How to Buy a Compound Miter Saw


What the best compound miter saw has

  • Clearly marked scales. Miter and bevel scales should be properly aligned and easy to read for accurate cutting. The best -- most precise -- scales have either a digital display or a scale marked in fractions of a degree.
  • Solid angle presets. Detents – locking catches marking the most common miter and bevel angles – let users quickly set the saw for frequently used cuts. Select a saw with a solid miter lock to hold the saw firmly in place; at least five miter detents; and a detent override, which allows you to secure custom angles.
  • Good fence support. The fence (small wall against which the board is positioned) should be adjustable and provide extra support when cutting large stock. Reviewers say the best fences stand at least 4-inches high and squarely perpendicular to the table. A fence with sections that slide or swing up out of the way is handy for making bevel cuts.
  • Smooth sliding action. The rails on a sliding compound miter saw should glide easily as you push the blade through the board. On some saws, reviewers say, this sliding motion is rough at first but grows easier with use.
  • Safe blade guard. The blade guard should protect you from the spinning blade during the saw's full range of motion, but you should still be able to lift out of the way by hand when necessary to get a better view or to keep it from interfering with the cut. Andy Beasley of the Journal of Light Construction says he prefers saws that "let me raise the guard an inch or so with the thumb on my trigger hand."
  • Cutting guide. Many compound miter saws have a laser guide that helps you visualize the path of the blade before you make the cut. However, many pros say that lasers aren't usually precise enough to be of much use – and in bright sunlight, it's impossible to see the laser line. We found more enthusiastic reviews for a new LED light system found on some DeWalt saws, which shines a light on both sides of the blade from behind, so you can use the narrow shadow of the blade itself as your guide.
  • Dust-collection ports. Experts generally agree that the dust-collection bags that come with compound miter saws are all but useless. However, some saws can manage to corral dust reasonably well if you attach a shop vacuum to the rear dust-collection port.
  • Safety switch. A built-in switch on the handle to prevent the saw from starting accidentally is a great safety feature. Look for one that's easy to operate with either hand.

Know before you go

What size lumber do you need to cut? A 10-inch compound miter saw can only cut through boards up to 10 inches wide. If you need to handle wider boards, you can either upgrade to a 12-inch saw or choose a sliding miter saw. Chris Marshall of Woodworker's Journal says a 10-inch sliding miter saw "can crosscut a 2×12 or a 4×4 in a single pass," and it can make mitered and beveled cuts on 8-inch boards an inch thick or even thicker. A 12-inch sliding miter saw can handle even bigger lumber, but it's also heavier and harder to transport, not to mention more expensive.

Do you need a dual bevel? All compound miter saw can rotate to the left and right to make mitered cuts. However, for beveled cuts, some saws can only tilt the head in one direction, while others can go either way. Beasley says that a single-bevel saw is "lighter, cheaper, and simpler than its flip-flopping cousin," but it can be difficult to position the board correctly to make compound cuts.

Where will you use the saw? If you plan to set up the saw in your home workshop and never move it, portability isn't crucial. However, if you'll ever need to move the saw to another site, it should be easy to carry. Look for a saw head that locks in place and a stout handle – or better yet, a pair of them – on top of the saw. Also, invest in a sturdy portable stand for working outside your shop

How much precision do you need? For most of the saws covered in our report, reviewers – both professional woodworkers and homeowners – say the blade that comes with the saw is adequate for making rough cuts, but for precision work, you should upgrade to a high-quality carbide blade with 60 to 80 teeth per inch (TPI). According to the saw blade guide at Rockler Woodworking and Hardware, blades with extra teeth make smoother cuts, but are also slower. In his test of 10-inch sliding miter saws, Marshall replaced the factory blade on each saw with a new 80-TPI Freud Thin Kerf Ultimate Cut-off Blade (Est. $65).

Safety first. When using your compound miter saw, safety should be your number one concern. The editors of Fine Woodworking recommend wearing safety glasses and hearing protection when operating any miter saw, regardless of size or style. It's also important to keep both hands well clear of the spinning blade. Clamp your wood securely against the fence when cutting, rather than holding it down with your hand, and don't reach into the cutting area until the blade has come to a full stop. When using a sliding miter saw, the safest way to work is to start your cut on the side closest to you and then push the blade forward through the wood.

Before the first use. Reviewers – both professional woodworkers and homeowners – observe that not all compound miter saws are set correctly when first unpacked. Plan to spend some time double-checking the alignment and adjusting it for dead-on accuracy.