Project 101: Make Straight Wood Cuts with a Miter Box

Craft & Design

By Mark Frauenfelder
It’s possible to draw a fairly straight line with a pencil, but if you want to be accurate, you must use a ruler or straightedge to guide the pencil as you draw. Similarly, if you want to saw a piece of wood (or plastic, or PVC pipe) so that the cut is as straight as possible, you need a tool to help you guide the saw. A ruler won’t help (don’t try, you’ll just ruin the ruler). Instead, an inexpensive tool called a miter box (sometimes spelled mitre) will do the trick. In this article, I’ll explain what a miter box is, and how to use it.
For a PDF of this technique, visit the technique page on Make: Projects.

Shown here is a Stanley 20-112 Clamping Mitre Box. They cost about $15, including the saw. I usually replace mine once a year or so, because the saw’s teeth get dull and the guide slots get chewed up over time.
In this photo you can see the lip on the bottom of one side of the miter box. The lip is meant to hang over the edge of the table so the box doesn’t slip when you are sawing. If you are serious about not wanting the box to slip, you can anchor it to the workbench by inserting screws into the two holes on either side of the box.
The two black plastic cam pins make it easy to secure the wood in the box. Just pick holes that are close to the wood, insert the pins, and twist until they are tight.
Notice that the slots in the miter box are set at 45-degree, 90-degree and 22 1/2-degree angles. You can buy more expensive miter boxes that let you set any angle you want, but I’ve never made any cuts that weren’t 45- or 90-degree angles.
Here, I’m cutting a 1″x2″ piece of lumber at a 45-degree angle. I’m holding the box with my left hand, and cutting with my right. When making a 45-degree cut, its easy for the saw to fall out of the slot, so use short strokes and take your time.
Here’s what the two cut pieces look like when put together to form a right-angle. You can easily make a picture frame with a miter box. If you try making these cuts without a miter box, you will end up wasting wood as well as teaching new curse words to any kids within earshot.
For smaller pieces of wood, you can use a hobbyist’s miter box, like the one shown here. This is what I use to cut fret slots in the necks of my cigar box guitars. The one shown here is the X-Acto 1371552 Mitre Box Set. It comes with a razor saw, but I lost mine and am using a small hacksaw as a replacement.
Now that you know how to make straight cuts in wood, you probably know more about woodworking than 75% of the people in the country. Hold your head high (but keep your eyes on the blade).
About the Author:

Mark Frauenfelder is editor-in-chief of MAKE, and the founder of Boing Boing. His latest book is called Made by Hand: My Adventures in the World of Do-It-Yourself .

20 thoughts on “Project 101: Make Straight Wood Cuts with a Miter Box

  1. Irish Andrew says:

    Japanese style pull saws are amazing. I spent years working with my father on an old house and pull saws were a revelation. The control and ease of use made them far superior to even power saws in many circumstances. They can be used with mitre gauges with no problem.

  2. flink says:

    Not all Japanese pull saws can benefit from resharpening. Particularly, those whose blades are impact hardened.
    There are several western companies now producing pull saws. Irwin comes to mind. I’ve seen a couple other brands at one of the big box stores.

  3. BigB says:

    Japanese saws are nice, but a well-made western backsaw is also a great tool. Don’t use the piece of junk saw that comes with the miter box as a basis for comparison. A good backsaw is the equal of a good Japanese pull saw – past a certain point in quality, it all comes down to the operator’s skill.

  4. Rick Turner says:

    I would never rely on glue alone for a mitered joint…too much end grain. I love my Lamello biscuit jointer, though, and it does miter joints really well. Don’t use it much these days being a guitar maker, but when I was a cabinet and furniture maker, I lived by that thing. I even made some exterior doors with multiple Lamello biscuits instead of mortise and tenon joints, and they’ve held up just fine over the years. Glued them with epoxy or Weldwood.
    Understood re. the induction hardened teeth, and there are a number of Japanese pull saws with replaceable blades.
    You should see Japanese carpenters before trade shows building exhibits on site…incredible workmanship and really fast.

  5. mliksit says:

    Is this post a joke? or not?

  6. Mark Frauenfelder says:

    mliksit, we all bow down to your elite skills, which are so grand that you consider a 101 introduction to a tool to be a joke. We have much to learn from a superior being such as your self!

  7. John says:

    This article inspired me to finally build a light box for an old arcade marquee I have. Unfortunately, my plans call for using 1″ x 8″ lumber (to leave room for the light & diffusion) and this box is too small. Even the larger, more expensive miter rigs seem to only handle up to 5-6″. Suggestions?

  8. worrywillian says:

    get cheap for promotion code with low price

  9. Pink and White Wooden Tray {DIY} - Two Delighted says:

    […] Use a miter saw or miter box to cut the pieces of moulding at 45 degree angles, with the inside of the piece being the width of […]

  10. How to Make a Glam Padded Menu Board | THE MOREGEOUS BLOG : Making Homes More Than Gorgeous says:

    […] mitre saw but you can just as easily use a standard DIY mitre saw & mitre box- this is a great blog post if you’ve never used […]

Comments are closed.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Mark Frauenfelder is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Make: magazine, and the founder of the popular Boing Boing blog.

View more articles by Mark Frauenfelder
Maker Faire Bay Area 2023 - Mare Island, CA

Escape to an island of imagination + innovation as Maker Faire Bay Area returns for its 15th iteration!

Buy Tickets today! SAVE 15% and lock-in your preferred date(s).