Unless I am going to make some sort of specialized cut, I don’t normally show a lot of wood being cut in my project videos. Sawing wood, especially on projects with lots of repetitive cuts, can make for some boring video, especially since there are really only 5 basic woodworking cuts to know how to make.
But last week I got a message from Sergio who is brand new to woodworking and told me he loves my videos but gets confused when I gloss over the wood cutting parts. He asked if I could show them in more detail.
And while I can’t really take the time in every video to explain the cuts I am making, I loved this suggestion and thought this would be a great topic for a Basics video.
So here are the 5 basic woodworking cuts you need to know how to make. Bear in mind, I am not a hand tool woodworker so this list is limited to power tools only.
The crosscut is the most common cut you will ever make. In fact, with dimensional lumber (wood you buy that comes in various widths like you get at Home Depot) you can make entire projects with just crosscuts. All saws can make crosscuts.
A crosscut is any cut that slices across the grain direction of the wood. So basically, making long boards shorter.
Crosscuts with a Miter Saw
The quickest and easiest way is to use a miter saw, sometimes called a chop saw. Just hold your workpiece against the fence, make sure your hand is out of the way, pull the trigger and slowly bring the saw head down and let is cut through the lumber. Release the trigger and wait for the saw to stop spinning before you raise the head. You can cut any width that is smaller than the blade.
Crosscuts with a table saw
On a table saw, you will need to use a miter gauge to hold the wood still. Always let the blade get up to full speed before your slowly pass the wood through the blade, making sure you keep your hands a safe distance away. One advantage to a table saw is that you might be able to crosscut wider boards than with your miter saw.
For even better cuts, you can make a crosscut sled that will give you dead-on square and accurate crosscuts every time. Also, please take a look at my table saw basics video for more tips, and especially safety info you need to observe.
Crosscutting with other saws
You can make crosscuts using a bandsaw, but the blade can drift making it very difficult to get perfectly square cuts without a really good saw and a wide blade. Plus, the length of your cut is limited to the throat width. For this reason, I don’t recommend using a bandsaw for crosscuts.
You can also use a jigsaw or a circular saw for crosscutting. You can get pretty good results with a square guide. I recommend these only for rough cuts or larger construction projects where a high degree of precision isn’t needed.
The second most common cut you will need to make is a rip cut, or cutting along the grain direction. Now you aren’t limited to the board widths sold at home centers or lumberyards. You can build almost any woodworking project.
Rip cuts on a Table Saw
To rip long boards on a table saw, you will need a rip fence. Make sure it is perfectly parallel with your blade. As a reminder, never make any cuts on a table saw freehand, without using a miter gauge or rip fence. Also, since the width of your rip cuts are often very narrow and the fence is close to the blade, never try to push a board through using your hands. Always use a pair of push sticks, or for maximum safety, use a GRR-RIPPER. You’ve probably heard of these.
To make a rip cut, make sure you have plenty of room in front of and behind you to maneuver the board. Keep constant downward pressure on the board and pressure towards the rip fence. Avoid pressing against the cutoff side of the board: which will just push it into the blade and could potentially bind or cause kickback. For especially long boards, it’s a good idea to set up an outfeed table to support the cut halves.
Rip cuts on a band saw
I have a very old and fairly small bandsaw that will not rip straight. A fence actually makes the cut worse since I can’t compensate for blade drift. However, I see a lot of people making rip cuts on a band saw so I know it can work well. You will need a quality, well-tuned saw and the wider the blade, the better.
Rip cuts with other saws
If you only have a circular saw or a jig saw, you are not going to have any fun making rip cuts. It would be very difficult to set up a straight cutting edge and to keep the base of the saw on the board. So basically, well, get a tablesaw.
One limitation to the dimensional lumber sold at home centers is that it is all the same thickness: ¾” or 18mm. But there are lots of times when you want thinner wood. A small gift box for instance, would just look heavy and clunky with ¾” wood. Sawing boards along their edges to make thinner boards is called resawing. Plus it feels like you get twice as much wood for the same price!
Resawing with a bandsaw
The best tool for this job is a bandsaw, which will allow you to slice very wide boards. Again, if you have a really good saw and a wide blade, you can set up a fence and start cutting.
I resaw freehand on my bandsaw, just following a line. You’ll notice that I have to keep adjusting the angle to stay on course.
After resawing, you will almost always be left with saw marks and ridges. If you have a planer, you can clean these up with a few passes, or you can just sand the cut faces smooth.
Resawing with a table saw
You can resaw lumber on a tablesaw, but you are limited to the capacity of your saw blade and a tablesaw can really bog down cutting through that much wood at once and might even pop the breaker.
Without proper setup, this can be a dangerous cut. My recommendation is to resaw only narrowish boards on a tablesaw. Also, try cutting through only half the board’s width, then flip it around to cut through the remainder.
Install a zero clearance insert plate so the thin board won’t drop into the saw and set up a feather board to keep the infeed of the board pressed against the fence. Make sure you have complete control over the workpiece using proper push sticks or pushblocks.
But my honest advice is to avoid resawing altogether on a tablesaw unless you have a really good setup and really know what you are doing.
Another option, If you don’t have a bandsaw but have a planer and you don’t mind wasting some wood, is to just plane boards down to the thicknesses you need.
I was debating whether or not to consider miters a basic or essential cut, but then I thought of picture frames and boxes. Picture frames and boxes are super common and useful projects and they are great beginner projects. A miter cut is any cut at an angle other than 90 degrees. Usually, for things with four sides, this means a 45 degree cut. Be sure to watch my miters and bevels basics video for more information.
Using a miter saw to cut angles
As its name implies, a miter saw is a great tool for making miter cuts. The saw pivots to various degrees and usually has a positive stop at 45 degrees. Hold your workpiece in place and make the cut just like you do with crosscuts. To make bevel cuts, hold the board’s face against the fence.
Making miters using a table saw
If your miter saw gives you consistently accurate cuts, there is no need to use a table saw for cutting miters. Personally, I feel I can get much better cuts on my table saw. But that’s just me.
To make miters, just adjust your miter gauge to whatever angle you need, hold your workpiece against it and cut.
For super accurate cuts every time, I use a miter sled. This thing is calibrated to make only 45 degree angles, but it makes them perfectly every time.
Making miters with other saws
Circular saws and jigsaws have tilting bases that allow you to cut bevels, and you can use a speed square to make miters. Again, these are handy for building rough construction projects, but for most woodworking, you will want much greater precision. And using a bandsaw for cutting a miter would be very difficult. Impossible on mine.
Finally, making everything with square sides can get very limiting and boring. Knowing how to make curved cuts will open up a world of design possibilities. Basically, you have two choices. A bandsaw or a jigsaw.
Making curves with a bandsaw
Cutting curves is a joy on a bandsaw. Just draw a line and cut out your shape. For tighter cuts, use a narrower blade. I like to just on the outside edge of a line, then use a sander to get the cut exactly to the line and to smooth out the edge.
There are two times when you won’t be able to use a bandsaw. First, if your workpiece is bigger than the saw’s throat capacity and the saw prevents you from turning the wood. If you have specific line to follow, you may not be able to flip the board over.
Second, it is impossible to cut any curves without an entry point, such as a hole. For these cuts, you will need a jigsaw.
Cutting curves with a jigsaw
A jigsaw is one of the most versatile tools in my shop. It can make the same curved cuts as a bandsaw, but can also cut out holes. However, it can’t cut wood as thick as a bandsaw can, plus the edges might not be as square. Take the curves slow to avoid the blade from flexing and causing a beveled edge. Jigsaws are inexpensive and I think give you more bang for your buck than almost any other tool.
Finally, don’t go crazy thinking you need to own every type of saw there is. My Mere Mortals woodworking on a budget recommendation is to buy a tablesaw and a jigsaw. With those two saws, you’ll be able to make almost anything.
Quality, yet affordable tools I recommend: