Miter Saws

Miter Saws

For the longest time miter saws were considered to be carpenters tools. The earliest versions of these saws were primarily used for making crosscuts and simple miter cuts on dimensional lumber, usually on a job site. They weren’t particularly accurate when switching between settings and were limited to rather small stock. Over the years manufacturers have been improving these saws by designing more reliable tilt mechanisms, better fences, and increasing the cutting capacity significantly. Today you’ll find miter saws in just about every professional woodworking shop. A lot of hobbyist woodworkers also see the value of having a miter saw on hand. One of their major advantages is that the stock remains stationary, while the cutting head moves, which is the opposite of a table saw. That’s why you’ll find it much easier, and safer, to crosscut large, heavy boards, on a miter saw than a table saw. As well, for cutting any kind of cabinet trim or crown moulding, a miter saw is hard to beat.

There are close to fifty models from eleven different brands available across Canada. The current generation of these saws have improved dramatically and excel at four different kinds of cuts: crosscut, miter, bevel and compound angle.

A crosscut, the simplest cut to make on a miter saw, is done with the saw head aligned so that the blade cuts at 90° to the table (or deck), in an up and down direction. A miter cut is made by moving the saw table (also called the deck) from side-to-side so that the blade cuts at an angle. On most saws the table swings about 45° either left or right. A bevel cut is made by tilting the saw head to one side or the other and cutting across the board at a 90° angle. A compound cut is achieved by making a miter and bevel cut in one stroke. When properly aligned, you can crosscut, miter and bevel stock on a miter saw as accurately as you can on a table saw. Compound cuts, in particular, are significantly easier to make on the miter saw.

Fixed or Sliding

Before heading off to buy one of these versatile tools you need to ask yourself one very important question: “What will I be using this saw for?” With the many different features and variations on each of these saws, choosing the right model for the kind of work you do will ensure that you’re satisfied with your purchase. If you’ll be using the saw primarily for framing walls and crosscutting dimensional lumber, then a basic non-sliding (or fixed) Compound Miter (CM) saw is probably your best bet. They’re generally lighter than other types of miter saws, making them easier to transport to and from a job site. If, on the other hand, you need larger cutting capacity, then a Sliding Compound Miter (SCM) saw will likely be more suitable. On a compound saw the head is fixed in position, and can only tilt left or right. However, on a sliding saw the head is mounted on guide rails, and can glide forward and backward, significantly increasing the saws cutting capacity. The added capacity and refinements come at a cost though. SCM saws are larger, heavier and more expensive.

Both CM and SCM saws can be either single-bevel or double-bevel. On a single-bevel saw the head only tilts in one direction, while on a double-bevel saw the head tilts both to the left and the right. The advantage of a double-bevel saw is that it eliminates the need to flip large stock when beveling both ends. This is particularly advantageous when you’re cutting a lot of trim or moulding.

Saw Size

Miter saws are categorized by the size of blade they use. The most common blade sizes are 8-1/2″, 10″ and 12″. For box and model makers there is even a 3-1/8″ model. Blade size will affect the maximum depth of cut that you can make at 90° and 45°. The following table provides typical cutting capacities for the four most popular saw sizes. Actual capacities will vary from model to model.

Blade Size Miter cut at 90° Miter cut at 45° Bevel cut at 45°
10″ compound 2″ x 6″ 2″ x 4″ 2″ x 6″
10″ sliding compound 2″ x 12″ 4″ x 8″ 2″ x 12″
12″ compound 2″ x 8″, 4″ x 6″ 2″ x 6″, 4″ x 4″ 2″ x 8″
12″ sliding compound 2″ x 16″, 4″ x 12″ 2″ x 12″, 4″ x 9″ 2″ x 14″

Mobility

Miter saws can be heavy, and because of their size, somewhat awkward to carry around. Of course, if you plan on using the saw in a shop, and won’t be moving it around, then weight is a minor consideration. If you work primarily with dimensional lumber and you’ll be taking the saw to a job site on a regular basis, then compact size and low weight might be important to you. Models that have a top-mount lifting handle, and a lock-down pin, which locks the saw head in the down position, make carrying the saw somewhat easier. If you choose a sliding saw look for one with a rail locking knob to prevent the saw head from moving about when it’s being transported. Hand indentations on the sides of the base will also make it easier to life the saw.

Sliding saws will take up more space than non-sliders. You’ll need to allocate almost four feet of space (measured from the back of the saw to the front of the handle) when the saw head is fully extended. To conserve space when the saw isn’t in use you can rotate the head to the left or right. The saw will also take up from two to three feet in width. Of course, if you plan on mounting the saw to a stand, you’ll need much more width – six to eight feet wouldn’t be out of the question.

Extension Arms and Saw Stands

Regardless of whether you will be using the saw in a shop or on a job site, it’s important that the saw be stable in use. This is especially important when processing long, heavy stock. Just about all saws have holes in their bases that enable you to screw them onto a work surface, or onto a sheet of plywood that can then be clamped to a work surface.

While it’s important that the saw be stable in use, it’s also very important that the stock you’re cutting be adequately supported. Even though these saws have a large footprint, they all share very short tables when measured out from either side of the blade. When working with long stock the support they offer is marginal. Unless you intend to build or purchase a miter saw stand, you’ll benefit from a saw that comes with table extensions that extend from the edges of the main table to widen the table support. Some saws have extensions on both sides, while others either have only one extension. Extension arms help stabilize the stock.

Table extensions usually consist of a couple of steel bars that pull out of channels in the base. At the end, a piece of metal joins the two rods and provides a rest that the material sits on. These are inherently weak at their maximum extension and if you are constantly working with long material it may be better to build a more permanent base out of plywood, such as a torsion box with integral extension tables. This will also allow you to include a rear fence that will enable you to integrate a measuring tape and stop blocks for accurate repetitive cuts on longer pieces. Several companies make components for this purpose, including from Kreg Tools.

There are quite a few commercial stands on the market or you can make your own stand. If you will be constantly moving the saw from shop to job site, a portable stand can be a real asset. Commercial stands range from $100 to $300. Less expensive stands are, generally, less stable and have shorter extension beams. Stands with wheels are great when you need to pull the saw over rough jobsite terrain or up a flight of stairs. We provide a convenient list with links to all the miter saw stands.

Fence

On the miter saw the blade travels through a wide range of motion, particularly when making compound cuts, which prevents the use of a single-piece fence, as found on a table saw. Instead, these saws incorporate sliding fences, typically one one each side of the table.

You can move the fence closer to the blade for greater support for 90° cuts and then move it away from the blade as you tilt the blade over for beveled cuts. The sliding fence provides full-height support for miter cuts and slides out of the way for bevel cuts.

High fences provide more support, especially when you are cutting wide moulding. Look for smoothly sliding fences that are quick and easy to lock in place. Holes in the fences will enable you to add taller back supports when needed.

Throat Plate

The throat plate that ships with a miter saw (often plastic, sometimes metal) will accommodate the full array of bevel angles that the saw is capable of cutting. However, this means that the plate usually has a rather wide opening. This presents two problems, the first is a safety issue, the second relates to cut quality. When you are cutting narrow slivers off the end of a piece or working with small parts, there is a chance that off-cuts can get caught between the blade and the opening in the throat plate.

In most cases the piece will be noisily chewed to shreds under the plate by the blade. But, it could also get caught on the insert, causing it to fly up towards your face, or it could even shatter the plate (particularly if the plate is made of plastic). The wide opening also means there is no support for the material at the edge of the cut. With proper technique this can be controlled on a sliding saw, but unless a scrap board is used to back up the cut, there is little that can be done for the underside of the cut. A zero clearance insert, such as commonly used on a table saw, does help reduce tear out. Several manufacturers offer zero clearance inserts, or you can easily make one.

Effective Hold-Downs

Manufacturers recommend using hold-downs for every cut, and all miter saws appear to come with some form of stock hold-down to secure material either against the table or against the fence. Hold-downs help both with accuracy and general safety, particularly when you’re cutting large stock that might have a tendency to flip upwards once cut. The tables on miter saws are fairly small, and even with perfectly aligned extension arms, it’s both difficult and dangerous to hold long pieces of wood with hand pressure alone. Likewise it’s bordering on foolishness to cut very small pieces without using hold-downs, or better yet, a small parts jig.

For easy removal, some saws employ hold-downs that don’t lock securely in the base. These loose-fitting hold-downs may be hard to tighten. Quick-release hold-downs are convenient, as long as they hold the stock securely in place. In general, short, squat hold-downs and those that can be adjusted so that the support arms are close to the table, are less likely to flex or move under tension, or let go of stock. This squat position minimizes play between the parts. Typically the hold-downs can be used on either side of the blade.

Hold-downs aren’t overly effective on short or narrow stock. It’s much better, and safer, to use a small parts jig – essentially two pieces of plywood assembled in an ‘L’ configuration. The jig also works as a zero clearance insert. As an added safety precaution you can use toggle clamps to hold stock onto the jig.

Miter and Bevel Adjustments

A miter lock handle located at the front of the saw is preferred over one located at the back of the saw – this makes it quicker and easier to adjust the miter angle. Detent plates on the saw with positive stops make it fast and easy to adjust for common angles, and are particularly important if you will be working with molding. Typically they will be at 0°, 15°, 22.5°, 31.6° and 45° (and on some models up to 60°). The detents should engage firmly without any wiggle room. As well, an override on the miter lock handle is very useful, as it allows you to disengage the miter stops so that you can freely rotate the table. On most saws the large miter scales are easy to read.

Adjusting the bevel angle can be a bit more irksome. The process of operating the bevel controls (often located on the back of the saw) while supporting the heavy saw head can range from simple to complicated. Unlocking and tilting the head can require up to four steps, depending on the saw. Obviously, fewer steps are better. On most saws, the location of the bevel controls isn’t as important as the number of steps needed to make adjustments. Having bevel detents, especially at 22.5°, 33.9° and 45° simplifies the adjustment process. In general, bevel scales are quite small or awkwardly located, making it difficult to easily set the head at fractional degree settings. It’s good practice to use a bevel gauge to verify he correct bevel angle.

Miter Saw Blades

Like every other power tool in the shop, nothing happens until a sharp edge meets a piece of wood. To get the right results with a miter saw you must choose the correct blade for the task at hand. Most models ship with either a 40 or a 60-tooth blade. A 40-tooth blade will get you through most situations, and is quite serviceable if all you are doing is rough cutting lumber. For smoother cuts look for a saw with a 60-tooth blade. If you want the cleanest cuts on end grain in the widest variety of material, consider upgrading to a specialty blade like the Forrest Chopmaster.

Keeping your saw blade in tip top condition means you’ll always get the best cuts it can deliver. Remember that carbide is a brittle material, so exercise caution when installing and storing your blade. If you chip a tooth have it replaced. Like any tool in your shop, keep your blades clean. You can use a commercial cleaner, or a general cleaning product like Simply Green. Let the blade sit in the solution for 15 or 20 minutes, scrub it clean with an old stiff bristle brush, and then rinse and dry the blade. When you notice that you have to push a bit harder to move stock through the blade, or you see that the cuts don’t look as crisp as they did, it’s time to have the blade re-sharpened. Expect to pay about $25-$30 for an 80 tooth blade. For a quality blade like the Forrest Chopmaster, you should be able to re-sharpen the blade seven to eight times.

Easy-Change Blade

Some saws offer one-step blade changes. If you switch blades frequently, minimize downtime by choosing a system that makes swapping them out simple and easy.

Electric Brake

When miter saws are used on a jobsite, stock is typically placed, cut and removed from the saw rather quickly, and having an electric brake on the saw is a definite safety feature. When the trigger is released, a brake circuit is activated that slows the blade to a stop in a matter of seconds. Though most miter saws incorporate an electric brake you’ll want to confirm that the model you select has one if this feature is of importance to you.

Lasers & Work Lights

If you use a miter saw for precision cutting, then laser guides can be very useful, speeding up production considerably. They are also very handy when making bevelled and compound cuts, as they show exactly where the edge of the cut will fall. There are both single and dual laser guides. Single lasers show where the cut will start while dual lasers show the full width of the cut (the kerf). An adjustable laser will provide a greater degree of precision.

When included, the laser can be mounted on the arbour, the guard, or the rear of the saw, depending on the model. On a top-mounted laser the cut line is visible throughout the cut. On a rear-mounted laser the cut line becomes obscured as the saw head is lowered, and an arbour-mounted laser only comes on when the saw is running.

Some companies offer lasers as an option (which you can add on at any time). The Irwin Miter Saw Laser Guide can be fitted to just about any saw not equipped with a laser.

DeWALT now offers an LED work light that can be attached to their most popular miter saws. These make it easier to see your work, particularly in less than ideal lighting environments.

Dust Collection

On just about every miter saw dust collection is next to awful. Dust collection usually consists of a pickup chute at the back of the blade that directs the sawdust that comes its way into a cloth bag that hangs off the back or side of the machine. These are passive pickups and rely on the velocity of the debris to get it into the bag. Most users remove the dust bag and connect the dust port to a shop vacuum. Even so, expect a lot of the dust and debris to end up on the shop floor. If you have the saw mounted permanently in your shop consider connecting it to your dust collection system.

Picking the Right Saw

The right saw for you will depend, among other things, on the kind of work you do and the budget you have available. For the DIYer primarily involved in home improvement projects, or the woodworker who makes small scale projects, a CM saw is likely all you will need. If you make larger scale projects, or if you plan on undertaking major home renovations, then a SCM saw is the better choice.

Expect to spend time adjusting the miter saw when you first get it. A few saws are accurate right out of the box, but this isn’t something you can count on. You’ll need a very accurate square and straightedge at the very least, plus the patience to work through the instructions that come with the saw.