12:15 PM

A couple of thoughts, in no particular order (I’m going on 4 hours sleep and inadequate caffeine plasma levels)...

1) Grizzlys are not strictly inferior machines. Yes, they’re made in Taiwan, but to Grizzlys specs. Don’t forget, your iDevice is made in China, to Apples specs. I wish they were US made… but here we are. Grizzlys tech support does seem to be quite good, too.

2) I’ll echo others sentiments about Unisaw: well made, generally indestructible, wear parts are fairly easy to replace. Failure of the major castings is rare, but can be replaced with parts found on eBay.

3) the inclusion or addition of modern safety equipment like splitters or riving knives (or even blade brakes…gasp) are somewhat of a personal choice based on comfort level with your skills and your situational awareness and perhaps a little bit of luck.

The unisaw is perhaps the de facto gold standard: Simple, capable, well known. A Grizzly, especially a brand new one, should give years of excellent use with the piece of mind that it is new, has most current safety features, and in your case is close enough to be called “local” if there’s a problem.

I really don’t think you can go wrong with either choice – you will end up with a solid tool that will serve your needs with aplomb.

Best of luck, let us know what you end up with. I’ll admit I enjoy reading tool rescue and rehabilitation stories, so if you go that route be sure to document your adventure here!


View mike02130's profile


170 posts in 1724 days

#10 posted 04-16-2017 01:21 PM

Pull the trigger. Go get the delta. Besides being a superior saw, it’s cool.

-- Google first, search forums second, ask questions later.

View Redoak49's profile


5177 posts in 3040 days

#11 posted 04-16-2017 03:10 PM

It depends on what you want to do.

With little experience repairing machinery, it will be a learning experience. Time will tell if you are capable of doing it.

What do you want to spend your time doing? Do you want to make sawdust or are you willing to spend your time on fixing up a saw.

There is no doubt they are great machines built like a tank.

As already mentioned, it does not have a riving knife or splitter. If you are a newby woodworker, IMHO having these safety devices is important.

Just be realistic about the costs of time and money to get the saw up and running and then make a decision.

Good Luck

View MikeUT's profile


203 posts in 2411 days

#12 posted 04-16-2017 04:47 PM

Having no experience isn’t a reason to pass up on one. The constraining factors will be time and your patience with learning as you go. I found and restored a 1946 Unisaw and I love it. As others mentioned, they are tanks so you probably wont have to do much mechanically. Most will be cleaning grime, lubing, getting rid of rust, and painting.

When you can inspect the saw in person, look under the bonnet and make sure everything is in tact. If you see any cracked or fractured cast iron, run!

You can start restoring it and spend the extra money with time. My Unisaw can be wired for 220 or 110 so you don’t have to rewire your garage right away. The original fence isn’t a Beisemeyer but can still be used accurately and effectively.

View knotscott's profile


8415 posts in 4427 days

#13 posted 04-16-2017 05:24 PM

It’s worth noting that while many saws, including some Unisaws, can be wired for 110v or 220v, those with motors of 2hp or larger are far better off on 220v. The current flow required to power a typical single phase 3hp motor using 110v would be way beyond what most circuits could handle. If you find an old Uni with a 1hp or 1.5hp motor, you should be set with 110v.

-- Happiness is like wetting your pants...everyone can see it, but only you can feel the warmth....

View Kelly's profile


3494 posts in 3996 days

#14 posted 04-16-2017 06:41 PM

I am using my second Unisaw. The first, a right tilt, sold in the course of my adjusting to single life. The second is about ten years old and a left tilt.

The major changes are, Unisaws now are all left tilt, use better fences, and have riving knives.

I was fortunate and was able to buy a Merlin Splitter, while they were still being sold. It mounts and removes in seconds and has cut the kick back problems to a minimum. When I have felt a great deal of pressure against the splitter, I was able to stop the saw, before things got nasty.

Keep in mind, the Unifences or the Biesemeyer Fence and mounting rails will run about $400.00. So, if you pay $600.00 for a saw and upgrade, you’ll have a grand in.

On fences, if I had a cheap saw and only four hundred bucks, I’d spend the money on a fence, since they can make a cheap saw impressive, though a bit more unstable or slow cutting.

All things said, a two hundred year old Unisaw, if they existed, would be a kick butt machine, if just used by the average Joe. I have a friend with a Unisaw his dad owned and ran for their cabinet shop and, last count, it’s still going strong.

If a saw needed bearing, as long as you don’t by them from the saw manufacturer, would be pretty cheap. Probably under fifty for a set.

If the saw ran smooth, I’d be most worried about checking the arbor for a spun blade and the associated wear.

View Gentile's profile


369 posts in 2870 days

#15 posted 04-17-2017 12:20 AM

Mine is a early 90s Delta. Previously I had gone through a couple of Craftsmans.
It’s much better.
The original fence was trash, lots of putzing with.
I ended up getting a Steel City fence. A Bessemer knock off .
I paid more for the fence than I did for the saw.They’re out of business now?
Go for a Delta or a Powermatic…

-- "I cut it twice and it's still too short"

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