Miter saw or circular saw… Which one is best for your needs?
To those with minimal experience, you might be wondering what the key differences are so you can decide which one to buy first.
In a nutshell, miter saws are used as a stationary saw to make precise angled cuts. Whereas the circular saw is a portable saw which is mainly used for crosscutting and ripping.
There are a lot of other finer differences which we will look at below.
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Types of cuts can they make what they are used for
Miter saws are popular in industries that require cutting multiple pieces to the same length such as carpentry, woodworking and construction. They are also excellent for smaller-scale projects such as making picture frames, cutting of trim and molding.
Also known as a drop saw, they specialize in making precise miter and crosscuts into a workpiece. Miter cuts are cuts made at an angle along the width and length of a workpiece, usually at a 45-degree angle to create a corner between two workpieces at 90 degrees.
A cross-cut is a cut made across the grain of a workpiece. Bevel cuts are also possible with a miter saw. Although others saws can crosscut, a miter saw stands out for its ability to make repeated cuts in an efficient and hassle-free manner. One downside to a miter saw is the limitations it has in regards to the width of material it can cut, which is a little more than the radius of their blade.
Due to their portability and cutting versatility, circular saws are much more flexible regarding the jobs they can be used for. This is why you’ll find them on most job sites and in workshops around the world. Jobs that require quick straight cuts into a variety of materials is where the circular saw shines.
This is mainly down to the fact that you aren’t restricted to up and down motion. Not only does this open up several cutting options but also means you aren’t confined by the width of your workpiece.
Here are some types of cuts possible with a circular saw:
- Rip Cuts: The main cutting difference between these two saws is the ability to make rip cuts. A miter saw simply can’t perform this type of cut. For a circular saw, they are a walk in the park.
- Cross Cuts: Despite what many think, circular saws are capable of performing crosscuts. All you need is a speed square clamped to your workpiece to cut perfect 90 angled crosscuts every time, it couldn’t be easier.
- Miter & Bevel Cuts: They aren’t the easiest of cuts to make with a circular saw, largely due to the angle of the blade making it difficult to follow your intended cutting line. Neither the less, with the shoe correctly adjusted and some practice, you’ll be making accurate cuts time after time.
- Plunge Cuts: Even plunge cuts are possible with a circular saw, however, you must take extra care as the risk of kickback is elevated. Remember to always cut forward, never back towards you.
Design & Types
Miter saws are essentially a circular saw mounted on a frame. Cuts are made by lowering the head down to the workpiece in a sort of plunging motion. The workpiece is held in place on the miter saw table and aligned along the inbuilt fence. Miter saws come in blade sizes 7’’ to 12’’. These are generally available in a few variants:
- Sliding Miter Saw: Has a rail system that slides the blade from front to back and extends the maximum cutting length
- Compound Miter Saw: Has an adjustment left and/or right to cut down through the wood at an angle
- Compound Sliding Miter Saw: Gives you mitering, beveling, and sliding functions
- Dual Compound Sliding Miter Saw: Gives you all three functions with beveling to both left and right
The most popular now days is the compound sliding miter saw which gives you the versatility of all the variants.
Circular saws are a handheld tool designed to carried and used in many different scenarios, making it a very versatile saw. They have 2 variants each with slight design differences:
- Worm drive: are narrower and longer in profile due with the blade on the left and the motor is positioned directly behind the blade. Worm drives are more powerful and high in torque.
- Sidewinder: are wider and shorter in appearance as the motor and blade are side by side and the blade is positioned on the right for better balance. These are still powerful saws and have a higher RPMs.
Sidewinders, tend to be the more popular of the 2 as they are more affordable. We put together a separate guide if you want the break down of sidewinders vs worm drives here.
When it comes to blades they both take similar types to cut a variety of materials. So this wouldn’t be too much of a factor if you had to choose between the two. Blades they can both take include:
Skill Level and Ease of Operation
Miter saws are very easy to operate. All it takes is a few days following a guideline and you’ll know all you need to know. This makes them a much more attractive option for new users. Using a circular saw can be more daunting. It will take more practice to perfect straight-line cuts and you’ll also need a few extra tools such as clamps and a couple of sawhorses. As with most power saws, you will experience kickback from both, although in a slightly more controlled environment with a miter saw
A miter saw is the best place to start for total beginners. They are less intimidating and provide a great introduction to the world of power saws. Once you have built confidence using a miter saw, you can move onto a circular saw which will open up your sawing possibilities.
A miter saw will set you back more than a circular saw. Miter saws range from $100 for the budget options up to $600 for a high-quality model.
You can find budget circular saws for as little as $40, with the pricier models going for upwards of $300.
Do you need both?
Whether you need both comes down to how large these roles play in your life. If you’re in the trade and paid for doing a good job I would certainly suggest owning both. Alternatively, if you’re only doing a few DIY fixes around the house or enjoy taking on the odd construction project as a hobby there is no need to own both. In this case, I say go with a circular saw to cover all your bases!
Which one should you buy?
The saw that’s right for you is down to the type of cuts you need to make. Miter saws cannot be beaten in terms of cross-cutting ability but they are much less versatile. If you need to make any sort of rip cut a circular saw is an obvious choice. For the price you would spend on a mid to low range miter saw, you can get a high-end circular saw that is capable of much more.
Beyond the type of cut, you must consider your budget. If you’re on a tight budget, go with a circular saw. For those of you who aren’t completely sure which jobs you’ll need to perform, I would again suggest the more versatile circular saw.
But remember, whichever saw you decide on, know you’re getting one very good piece of kit that will become and remain the backbone of all your future sawing efforts for years to come!