What the best compound miter saws have

  • Clearly marked scales. Miter and bevel scales should be properly aligned and easy to read for accurate cutting. The best -- most precise -- scales are digital or at least marked in fractions of a degree.
  • Solid angle presets. Detents marking common miter and bevel angles let users quickly set the saw for frequently used cuts. The best compound miter saws have a well-designed detent override to securely lock in a custom setting, ideal for trimming imperfect angles.
  • Good fence support. The fence (small wall upon which the wood is positioned) should be adjustable and provide extra support when cutting large stock. According to editors at Wood Magazine, "The best fences stand at least 4-inches high with top sections that slide out of the way for making bevel cuts."
  • Smooth sliding action. The rails on a sliding compound miter saw should easily glide as you push through the board (the safest way to cut). Well-built rails are solid for minimal blade deflection and a cleaner cut.
  • Safe blade guards. The best blade guards protect users during the saw's full range of motion, but easily lift out of the way for extra visibility or accessibility. Andy Beasley of the Journal of Light Construction prefers saws that "let me raise the guard an inch or so with the thumb on my trigger hand."
  • Built-in laser. To highlight the saw's cutting path, the best lasers "mount in front of the blade and shine down in clear, bright red" and are easy to adjust, say editors at Wood Magazine. Lasers should work without the blade turning, allowing users to line up the cut safely.
  • Dust-collection ports. Few compound miter saws excel at corralling sawdust, but the best have ports that attach snugly to a shop vacuum.
  • Good portability. The best saws are easy to carry, mount on a universal stand and require minimal space to operate. Look for a saw head that locks in place and a stout handle on the top of the saw.
  • Safety lockout triggers. A built-in safety switch on the handle to prevent the saw from accidentally starting should be easy to operate with either hand. Unfortunately, this isn't a standard feature.

Know before you go

Blade quality is a big part of a smooth cut. For the best overall performance, experts recommend using a carbide blade with 40 to 80 teeth per inch (TPI). Blades with extra teeth make smoother cuts, but are also slower. Editors at Popular Woodworking advise skipping the cheap steel blade, which "chews up your work in an unacceptable manner." Few compound miter saws include a high-grade blade, but those can be purchased separately.

Use a portable stand when working outside your shop. Even though miter saws are portable tools, their versatility and accuracy improve when mounted to a sturdy stand.

Safety gear is a must. As compound miter saws produce 90 decibels or more, experts recommend you always wear safety glasses and hearing protection when operating your miter saw -- no matter the size or style.

Check your alignment first. 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.

What's to come

Some brands, including Ryobi and Bosch, are offering cordless compound miter saws. While removing the cord means improved versatility and range for many power tools, experts aren't sure compound miter saws make good candidates for battery operation. According to comparison tests, most cordless miter saws lack the power and run time of the corded versions, cost more and do not offer any major advantages. As technology for lithium-ion batteries continues to improve this may change, but for now it's best to stick with a corded saw.

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