Miter Saws and Circular Saws

A friend asked me whether he needed both a miter saw and a circular saw for a project he’s working on. As we were chatting he told me “this should be a blog post” so here we are.

Important Note: when we think of tools I think we should focus on access rather than ownership. Borrowing and lending tools is vitally important to a healthy society. Tools are meant to be used not acquired to sit on shelves.

Everyone should have access to a circular saw. It will empower you to do lots of projects you might otherwise think are beyond you.

Not as many people need access to a miter saw, but goodness, is it the right tool when you need it.

Regardless of which tool you’re using it’s worth using the right blade for the material you’re cutting. Not all blades are good at all things!

Miter Saw

The motorized version of this is a very useful tool for making quick repeatable crosscuts on widths less than about 8 inches (more if it’s a sliding miter saw) and miter (angled) cuts. You can get non-motorized versions which use your arm as the device to move the saw across the work piece instead. This is tiring for more than a few cuts, but is cheaper.

Where miter saws really shine is with angled cuts. Most of them these days are compound miter saws, which let’s you set the angle of the fence as well as the angle of the blade. This is very useful for trim work.

Primary Advantages vs. a Circular Saw

  • Repeatable cuts: put a stop block on the fence and you can quickly make a bunch of the same length cut by aligning the piece to the stop block.
  • Taller cuts: due to a larger diameter blade they can cut through thicker stock in one clean pass.
  • Accurate: since you have a fixed metal fence and a fixed fulcrum for the saw they’re unlikely to wander
  • Angles: the “miter” part of the name means that the saw can handle complex angles easily.

Primary Disadvantages vs. a Circular Saw

  • Footprint: the size of the tool is a lot larger. You will also likely need a stand of some sort of the tool and to support your work piece.
  • Weight: you’re not going to love moving your miter saw around.
  • Long cuts: even with a sliding miter saw you’re going to max out around 16”
  • Price: they’re more expensive. Sometimes a lot more expensive.

Circular Saw

A circular saw is a portable saw that is designed to be operated with one hand and excels at making cuts that are perpendicular to the surface of the work piece. You can freehand your cut (usually while following a penciled line), or run the edge of the saw plate alongside a straight edge.

Advantages vs. a Miter Saw

  • Portable: if you get a cordless one you can take it with you pretty much wherever. Even a corded one can travel easily.
  • Virtually limitless capacity: since you’re moving the saw across the piece you’re not limited by the size of your fence or blade size.
  • Price: you can get the last circular saw you’ll ever need for less than $100. Less than $50 if you don’t care about it being cordless or it being new.

Disadvantages vs. a Miter saw

  • Accuracy: unless you have a very steady hand or are using a rock solid fence the accuracy of your cut will be lower. Plenty fine for framing. I wouldn’t want to use it for detailed work.
  • Depth of cut: since the blade is physically smaller in diameter it won’t be able to handle as thick of stock as a miter saw
  • Angles: angled cuts are going to be difficult and/or impossible. Straight 90 degree cuts are all you should expect to get out of a circular saw.