10 Tips For Using A Miter Saw
Prediction: If you’ve used a miter saw, you’ve been frustrated using a miter saw. True? There’s a reason for that and it’s not the saw’s fault. The saw is made to do one thing: Cut. Not hold, not support, and not remember what you’re supposed to be doing. All it does is cut. With these tips, you can make the most of your miter saw projects. Cut more accurately, safely, easily. And feel good instead of frustrated.
Support the ‘Work’
If there is one thing you take away from this article, let it be this: Support your work, be happy.
The ‘work’, in carpentry lingo is whatever you’re working on. In this case, it’s the boards you’re cutting—be it a 4x4 for a deck, treehouse or mailbox. Could be some primo crown molding. Whatever you’re cutting is the ‘work.’
Even on a big miter saw like my mac-daddy DeWalt 12-inch slide compound, the deck is only 24 inches or so wide. It’s good, but it does you no good if the board you’re cutting is 12 feet long. Because, gravity.
For a good cut, you need to support the 10 feet of lumber dangling out in space.
There are a million ways to do this (your spouse holding the board way out at the end really won’t be on my list). The simplest is a platform and blocks, like I did here. You can use sawhorses. I used my Rockwell JawHorses. They’re taller and more stable than sawhorses, which is good for miter saw work.
Bridge them with some 2x10 or 2x12 to make a table surface. Then, from underneath, screw 2x4 blocks on edge at the ends of the boards. Many miter-saw decks are 3 1/2-inches tall, the same width as a 2x4. You may have to make adjustments to match up your miter saw to your support block.
Accuracy matters when it comes to using a miter saw
Accuracy counts in most miter saw work and a board that’s a 1/2-inch off might as well be a mile short.
I jot measurements down in a notebook as I take them, especially if I have to walk between what I’m doing (like to go outside) and where the miter saw is set up. Something small that fits in the pocket of my tool pouch is ideal. (Incidentally, this is where the title of my novel, The Carpenter’s Notebook came from).
Cuts have names. Inside-left, outside-right and so on. This is most valuable for molding projects. If you know the cuts, you can remember them more easily between measuring them on the wall and cutting them on the saw. It is super easy to cut a molding angle backwards. Or to the short-point of a 45-degree cut rather than the long point. Coming up short is disappointing.
Stupid is a sign of…Thirsty?
Sometimes cutting can be confusing (noticing a theme here)?
When I start making little mistakes—like transposing 6 and 9 and I cut a piece too long—chances are I’m getting dehydrated. As I often say to myself: Stupid is a sign of thirsty. I keep a water bottle close by. It’s like motor oil for your brain. True story.
‘Parallax’. When you’re cutting with a miter saw, you need to see where the blade hits the pencil line. Obvious, right?
Of course. But when you’re looking at it from the side, you can’t see it correctly because you’re looking at it from an angle. It’s kind of like when you put a stick in the water and the part underwater appears offset. It’s called parallax.
The trick on a miter saw is to ‘run your eye’ in carpenter-speak or look straight down the edge of the blade. Line up the blade teeth with the pencil line, then cut.
My DeWalt has a great feature that short circuits parallax for the most part. A light in the blade housing casts a precise shadow where the blade will hit the board. Awesome.
Note, look down the wrong side of the blade and your cut is either too short or too long by the thickness of the blade. Know which side to look down for accurate cuts.
All saws create dust. Even outdoors collecting dust can be handy. Say you’re building a deck or a shed and making lots of cuts. Dust that comes out of the saw’s dust chute will become one with your lawn. For a long time. I’ve used a DIY solution with zip-ties, a PVC fitting and a breathable trash bag (called DemoBag) that I love. It catches most of the dust. It’s good indoors too, though it hardly catches everything. I usually team it up with a pro tool called an air scrubber from BuildClean.
Miter saws get dinged, bounced, grabbed, yanked, dropped and beaten up. It’s enough to pull them out of alignment. From time to time—or if something is inexplicably NOT lining up—check the saw for accuracy using a square. Make sure the square rides on the blade and not on a tooth. You might be surprised to find your problem has nothing to do with your ability to cut accurately or read a tape measure.
Cut the clutter
Using a miter saw usually means you’re making cuts that you have to think about.
Clutter makes it harder to think. If you have to kick the cut-offs you’re just dropping at your feet out of the way, or keep moving little scraps piling up on your bench, you’re distracted. Plus, you have to clean them up anyway.
Every miter saw setup I do comes with a trashcan. Cardboard boxes are great. I leave it out of the way of my walking path but accessible enough to toss the little hunks of wood into as I cut them. (I typically keep anything 12 inches or longer until the end of the project).
It puts speed, safety, and organization on the track all at the same time.
Move the saw or move the work?
In other words, is it better to move the saw from 45 left to 45 right? Or to flip the board around?
Yes. There is not a Carpentry Gods of Valhalla rule for this. Do what works the easiest. I find it easier to see the cut when the board is off to the left and I’m cutting off the right side. I often just baton-twirl boards (watch out for what’s above and around you) to make the cut line is easier to see.
Unless that’s a pain. Then I swivel the saw.
How can that be? Easy. For cutting little pieces, sometimes the best saw is old school. I LOVE my Stanley miter saw for cutting shoe molding returns and other little persnickety items. A power tool blade is whirring at 3500 rpm and a little return is no match for it. It gets sucked into the blade and you never see it again.
Mark Clement is a carpenter and co-host, with his wife Theresa, of the MyFixitUpLife show.
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