When you attempt to cut wood with a handheld saw, like a circular saw or jigsaw, it can be challenging to make several identical cuts on multiple pieces of wood, especially if the cut needs to be done at an angle. However, a miter saw is designed for this exact purpose. These tools are ideal for cutting deck boards, making angled cuts on trim and baseboard material, as well as working with plastic and composites.
While freehand cuts are still necessary for many woodworking projects, the clean, measured precision of a miter saw is typically more beneficial for common DIY tasks, including installing a fence, building a home office, or replacing carpet with hardwood flooring. Keep reading to learn how to use a miter saw, plus care and storage tips.
What Is a Miter Saw?
A miter saw is a type of power tool typically used for woodworking. It consists of a vertical, circular cutting blade that is mounted on a pivoting arm. When the trigger button is held down, the saw blade rotates at a rapid speed, allowing the user to pivot the arm and direct the blade down through the target material. It is capable of cutting cleanly through wood, plastic, composites, and some metals.
Miter Saw vs. Chop Saw
Miter saws and chop saws are often confused because they have the same basic design for making clean, accurate 90-degree cuts. However, there are several differences between these two tools, starting with the fact that chop saws cannot make mitered or angled cuts. Chop saws are made for heavy-duty, 90-degree cuts from a vertical position, while the angle of a miter saw blade can be adjusted for bevel, miter, or compound cuts.
Chop saws use a tough, abrasive spinning disc to slice through metal, concrete, and other masonry materials. A miter saw can cut through some softer metals with the right blade, but typically these medium-duty saws are a more lightweight option that is best for wood, plastic, and composite materials. In addition, miter saw blades are smaller than chop saw blades and they have angled cutting teeth that move easily through wood and other soft material.
90-degree cuts and mitered cuts
Cannot cut through masonry or concrete
Works well with wood, plastic, and composites
Versatile saw for bevel, miter, and compound cuts
Only 90-degree cuts
Suitable for cutting masonry material
Better for slicing through metal and concrete
Heavy-duty saw for straight cuts
Before handling any power tool, it's important to take safety into consideration. Make sure to wear safety glasses, gloves, and a mask when you are using the miter saw to keep your eyes, hands, and lungs safe. It's also recommended to wear a long-sleeve shirt, long pants, earplugs, and closed-toe shoes for personal protection.
During use, keep your fingers at least six inches away from the path of the blade and allow the blade to come to a complete stop before lifting it. Never reach under the blade when the saw is plugged in and always make sure that the material is secure before making a cut. This can be achieved by holding the material with one hand and bringing the saw down in the other, or you can secure the material to the base of the saw or workbench with one or more clamps. When you are changing the blade or you are finished using the miter saw, it's a good idea to unplug the saw to prevent accidental activation.
How to Use a Miter Saw
Miter Saw Set-Up
You can't start to cut any material until the miter saw is set up properly. The saw requires a broad, firm base, like a workbench or table, and it should ideally be positioned so that you have enough room to work on an 8-foot piece of lumber without hitting anything. A long workbench, a second work table, or a couple of sawhorses can be used to support long material that extends out from the miter saw.
It's a good idea to prepare one or more clamps, as well as spare pieces of lumber that can be used to hold the material in place while you work. This is especially important when you are making beveled, mitered, and compound cuts into the material because any shift or slip could ruin the cut.
Lastly, consider attaching the miter saw directly to the work surface with clamps or even screws if you don't mind screwing into the base. This will help to prevent the saw from moving or shifting during use.
Test the Blade Alignment
The first time that you set up your miter blade, it's a good idea to test the blade alignment to ensure that the blade is perpendicular to the base and to the miter saw fence. You may also want to check the alignment on an older saw if it seems like it isn't cutting straight. Always unplug the miter saw when checking and adjusting the blade alignment.
What Is a Miter Saw Fence?
A miter saw fence is a solid piece of metal that is secured to the base of the saw and sits perpendicular to the blade in order to keep work pieces square to the blade for accurate cuts. Users typically push the material against the miter saw fence to quickly align the material for a straight cut.
Use a right-angle level or square to check if the blade is perpendicular to the base by standing the level on the base and lowering the blade so that the vertical section of the level sits up against the blade. If the blade is perpendicular to the table there shouldn't be a gap between the level and the blade, but if you find that the blade is slightly off, use the bevel tilt on the saw to adjust the blade until it is straight. Reset the bevel gauge to 0 at the new angle.
To check if the fence is perpendicular to the blade, lay the right-angle level or square down flat with one edge against the fence and the other against the flat part of the blade, making sure to avoid the teeth. If there is a gap, you will need to loosen the bolts on the fence to adjust the angle to 90 degrees to ensure that the saw cuts straight.
Measure and Mark the Material
Take time to properly measure the material to the desired length with a tape measure, then draw a light pencil line to indicate where to cut. Line up the material on the base of the miter saw so that the blade is directly over the pencil line. Clamp the material to the miter saw or to the workbench to keep it from shifting.
Make sure the material is up against the miter saw fence to ensure that the cut will be accurate. If you are making a beveled cut, you will need to place the material on its edge against the saw fence, instead of lying flat on the base. Then adjust the gauge on the saw to the correct angle and lower the blade to the material without pulling the trigger to verify that it will cut into the material at the right angle. Clamp or brace the material in position to prevent it from moving while you work.
Adjust and Secure the Blade
Miter saws can cut at a straight 90-degree angle that is perpendicular to the miter saw fence, but they can also be adjusted to make angled or mitered cuts, as the name implies. Loosen the knob on the front of the saw to swivel the base up to 45 degrees in either direction for a mitered cut. Tighten the knob to lock the base in position, then lower the blade to cut through the material at the desired angle.
You can also adjust the angle of the saw with the bevel adjustment knob, which is typically located at the back or side of the saw. This will allow the blade to tilt to the left or right, depending on the saw. Some miter saws have a double-bevel adjustment, so they can tilt to the left and right, instead of one or the other. After adjusting the base or the blade, secure the adjustment knob and lower the blade to the material to verify that it is lined up at the correct angle and in the right position.
Lower the Blade to Cut the Material
Make sure that the material is secured with a clamp, held down by a second person, or firmly held in place with one hand. Pull the trigger on the miter saw to start the blade, but wait until the blade is up to full speed before lowering it to cut through the material. If the blade isn't up to full speed, then it may nick or chip the material on the edges of the cut as the slower rotation struggles to accelerate through the material.
Cut smoothly through the material, then release the trigger and hold the blade in the lowered position until it stops completely. Lifting the blade while it is still spinning can damage the material and it may also send pieces of wood, plastic, or composite flying. Repeat these steps with any additional pieces of material.
When to Replace Your Miter Saw Blades
The blades on a miter saw can wear out, just like the blade on a circular saw or jigsaw. If the blades are not changed they can fail during use, sending pieces of metal flying in random directions out from the saw, so it's important to replace the blade before it fails. Additionally, severely worn blades do not cut as well, leading to rough or burned edges on your projects.
Typical signs that indicate the blade needs to be replaced include missing teeth, burning smells, warping, discoloration, and rough cuts. If the blade doesn't appear damaged or burnt, consider having it sharpened by a professional instead of replacing the blade.