How to make the best and most accurate cuts on all types of wooden projects
Example of a sliding compound miter saw. (Courtesy of Flickr, Mark Hunter)
Miter saws make the job of a carpenter much easier, but that doesn’t mean that they are easy to use. Although they can significantly shorten the work and make more precise cuts than other types of saws, miter saws also require you to use good techniques and practices if you want to end up with a beautiful result free from the negative effects of tear-out or splintering.
Here are some simple things you can do to make your miter saw work harder for you:
- Relax Your Fence
Sometimes bent molding can be difficult to cut on a miter saw with a straight fence. To make sure you get the cleanest cut, you can push your extended fence back out of the way. This gives you an easy way to hold the molding tightly against the regular saw fence to get an accurate cut.
- Choose a Well-Rounded Blade
Not all saw blades are meant to do all jobs but some can be used for more than others. The normal blades that come with a miter saw are fit for cutting 2x4s, but not for finer details and smooth cuts. Choosing a blade with a higher tooth count makes it easier to get smooth cut on all wooden surfaces, even plywood or hardwood, without having to change the blades out so frequently.
Something else you want to look for is a slight negative rake on the blades. This means that the teeth on the blade are leaning backwards instead of forwards. A negative rake decreases the chances of tear-out and makes an overall cleaner cut.
Example of a saw blade with a high tooth count. (Courtesy of FreeImages.com)
- Use a Back Up When Necessary
If you’ll be cutting thin stock, it’s best to make a two-sided back up to help you slice it better. Clamp the box to the back fence of your saw and cut it as a backstop for your stock piece when cutting. This helps to keep the cutoffs from flying back and also makes it easier to align the cuts more precisely on a small piece of wood.
- Compress for Carrying
If you’re taking your miter saw somewhere, make sure that you rotate the turntable entirely to the left or right. This places the handle much nearer to the center of the weight. Carrying your saw like this makes it easier to balance and spreads the weight out evenly.
- Create Angled Bevel Blocks
When you’re in the midst of a project there is a good chance that your saw will be covered in dust and other grime from the build. This makes it nearly impossible to accurately read the bevel scale to tell what angle your saw is rotated to. Make this job easier by creating a series of bevel blocks to measure the angles.
Making bevel blocks is simple and just takes a few minutes. Start with your blade at 90 degrees and adjust it to the first angle you want to make a block for. Place a block of scrap wood flat against the fence and cut all the way through at your chose angle. To use this block in the future as a bevel angle, line it up with the edge of the blade to adjust the tilt. Be sure to mark each block with the angle of the tilt to avoid confusion!
- Adjust the Throat Plate
If your saw is like most other miter saws, the throat plate was designed in a way that it sits just a little bit below the saw table. This can have a negative effect on your cuts and might increase tear-out, so it’s best to adjust the throat plate and make it sit level with the table. You can do this by removing it and propping it up with a thin material underneath.
- Embrace the Hold-down Clamp
While your hold-down clamp might not be the best clamp around, it’s much better than trying to get an accurate cut without a clamp. Regular clamps are not so compatible with a miter saw, so you don’t have a lot of other options. Using the build-in hold-down clamp will greatly improve your cuts and give you much better precision and accuracy.
- Cut a Cradle for Your Dowels
Cutting dowel stock can be irritating because it will rotate a lot as you try to cut it. This can mess up the cut and make the end result less than perfect. To prevent this, create a V-shaped cradle to hold the dowel as you’re cutting it.
Make your cradle by cutting into a block using a 45 degree angle. Do a partial-cut at first from both sides to get what looks like almost a V cut, but still has the center piece inside. After you make both cuts you should be able to remove the center to prevent it from flying out at you as you’re cutting. Finish off the V-cut after this and your cradle is ready.
Examples of wooden dowels. The cradle forms a V shape that will nestle the dowel and make it easy to cut without any unwanted slipping or movement. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
- Be Patient with Your Blade
One of the easiest and most obvious ways to keep cutoffs from flying around the room is to allow your saw to stop moving completely before you lift it. It only takes a few seconds and could spare you a bit of a mess or an injury in the future.
- Lift Up Your Long Projects
Any time you’re trying to make a cut on wood that’s longer than your saw blade, you can prop the wood up on another piece of scrap to elongate the cut. Depending on your saw, you can gain at least another inch or more by simply raising the work up on top of something else before cutting. If you practice this method, use the hold-down clamp to keep your work in place and prevent it from being moved by the edges of the blade.
- Sub-fence for More Precise Cuts
Using a sub-fence can help you get better cuts, especially when you need to make right-angle cuts. Make a sub-fence by choosing a board the same length as your regular saw fence. Try to find a hardwood that’s dense like maple wood. Cut a rabbet of 1/8 inch on one half of the board to collect sawdust. Screw the board onto the fence and cut a slot through the middle. All you have to do is line up your pencil marked work with the slot in the fence and make your cuts.
- Cut Consistently with a Stop Block
Cutting boards of exactly the same size can be difficult, but using a stop block makes the process very simple. To make this block, simply cut a slot in the top that will fit around the bar of an F-style clamp that you own. It should be a very tight fit. Saw a small corner off to avoid the collection of sawdust against your work. To use the stop block, clamp it at a distance that allows you to cut your boards to exactly the desired length. This way you will always be able to get the right lengths if you put the boards against the stop block each time.
- Lines on the Center, Not the Sides
When you’re marking your work with a pencil, don’t mark the side edges. Think about the way the saw will be cutting the board. It starts in the center and cuts the edges later. If you want to make the most accurate cuts, mark the centers of the boards to help you align the saw better. Make sure to mark the waste side of the board with an X so you know how to line up the board properly.
Example of central pencil markings for a saw cut. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
- Regularly Square Your Saw
You can make sure your saw is properly aligned by using a simple plastic drafting square to check periodically. Squaring your saw ensures you that you will be getting the best cuts possible all the time. Tip: Cut one of the sides of the drafting square short so that the blade’s teeth don’t get in the way of you checking the alignment.
Following these 14 tips can help you get the best work possible and turn you into a miter saw master! They’re easy to do, but the results you get might surprise you.