Miter Saw Basics: What Is It and When To Use It
A miter saw is a perfect tool for precision work, such as interior trim. Here's an overview of the pros and cons of this popular saw.
A miter saw is a staple tool in a finish carpenter’s workshop, and popular with DIYers of all skill levels. If you’ve considered adding a miter saw to your power tool collection but aren’t sure where to start, read on for some background and what to consider when making a purchase.
What Is a Miter Saw?
A miter saw is essentially a hinge-mounted circular saw blade that can be swung down into the material to be cut. Because the hinge is fixed in place, the blade always drops down in a controlled motion, creating clean, consistent cuts.
This works great for cutting flat ends, but a miter saw can also rotate left and/or right to cut at an angle. This versatility makes a miter saw a great choice for fine woodworking.
Miter saws are often good tools for teaching new DIYers about woodworking. A guard covers the saw blade, and the material to be cut sits on the miter table and presses into the saw’s back fence (i.e. a vertical metal wall).
Newcomers to woodworking often find this setup and the simple operation of a miter saw less intimidating than the open blade of a bandsaw or table saw. And DIYers with hand strength issues often find a miter saw easier to work with than a circular saw.
This isn’t to say that a miter saw doesn’t pose any danger. Power tools (especially saws) should always be treated with respect.
Like most power tools, you can certainly do the work of a miter saw by hand with a miter box and hand saw, or by substituting a different saw. A circular saw can make the same cuts as a miter saw, but it’s much more difficult to match the precision and speed.
Types of Miter Saws
Miter saws are described by their blade size and type of cuts they can make, as well as whether they are corded or cordless.
All miter saws can cut a miter angle, meaning that the blade can swing to either side. The simplest type of miter saw can cut a miter to the right and (usually) to the left.
Compound miter saw
A compound miter saw not only swivels left or right, but also tilts at an angle to create a beveled cut. Some compound miter saws allow a tilt in either direction, while some limit the bevel to one side. Those that allow bevels in both directions are often called “dual compound” or “dual bevel.”
Sliding miter saw
One of the main limitations of a miter saw is its cut width. A sliding miter saw uses rails to allow the blade to glide a short distance when cutting, adding valuable inches to the cutting width. (Check the manufacturer’s description for the exact width.) Many small-blade miter saws add rails to allow the lighter, more portable body to make cuts on wider trim.
Compound sliding miter saw
As you’d expect, a compound sliding miter saw features beveled cuts and sliding rails. These tend to be the heaviest and most expensive miter saws, but they are also the most versatile.
Miter saws have a set size, described by the diameter of the blade they can accept. This means that a 10-inch miter saw has a blade 10 inches in diameter.
The most common miter saw sizes are 10-inch and 12-inch. Most 10-inch miter saws can cut up to six-inch boards at a right angle and four-inch boards at 45 degrees. Twelve-inch miter saws can cut eight-inch boards a right angle and six-inch boards at 45 degrees. (Note that those are dimensional lumber measurements, so the actual cutting size will be slightly smaller.)
Other popular sizes include 7-1/4- and 14-inches for those who work with narrow trim or larger materials, respectively. Most DIYers opt for a 10-inch saw because it offers a great balance of price, portability and cutting versatility.
Corded or cordless
Traditionally, miter saws are corded, but improved cordless technology means you can run a miter saw without any cord at all. There are a small number of gas-powered saws, but we won’t cover those here.
Pros and Cons of Miter Saws
- Precise crosscuts: Miter saws allow the angle to be locked in, and often have stops set at common angles.
- Fast, easily repeatable cuts: Once a miter saw is set up, it can make repeated, identical cuts.
- Less intimidating for new users: The stability and protected blade make it a good introduction saw for inexperienced DIYers.
- More accessible for those with limited mobility: Miter saws allow accurate cross-cuts without needing to control the weight of a circular saw or to stretch across a table saw.
Miter saws are a good choice for precision work such as interior trim or picture frame-making. A miter saw’s controlled movements and range of motion also makes it easier for DIYers with limited hand strength.
- Limit on material width: You’ll need a different tool to cut wide materials.
- Heavy and bulky: Although the actual cutting process requires little force, miter saws are far heavier to move around a shop than a circular saw.
- Can take up floor space: The miter table isn’t wide enough to support longer boards. You’ll have to set up temporary supports on either side or build a permanent saw station, which can take up valuable floor space in a small shop.
Miter saws are not a good choice if you primarily rip long pieces of lumber or cross-cut wide material. They provide an excellent work station, but are not nearly as portable as a circular saw. Many DIYers who own a miter saw also invest in a table saw for ripping wood to length.
Buying a Miter Saw
Ready to find the best miter saw for you? Here are some factors to consider:
- Style: Compound miter saws allow more flexibility and cuts. Sliding miter saws can tackle wider material but cost more.c
- Power source: Cordless saws are convenient, but if you aren’t sure you need that flexibility, you’re probably better off with a corded model.
- Build: Some saws have a miter table and frame that are heavier or lighter than other saws.
- Dust extraction: Miter saws can generate a lot of sawdust. Check the size of the dust port to see if it’s compatible with your shop vacuum or dust extraction system.
- Price: Plan on spending $200 to $400 for your miter saw, depending on the size, power source, style and build. Models that cost more than $600 are generally targeted to pros requiring high-end performance or maximum portability. Most DIY users can find a great saw for $400 or less.