What’s the most underestimated or at least misunderstood power tool quietly treasured by professional contractors and master craftsmen?
Well, if you ask any woodworking enthusiast or carpenter, they’ll merely utter the words- a miter saw.
In this article, we’ll uncover how miter saws work, what makes them unique, and how to choose between different models if you’re looking to buy one.
What Can a Miter Saw Do Better Than Other Stationary Saws?
Most often than not, you’ll see miter saws being used to make lengthwise cuts, also known as crosscuts. While most table saws can do pretty much the same thing, the miter saw just does it better – as in cleaner and faster.
That’s why miter saws are the preferred power of choice when cutting baseboard molding as they can make a wide range of cuts both accurately and quickly.
Honestly, this is where miter saws are worth their weight in gold. They can make a variety of angle cuts such as bevel cuts, a miter cuts, and compound miter cuts; and offer a level of versatility that most table saws simply lack.
Hot tip- While you can make a few miter cuts without a miter saw using a miter box, I wouldn’t advise taking on a large-scale home trim job without a miter saw. Using a miter box to make a few random cuts is actually both sensible and cost-effective.
But, if you’re planning on cutting a whole bunch of baseboard molding without a miter saw, you better have the temperament of a Buddhist monk, as your patience will be tested. Think tedious, and times that by ten.
What is The Use of a Miter Saw, and What Can it Cut?
With miter saws, things aren’t that much different than with other stationary or handheld saws when it comes to cutting prowess and functionality. Their design indeed allows them to be used for particular things, but oftentimes it all falls on the blade.
Depending on the type of miter saw you choose, your miter saw will be able to cut a wide range of materials at a host of different angles, or it will lack the functionality you desire. All this depends on the type of saw you purchase and how you plan on using it.
Even though miter saws can cut materials at various angles, some standard miter saws have restrictions that say sliding compound miter saws do not.
But with the right miter saw, you can easily cut all the wood you need to make anything, from crown molding, to cabinets or to an intricate frame for a wooden cabin.
This is also where power and miter saw size (blade size) will make the difference, as smaller blades are obviously more suitable for working with thinner and smaller pieces of material.
The most common things cut with a miter saw are moldings. Although if you’re tackling crown molding, which is typically more substantial in terms of its dimensions, a sliding miter saw, better known as the sliding compound miter saw, would be the better option.
You can also use compound miter saws or sliding miter saws to do a multitude of trim jobs, especially trims at an angle or beveled trims.
This is where dual bevel compound miter saws really excel as you can vastly increase your productivity.
Here’s another excellent example of what you can do with a miter saw – a picture frame. It’s no coincidence that when you ask a professional how to make a picture frame; they’ll tell you that you have to miter the corners. In fact, the corners of picture frames are known as miter joints.
Another useful thing you can do is make accurate repeated cuts with minimal effort. This is possible because it’s easy to put a stop on either end of the work surface and stabilize your work material or workpiece against the stop.
This makes attempting repeatable cuts a lot safer, and it’s also a method with a low margin of error. Something that’s not guaranteed with hand tools or circular saws. Table saws can do this too, but it’s not as comfortable to use them. Besides, they wouldn’t help nearly as much on angled cuts.
The Miter Saw – What Makes It Tick?
Since a lot of stationary saws tend to look alike to anyone that lacks woodworking experience, here’s a breakdown of the miter saw’s design, or anatomy, if you will.
First and foremost, it’s important to know that the blade is attached to a head that can swing downwards. The downward swing is how you get the blade through the material to make your cut.
The head doesn’t just swing up and down of its own free will. It has to be manually pushed down and held down until the cut is complete. Upon releasing your hold, the spring of the miter saw will raise the head, and the blade, back in an almost upright position, depending on the design, of course.
Although this may sound dangerous, be aware that miter saws usually come already equipped with blade guards. This is, of course, a customizable accessory, albeit a mandatory one if you want to work in safe conditions.
The blade guard is never fixed as it is in some other stationary saws. On the miter saw, the blade is somewhat loose. Therefore, it can automatically retract itself as you’re pushing down the head and the blade through the material.
As the head and the blade get pushed back up by the spring, gravity kicks in and repositions the blade guard in such a way as to protect you from accidentally touching the blade.
A fence is also a must-have component, as is the case with most saws.
The last critical component of the miter saw is the miter adjuster. This is usually a long, sturdy lever that can rotate the saw head to angles of up to 45 degrees so that you can make your angled cuts.
It’s interesting to note that not all miter saws offer pivoting in both directions. It’s not a necessity in this type of saw, but it is convenient to have two-way pivoting. You should also note that the angle is calculated in relation to the fence, which is usually perpendicular at a 90 degrees angle from how the blade is facing in its default position.
Most miter saws have the same type of handle, which includes the trigger and the power switch. Although, the grip and ergonomics may differ drastically from one manufacturer to another.
Compound Miter Saws
Interestingly enough, this type of saw is perhaps the most commonly found in both amateur and professional woodworking shops.
Compound miter saws are used to cut a wide range of materials, and if you attach the right metal cutting blade to your miter saw, you can always use your miter saw to cut metal materials of the non-ferrous variety.
That said, I’d still recommend getting a dedicated metal cutting saw like a chop saw if you’ve got a considerable amount of metal to cut.
But, when it comes to cutting wooden materials around the workshop, there are a few key attributes that define a compound miter saw, but the only one that’s truly notable.
The big difference between a regular miter saw and a compound miter saw is that the latter can be used to make beveled cuts. What is a beveled cut, you ask? A bevel cut is an angled cut that is made in relation to the workbench.
In other words, a compound miter saw has a head that can pivot in relation to the fence, or sideways, and also in relation to the workbench, as in downwards. This makes compound miter saws much more versatile and perhaps indispensable, really, even to the amateur woodworker.
There are, of course, even more types of miter saws in existence. But the compound miter saw remains a staple of any respectable workshop due to its versatility, reliability, and the niche-oriented designs of other types of miter saws.
Compound miter saws only bevel or rotate in one direction. If you wanted to operate faster without having to flip the piece of material you’re working on when attempting a bevel cut on the opposite side, you’d require a dual bevel compound miter saw.
We’ll expand on this type of saw further and also touch on sliding compound miter saws.
But if you’d like to go further in-depth now, you can check out some other articles we covered on the difference between a single bevel vs dual bevel miter saw and the difference between a compound and sliding miter saw.
How to Determine What a Miter Saw is Capable of Based on the Blade?
As already mentioned, the miter saw blade has a lot to do when it comes to the finish cut of the projects you can tackle. For example, more teeth usually equal cleaner cuts. However, more teeth don’t always indicate superior durability of sharpness retention.
So, here’s one way of looking at it. If you have a blade with fewer teeth, your miter saw can still cut. And, if rough cuts aren’t an issue, then you can use that blade to cut studs for a house or cabin.
If you have a blade with extra teeth, then you’ll want to save it for more delicate work — say using a miter saw to cut trim, DIY furniture projects, framing jobs, and even cutting pipework (with the right blade attached).
You might also want to keep in mind that your standard miter saws and compound miter saws will likely come with a blade that will be better at rough cuts.
Always check for replacement blades or go out and buy some new ones at around the same time you get your miter saw. That way, nothing will stop you from taking on any project, anytime.
Another thing you can do with a blade with more teeth is to work with unrefined pieces of wood. Say you want to take on a DIY furniture project or a similar type of project. Maybe you don’t have access to the most exquisite wood pieces.
Often times you’ll find yourself in need of trimming the edges of those pieces. Now those are pretty easy cuts to make.
But, if you’re not using a blade with plenty of teeth, then your trim job will be rough and not necessarily an improvement over the original state of the material.
Trimming jobs are also part of the material prepping many times, so you can add that to the list of all the things a miter saw can do.
What All Miter Saws Should Do but What Only Some Can
Due to the way a miter saw spins its blade, towards the rear of the saw, sawdust can be quite a problem. You’ll soon notice that not all miter saws come with dust collection systems; some may only have a dust port that you’ll have to connect to a workshop vacuum.
Even though one of the primary purposes of the blade guard is also to direct the way in which the sawdust and woodchips fly, a blade guard isn’t going to be enough to guarantee a clean work surface with excellent visibility.
A residual dust collection system is vital. And its location and positioning should also be on point. Whether the miter saw has its own built-in vacuum or just dust ports, you have to connect your own vacuum device to make sure that those ports are adequately oriented and large enough.
It’s also important to understand not ever to use a dust blower with a miter saw. All that dust should travel from the board through the collection system and enter a bag or just shoot out far away from your work area.
Dust buildup in the engine can cause serious issues, even a complete breakdown, not just a drop in performance. Another reason why you don’t want a blower is because the correct position for you to be in is in front of the miter saw.
You should never push down the blade from behind, but always from the front, as it will give you the best view for straight, angled, and beveled cuts.
Accessories Matter but Are Not Always Mandatory
It’s difficult to say that a miter saw can offer an unparalleled view and cutting guidance when compared to other stationery and handheld saws.
It’s important to understand that some miter saw features don’t have anything to do with the saw’s design and how it operates like a machine, but rather the accessories that accompany it — for example, laser guides.
You can put laser guides on many types of saws to assist with accuracy when cutting. You can also lock the blade and shaft on almost any saw that supports shaft locks. Some miter saws can come with this feature or without it, so you can’t attribute its merit to the entire class of miter saws and all its subtypes.
Another inappropriate thing to say would be that miter saws offer better support and stability. No — that has a lot to do with how the manufacturers have balanced the machine in question, and whether or not it comes with table extensions.
Aftermarket table extensions can work too, and you can even make your own table extensions by using a miter saw. In fact, that’s yet another type of DIY project that many beginner and amateur woodworkers tackle early on.
So now that you’re proficient with all things related to miter saws, including sliding saws, straight cuts, bevel cuts, and miter cuts, you’ll be confident enough to chop your way through everything from wood to plastic with relative ease.
Given some of your goals will be limited by the type of saw you’re working with, if you purchase a sliding compound miter saw with sufficient power, precise accuracy, and the right blade size, you’ll go from novice to authority in no time.