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Using a Miter Saw

There are several variations of this versatile tool. Learn the basics of a miter saw and the skills you need to cut with confidence!

The miter saw is the tool to look for when working on projects that involve framing or cutting moulding accurately. But the tool named for cutting miters does so much more.

A note of safety first; always wear eye and ear protection and secure any loose clothing, jewelry and long hair. Keep hands six inches from the blade and off the turntable. Do not cross your arms as you cut. Support your work piece with a feed support or stand. Always follow the saw manufacturer's instructions for use, maintenance and safety.

The basic miter saw is designed to cut angles, but let’s talk about what angles the saw can cut. With a board flat on the base of the saw, any angle cut across the wide face is called a miter. Turn the board vertical and place it against the fence and you’re cutting a bevel. Most saws cut from 90 to 45-degrees, and some saws can cut even steeper angles, up to 55 degrees.

The saws are sized based on the diameter of blade— commonly 10 inches and 12 inches. The bigger the blade, the thicker and wider the part the saw can cut. Here’s a general guide: A 10-inch miter saw will cut a 2 x 6 at 90 degrees and a 2 x 4 at 45-degrees; a 12-inch miter saw will cut a 2 x 8 at 90 degrees and a 2 x 6 at 45 degrees.

There are three types of saws: a miter, a compound miter, and a sliding compound miter. A compound miter can cut a bevel and a miter at the same time. This is primarily used for cutting things like crown molding. A sliding compound miter has the multi-angle cutting capacity of a compound miter saw but the sliding action allows you to cut even wider boards. A 12-inch version of this type will cut a 2 x 16 at 90 degrees and a
2 x 12 at 45 degrees

The angle and the thickness of the wood effect the exact point the spinning blade will make contact with the material. When marking out your board, draw the line all of the way across the stock, drop the blade to the wood to check your alignment, and adjust the board as needed before starting the saw.

The saw is operated by the switch built into the handle. As you cut, it’s important to have one hand on the saw handle and one hand on the saw base and wood. Keep your hands at least 6 inches from the blade before you start the saw.

Place the stock against the vertical fence at the back of the saw base, and hold it secure. Start the saw at the top of the operating position, allow the motor to come up to speed, then bring the saw down into the wood. When the board is cut all the way through, release the trigger, allow the blade to come to a complete stop, and then raise the blade.

Lifting the blade while the blade is still spinning can cause what is called kickback and send small pieces flying. It can also mar the end of the board and give you a less-than-perfect cut as you lift the saw.

When you’re cutting a board, you should have more than half of its length resting on the saw. If the board is too long for that, stack a few scraps next to the saw to support the overhanging board. (Or,you can buy a miter saw stand that supports long stock.)

For repetitive cuts, set up a stop block. For long boards, the stop will be set up next to the saw. For short cuts, a line can be drawn on the saw. Use a piece of masking tape and a pencil to mark the line. Then remove the tape when you are done cutting. This is much more accurate than individually measuring multiple parts.

To speed up the cuts and make them more accurate, cut a piece of 1/4-inch plywood to match the height of the fence and the length of the saw. Adhere it to the fence on both sides of the blade with a few pieces of double-face carpet tape. Then make a cut through the plywood. This will show you precisely where the blade will pass. Move your marked board up to the edge of the cut for perfect results every time.

Some quick tips for miter saw success:

  • Always cut the factory end from a board before measuring for your final cut. This ensures better fitting parts.
  • Let the saw do the work; don’t force the blade through the wood.
  • More teeth equals better quality cuts, use a blade with more than 50 teeth for construction cuts and with more than 90 teeth for fine cuts. For treated lumber, use a lower tooth count even for those finer cuts—the open spaces between the teeth clear the debris and puts less strain on the motor.
  • Never cross your arms when operating the saw—this keeps you out of the path of the blade. Both arms should be straight out in front of you. Keep your feet firmly planted to help you control the wood and the saw.
  • If possible, cut one angle end of a part first, then mark the cut on the opposite end after you test fit the first cut.