You’ve got the woodworking bug bad and are ready for the next major tool purchase. A circular saw has the rugged, manly power associated with electric saws, but the miter saw might be able to make you look like a real woodworking authority.
Assuming you aren’t going to spring for both, at least not right now, how do you choose? The wise woodworker will learn everything he can about each tool and only then select one for his shop.
The circular saw was invented in the early 1800s – by a woman! – in a now-nearly-defunct religious sect called the Shakers (the very same Shakers famous for their furniture making). Since then, the circular saw has become a staple in the garage of almost every DIY-er who works with wood.
A circular saw is a handheld (corded or cordless) saw with a spinning, vertically-oriented blade. The most common blade size is around 7 inches in diameter – and can be driven through just about any surface. In other words, it is not restricted to cutting a board resting in front of you, but can also cut through, for example, a wall, or even a ceiling (although that would count as dangerous, so don’t do that).
A circular saw can cut almost anything, almost anywhere. With the proper blade, it can cut not only wood, but metal, masonry, plastic, and tile. You can carry it anywhere – into an attic, onto a job site, or anywhere else you want to go. If you poke around on the internet, you can find photos of guys leaning a 2×8 against their foot(!) to trim it to size with a circular saw.
A circular saw is terrific for rip cuts and long cuts. Want to saw a long board lengthwise? A circ saw is the answer. Want to slice a sheet of plywood in half? Pull out your circular saw and two sawhorses and you’re good to go.
A circular saw is dangerous. This is the flip side of being able to take it anywhere to cut anything. If you’re not careful, you can slice off a limb. They are prone to kickback. A circular saw is a little bit like the Wild West – you can never be entirely sure what’s going to happen.
Although you can try it, you may find your angled cuts are sloppy. You can rig your circular saw to make those specialized cuts, but it won’t be very precise and it might take you a few tries to do it properly. If you had a lot of trim work looking at you, you wouldn’t want to have to tackle it with a circular saw.
The powered miter saw is a relative newcomer to the power tool scene. Only around since the 1970s, they’ve largely replaced the miter box your grandfather would have used. Using a vertically-oriented spinning blade of around 10-12 inches in diameter, the operator pulls the saw down and through the table-like work surface on which the wood is resting. It’s a little bit like a circular saw mounted on a vertically pivoting arm.
The miter saw specializes in four distinct types of cuts: cross cut, miter, bevel, and compound. To appreciate what a miter saw can do, you need to understand what each of those are and can be used for.
I highly recommend watching this video to understand these cuts. Afterwards you can read more about them below.
A cross cut is the simplest – you are cutting a board to length at a regular, 90-degree angle. Do you want to cut a 2×4 in half? You can cross cut it on a miter saw. Any saw can do this, though, so it’s not what makes a miter saw special.
A miter cut is cutting the end of a board on an angle. Go look at the trim around a door inside your house. In the corner, where two pieces of trim meet, each piece is probably cut on a 45-degree angle and fit together.
A bevel cut is also cutting the end of a board into an angle, but now the angle is through the thickness of the wood, not the width. Have you ever used a shim or a doorstop, those almost triangular pieces of wood? Those are extreme examples of bevel cuts. Around the house, the best example is probably where two pieces of baseboard meet on a long expanse of wall – they’ve likely been beveled where they meet to camouflage the joint.
A compound cut is a combination of both a miter and a bevel cut. If you have any crown molding in your house, take a look at a corner. Those trim pieces will have been compound cut to meet cleanly in the corner.
Obviously, the primary perk of a miter saw is that it is quick, easy, and precise in providing you with these four types of cuts and is specifically designed for angles and bevels. If you’re installing trim throughout a house, or if you want to make a living building picture frames, a miter saw will make your life immeasurably easier.
A miter saw is safe. The blade can only go up and down within the reach of the arm on which it’s mounted. Kickback is rare, and as long as you wear safety glasses, your biggest concern is not sawing through your own fingers. Even if you managed to start doing that, your first reaction would be to release the blade, causing it to spring away from your hand and stop spinning.
Its greatest strength – providing those four styles of cuts – is also its greatest weakness. Because it doesn’t do anything else, it has next to zero versatility outside of its expected use. Many tools can be pressed into service to do other tasks in a pinch, but not this one. You can’t rip boards on this, you can’t do anything with large pieces of wood, and you can only cut straight lines.
They’re expensive. With the ability to do all those cuts, it qualifies as a specialized tool, and you’ll pay for the convenience it provides. You won’t see a miter saw in every shop or garage.
They are stationary. You have to bring the wood to it. There are tabletop versions that can be transported, but it’s not a handheld tool that you can carry from room to room.
A circular saw is by far the more versatile saw of the two. It can take on a huge array of jobs and can go almost anywhere you can. But the circular saw is a generalist – it does a decent job at a lot of things, like your family doctor. The miter saw is a specialist – it’s like having a surgeon for an operation instead of expecting your family doc to do it.
What’ll it be next for your woodworking life – a generalist or a specialist?