The Fundamentals of Using an Electric Miter Saw

Someone cutting wood on a miter saw.

A miter saw is one of the most versatile tools a DIYer can employ. Before it's completed, just about any project will include this saw. From small craft projects to framing in the entire house, the miter saw is front and center of nearly every task. So what do you need to know before getting started with a miter saw? Here are the basics.

What Does a Miter Saw Do?

The miter saw is often referred to as a chop saw. Technically, these are different things. The only motion a chop saw makes is a straight vertical cut, and it's typically used for industrial purposes of chopping up large pieces of metal or thick blocks of wood. A miter saw, by contrast, can cut angles as the blade swings from one side to the other of the cutting surface. There are also compound miter saws that allow the blade to first come forward from the neutral position and then return through the cut. This is helpful for wider pieces of materials.


A woman cutting wood with a miter saw.

The miter saw has a circular blade that rotates quickly. Common sense states, therefore, that it has the potential to be dangerous. With a little bit of attention, however, the miter saw is relatively harmless but there are things you should look out for. Always pull back long hair, remove jewelry, and be aware of loose clothing that could get caught in the blade. Wear proper shoes in case a chunk of wood falls on your foot.

When you make a cut with the miter saw, hold the piece that you wish to keep rather than the piece that you may discard. When you've pulled down the arm of the saw and completed your cut, release the power and wait for the blade to stop moving before allowing it to lift again. If you don’t, the blade can catch the material on its way back up. We’ve seen a miter saw throw a chunk of wood clear across the shop in this way. Obviously, that could be a dangerous situation, so make sure the blade has stopped moving before lifting the arm.

Another safety note is to make sure you never reach across your body when holding a board or pulling down the blade. This increases the chances of cutting your arm. Also make sure the saw is balanced on a firm surface. The area around the saw should be free of loose dust. When working with long pieces of wood, an outfeed is a handy device. Make sure your blade cover and dust bag are working properly. Check the dust bag often and empty as needed.


A miter saw cutting wood.

The miter saw has many features to assist you. Although each saw is a bit different, most of them have a guard on the blade. This covers the blade when it's in the neutral position and allows it to lift only while the cut is being made. There is a stop for repeat cuts of the same length so that you don’t need to measure each time, a built-in tape measure for shorter lengths, and a degree marker for angled cuts. It will also have a lock to keep the blade in the lowered position when not in use. A miter saw typically comes in 10” or 12” blades, allowing for versatility.

Measuring Cuts

In addition to your stop and your built-in tape measure, it’s important to keep in mind kerf. Simply put, kerf is the width of the blade. This can make a huge impact on precision cuts. It’s important to mark your line precisely. Then, put an "x" on the waste side of the board. When lining up your blade, align the outer part of the blade with the line. If you center it or miss your mark slightly, your board may be too short as a result. It's always better to leave the board slightly long and make a second cut than to cut it too short.

With practice, you’ll soon be whizzing through projects, installing flooring and trim, framing in closets, making picture frames, and building a deck. The miter saw is a convenient tool that offers endless versatility.