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Photos: Hep Svadja

A miter saw, commonly known as a “chop saw,” is a tool that can easily and quickly cut a piece of wood or other material in two. Commonly, one would use this to rend a long piece of material, like a 2×4 or a piece of PVC pipe into two more manageable (or dimensionally correct) pieces. One excellent feature of many of these saws is that they can be used to make cuts at an angle both to the fence that your workpiece rests on, and to the floor.

You could do much the same thing with a saw and miter box, or even a jigsaw, but the speed with which you can cut something up with a miter saw is hard to beat! Here’s a wind tunnel project I did where my miter saw came in extremely helpful; it made short work of the 2×4 supports that I used.

Basic Use

Generally speaking, to cut something with a miter saw, you line it up against the fence (the vertical edge that a part naturally rests on while cutting) and pull the saw down on top of it with the trigger depressed. If it has a laser-aiming device, this can be helpful, but keep in mind that you must accommodate for the cut width if the resulting piece is to be dimensionally accurate.

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Additionally, these saws have a mechanism that allows you to rotate the saw relative to the workpiece, giving a nice angled cut. Compound miter saws have a second rotational axis, allowing the blade to tilt relative to the the floor. This allows for “compound” cuts with a cut angled relative to both the fence surface and the floor.

Keeping it Clean

As you might suspect, these saws are able to produce a huge amount of sawdust. Mine came with a bag that sits in the back of the saw, which collects a marginal amount of dust on its own. This bag, however, can be removed, and replaced with the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner, in my case a Rigid vacuum.

I was quite happy since I already had this brand of vacuum in my shop, but this is something you’ll want to check into before making a purchase. I’m sure there are adapters (or you could make one), but if you can get one that fits your existing vacuum without modification, that’s even better.

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Tricks

If you’re cutting a straight length of wood, it’s pretty easy to get a decent cut. However, here are a few tricks that I use while making stuff:

  • Mark your fence with a felt tip pen to indicate where an item should end when cutting multiple pieces. This will allow you not to have to measure every time.
  • If something is not flat (like PVC with a fitting on the end), you may have to support the other end to keep the cut square.
  • Clamp items that you’re cutting if possible.
  • If your workpiece is too wide to cut in one pass, it’s sometimes possible to cut, then flip and cut along the same axis.

Safety

Although quite useful, these saws can certainly be dangerous. Always wear safety glasses while using one, and don’t get your hand anywhere near the blade (I’ve seen six inches cited as a safe limit, but follow your tool’s manual). You shouldn’t have any loose clothing, hair, or jewelry while working with one of these tools, and hearing protection is generally required.

Make sure to think about what and how you’re cutting, and if you’re not sure it’s safe, find someone with the appropriate experience to help you. Be sure to check out this clothing safety and hearing protection article for more information.