Why a Manual Miter Saw and Box May Be Right for You

Cutting with Manual Saw and Miter Box
Sabine Thielemann / EyeEm / Getty Images

When repairing or remodeling a house, you frequently need to cut a piece of wood. But the angle is usually 90 degrees, and it doesn't matter all that much if the angle is off by a few degrees. Then there comes the time when the wood has to be cut at a precise angle—often, 45 degrees to wrap trim or baseboards around a corner. This type of angle cut cannot be done with guesswork. This is where a miter saw and miter box come in handy.

What Is a Manual Miter Saw and Box?

A manual miter saw is a specialty handsaw, also known as a backsaw, that has a reinforced spine along the back to keep the blade rigid during cutting. It is always used with its companion tool: a miter box.

A miter box is a three-sided plastic or wood tool with two open ends for inserting the work material. Vertical slots in the miter box allow for the wood to be cut at 45 degrees, 22 1/2 degrees, and 90 degrees.

Some manual miter boxes have beds that variably adjust to almost any angle you want to cut. These saws have brackets that hold the saw blade perfectly vertical during cutting. They are excellent choices for fine craftwork, such as picture framing or cabinetry work. 

How to Use a Manual Miter Saw and Box

  1. Clean out the miter box's slots by tapping it upside-down or by quickly using a shop vacuum. Stray dust can impede the cutting.
  2. Place the work material in the miter box. Before cutting, make sure that the material is placed correctly. It is easy to become disoriented once the work material is away from the installation area.
  3. Insert the saw in the miter box's slot. Let the blade rest on the material, then slowly begin to push the saw back and forth.
  4. Backsaws cut on the pull stroke. Use only light downward pressure as you draw the saw toward you. Release the pressure when returning the saw to the forward position for the next stroke. 
  5. With your free hand, hold the material firmly on the base of the miter box. If the material moves at all, the miter cut will not be smooth or straight. You can assist your free hand by using a spring clamp.

Manual Miter Saw and Box Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Inexpensive: A manual miter box with a backsaw can cost as little as one-tenth of the cost of a power miter saw. For casual do-it-yourselfers who cut miters only occasionally, a manual box and saw is usually a better option than an expensive power miter saw.
  • Small: Even if you have a small house or condo, it's possible to have a manual miter saw and box on hand.
  • Fine Cuts: A manual miter saw has fine teeth that are excellent for cutting fine moldings without chipping or roughness.
  • Precise: A power miter saw can lose its alignment with the material, especially when the tool is first activated. Manual miter boxes and backsaws can cut with greater precision, making them especially good for fine craftwork, such as creating picture frames. 
  • Simple: If you need to make just a few basic cuts, setting up and plugging in a big, heavy power saw isn't worth the trouble, especially if you have limited space and need to stow it away when not in use.
  • Safe: Minor injuries are the most you can expect when properly using a manual miter saw. Power miter saws, by contrast, are capable of causing major injuries such as the loss of limbs.

Cons

  • Shaky: Because manual miter boxes are light-weight, they are difficult to hold still. They are especially shaky when cutting hard materials.
  • Binding: The miter saw often wants to cut into the miter box as much as the work material.
  • Limited: With a power miter saw, you can take on those large pieces of wood—even four-by-fours and two-by-eights. With a manual miter box, this is not possible.
  • Not Durable: While this doesn't describe all miter boxes, plastic boxes can get chewed up along the cutting slots when the saw is not held properly.

Tips for Using a Manual Miter Saw and Box

  • Miter saws and boxes are prone to cinching up, so the trick is to keep the saw vertical and to move the saw slowly and deliberately.
  • Avoid cutting large lumber pieces, such as two-by-fours. Not only will the fine teeth on the backsaw take a long time to cut the lumber, but the miter saw will also wear out quickly. Reserve the manual miter box for cutting light wood such as trim.
  • For extra help when cutting crown molding and other shaped pieces, use a miter box with a clamping feature. This holds the work material steady so that you can concentrate on the cutting.
  • Sharpen the blade regularly. Backsaws need to be very sharp to cut accurately, so have yours sharpened frequently or replace it when it becomes dull.