Choosing a Miter Saw

Learn about the four types of miter saws, their attributes, and which one would likely fit your needs.

There are four types of mitering tools that you can purchase. Two of them are manual, and two substitute electrical power for arm and shoulder strength.

The manual miter guides are highly affordable, but they require consistent technique to achieve good results. At the bottom of the price line is the simple miter box made from plastic or wood. It has holes in the base that accept cam pins. Turning the pins supplies clamping pressure to immobilize the wood you're cutting. Although you could miter with a standard handsaw, you'll get better results with a backsaw, which gets its name from the rigid metal spine on top of the blade. Unfortunately, the plastic miter-guide slots can widen after you've made a number of cuts, and that can defeat the accuracy you need. The guide's usefulness is also limited by the fact that it's set up only for crosscuts and a few fixed angles right and left of square.

The next step upward in price and accuracy also has holes in its base for clamping cams. But that's where the similarity ends. This model features a fine-tooth blade in a frame that's tensioned to give it rigidity. In addition, the columns support the body of the saw so you're not relying on the sides of the blade for control. As a result, this guide doesn't have the self-destructing tendency of the less-expensive model. Its usefulness also is improved by the fact that you can easily set virtually any angle you need. One serious shortcoming of both manual guides is their inability to accurately slice a tiny amount from the end of the board -- a task that's easy with a power miter saw.

Power miter saws
Power miter saws used to be called chop saws, a name that accurately describes the saw's straight downward cutting action. A simple adjusting knob allows you to accurately lock in any angle. Some saws have a wood cutting platform that can be replaced periodically; others have a slot that moves as you change the cutting angle. Because the blade moves through a fixed arc, it has a limited crosscut range and an even more restricted capability for angled cuts.

Most manufacturers no longer make straight chop saws. Instead, two more versatile power miter saws have taken the lead in popularity. The first major type is the compound miter saw. The blade moves in a fixed arc, and the head of the saw can also tilt to produce a cut that's both mitered and beveled. With this type of saw, you can make the compound cut for crown molding corners with the molding laid flat on the saw table -- a real convenience.

The sliding compound miter saw is a step up in price and function. It has the miter- and bevel-cutting functions of the compound model, but the saw head also slides on a carriage. The sliding action significantly increases its cutting capacity without increasing the size of the blade. Saws with a 10-inch blade are the most common, but you'll also see models with 12-inch blades.

Which one to select?
A well-built miter saw will last a long time, so carefully consider its capabilities against the amount of money you're willing to invest. It's understandably tempting to want a professional 12-inch sliding compound miter saw with its impressive cutting range. But you may never actually need to cut lumber that large for your home projects.

Most 10-inch compound miter saws will easily handle everything from tiny moldings to miter cuts in 2x4 stock. The compound and sliding-compound simplify the installation of crown molding; the sliding function increases the cutting range.

 

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