Miter saws have come a long way from their ‘chop saw’ days; the improvements over the early models are significant.
Early versions of this tool were known as chop saws because that is what they excelled at: crosscuts and miter cuts on the jobsite. They were not particularly accurate when switching between settings and were limited to rather small stock.
Over the years manufacturers have been improving these saws by designing more reliable tilt mechanisms, better fences and increasing the crosscutting capacity significantly. There are about two dozen miter saw models from ten different manufacturers available across Canada, and each offers slightly different variations on these features. The current generation of these saws have improved dramatically and excel at three different kinds of cuts: miter, bevel and compound.
A compound cut involves cutting both the miter and bevel cuts in one stroke. A miter cut is made by moving the saw head from side to side making a cut at an angle across its face, making one edge of the board longer than the other. A bevel cut is made by tilting the saw head to one side or the other and cutting across the board at a 90º angle; this makes one face of the board longer than the other. Compound cuts are a combination of the two, enabling the saw to miter wider mouldings by laying them flat.
Before heading off to buy one of these versatile tools you need to ask yourself one very important question: “What will I be using this saw for?” With the many different features and variations on each of these saws, choosing the model that has the features suitable for the work you intend to do will ensure your long term satisfaction with your purchase. If all you are doing is framing walls and chopping up 2 x 4 stock, then a basic Compound Miter (CM) saw is probably your best bet. It’s light, durable and can easily be moved from the shop to the job site. If, on the other hand, you need larger capacity and want a more refined saw, then a Sliding Compound Miter (SCM) saw might be more suitable. The added capacity and refinements come at a cost though. SCM saws are larger, heavier and more expensive. A basic entry level CM saw for general purpose use, such as the Skil, starts at $179.99, and tops out at $249 (DeWalt DW713 and Ridgid). With the exception of King ($169.99), SCM saws are in the $390-$599 range. One notable exception to this is the Festool Kapex; while this German-engineered tool is impressive, at $1,450 it is more than twice as expensive as the next most expensive SCM saw in our list, the Bosch 4410L at $598.
If you’re working primarily with dimensional lumber and you’ll be taking the saw to a job site on a regular basis, then compact size and low weight will be important considerations. The saws in our chart range in weight from a low of 34 pounds (Rigid, Craftsman), to a hefty 55 pounds (Bosch). All these saws have holes in their bases that enable you to screw them down to your work surface so even the lightest saws will be as stable as your work bench. You’ll also want to look for a model with a top-mount lifting handle, which makes carrying the saw somewhat easier, and a lock-down pin, which locks the saw head in the down position for transporting. Sliding saws should have a rail locking knob to prevent the saw head from sliding when it’s being moved. Some models (DeWalt 717) have hand indentations on the sides of the base that make it easier to life the unit. Most manufacturers also offer purpose built miter saw stands. If you will be constantly moving the saw from shop to job site, these can be a real asset.
When you move beyond basic framing and door and window trim you might want to consider a sliding compound miter saw. With the addition of one or two rails, the saw body is able to slide back and forth across the material, dramatically increasing its cross cutting capacity. On a CM saw you can make a 6″ cross cut at 90º, while on an SCM saw you can cut up to about 12″ (up to 15.4″ on the DeWalt DW717 by following special set-up procedures). If you will be cutting medium to large mouldings or crown mouldings then this extra capacity will be essential. When cutting crown moulding you have two options. The first is to cut the moulding on edge (upside down at the same angle as it will be installed) using a simple miter cut. The second option, which you can only do with a SCM saw, is to lay the moulding flat on the table and cut it with a more complex compound angle cut. The time and aggravation saved may well be worth the additional cost for a SCM saw.
If you will be primarily working in your shop. the additional space required for a sliding model might be a good trade for the extra width capacity. The slide mechanisms on these saws often require a considerable amount of space behind the saw, requiring you to mount the saw at a distance from other tools or a wall. The slide mechanisms on these saws are designed to tight specifications so that they operate smoothly and accurately, but this can be of concern if the saw is used on a jobsite. Jostling in a van with other tools or being dropped on a jobsite can easily damage the slide mechanism rendering it inoperable.
One of the major benefits of using a sliding compound miter saw to cross cut material is the ability to control tear-out. With the non sliding models, there is no support for the material as the blade exits the bottom of the cut. When crosscutting a board with a sliding version, bring the blade down to cut about an ⅛” into the material and draw the saw towards yourself. The rotation of the blade means that as it breaks the surface, the fibres are fully supported. At the end of the slide, bring the blade down completely and return it to the start position. At this point the teeth are cutting up into the stock and everything is fully supported with no tear-out.
You won’t find any digital displays on any of these miter saws. The miter scale across the front and the bevel scale on the rear knuckle are displayed in the old style analog scale. Some of these scales are easy to read while others require a little more effort, but the real difference between the two scales is the accuracy. The miter gauge settings are indicated on approximately a 12″ radius at the front of the saw. At this distance out, with a mechanical pointer and an accurate scale you should be able to set your angle to an accuracy of ½º without too much trouble. The tilt mechanism for the bevel cuts is usually marked on a much smaller scale on a tighter circle, usually something with a 3″ to 4″ radius.
Consequently, setting an angle accurately using this scale is considerably more difficult. Using only the scale it is possible to get within a couple of degrees of the intended angle, but accuracy is a matter of luck. To set the bevel angle to within 1/10º in relation to the table use an external aid such as the Tilt Box Inclinometer, (leevalley.com) or the digital angle gauge, (busybeetools.com).
These saws all offer detents at various points along the scale as well. These are used to set common angles quickly and not every saw offers the same selection or number of detents. To allow the user to zero in on the exact angle, the Bosch offers a micro adjustment knob that lets you fine tune the setting 2º on either side of the setting.
As the blade descends into the work piece, it must be fully supported by the table and the rear fence. Because some of these saws (such as the Bosch, Festool and Rigid) allow the blade to move through a wide range of motion, a rigid fence would require a considerable gap. To resolve this, these saws incorporate movable fences. You can move the fence closer to the blade for greater support for 90º cuts and then move it away from the blade as you tilt the blade over for bevelled cuts. Even though these saws have a large footprint, they all share very short tables when measured out from either side of the blade. When working with long stock the support they offer is marginal. Unless you intend to build or purchase a miter saw stand, you’ll benefit from a saw that comes with table extensions that extend from the edges of the main table to widen the table support. Some saws have extensions on both sides (B&D, Ryobi, Skil, Bosch, King), while others either have one extension (Ridgid) or none (DeWalt, Craftsman, Hitachi). The Festool offers the extensions as an option.
These table extensions consist of a couple of steel bars that pull out of channels in the base. At the end, a piece of metal joins the two rods and provides a rest that the material sits on. These are inherently weak at their maximum extension and if you are constantly working with long material it may be better to build a more permanent base out of plywood such as a torsion box with integral extension tables. This will also allow you to include a rear fence that will enable you to integrate a measuring tape and stop blocks for accurate repetitive cuts on longer pieces. The components for a shop made base can be purchased from Kreg Tools (kregtool.com).
All the manufacturers in our list, except Skil and Festool, offer miter saw stands. In a pinch you can bolt the miter saw to a plywood base and secure it on a pair of saw horses. All the saws come with some form of stock hold-down to secure material either against the table or against the fence. Typically the hold-downs can be used on either side of the blade. The Skil saw provides a short fence at the front of the saw that serves to hold crown moulding in place against the back fence. The Bosch has the easiest clamp to position on the work.
Like every other power tool in the shop, nothing happens until a sharp edge meets a piece of wood. To get the right results with one of these saws you must choose the correct blade for the task at hand. The saws in our chart ship with either a 40 or a 60 tooth blade. A 40 tooth blade will get you through most situations, and is quite serviceable if all you are doing is rough cutting lumber. For smoother cuts look for a saw with a 60 tooth blade. If you want the cleanest cuts on end grain in the widest variety of material, you may wish to consider a specialty blade like the Forrest Chopmaster (forrestblades.com – see Sidebar).
The throat plates that ship with these saws will accommodate the full variety of bevel angles the saw will cut but this means it has a rather wide opening. This presents two problems, the first is a safety issue, the second relates to cut quality. When you are cutting narrow slivers off the end of a piece or working with small parts, because the opening is wider, there is a chance that off cut could get caught between the blade and the insert. In most cases the piece will be noisily chewed to shreds under the insert plate by the blade. It could also get caught on the plastic insert causing it to shatter in the process. The wide opening also means there is no support for the material at the edge of the cut. With proper technique this can be controlled on a sliding saw, but unless a scrap board is used to back up the cut, there is little that can be done for the underside of the cut on a CM saw. Making a zero clearance insert such as the one used on a table saw will reduce tear out at any specific bevel angle (see “Zero Clearance Inserts”, Feb/Mar ‘08, Issue #52). You could also build a small parts miter jig (see Sidebar).
Lasers can be very handy when these saws are used for carpentry work, speeding up production considerably. They are also very handy when making bevelled and compound cuts, as they show exactly where the edge of the cut will fall. The DeWalt DW713 doesn’t come with a laser and the DeWalt DW717 offers it as an option while the rest of the saws in the chart include a laser. When included, the laser can be mounted on the arbour, the guard, or the rear of the saw. The Irwin Miter Saw Laser Guide, irwin.com, can be fitted to any saw not equipped with a laser. Using the laser is a matter of personal preference and should not be a deal breaker on any of these saws. For the utmost accuracy it is still best to bring the blade down to a scribed line first.
When these saws are used on a jobsite, the material is typically placed, cut and removed from the saw rather quickly and having an electric brake on the saw is a definite safety feature. When the trigger is released, a brake circuit is activated that slows the blade to a stop in a matter of seconds. Of the models featured in our list, only the Ridgid and the DeWalt DW713 do not have this feature.
Dust collection on these saws usually consists of a pickup chute at the back of the blade that directs the sawdust that comes its way into a cloth bag that hangs off the back or side of the machine. These are passive pickups and rely on the velocity of the debris to get it into the bag. As such, they are quite effective, but these are still among the most difficult machines to collect sawdust from.
If you have the saw mounted permanently in your shop consider replacing the collection bag with a connection to your dust collection system.
The right saw for you will depend, among other things, on the kind of work you do and the budget you have available. For the DIYer primarily involved in home improvement projects, or the woodworker who makes small scale projects, a CM saw is likely all you will need. The Skil 3800 offers very good value at an excellent price. It bevels and miters beyond 45º, features a dual laser, electric brake, table extensions and sliding fence. If you make larger scale projects, or if you plan on undertaking major home renovations, then a SCM saw is the better choice. The King Canada is a price stealer at $169.99, about half the price of the average SCM saw. However, as with the Craftsman it doesn’t bevel or miter beyond 45º. The Bosch, DeWalt and Hitachi have similar features and all three companies have good reputations for making top quality products. You won’t go wrong with either of these three.
Keeping your saw blade in tip top condition means you’ll always get the best cuts it can deliver. Remember that carbide is a brittle material, so exercise caution when installing and storing your blade. If you chip a tooth have it replaced.
Like any tool in your shop, keep your blades clean. You can use a commercial cleaner, or a general cleaning product like Simply Green (homehardware.ca). Let the blade sit in the solution for 15 or 20 minutes, scrub it clean with an old stiff bristle brush, and then rinse and dry the blade. When you notice that you have to push a bit harder to move stock through the blade, or you see that the cuts don’t look as crisp as they did, it’s time to have the blade re-sharpened. Expect to pay about $25-$30 for an 80 tooth blade. For a quality blade like the Forrest Chopmaster, you should be able to re-sharpen the blade seven to eight times.
The fences on these saws are not the most effective in supporting small pieces. Cutting stock under about 12″ in length requires some extra precautions. As the size of the part you are cutting decreases, the relative size of the blades teeth increases and small parts can easily be grabbed between teeth, particularly if the opening in the throat plate is very wide. When possible, cut miter ends and rip very narrow stock from a larger board. Otherwise, use a simple plywood sled, as shown in the illustration. You can also install a couple of toggle clamps onto the sled to hold extra short pieces safely.
Chopmaster was specifically designed for use on miter saws. Two features make this an exceptional blade. First, the 80 tooth blade employs an alternating top bevel (ATB) tooth style –four of the teeth are set at a high 30º angle, with the fifth tooth flat. This high angle ATB design allows the blade to slice rather than punch through material, resulting in a much cleaner cut. Forrest uses a double hard C4 submicron carbide in the teeth, which means that the teeth will cut longer before needing to be re-sharpened, and the large size of these teeth will give more sharpenings. The second feature that distinguishes this blade is the 5º negative face hook. A negative hook reduces the blades tendency to lift the material as it is cut, and contributes to a better surface finish. $129 at leevalley.com.