How To Use A Miter Saw

Last Updated:  June 30, 2021

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The miter saw was the first tool I bought when I moved into my own home. I remodeled that entire house using primarily a Ryobi miter saw on the floor of my garage. I cut a mile of baseboard on that garage floor and I supported the long pieces with anything I could find. I didn’t even have a bench or table to set it on.

It’s hard to get much done in the shop or on a job site without a miter saw. You can’t beat it for roughly crosscutting wood to length and, if tuned properly, it can be great for cutting miters for picture frames or boxes. You can get a lot done with a miter saw, a drill, wood glue, and screws.

I recommend the miter saw as an essential tool for the beginning woodworker and DIYer. While it is safer than many other stationary cutting tools such as the table saw, it is still a very sharp blade spinning very fast and you must be careful. Your finger is no match.

**After this article head over to see the insert and fence upgrades I made to this miter saw. And, go watch how I dramatically improved the dust collection on this saw.

What does the miter saw do?

The miter saw is a tool that crosscuts wood to a desired length. Assuming the wood grain is running with the length of the board, the miter saw blade cuts perpendicular to that grain, or across it.

walnut grain direction
compound miter cut

The “miter” in miter saw is the ability to cut angled miters. The saw rotates from side to side and can crosscut wood at different angles. This primary feature is useful for making picture frames and boxes with miter joints. Two 45 degree miter cuts come together to form a 90 degree angle. It’s an easy way to join wood, but it’s not the strongest joint. You wouldn’t want to use this joinery method for any project that will be subject to force unless the miters are reinforced.

Compound miter saws can also tilt to cut a bevel angle. Cutting a bevel in a board laying flat is the same as putting the board on its edge and cutting a miter. A “compound” cut is a bevel and miter cut at the same time.

miter cut
mitered corner

How does the miter saw work?

The miter saw head has a spring that keeps tension on it. As you lower to make a cut, the spring returns the head to the upright position.

This miter saw is a 10 inch saw. That refers to the size of the blade it uses and there are 12 inch and 7 1/4 inch saws, as well. A 12 inch saw can cut a thicker piece than a 10 inch saw which cuts thicker stock than a 7 1/4 inch saw.

The saw dust that comes off the blade is supposed to be directed to a chute and into a collection bag. Unfortunately, most miter saws are horrible at dust collection. Most of the dust goes under and behind the chute.

Many miter saws have a clamp of some sort that secures the work piece to the table during the cut.

Extensions allow support for longer work pieces and can sometimes have stops that flip up for repeat cuts. The handle is a screw that tightens the table in place. The table swivels back and forth to the desirable angle as indicated on the tape and the handle locks it in place.

Sliding miter saws have some mechanism for extending the cutting head for extra capacity. This saw has rails that allow the saw to cut much wider boards.

Safety

You’ll notice a guard covering the blade. As the saw is lowered the guard lifts to allow for the cut but stays between you and the blade.

Important: Don’t ever remove the blade guard for any reason

The stock fence that comes with most miter saws is inadequate for cutting smaller pieces. Trying to cut a piece like this with no support will end in severe kickback. Do not attempt a cut like this without adding a zero-clearance, sacrificial fence.

My saw has holes on the back side of the aluminum fence to secure a sacrificial fence with screws. Smaller pieces can be more safely cut with this fence and a push stick. Make sure your hand is nowhere near the blade anywhere along its path.

miter saw sacrificial fence
miter saw sacrificial fence

Keep even pressure on the piece so it doesn’t turn after the cut and get caught in the blade and thrown.

Never cross your arms when making a cut, i.e., holding the right side of a workpiece with your left hand. Your hands and arms should never cross the middle of the blade insert.

Place your left hand a good distance away from the blade on the left side of the workpiece with enough pressure to keep it secure against the fence and on the table.

Miter Saw Tips

Make a scoring cut first before plunging the full depth of the workpiece. A scoring cut is a light pass along the full width of the workpiece and will help prevent tear out and keep the cut clean. After making the scoring cut make the full cut.

miter saw scoring cut
miter saw stop block

To make consistent, repeatable cuts, I like to use a stop block. If your saw has extension wings with stops, those can be used. Otherwise, securely clamp a block to the fence, push the board up to the block, and make the cut. Part of the workpiece is trapped between the stop block and the blade and this can be dangerous, so wait for the blade to come to a stop before raising the saw.

After measuring and marking the length to cut on the miter saw, draw an X on the side that is being cut away. The blade teeth should be entirely on this side marked with an X with the outside edge of the teeth right on the edge of the line. The result will be a workpiece that is the length you expect it to be. Putting the blade directly on the line will cut into the side you want to keep.

Sometimes you need to just cut the tiniest sliver from the end of a workpiece to sneak up on a fit or to clean up the end without taking much off. Pull the saw down all the way and hold it. Push the workpiece into the face of the blade and make sure it’s not hitting the teeth (FIG 30). With the workpiece against the face hold it firmly in place, raise the saw, and then make a cut.

miter saw blade kerf
miter saw sliver cut

Alignment

It’s important to make sure your saw blade is square with the table and fence to make accurate cuts. I use a 4 inch try square that fits perfectly on my saw. Pull the saw down and lock it in place. Slide the square up to the face of the blade, again making sure it’s not touching the teeth, and the square should touch the saw from top to bottom. If it doesn’t, the saw is not square and you should consult your owner’s manual to adjust it.

Place the square flat on the table and slide it up against the fence. Just as before, make sure the square isn’t touching any teeth and slide it against the face of the blade.

miter saw alignment
miter saw alignment

A miter saw, drill/driver, and a circular saw should be the first power tools you purchase as a beginner woodworker. You can create so many impressive projects with just these three tools and a few affordable accessories!


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