Chopping Wood: Miter Saw Basics

Have you never used a miter saw before, but want to plunge into the world of DIY?  Well I’ll tell you a secret: I’d never used one before building my first piece of patio furniture either!  This machine may look intimidating to you (at least that’s how I felt – c’mon it’s got a big spinning blade that swings down!) but a miter saw is actually very easy to use. The following advice on mastering the miter saw is gathered from various articles, YouTube videos, and my father – an experienced woodworker who guided me through the building of my first prototypes.  If you’ve never owned or operated a miter saw, please use this as a starting point and then watch a few how-to videos to see how it’s properly done and follow all instructions that come with your miter saw.

First, let’s talk about setting up the saw.

Actually, when you start on a project think about the best way to set up your work area.  Projects can be complicated enough without you constantly tripping over your own tools!  You want an area for your uncut boards, an area for measuring and chopping, and a place to lay out the cut pieces in an organized way. 

But as for the saw, it should be set up on a long worktable or a stand specifically designed to mount the saw onto it.  This allows you to operate the saw at a comfortable standing height.  Having a long table or utilizing the extensions on a stand is nice, so that your cut pieces don’t fall away and drop to the ground.  After I had just purchased my saw I tried operating it by just setting it on the ground in my driveway.  Way awkward and totally not safe.  Buy or make a stand if you don’t already have a workbench or table to set it on.  The nice thing about a stand is that it can be mobile and some stands can fold up (with the saw still mounted to it) and store nicely without taking up too much space.  What you see in the photo is a make shift stand using a folding work table / sawhorse.  Then we used an additional pair of sawhorses to stabilize the longer boards.

Next, operating the saw.

If you’ve never used one before, the first thing to do (after reading the instructions) is practice: hold the wood with your left hand and lower and raise the blade with your right while the power is off to get comfortable with the motion and keeping your hands clear.  When you actually do use the saw to make some cuts, you should always hold the longer portion of the board steady and cut off the shorter portion. So as an example, if I have an 8’ long board, and I need a 30” long piece then I hold the longer portion and cut off my 30″ long piece.  However, if I have a 30” long board left and need a 28” cut, then I’m holding the longer length (my 28” portion) and cutting off the 2”.

Measuring and marking your cuts.

For 90-degree cuts, measure the length needed and mark a ‘V’ with the point at the target length. After marking the ‘V’, draw a complete line, using a speed square to draw a perpendicular line across the board’s width.  Drawing the line across is really helpful for wider boards to see where the blade will strike in comparison to the target.

Always measure, mark, then cut each piece one at a time. Never mark all your cuts on a single board and then start slicing and dicing. Mark, then cut. Then mark the next cut and make that cut.  Otherwise the blade thickness will eat into the lengths of boards you need.

Making the cuts.

First, make sure the blade will come down where you want it to. Before firing up the saw to make the cut, it’s best to get your board in position and without starting the blade, lower it down to see where it will strike.  You want the blade to land next to, not on your line.  So back to the example above, if I have a 30” long board and need a 28” long board then the blade should fall right next to your line on the 2″ side (the side you are cutting off).  That way you’ll have a board that is exactly the size you want, and not a smidge less.

Safety First!

Okay some of this should be common sense but please follow all safety guidelines for your machine.  The following are probably the most important to follow: 

  • Skinny jeans, body suits, and scrunchies are your friend! Do not wear loose clothing or jewelry, and if you have long hair you should pull it back out of the way.
  • Keep others safe, especially if you’re working around little ones! Unplug the saw when changing the blade and when not in use.
  • Keep your fingers at least 6 in. from the path of the blade. Some saws have lines to indicate the danger zone.
  • Protect your eyes! Wear safety glasses when operating the saw.
  • Let the ride come to a full and complete stop! Don’t reach under the blade while it’s spinning.
  • Let the blade come to a complete stop at the end of each cut before lifting it back up.

Finally – some handy tips

A few things my father taught me came in really handy.  Thought I would share:

  • When you have a fresh new board, it’s always good to slice off the end so you know both ends will be a clean and perpendicular edge.
  • After each cut, use a sanding block to knock off the jagged edges.  Also, if you’re dealing with cuts that are really splintered and jagged, consider these tips:
    • Consider changing out your blade.  Perhaps if you are using a general purpose blade, change to a Fine Finish blade.
    • Try wrapping the board where you plan to cut with painters tape.  I’ve personally not tried this and have seen plenty of videos showing that the tape makes minor improvements to the cut.  Your best bet is to choose your blade wisely.
  • To stay organized on a project, after each cut, label each piece and lay them out in the order you’ll use them.
If you’ve never used a miter saw before, no worries!  All you need is a place to set it up and healthy respect for your safety and the safety of others around you.  And the courage to try something new!  Here’s to building something beautiful!
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