Chop saws and miter saws are in the same family of circular blade saws and, to the untrained eye, look pretty much the same. Both are a stationary stand-alone or tabletop tool with a vertically-oriented spinning blade that you pull downward on a pivoting arm to cut through material.
As a result, some people use the terms chop saw and miter saw interchangeably, but to do so is misleading. And although you could argue that all miter saws are a kind of chop saw, no one would argue that a chop saw is a kind of miter saw.
So, what makes them different? Like with most tools, it’s all about what you want to do with it.
A chop saw is a beast of a tool. It is larger and more powerful than a miter saw and can cut through just about anything, including metal. Cutting pipe or rebar or steel? Cutting wood that’s littered with nails? Cutting stacks of 2x4s? A chop saw is the best choice. This power and versatility make chop saws a little bit dangerous, though. A chop saw should not be your first power tool.
A chop saw uses an abrasive disc, not a blade with teeth, which enables it to cut through anything in a heartbeat – it’s fast. Despite its raw power, though, you can still get a precise cut from a chop saw.
A chop saw usually generates sparks and lots of them. They aren’t going to burn through your clothes or your skin, but they do create quite a show. Be mindful you’re not using a chop saw near anything flammable. (Most household tools don’t do this so it’s worth mentioning.)
But a chop saw only does 90-degree cuts. You pull the blade down, it gives you a cross cut, and you’re done. That’s what it does. In fact, if your chop saw does angles, you should really be calling it a miter saw.
Miter saw use teeth with blades to cut angles. It can do the 90-degree cut like a chop saw, but it can also do angles, bevels, and compound cuts at all different slants. If you’re making picture frames, trimming out doors and windows, or putting in moldings, a miter saw will be a lifesaver. A miter saw will cut precise angles and bevels all day long, but it only cuts wood, nothing else.
And that’s pretty much all it does. Since it only does controlled, detailed work (and doesn’t provide the fireworks display like the chop saw), it’s certainly safer than many other types of saws. A miter saw is a specialized tool – it only does one thing but does that better than any other tool.
The chop saw is all about brute force and power and is a construction tool. Are you building a house from the ground up? You’ll want a chop saw. When it’s time to put on the finishing touches, bring in carpenter with a miter saw to trim out the doors and windows – it’s a finesse tool. And just as all apples are fruit, but not all fruit are apples, all miter saws are chop saws, but not all chop saws are miter saws. The next time someone tries to tell you they have a chop saw that does angles, you can congratulate them on having a miter saw.