how to use a chop saw with five-year-olds

Sean, our energetic, enthusiastic project specialist, writes, “As someone who used to look at the pictures of the kids on the chop saw and wonder, ‘How, exactly, do you get kids to use big tools confidently and safely?’, I want to share some best practices in a blog post.” His work with kids during summer camp, weekend and break workshops, and the day program has greatly increased the quality of projects and the kids’ experiences at the school.

A chop saw spins 80 sharpened steel teeth at 135mph. It slices through redwood in seconds. It is one of the most elemental and articulate tools used in construction.

And five-year-olds love it.

Real, “grown-up” tools empower kids, and expand their boundaries of what’s possible. At the heart of our shop are power drills–an “additive” tool–and our chop saw–a “subtractive” tool. It’s a simple, powerful combination that will allow your kids to build bigger, bolder, better projects.

If you give them the chance, kids will amaze you. We’ve seen hundreds of people as young as five safely, accurately and efficiently use our chop saw. Here’s how we get them started.


Before Chop Saw Safety Training

  • Make sure everyone has properly-sized safety glasses and noise-reducing headphones.

  • Keep the group small. Every kid should be able to see safe operation of the saw.

Chop Saw Safety Training

  • Start with a one-cut demo of safe use, without commentary or narration. (The chop saw commands a lot more attention than talking!)

  • Draw attention to the basic safety risks posed by the tool, and challenge kids to propose answers.

      • Eye injury: The saw can send tiny bits of wood flying. How can you protect your eyeballs? Wear safety goggles.

      • Hearing damage: The noise of the motor is loud enough to kill cells integral to hearing, which cannot regenerate. How can you prevent hearing damage? Wear noise-reducing headphones.

      • Unpleasant surprises (caused by moving wood): If the wood moves while the blade is cutting, the piece can be thrown, or the blade can become “pinched”, causing a sudden and startling kickback. How can you prevent the wood from moving while cutting? Make sure the wood is held firmly against the fence.

      • Spinning blades can grab things: If sleeves, loose clothing, jewelry or long hair touch the spinning blade, they’ll be spun around at 3600 rpm! What can you do to prevent hair and clothing from getting caught in the blade? Tuck all loose objects, pull back long hair.


    • The obvious: The chop saw is, of course, capable of cutting the user. Point out “the blood bubble”–the only area where the blade is actually capable of traveling. Given that the blade is only capable of traveling through the blood bubble, how can you keep the blade from touching you? Never put your body or clothing in the blood bubble. Ever.


  • Then demonstrate best practices, including:.

    • checking to make sure everyone nearby is wearing safety glasses and noise-reducing headphones;

    • starting the motor with the blade well outside the wood;

    • cutting slowly, never forcing the saw through the wood (we tell our kids that a 2×4 should take about 5 seconds);

    • after the cut, release the trigger and keep the blade down until it’s stopped spinning completely (the spinning blade can send off-cut flying).

With our smallest kids, we co-operate the saw. Both adult and kid hold the wood and pull the saw, the kid squeezes the trigger. This has been a great experience for our youngest – getting to operate such a serious machine brings out their most focused selves.


After Chop Saw Safety Training

  • Make sure kids know that an adult is required safety equipment–an adult should supervise every cut, no matter how experienced the user.

  • Don’t hesitate to correct unsafe use, even by conscientious, well-intention-ed users. Safety is amoral.

  • Praise safe use.

That’s it! This saw has been a workhorse for us, and these glasses and headphones fit kids of most shapes and sizes.

Feel free to get in touch ( with questions, and keep us updated on your projects!


The best projects challenge us in ways that force us to inventory everything we know and everything we know how to do to find a solution. Every idea that comes up is heralded, championed as “the way!”, clung to desperately as it fails to hold up to scrutiny, and then quickly abandoned or re-imagined – the healthy cycle of innovation.


As I worked with various projects today, I was pleased to hear the mixture of agonized torment and celebratory invention. It is good to have hard problems to chew on, good to wake up in the middle of the night with a new insight. This is why we do it.

details from the ninja cats

Leap day for the Ninja Cats…

Norabelle looked for gravity facts online and Kaia found amazing illustrations of horses running for hers. Today, we talked about how to “filter” information to get the golden nuggets as you research your project.

Theo’s asked to play a game of charades that was limited to imitating “Giant Microbes”. Here is imitating sleeping sickness (mono) for the kids. They couldn’t guess his!!

The Ninja Cats love to blow off some steam with a wrestling break!

Zada has been enthralled with the humongous dictionary all week. She was under the table in her dictionary cave this morning.

Theo noticed that when you drop something on the table it sounds like an earthquake if you put your ear down, so Norabelle joined the fun.

Coke and Quinn measured out their pieces to make the prototype of their trebuchet. They’ve accomplished this independently without adult support. They’ve loved working in the artist-in-residence studio and they ran around the school excitedly as they found parts and containers for parts.

The Ninja Cats love Theo’s games. He teaches the kids a game 2 or 3 days per week.

We started the day with some role play to practice responding to people who are inappropriately directing their anger at you.

Chane loves to incorporate opportunities to work on empowerment. The kids each role played how to respond to an angry person while the other kids pretended to be the angry person.

mountain lake park

The Marshmallow Ninja Cats took a trip to Mountain Lake Park today.

Nicky caught sight of some “sap icicles” and he stopped the group to gather around the tree.


Audrey and Norabelle’s 3rd Law of Motion experiment:
“I was pointing it in the middle but it kept only taking half of me or half of Audrey. We were trying to take a picture of me pushing Audrey over so that we could The camera was focused on us and it was taking only half.”

During our park trip, we played three games. First, small groups had to design a chain reaction of energy transfers from one kid to another. For instance, Kaia pushed Norabelle down a slide and Norabelle then ran to a Audrey to trigger another event. After this, the kids tried to catch examples of Newton’s Second or Third Law of Motion with the camera.

For the chain reaction game, Theo was responsible for giving Quinn a light head to head “bonk” so Quinn would know to run up the slide.

These gentlemen were planning their chain reaction events together!

On our trip to the park, everyone asked, “Why is Theo collecting cardboard boxes?” They soon learned how important a box is for sliding at Mountain Lake Park.

The Marshmallow Ninja Cats were obsessed with the approximately twenty-five foot concrete slide!

Nicky was hanging at least twenty feet above ground and noticing the upside down world.

Nicky contemplated this triangular sandwich box all day. He even carried it home with him.

Theo called this area by the lake “the old castle ruins.”

Quinn gathered some tree sap on his stick. “There was a tree with hanging icicles so I picked some up.”

On the way home, we played “the silent game” and the kids had to act out a message of some kind. The other bus riders were so shocked at the lack of noise from the group.

Mean-Faced Ninja Cats.

Not Too Late to Support Brightworks

Dear Friends,

Brightworks is showing that education can be engaging and compelling, full of wonder and amazing experiences. In the first four months of school we have had more than thirty visiting experts, more than twenty-five excursions to sites around the Bay Area, and four local artists in our artist-in-residence program. Educators around the country and the world are contacting us daily for inspiration to bring back to their own classrooms and communities, and we love sharing what we have learned in order to further the national and international dialogue about educational reform. We are creating a new type of learning experience, and it’s changing how people talk and think about education.

This is a transformative time for us, and you can help. Make a tax-deductible donation this year in order to help Brightworks succeed. We are a very low-overhead organization and every dollar we receive goes directly to helping create life-long learners and world-changers.

Have something to share with our students, or time to volunteer? We love visiting experts, and we can always use a helping hand around the school. Contact Justine to schedule a visit or learn about upcoming projects that you may be able to help out on.

Want to share us with your friends? We’ve got a Facebook page and a twitter account that are updated almost daily.

Have a wonderful 2012, and thank you for supporting Brightworks,
Gever, Ellen, Justine, Josh, Mackenzie, Chane, Anthony


Yesterday was my first sick day. It was awful, unpleasant, and all around not how I wanted to spend my day. Headaches and seemingly endless quantities of phlegm and snot kept me company as the school carried on without me. 4 extra hours of sleep, some hot soup and a long walk have left me feeling much better. I guess if you don’t take a day off, your body will take a day off for you.

More important than my own fragility and whining was how thoroughly I was able to rest today.

I have been working on this school since near its inception. For the last 6 months it is all I have been able to think about. Every day, I am in 1960 Bryant for 8-12 hours prepping, lesson planning, building, meeting, talking, and doing all the crazy things it takes to build a school from scratch. Right alongside me every day is Justine, Gever, Ellen, Chane, and Mackenzie, working just as much, just as hard, and often with more grace and intelligence.

Over the last weeks we have grown to trust each other deeply. This is in some way a necessity of our ambition to make something so large from so little. In more important ways this is a result of each individual’s character.

Justine is quiet and reliable. With one foot firmly in the office and one foot firmly on the floor with the kids. She juggles often conflicting responsibilities as easily as most others would drop them.

Ellen is our administrative ninja. Because of her, we opened. Because of her, our budget works. Because of her, we have health insurance. She takes care of things I don’t even know need to happen before I ever find out they might have been a problem.

Gever is the man with a dream and a knack for problem solving. His audacity got us into this most wonderful mess. Daily, weekly, and monthly, it is his audacity that keeps us going.

Chane is calm under fire and undeniably focused on creating an environment that is safe, physically and emotionally, for the kids and the rest of the staff. She knows exactly how to show support and is always there at just the right moment.

Mackenzie is a creative powerhouse who has come up with nearly endless activities for our youngest and oldest alike. Quick on her feet, there is no one on staff better at making improv seem planned. She has an eye on the horizon and helps the rest of us keep our focus just far enough in the future to make sure we create something truly meaningful for the kids.

I had assumed that if I ever took a day off, I would be riddled with endless concerns. How is the school doing? Are the kids having a great time? Did the transitions go well? How wrong I was. I lay in bed, reading, resting and recovering. And whenever a worry popped into my head, it just as quickly faded with the simple sentence: “I am sure they have got it under control.”


the 9 and 9L are different

This Friday, our school experienced its first real excursion hiccup. We spent the afternoon in the library reading, picking books, and doing a bit of scary story research for our upcoming Halloween party.

After two hours wandering the halls of the Teen and Children sections at the library, it was time to head home. Our timing, it seemed, was perfect: a roughly 20 minute journey home starting at 3:05pm. We’d even have time for a quick end of day circle.

Clipper cards ready, we all hopped on the bus. Confident we where looking for our standard 18th street stop, we embraced the usual shenanigans of the bus ride – story telling, day sharing, brotherly rough housing, and backpack ruffling. A bell ding alerted us that we were coming up on the 17th street stop and the warning to students went out: “The next stop, at 18th street, is ours.”

With bags closed and students ready, we flew by the 18th Street stop. 19th Street went whizzing by. 20th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd follow suit. Turns out that the 9 and the 9L are very different buses.

We got off the bus and shared with the kids the fantastic nature of our bus stop failure. Taking the opportunity to model calm and reasonable problem-solving, Mackenzie and I plotted a new path home and called Justine so she could keep parents in the loop. We were to walk over to Bryant and take the trusty 27. Looking back, I now realize we missed an opportunity to ask our kids to participate in generating a solution.

The 27 seemed like it was going to take far too long, so we opted to try and beat it by walking back to school. We split into two groups: the runners (hell-bent on beating the bus home) and the walkers (less-bent but still hoping to beat the bus home). Some parents met us along the way to keep after-school appointments but most others waited as we and the kids added an additional 20 minutes to our journey home. Our day came to an end with varying levels of sweatiness and similar levels of accomplishment and adventure.