How to use a miter saw | Woodworking BASICS

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Miter saw Basics

A miter saw, sometimes called a chop saw, is often the first semi-stationary tool new woodworkers purchase. With a miter saw you can make repeated cuts, all the same length, as well as cut accurate miters, or angles.

What is a miter saw?

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Unlike a table saw or band saw, when using a miter saw, your board remains stationary while the blade moves through it. This means the length of your cut is limited to the diameter of the blade. For this reason, a miter saw is primarily used for crosscutting: cutting a board to length, across its grain. Although a table saw can also make these cuts, it’s handy to own both tools because there is no easier or quicker way to make crosscuts.

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Anatomy of a miter saw

The blade of a miter saw is attached to a head that swings down to make a cut. When not in
use, a spring holds the saw head in an upright position. A blade guard covers the blade and automatically retracts when making a cut. In addition to protecting your hands from injury, the blade guard helps direct sawdust to the rear dust chute and into a bag or vacuum. Never use a miter saw without its blade guard in place.

Never use a miter saw without its retractable blade guard
Never use a miter saw without its retractable blade guard

Your workpiece rests on the table and is held against the fence which has a split to allow the blade to pass through. Some saws have a clamp to help to keep your board from moving. The front of the blade spins downward and towards the rear of the saw as it cuts into the wood.

Split fence
Split fence
This saw comes with a clamp to hold your workpiece or stop blocks.
This saw comes with a clamp to hold your work piece or stop blocks.

At the front of the table is a miter adjustment. This rotates the saw head to create angles up to 45 degrees in relation to the fence. Some saws pivot in both directions, others just one.

The rotating table of a miter saw

In addition to pivoting at an angle, a compound miter saw has a head that tilts in one or both directions to create bevels. Most saws sold today are compound miter saws.

The miter saw head tilts to the side to create bevels
A compound miter saw head tilts to the side to create bevels

On the head is an ON/OFF power switch that turns the saw on while you squeeze it and stops when you release it.

The miter saw blade spins toward the rear...clockwise in this picture.
The miter saw blade spins toward the rear…clockwise in this picture.

Sizes

In the United States, Miter saws are commonly available in three sizes, based on their cut capacities and measured by their blade diameters: 7 1/4”, 10”, and 12”. Both 10” and 12” saws and both have merit. This 10’ saw will handle most of the cuts I need to make, but there are times when having a big 12” saw is handy. However, sliding miter saws are more affordable than ever and a 10” slider isn’t a bad choice. One thing to consider is the cost of blades. 12” blades are pretty expensive. I don’t recommend a 7 1/4” saw: it is mainly useful for cutting molding or plumbing pipes and its cut capacity is too small for most woodworking applications. Overall, my recommendation for a weekend woodworker is a 10” non-sliding compound miter saw. It gives you the most bang for your buck.

My 12" Porter Cable miter saw and m,y 10" Ryobi miter saw.
My 12″ Porter Cable miter saw and m,y 10″ Ryobi miter saw.

Sliding miter saws

The head of a sliding miter saw slides along a rail to allow you to cut boards wider than the diameter of the saw blade. I can only show you a picture because I’ve never owned one. Very wide boards aren’t typically used in woodworking projects and if I do need to crosscut one, I can use my tablesaw. I recommend saving the money and getting a standard miter saw, but sliding miter saws are much more affordable today and if you find a good deal on one, go for it!

10" Ryobi sliding miter saw
10″ Ryobi sliding miter saw

Miter Saw Safety

A miter saw has less risk for potential injury than a tablesaw but it still demands the same level of respect and awareness during every cut.

  • Unplug the saw before changing the blade.
  • Never use a miter saw without a blade guard.
  • Use a clamp to hold your workpiece in place whenever possible.
  • Most saws have a “hands free zone” marked on the table to remind you to keep your hand at least a foot away from the blade.
  • Before each cut, make an imaginary cut, positioning your hands and body where they will be during the actual cut. Make sure you aren’t in an awkward position and double check that your hand will be far from the blade as it pivots down. Miters and bevels can bring the blade down in odd directions.
  • Always make sure your workpiece is positioned against the fence before cutting.
  • When making a cut, squeeze the power trigger and let the saw rev up to full speed before pulling the head down. Ease the blade gently into the wood and slice all the way through. Release the power trigger and let the saw come to a complete stop before raising it back up. This will prevent possible kickback, especially when using a stop block.

Using the miter saw

Basic crosscuts

Despite its name, the most common cut you will make with a miter saw is a crosscut. Home centers and lumberyards sell a variety of boards at different widths. There are lots of things you can make with dimensional lumber where you won’t need to to make any rip cuts. I’ll include some projects in the description that don’t require a tablesaw. These are great projects to start with!

To make a crosscut, draw a line where you need to cut your wood press the board against the fence. Move the workpiece side to side until one edge of your cut line is lined up perfectly with the teeth of the saw blade. As with any saw cut, never cut down the middle of your line. Always pick one side or the other, depending on which side is your keeper piece.

Lining up the blade to cut on the left of the line, making the right side the "keeper" board.
Lining up the blade to cut on the left of the line, making the right side the “keeper” board.

It’s a good idea to clamp the workpiece in place to prevent it from moving.

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With your left hand well away from the blade, make an imaginary cut by pulling the head down until it touches the wood. This will let you double check that the saw will cut where you want it to, but more importantly, act as a dry run, setting up where your hands will be throughout the cut.

Once you are happy with where everything is and the head it in its full upright position, squeeze the power trigger and gently lower the saw all the way down until the head stops. With the saw held in this fully down position, release the trigger and wait for the saw to come to a complete stop before raising the head back up.

Lowering the miter saw blade through the face of a board.
Lowering the miter saw blade through the face of a board.

You can cut boards with their faces down or on their edges. I think you will get a more accurate cut with the face down. If your saw is slightly out of square, it won’t be as obvious since it’s only cutting through saw ¾” thickness. But if the board is on its edge, any skewed angle will be much more apparent.

You can crosscut a board on its edge, but I prefer to set its face against the table.
You can crosscut a board on its edge like this, but I prefer to set its face against the table.

Real talk

In the real world when we are cutting a lot of boards, we won’t always let the saw come to a complete stop before lifting the blade. In fact, I that’s probably the exception. While I certainly advise you not to, for most cuts, if you do lift the head while the saw is still spinning, you will probably be okay.

But one time you should definitely follow this rule is when using a stop block. Especially when cutting small pieces. With a stop block, the cutoff piece is trapped between the blade and the block. If you raise the blade while it’s still spinning, it is possible that the cutoff piece of wood can shift and the edge of a sawtooth might snag it. If this happens, it can lift the piece of wood and throw it in a random direction. This is a real thing. It has happened to me and it is loud and scary! So when using a stop block, let the blade stop spinning before you lift it.

Using a stop block

A lot of times you need to cut multiple parts for a project all the same length. Measuring out each piece with a tape measure would not only get tedious, but your results would be inconsistent. I guarantee, none of their lengths would match.

Instead, get a scrap of wood and clamp it to your fence to where you want the length of your cut. Measure from the edge of your saw blade with the head locked down. Make stop blocks a routine part of using your miter saw.

Measuring from the side of the blade to set up a stop block.
Measuring from the side of the blade to set up a stop block.

 

With a stop block clamped to the fence, you can cut a bunch of boards all the exact same length.
With a stop block clamped to the fence, you can cut a bunch of boards all the exact same length.

Stop lock in use.

Supporting the work piece

The tables of miter saws are pretty small. If you are cutting long boards, it’s a good idea to support the ends that hang over. I usually just stack some 2×4’s under them. If you wanted to get extra fancy, you could make a dedicated miter saw station that the saw drops into making the top of the table flush with the station extensions.

Provide support for long boards. I just stack up a couple 2X4's.
Provide support for long boards. I just stack up a couple 2X4’s.

Making an extension fence

It’s not uncommon to need to set up a stop block for boards longer than your fence allows. Simply grab a straight board or even a strip of plywood and screw it to the saw’s factory fence. There will be holes in the rear for this. Use 4 screws, two on each side of the saw. Make sure they are short enough that they don’t poke through the board.

With a long board screwed into the factory fence, slice it in two.
With a long board screwed into the factory fence, slice it in two.

Now make a cut through the fence. One nice thing about making this auxiliary fence is that this split is a zero clearance slot, making it really easy to measure for stop blocks. Just clip the end of your tape measure in the slot and measure. Make a mark on the fence and clamp the stop block in place.

Measuring from the slot is a great way to ensure accurate lengths.
Measuring from the slot is a great way to ensure accurate lengths.

Which side should you cut on?

A common question is “Which side should be my keeper board, the piece I want to use?” In general, my saved pieces are on the right side. It makes sense to me since I’m holding the board with my left hand. But really, for long boards, I don’t think it really matters.

But for short pieces, you definitely want your keeper pieces to be on the right. Holding a tiny piece with your left hand that close to the blade would not be safe.

Cutting Miters

Cutting miters isn’t much different than crosscuts, it’s just that your blade is angled. Most saws will pivot in both directions, but I pivot my saw to the right side most of the time. All saws will have a gauge to indicate the angle you want make. Common angles will usually have a positive stop so you can lock them and know they will be accurate. (Assuming you calibrated your saw…your instruction manual will show you how to do that.)

Blade pivoted to make a miter cut.
Blade pivoted to make a miter cut.

Most of the miters I make are 45 degrees since they are useful for picture frames or boxes or anything else with right angles.

By pivoting the saw to the right, you will be able to easily see the cut and I feel it’s a little safer since the saw is cutting away from your left hand.

I don’t like not being able to see the entire operation when cutting to the left.

Cutting bevels

A bevel is an angled cut made on the edge or end of a board. Since a miter saw can’t cut along the long edge of a board, bevels are only for angling the ends. An example might be for a box.

Bevels can be cut two ways on a miter saw. I think the easiest method is to just stand the board on its edge and pivot the saw, just like making any other miter cut. As I mentioned before, make sure your saw is well calibrated and square to the table.

A potentially more accurate method is to use bevel feature of your saw. To do this, there will be a mechanism to unlock the head and let you tip it to the side. A scale will show you the angle of the bevel.

Place the face of your board against the table, squeeze the power trigger and slowly bring the saw through the wood. Pay special attention to your left hand when making bevels because much of the cut can be blind.

Cutting a bevel with the saw's head tilted to the side.
Cutting a bevel with the saw’s head tilted to the side.

Compound miters

One of the things you can do with a compound miter saw is make, wait for it… compound miters. These are cuts that combine a bevel and a miter. Mostly they are used for fitting together certain trim moldings and beyond the scope of this basics video. They can be tricky to make correctly and to be honest I’ve only had to cut a handful of compound miters in my life.

Those are the basics you need to know to get started using a miter saw. If you found this video helpful I’d appreciate it if you would take one minute to learn about this week’s sponsor, Thumbtack, then I’ll be back with some last minute words on miter saws.

A compound miter combines both a miter cut and a bevel cut.

A compound miter combines both a miter cut and a bevel cut.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Another very informative video. Especially for new woodworkers or someone who is going to purchase their first miter saw. For newbies…pro tip…if you measure your board from the left side, cut on the right side of your pencil line or your board will be short by the thickness of the blade kerf. Usually about 1/8 inch. This also applies if you measure from the right side. (Cant tell you how many times I have made this error)

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  2. Always a great video. Thanks for your expertise on woodworking and your quirky humor. Your getting a little thin their boy time for some pasta.

  3. Great post. These posts are indeed beneficial indeed. This article was very remarkable, especially because I looking for thoughts on this subject last few days. Mark the wood across the complete stock and before turning the blade on lower it to the matching move make certain you have got the alignment correct. You’ll wish a minimum of your stock on the saw table for support.

  4. Miter saw is one of the best saws available in the market.
    I like the article very much as it shares the complete procedure of using the miter saw, which is very important for us.
    Thanks for sharing this informative article with us.

  5. Hey Steve, how’s it goin’ eh? (Canadian greetings). I love your videos and especially your sense of humour! Always great advise with that wonderful humble humour. Looking forward to more soon. Please keep up the good work.

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