In this article we cover a lot of ground, including : miter saw uses, types of miter saws, how to use a miter saw and more. Choosing a miter saw can be confusing as there are many types of saws on the market and if you’re a beginner, it may be difficult knowing where to start. Ultimately, you probably want to know “What is a miter saw used for?”
There are a variety of miter saws (compound, sliding, etc.) available and each of them have their own applications, allowing you to perform a specific range of cuts, so knowing what your long-term goals are is important in deciding what’s the best miter saw for you. Let’s get started!
Any experienced woodworker knows the value of a miter saw. Newbies may not be aware of what a miter saw is used for and this article is going uncover the full story. In days of old, a miter block and a backsaw was all that a carpenter could use for making more than straight cuts. This requires manual work and can be quite time consuming, but is accurate and inexpensive. Modern woodworkers mostly use electric saws, and specialized miter saws with a rotating circular blade can help in many ways.
Miter Saw Uses
We use a miter to make angled cross cuts. This is usually to create a flush join at a particular angle. The most common miter cut would be at a 45° angle. By cutting pieces with opposing 45° degree angles, you get a neat join with a perfectly square 90° corner. You could use any combination of angles for the two pieces to make as square join, as long as the sum of both angles add up to 90°. A 60° miter cut, joined to a piece cut at 30°, will have the same effect.
VIDEO | Miter Saw Uses
It’s important that the angles run in the correct direction. A common rookie mistake is to cut pieces for a corner join that ends up joining in a straight line. Of course, if you want to join to pieces at 180° to extend the length, this is the best way to do it. Essentially, a miter cut is used to make the strongest join possible. The angle of the cut, increases the surface area that makes contact when joining two pieces of wood. To explain this, one just needs to look at the backslash and forward slash on a computer keyboard. For a straight (180°) join, both miter cuts will run in the same direction — _\\_. You can see how the join ends up in the same direction. For a corner, you oppose these angles – _\ /_. If you align these two angles, so that the lines press against one another, you end up with a 90° angle.
Common Miter Saw Cuts | Diagram
Another important use for a miter cut is for seamless joins in corners when installing molding for ceilings, runner boards and the like. This allows the curves of the moldings to follow the corner, giving a perfect continuation of the lines. At first, you’ll probably make many mistakes. This is because inner corners and outer corners require the opposite type of join. To be honest, even after years of DIY carpentry, I sometimes have to go back and recut the miters for moldings. It’s something that takes some repetition to get used to. If you’re doing it every day, cutting moldings becomes a habit, and you don’t have to think about it much.
So these are the basics of miter cuts and what they’re used for. Describing it on paper, may not make perfect sense. You really need to practice a bit to get a sense of what you’re doing. If you’re learning about miter saws, you should also be aware of bevel cuts. This is another type of angled cut used for wood joinery.
A miter cut is done along the flat width of a board and joins along the larger, flat surface of the piece. The join will run along the same axis or plane. In other words, two miter joins on a horizontal plane will result in a flat piece with a horizontal join. Picture frames, moldings, and shelves that meet in a corner are good examples of where you’d use miter cuts.
VIDEO | Miter Saw Cuts | Overview
A bevel cut creates an angle across the width of the piece. So the resultant join will be across two planes. One piece will horizontal, and the other, vertical. An example of this would be if you were to create a countertop surface with solid sides. The vertical (upright) piece will join the horizontal (countertop) piece using a bevel cut. Like miter cuts, if you want a 90° join, your bevel angles have to add up to 90° and run in opposing directions. Bevel cuts that run in the same direction can be used to extend pieces when you want to join them at the width. This is handy for extending boards to make table top.
What is A Miter Saw?
Now that you know what miter and bevel cuts are, and what they’re used for. You should also know what types of miter saws you can get. How they work and which is better for a particular application.
I’ve already mentioned the original backsaw with a miter block in the introduction. An old-fashioned miter block is available today and is usually made from hard plastic. They can be wooden or metal. It’s a block with angled slits in it – usually only 90° or 45°, but some will also have a 60°/30° combination. These are the most common miter angles. The slits in the block guide the saw, keeping it perfectly perpendicular to the surface, whilst maintaining the desired angles. Apart from being slower than a power saw, a miter block is limited to the angles of the slits in the miter block. Power miter saws are the preferred way of doing things. They are more versatile and faster.
The Power Miter Saw
The basic definition of a power miter saw is a mechanical circular saw with a small table (also known as a drop saw). A drop, or plunge saw is fixed to a pivoting point for an accurate perpendicular angle.
A power miter saw will have an adjustable fence and table with a miter index. This allows the user to set the miter angle with exact precision for any angle. While most miter saws use a rotating table to set the angle, there are those that change the angle of the blade across the horizontal plane. Some miter saws only adjust the angle to the left of the blade, while other allow the angle to be set in both directions. A miter saw can also have a blade that can be angled along the vertical plane, allowing for bevel cuts.
The complexity and variety of blade or table settings determines the type of miter saw. Generally, the more complex a miter saw is, the more expensive it will be.
Chop Saw vs Miter Saw — What’s the Difference?
I mentioned that a power miter saw is also known as a drop saw. A chop saw is also a drop saw and this has led many to ask what the difference is between a chop saw and a miter saw. It would be good idea to clarify this before going any further.
Essentially, a miter saw a specialized type of chop saw. Both types of saws use a rotating circular blade that is pressed (or dropped) down onto a piece of wood for cross cuts. Both have tables and a saw motor and blade that is attached to a pivoting head.
The primary difference between a chop saw and a miter saw is that a chop saw has fixed table and saw blade. This means that a chop saw can only cut 90° angles. Chop saws are generally used in commercial shops and will usually have larger blades (14” or more). They are used to cut large quantities of squared pieces in rapid succession to increase productivity.
For a home shop, a miter saw with a larger blade can function just as well as a chop saw, as you can set the angle at 90° to perform square cuts.
Now let’s move on to the types of miter saws that are available to you.
✓ Learn more about the differences between a variety of saws, including : table saw vs miter saw
Types of Miter Saws
1 — Standard Miter Saw
The most basic power miter saw has a rotating circular blade attached to a spring loaded handle with a table that can be set for different angles. These saws will make cross cuts at the desired angle. The table will have a miter index. The most basic miter saws will have an index from 0° – 45°, some may have a greater variety, allowing you to set the angle up to 60°. The best miter saws will slightly exceed 60°, which allows you to compensate for over cuts.
You set the angle using the miter index markings and then lock the table into position. This can be a cam lock that depress to lock the table. This is easily done and reduces the risk of inadvertently moving the table whilst locking it. The more conventional way of locking the table is by means of a screw handle that you turn until the table is secured into position.
Standard Miter Saw | Rockwell ShopSeries RK7136.1
Many miter saws will have positive stops for common miter angles. This means the miter index will have small indents that offer a slight resistance when move across that point. This allows you to stop the table at the exact point of this angle, without physically aligning it with your eye. It speeds up the process.
Generally, a basic standard miter saw will only have angles to one side of the blade. To cut an opposing angle, you’ll need to flip the piece over. A standard miter saw only allows you to make a cut relative to the size of the blade. Miter saw blades range from 8” to about 12”, sometimes more. You cut into a width that’s a little more than half the diameter of the saw blade for 90° cuts. Your depth of cut will be the same, depending on the width of the piece. Because the blade is circular, you’ll only have the full depth of cut at the center, where the blade has greatest depth.
A 10” miter saw will have a cutting width and depth of 5.5” at 90°. As the angle of the cut increases, this will become progressively less. So if you want make a 45° cut into a piece of 4 X 4 lumber, you’ll need a 12” miter saw to ensure you cut through the entire width and depth of the piece. If you use a smaller blade, you’ll need to turn the piece over and realign the angle and position, to ensure that you cut along the same line. The limiting factors of the blade size is the greatest disadvantage to this type of miter saw.
2 — Compound Miter Saw
A compound miter saw will have all the aspects of a standard miter saw with the addition of an adjustment for the tilt angle of the blade. By tilting the blade, you are able to make bevel cuts. The blade will have a bevel index like the miter index for the table and, these too, may have positive stops for common bevel angles. Like a miter saw table, the blade may adjust to only one side or both. The same method applies to blades that only tilt you one side as for miter cuts, you have to flip the piece around to make an opposing bevel cut. Compound miter saws that are able to tilt the blade and table in two directions are known as dual compound miter saws.
DEWALT DW716XPS | Double-Bevel Compound Miter Saw
You adjust the blade tilt angle in the same way as you do the table. Use the bevel index to set the desired angle and lock the blade into position. A standard plunge, compound miter saw will have the same cutting restrictions as a standard miter saw. This means that the cutting width and depth are relative to size of your blade.
3 — Sliding Compound Miter Saw
Because a regular plunge action is limited by the blade size, a sliding compound miter saw is the best for cutting wider pieces. In addition to all the features of a compound miter saw, these saws also include sliding rails for the saw head. This means that you are able to move the saw horizontally, whilst cutting.
Sliding Compound Miter Saw | Delta S26-261L
You pull the saw back along the rails before pushing down onto the piece that you’re cutting. Once you’ve cut into the depth of the piece, you can push the blade forward along the width of the piece. In this way, you are able to make wider cross cuts at any angle. The rails ensure that your blade always remains in the correct position for an accurate cut.
It’s important to ensure that your sliding compound miter saw has good quality rails. Any movement on the saw head will affect the accuracy of the cut.
Things to Look for in a Miter Saw
I’m very conscious of tool brands and am of the opinion that it is always the best idea to go for top brands, like Festool, DeWalt, Makita, or Metabo. The more sophisticated the saw that you’re buying, the more important it becomes to buy a quality item from a recognized brand.
So if you’re not in position to buy one of the premier branded miter saws, you should keep things as basic as possible. Every moving part on a miter saw runs the risk of reducing the accuracy with which you work. A basic standard miter saw only has a table that rotates, usually only to one side. This means that there’s less to go wrong. Because it has fewer components, it will obviously be cheaper.
As we move up, particularly when choosing a sliding compound miter saw, you need to think about spending more. There are many moving parts and these all need quality bearings and bushes to remain accurate.
Regardless of the brand, or type of miter saw that you’re considering, there are some basic guides as to what look for in terms of quality. Some features, while not essential, can be a great aid in helping you work more efficiently and accurately.
What Size Miter Saw Should You Use?
When it comes to circular saws, bigger is always better. You can cut smaller pieces with powerful miter saw that has a large blade. But the opposite is not true. Sliding miter saws help increase the width of a cross cut, but not the depth of cut. All circular saws can only cut a depth that is equal to about half the saw diameter.
If you only intend cutting moldings, then a smaller miter saw will be fine. However, cabinetry can require any number of applications. A larger miter saw will obviously offer greater versatility.
Carbide saw blades are the best, I wouldn’t recommend using anything else. The more teeth a blade has, the smoother the cut will be. Your chance of tear out and chipping are reduced when the blade has more teeth. Fine tooth blades cur slower, but don’t want to work too fast when making miter cuts. A quality cut is what you’re after.
A blade brake is a great feature and is common on most miter saws these days. This basically stops the blade from spinning for too long after you switch the saw off. This will improve your safety and productivity.
Table and Fence
The table and fence are essential to working accurately and easily. Both need to be perfectly machined to ensure accuracy. Thicker metal, that won’t warp, is something to look for. A fixed fence will never go out of alignment, but this limits your working abilities.
While an adjustable fence is desirable, it needs to remain in position. Any movement on the fence will affect the accuracy of your work. Guide rails and a good locking mechanism are signs to look for in an adjustable fence.
Miter and Bevel Indexes
You’ll be relying on your miter indexes to set your angles with perfect accuracy. For compound miter saws, bevel indexes are equally important. Large oversized markings are a big plus, especially if you require precision angles to within a fraction of a degree.
Positive stops aren’t essential, but if you use standard angles on a regular basis, and often change between these, stops will help you work much faster.
Example of Miter and Bevel Scales on the DeWalt DWS779
The type of locking mechanism for the blade or table is just as important. Cam locks are great because you can lock or release by simply pulling or pushing a lever. Screw knobs take longer and there’s a chance that something might shift whilst you’re turning the knob to tighten it. As great and convenient as cam locks are, they need to be of the highest quality. Cheap cam locks can shift easily and may not always last.
As I mentioned when discussing tool brands, steer away from more complex components when buying a cheaper miter saw. This will also apply to cam locks.
Dust extractors are a woodworker’s best friend. From a health perspective, breathing in sawdust is hazardous. Wearing a dust mask all the time is uncomfortable and restricting. So, in this regard, dust extraction is more pleasant.
Sawdust and wood chips have other negative effects. It’s not good for your woodworking tools as the sawdust collects around the moving parts and blocks cooling vents. Working in a clean environment will also affect the quality of your work. Uneven surfaces with wood chips on them will cause wobble which can affect your accuracy. Saw dust collecting on the workpiece restricts your visibility and you won’t be able to see the markings that guide you.
HEPA Dust Extractor | Festool 583492 CT 26 E
So a dust extraction port on any miter saw is important. Fortunately, just about every woodworking tool has dust extraction ports these days. You don’t need an industrial dust extractor to make use of this. An ordinary shop vac will work just fine for most of the smaller woodworking tools. You need to make sure that you have the correct fittings for the dust extraction port and that the vacuum or dust extractor that you’re using meets the CFM rating specified for that tool. You should get the relevant information in your owner’s handbook.
Laser Guides and Work Lights
Seeing what you’re doing is always a plus and a work light fitted to a miter saw that perfectly illuminates your cutting line can be a big help. Laser guides assist in showing you exactly where the saw blade is going to cut before you start. This saves a lot of time in checking and realigning the piece before making the cut. Some high-end miter saws have built-in laser guides as standard features or as optional extras. It’s also possible to buy aftermarket laser guides and retrofit these. Though you need to check if your miter saw will accommodate the type of laser guide that you’re buying and you’ll need to calibrate when installing.
VIDEO | How to Cut Crown Molding with a Miter Saw
How to Use a Miter Saw
As with any saw, safety is important when using a miter saw. The blade guard is there for a reason and should always be correctly installed. There may be times when you need to remove the blade guard for certain types of cuts. But you should always reinstall it correctly, immediately after completing that cut. It’s so easy to neglect the blade guard if you frequently remove it, so it’s good to get into the habit of replacing it. Fortunately, most saw manufacturers have simplified removing and replacing the blade guard.
The correct PTFE safety gear is important in a woodworking shop. Eye protection is a must and leather gloves are recommended. Though I find that that thick gloves can make things a little difficult in some situations. So, gloves or not, always be mindful of those fingers. Gloves may protect you from splinters, but they’re no match for a spinning saw blade.
Always work in a clean an orderly way. Loose pieces of wood scattered about, or propped up against walls and machines are an accident waiting to happen.
Right, now you know what your miter saw is used for, you have all safety checks in place. You’re ready to start using your miter saw.
The first step is to blow, or brush away any dust or wood chips from the miter saw table. Grit or wood chips on the table, or between the fence and the workpiece, might cause unwanted movement of the piece whilst cutting and this could affect your accuracy.
Measure and mark the line to be cut. Always remembering the golden rule: measure twice, cut once. When measuring any wood for cutting, you need account for the width of the blade.
Adjust your fence and set your miter and/or bevel angles. Place your workpiece firmly against the fence and make sure it’s secure. You don’t want any movement once you start cutting. You can clamp the piece to the table to reduce the risk of movement. Though before you clamp it down, make sure the blade is precisely lined up with the cut line. If you don’t have a laser guide, you’ll need to do this by eye.
With the piece in position, bend your knees until your eyes are level with the workpiece. Without switching the saw on, pull the blade down until it makes contact with the surface. Check that the blade is exactly centered on the line. If you’ve compensated for the blade width by measuring to the left or right of the blade, then you will obviously want to line the blade up accordingly.
Once you know your cutting line is exactly where it should be, lift the blade all the way to the top position. Never start the saw when it is in contact with the workpiece. Start the machine and wait for the blade to reach full speed. Now pull down on the handle with just enough force to cut into the wood. You don’t want to press down too hard, as this will cause your saw to labor and could also affect the quality of the cut. Press the saw all the way down until it reaches the bottom stop point. Keep the blade turning until you’ve lifted the saw and it is completely free from contact with the workpiece.
If you’re using a sliding miter saw, follow the same basic procedure as above. But before you start the blade, pull it all the way toward you before pressing down to start the cut. Press down gently until the blade has cut all the way through the width of the wood. Then push forward on the saw arm at a slow but steady pace.
Additional Resources :
- How to cut crown molding (Dewalt)
- Woodworking Joints (Woodworkers Guild of America)