How to Use a Miter Saw
In the previous chapters, we took a look at jigsaws and circular saws. To complete the holy trinity of power tools for sawing, this chapter takes a comprehensive look at the miter saw.
When it comes to saving time and making accurate, repetitive cuts, miter saws are unrivaled. They’re ideal for a host of tasks and are an essential tool for a host of woodworking projects.
With that in mind, read on to learn how to use a miter saw and exactly what they can do. We’ll also tell you some of our top tips for working with this amazing tool.
What Is a Miter Saw and What Can You Use It For?
A miter saw is a mid-size power tool with a flat base and a blade arm that is pulled down to cut into wood, boards, and various other materials. It has a circular saw blade that spins rapidly, making for effortless crosscuts.
Most miter saws are designed to be fixed to a bench or a stand. Having said that, they can be moved if working on-site, and smaller models are surprisingly lightweight. Let’s take a look at some of the main tasks a miter saw can complete.
What Do You Use a Miter Saw For?
In general, a miter saw is ideal for cross-cutting quickly and with greater accuracy. However, with a rotating base, they can also be used for cutting miters and other angled cuts. Depending on the type of miter saw you have, several additional tasks can be carried out too.
Here are some of the main jobs a miter saw can handle:
- Cutting your workpiece to length, i.e. cross-cutting: useful for everything from floorboards and door jambs to trim work. With a stop block, you can easily cut all your boards to the exact same length. Not only does this speed up your work, but you’ll make also much more accurate cuts.
- Angled cuts and miters: a good choice for anything from picture frames to baseboards.
- Chopping bevel angle cuts: ideal for crown molding work and other trims.
- Cutting joints: for mortise and tenon joints, a miter saw with adjustable blade depth can be used to cut shoulders with greater accuracy. It’s also great for dado and lap joints.
Different Types of Miter Saws
There are three different types of miter saw available:
- Simple miter saw: ideal for crosscuts and miters.
- Compound miter saw: with the ability to adjust the angle of the saw blade, compound miter saws can make bevel cuts with ease. Single and dual bevel models are available, tilting in either one or two directions.
- Sliding miter saw: combining the features of both of the previous models, this is by far the most versatile miter saw available. The blade arm slides back and forth, allowing you to cut wider boards and thicker work pieces.
What Materials Can You Use a Miter Saw On?
The majority of miter saws are capable of cutting various different types of materials. It all depends on the type of saw blade you have fitted. Here’s a quick rundown:
- Wood: both hardwoods and softwoods can be cut with ease.
- Manufactured boards: including MDF, chipboard, plywood, etc.
- Plastic: including PVC pipes and plastic sheets.
- Metal: non-ferrous metal pipes and thin metal sheets and even some mild steel. Bear in mind, it’s essential that you use the correct miter saw blade for any metalwork.
- Ceramic tiles: with a carbide or diamond-tipped blade, your miter saw can cut through tiles with relative ease.
Can You Use a Miter Saw to Cut Metal?
While a miter saw can cut materials such as metal and tile, it’s not necessarily the best choice. Since it’s designed for wood, the blade spins much faster than a metal chop saw, for example. This leads to much more friction and increased heat, wearing down the motor much faster.
As such, if you regularly cut metal or tile with a miter saw, it will drastically reduce its lifespan. Having said that, small pieces every now and then, with the correct blade, will be fine.
Different Types of Miter Saw Blades
While the beginner woodworker will normally be okay using the stock blade for most projects, it’s worth understanding the differences between the various types of miter saw blades available.
Generally speaking, you need to focus on 6 key elements.
1) Blade Size
It’s important to select the correct diameter for your miter saw. Too big and it can become a major safety hazard. Too small, and the blade won’t cut effectively. Check your instruction manual to be sure of the correct saw blade size for your machine.
The most common miter saw blade sizes are 7.5 inches, 8.5 inches, 10 inches, and 12 inches. A larger blade is capable of cutting deeper and wider than a smaller one. The size you opt for depends largely on what tasks you plan to use your miter saw for.
Trim work and picture frames will only need a small blade for example. Meanwhile, chopping 2 x 4 lumber is easier with a larger blade.
2) Blade Material
The type of material your saw blade is made of is also worth considering. There are three main materials you’ll come across:
- Carbon Steel: the most affordable, these steel blades are capable of the vast majority of your wood cutting jobs. However, they also wear down quicker than the other options.
- High-Speed Steel (HSS): tougher and longer-lasting than carbon steel blades, an HSS saw blade can run at higher speeds and withstand higher temperatures caused by friction. As such, they’re ideal for tougher materials such as hardwood.
- Carbide tipped: the strongest and most durable miter saw blades are carbide tipped. They cut through tough materials, including metal, with ease. While it’s the most expensive blade material, you can be sure that it will last a long time.
3) Blade Arbor
The blade arbor refers to the spindle that runs through the center of the blade, mounting it safely to the saw. You need to know the size of the arbor hole when buying new blades, to ensure it’s the correct fit for your machine.
Generally speaking, 7.5 inch, 8.5 inch, 10 inch blades have a 5/8 inch arbor, and 12 inch blades have a 1 inch arbor. However, be sure to check your owner’s manual to be certain.
4) Blade Width
A standard miter saw blade is 1/8 inch wide. As a result, it will leave a 1/8 inch kerf. This is fine for the vast majority of projects. However, you might also consider a thin kerf blade. At 3/32 inches wide, they leave a much finer finish. They’re excellent for small pieces of trim or moldings.
The downside is that they’re more prone to warping and are less stable than standard blades. They’re also not very good for thicker, harder materials, as the friction will soon build up and cause the motor to struggle.
5) Blade Teeth
As with most saw blades, the number of teeth determines how fine the cut will be. Fewer teeth will give a rougher cut, whereas a blade with numerous teeth will result in a finer kerf.
There’s a bit more to it than that though. For thicker, harder woods, a blade with fewer teeth, known as a rip blade, is recommended. This will eat through the material at a higher speed. However, if you’re cutting metal or plastic, you’ll need more teeth.
Typically, if you’re looking for a fine cut and smooth finish, an 8.5 inch blade will need at least 60 teeth, a 10 inch blade will need at least 70, and a 12 inch one would need at least 80. Meanwhile, a 10 inch rip blade normally has 24 teeth.
6) The Material You Plan To Cut
As we’ve seen, a miter saw can be used on various materials. Fitting the correct blade is essential for both safety and prolonging the life of your machine. Nowadays, manufacturers make it easier than ever to find the right blade for the job.
You can find saw blades for different types of manufactured boards, laminate flooring, non-ferrous metal, plastic, rip cuts, cross cuts, melamine wood, and even steel.
How To Use a Miter Saw
While the operation is fairly easy, learning how to use a miter saw properly requires a basic understanding of its components.
The Anatomy of a Miter Saw
As you can see, a solid saw base, sometimes called the table, keeps the tool stable. This can often be fixed to a workbench or stand for additional support. The base keeps your work piece flat to ensure a straight cut. A steel saw base is more expensive than aluminum, but it’s far more durable.
On all but the most basic miter saws, the table rotates, allowing mitered cuts. A scale allows you to set the exact angle you need, while the locking handle ensures it stays in place. The saw fence keeps your work piece square by supporting it on both sides of the blade.
The blade guard keeps you protected from the cutting head, automatically covering the blade as it’s raised. Meanwhile, the handle contains the power switch, and there’s normally a locking lever that needs to operated before the blade can be lowered.
Sliding and Compound Miter Saw Extras
In addition to the standard setup, a compound miter saw will feature a bevel gauge and locking nut. This is loosened to allow you to tilt the blade to the required angle.
A sliding miter saw has all of these features, plus sliding rails that allow you to pull the blade forwards and push it back. On more advanced models, there’s also a blade depth adjuster.
Top Features To Look For in a Miter Saw
There are several key elements to look out for when choosing a good miter saw as well as some handy optional extras:
- Corded or cordless: most miter saws are corded but you can now find some good cordless models as well. The latter are generally lighter weight and not as powerful, but they’re great for light work and are much more portable.
- Power: most miter saws are corded and have either a 10, 12, or 15 amp motor. More powerful machines are best for heavy-duty tasks whereas a less powerful model is fine if you’re buying a miter saw for baseboards, trims, and other small pieces. Miter saw power is linked with blade size. For example, most 10 amp saws use an 8 inch blade, whereas 15 amp saws tend to use a 10 or 12 inch blade.
- Cutting speed: measured in RPM, the cutting speed can help determine what materials you can cut. Normally, you’ll see models running between 3,500 and 5,000 RPM. Be advised that you’ll want a lower cutting speed for metals and plastic.
- Miter saw laser add-on: for more accurate cutting, this system projects a red, or sometimes green, laser, allowing you to find your mark with ease.
- Shadow cut guide: an alternative to the laser add on, this system projects an LED light behind the blade, casting a shadow exactly where the blade will fall.
- Handle type: most miter saws are designed to favor right-handed people. However, some models do offer an ambidextrous, central trigger that can work for left and right-handed users.
- Electric brake: these come as standard nowadays. They allow the blade to come to a complete stop almost instantly, for improved safety.
- Dust collection system: keeping your workspace clean and safe, a dust extraction port is essential. On most models, you can either attach a bag or a vacuum cleaner hose.
- Table extension: ideal for long work pieces, this feature improves stability.
- Hold down clamp: used to secure your work to the table, this is another excellent feature for providing stability.
- Angle stop (detents): ideal for making angled cuts, this feature locks the saw in position at certain angles. Basic models lock at 45 and 0 degrees as standard.
Cutting With a Miter Saw
Whether you’re cutting crown moldings or 4 x 4 wood, the motion of cutting with a miter saw is pretty much the same. Just follow the steps below for a simple cross-cut:
- Measure and mark the cutting line on your work piece.
- Secure your miter saw to a workbench or stand by bolting it in place.
- Put your wood or any other work piece flat on the miter saw table, with the cutting line on top. For longer pieces, use the extension that most saws come with for additional support.
- Press the work piece tight to the fence to ensure a square cut. Line the cutting line up with the blade and clamp it down to the saw table.
- Release the locking lever if your saw has one, and pull the blade down without switching on the power. As you lower it, the blade guard will lift, exposing the saw blade. Verify that the blade matches your mark, then raise the blade back up again.
- Pull the power trigger with the saw raised and allow it to get to full speed. Slowly lower the blade into the work piece, using one hand to hold the handle and the other to support and press your work piece into the fence.
- Lower the blade all the way down to cut through the material, and slowly raise it again. Once the blade guard is in place, release the trigger and allow the blade to come to a complete stop before removing the cut wood.
How To Use a Miter Saw To Cut Angles
To make a miter cut, you’ll follow pretty much the same process as above with one small difference. First, you’ll need to set the angle. To do this, release the locking mechanism on the locking handle, either by twisting the knob or pressing the button.
You will now be able to rotate the saw table. Spin it to the correct angle, check the scale, and lock the locking handle again to secure it in place. Then, follow the previous steps to make a perfect angled cut.
How To Use a Sliding Compound Miter Saw
If you’re using a sliding miter saw to cut wider boards, the process is much the same. The difference is that you can pull the saw back and forth to cover the full length of your wood or board. Start with the saw pulled toward you and as you cut into the wood, push it away.
For thicker pieces of wood, make several passes front to back with the blade sinking lower with each pass. This is safer and normally more efficient than trying to do it all in one pass with the blade lowered all the way down.
To make bevel cuts, simply loosen the bevel lock and tilt the saw to the required angle. Secure the lock, and proceed as above.
Tips and Tricks for Using a Miter Saw
A miter saw is fairly user-friendly, but there are several ways to make the most out of this impressive power tool. Here are some of our top tips.
Use a Stop Block
For repetitive cuts at the same measurement, a stop block saves you from having to mark each piece. Simply clamp or screw a block of wood at the correct distance, either on your workbench or on the saw table directly. The lengths that you wish to cut will butt up to the stop block to ensure accurate repeat cuts.
Take Care With Short Lengths
Short pieces, six inches or less, can be dangerous to work with for two reasons. First, your hands are too close to the danger zone, i.e. where the saw blade is spinning. Second, small off-cuts can be kicked back from the saw once cut, sometimes being flung back at you. That’s why eye protection is essential. Fix short pieces to a longer length of sacrificial wood to avoid both issues. [photo would be good here].
This is most important if you’re doing a miter cut. Miters tend to be more inclined to move from the fence during cutting. By clamping either side of the saw blade, you can be sure it’s less likely to move.
Perfect Miters Don’t Always Fit
Even if you’ve cut your baseboard or crown moldings to a perfect miter, you might find it doesn’t fit together tightly in reality. That’s because most rooms aren’t always perfectly square. However, you can adjust the angle slightly, about 1/4 of a degree at a time, and try it again until it’s just right.
In some cases, the back of the joint will touch, but the front has a small gap in it. On a compound miter saw, you can set the bevel to a degree or two, to trim the back edge and remove the gap at the front.
Miter Saw Safety Tips
The beginning woodworker has nothing to fear from a miter saw if they follow the following tips.
- Always use a sharp blade: this makes cutting quicker and easier, will prolong the lifespan of your miter saw, and avoid broken teeth.
- Use protective equipment: wear safety glasses, a dust mask, and ear protection. Also, wear gloves to avoid splinters and improve your grip.
- Avoid loose clothing: sleeves can easily catch in the saw if you’re not careful.
- Secure and support your work: use additional support for longer and wider pieces.
- Keep your hands away from the blade: when supporting your work, your hands should never be closer than 8 inches or so from the blade.
Miter Saw Troubleshooting
Miter saw not cutting straight? There are a few reasons why this could be:
- The angle isn’t set to zero degrees: double-check the miter scale and make sure that the base is set to zero.
- The wood is moving: while you’re cutting, the wood can sometimes move away from the fence. Use clamps to secure it in place on both the saw table and the fence.
- Damaged saw blade: saw blades can warp, resulting in poor cutting. Otherwise, some of the teeth may be damaged. For improved results and safety, swap it out for a new blade.
Other issues you might come across include the saw struggling to cut. This could be the result of using the incorrect blade for the material you’re cutting. Otherwise, it’s probably blunt.
Most miter saw issues can be resolved by ensuring your work is secured and supported properly, and fitting a sharp blade that is appropriate for the material you’re cutting.
Smoothing It All Out
Now that you’ve mastered power saws, it’s time to learn about planing your work. You can find out more in chapter 12.