There are a lot of options out there when it comes to miter saws.
So many that it can be really confusing when you’re trying to figure out which one is best for you.
If you’re having a hard time deciding whether you need a sliding or compound miter saw, you’ve come to the right place.
What’s the difference between a sliding and compound miter saw?
Although these two saws have a lot in common, there is one big difference.
A sliding miter saw has rails that allow the blade to move forward and backward across wide pieces of material. They can cut across material that the blade of a compound miter saw just can’t touch.
Compound saws have their benefits, too. Since they don’t have rails, there’s nothing getting in the way of the cutting arm. That means they’re better for thick material.
Let’s look at some of the basics behind miter saws in general and get into each of these special saws in a little more detail.
Miter Saws: The Basics
Before we get into the details about sliding and compound miter saws, let’s take a quick look at what a standard miter saw does.
Basic miter saws are designed to make angled crosscuts. Some models let you choose whatever angle you want and even let you adjust by a single degree while others are preset to cut at the most common angles, like 15, 30, or 45 degrees.
Once the angle is set, you hold the material against a fence to keep it nice and straight for a clean, precise cut. To actually make the cut, a circular blade is pulled down and through the material in a single, smooth motion.
What Is a Compound Miter Saw?
Now that you know a little more about a basic miter saw, it will be a little easier to understand why a compound miter saw is a different beast altogether.
Compound miter saws are much more specialized simply because they do more than just miter cuts. They work in the same way as a standard miter saw with one difference. The blade has a pivoting arm that can be tilted to an angle other than 90-degrees. That means you can make bevel cuts in addition to miter cuts.
Why would you need a compound miter saw as opposed to a standard miter saw? Because of the versatility. The ability to make bevel cuts really opens up the kinds of projects you can do.
Miter cuts are meant for joining. Imagine a picture frame. The corners come together to form a perfect 90-degree angle because of the 45-degree miter cuts at the end of each side.
So, how is a bevel cut different? Rather than being across the face of the material, a bevel cut goes through the thickness of the material.
Here’s another way to think of it. A miter cut is angled through the horizontal plane while a bevel cut is angled through the vertical one.
Bevel cuts are usually done for finishing purposes but also comes in handy for cutting crown molding or any other job that requires an angled cut on both the vertical and horizontal plane.
That’s not all. There are variations among compound saws, too. A standard compound miter saw has a blade that tilts in only one direction, left or right. That means if you need to make a cut in the opposite direction, you have to physically turn the material around and come at it from the other side.
If you’re using this cut frequently, constantly moving the material can quickly become tiresome. Another option is to invest in a dual compound miter saw, which has a blade that pivots both left and right. Again, this isn’t a tool that everyone needs but it is really handy if you do a lot of jobs that require both miter and bevel cuts.
What Is a Sliding Miter Saw?
A sliding miter saw is very similar to a compound saw in that it also makes both miter and bevel cuts. The big difference is in the width of the material they can handle.
The key to this difference is in one word: sliding. A sliding miter saw can do everything a compound miter saw can only it also has rails that allow you to slide the saw forward and backward. This increases the cutting capacity significantly as it allows you to cut much thicker pieces of material.
Pros & Cons of Compound Miter Saws
One of the advantages to a compound miter saw is that is has a greater cutting arc. Because there are no rails, there’s move available height so they can cut thicker material than a sliding miter saw using the same sized blade. Typical blade sizes come in 10″ and 12″ and you read about the differences here.
If you’re working on something that requires thicker material, this is definitely a reason to use a compound miter saw over a sliding one.
Compound miter saws take up less space, too. If you don’t have a lot of room to spare in your workshop, stick with a compound miter saw.
All other things being equal, a compound miter saw is also a little less expensive. If you’re worried about your budget, a compound miter saw is a good way to go.
The only downside to getting this type of saw over a sliding version is if you do start to do projects that require wide pieces of wood. This is the main reason why it’s helpful to know the kind of projects you’ll be taking on before you shop.
Pros & Cons of Sliding Miter Saws
Siding miters saws are designed to cut all the way across wide material without having to reposition anything. If you’re working on a project that requires cutting miters and bevels into wide boards, a sliding miter saw is the best way to go.
On the downside, they tend to be more expensive. It’s definitely worth the investment if you know you’re going to use it but if you’re not sure about the kind of work you’ll be doing, a sliding miter saw might not be necessary.
Another downside to sliding miter saws is they need a lot more space than a compound miter saw. Because their design features front to back movement, sliders just need more room to work.
Which One is Best?
It’s really hard to decide which of these tools is best until you know the kind of projects you’re going to be working on. Why? Because the biggest difference between these two miter saws is the size of the material they’re best for.
The next thing you should consider is your budget. A high end sliding miter saw is much more expensive than a compound miter saw of equal quality.
If most of your planned projects involved making picture frames or cutting baseboards and moldings to size, a compound miter saw is all you need. That said, if you plan to work with material 8-inches across or wider, you’ll need sliding miter saw for quick and accurate results.
One more thing to think about is space. Sliding miter saws are heavier and require more space around them to work. Ideally they should be placed in a permanent location, however, if you’re a contractor who is always on the move, then you will want to invest in a miter saw stand as well.
If you don’t have a lot of room to spare in your workshop or if you just like having the option of taking your equipment with you to the driveway or out in the yard to work, a compound miter saw is much easier to move around or if you need a portable solution a cordless miter saw may even be an option.
We know these decisions can be a little overwhelming and we’re here to help. If you want to read more about what to look for when buying a miter saw, check out our best miter saw guide for more ideas, advice, and to see our top picks.