101DIYDIY 101

DIY 101: building your toolbox — saws part II

by Kate Pruitt

We’re continuing to set up our ultimate DIY toolkit, and today we’re bringing out the big guns of the saw world — compound miter saws and the table saw. These saws are stationary and both require a fair amount of space for cutting. However, if you plan to do woodworking of any substantial size or complexity — shelving, cabinets, frames, you name it — these saws are going to become your best friend.

I’m going to cover the different options for purchasing these saws, as well as a few safety tips and extra terminology. After reading through Saws Part I and this post, you should be well versed on the different types of basic power saws and what to look for. Your DIY universe will officially be blown wide open, and the possibilities are endless for what you can make with these trusty tools at your side. — Kate

CLICK HERE for the full post on miter and table saws the jump!

Before we dive into the saws, here’s a quick refresh on cutting terminology. This will help you understand what I’m talking about when describing the cutting capabilities of these saws. For example, it’s helpful to know that miter saws are used only for making cross cuts, bevel cuts and miter cuts. For making rip cuts (long cuts along the length of a board), you want to use a circular saw or a table saw.

Miter (also spelled mitre) saws are used to make straight and mitered cross-cuts in material. There are several different types of miter saws to know about. The manual version of a miter saw consists of a guide box with angled slots and a straight-tooth saw. It sits on the side of a table for support. With a maximum width of about 4 to 6 inches, the miter box is not for large boards of wood, but it is very useful for cutting small, delicate pieces of wood such as dowels, decorative molding, balsa, etc.

Power miter saws have a disc-shaped blade that spins quickly to produce the cut. They are commonly known as a chop saw. There are several kinds of miter saws, and here are the most relevant ones for the avid DIYer:

Standard Chopsaw: This saw pivots from a single point, and its blade is always perpendicular to the cutting table. This allows you to make horizontally angled cuts only.

Compound Miter Saw: Compound miter saws can pivot both horizontally and vertically, meaning the blade can also swing side to side to create an angle. This allows you to cut a miter and a bevel at the same time (this is known as a compound miter). This is useful for making frames, molding and more.

Sliding Compound Miter Saw: This tool is similar to a compound miter saw, but it also includes the ability to slide the blade back and forth on a metal rail as you make the cut. This front-to-back cutting movement allows you to cut much wider boards than with a regular compound miter saw.

In my experience, the compound miter saw is the best choice for most people trying to tackle small and mid-size projects. The sliding compound miter saw can be very useful if you frequently work with larger widths of wood, such as 12″ and wider. However, if you already own a circular saw, bear in mind that circular saws also make beveled cuts, so it may cover your needs for wider boards.

Choosing a Power Miter Saw:

When choosing a compound miter saw, here are the things to consider:

  • Weight: Compound miter saws range slightly in overall weight, usually depending on the body of the tool and how much plastic versus metal parts it includes. Since this saw is stationary during use and is best used when clamped or even screwed down to a table, the weight won’t matter much when operating. Still, I recommend feeling the weight of the saw’s arm and moving it up and down to see how it feels.
  • Blade Size: The blade size will determine your maximum width of cut. The standard sizes for most compound miter saws are 10″ or 12″— this number corresponds to the diameter of your blade discs and to the maximum cut width (unless you have a sliding saw). If you  plan to be cutting boards much wider than 12″, you should seriously consider the sliding compound miter saw.
  • Extra Features: There are several added features to consider when shopping for miter saws, such as laser guides, dust bags and safety-lock features. You should definitely compare tools in person and feel them in your hands before buying; try pressing the trigger, gripping the handle and swiveling the miter adjustment to check the ease of overall maneuverability.

Helpful Tips for Compound Miter Saws:

1. Eye Protection and Dust Masks!! Always wear eye protection when working with power tools and especially with saws. Even with a dust bag, these saws produce a lot of sawdust and loose debris, so I highly recommend wearing a dust mask.

2. Keep your hand away from the blade! Okay that sounds stupid, but if you’re cutting 4″ lengths of wood and you’re down to the last 8″ section, you won’t be able to hold the wood in place without putting your hand in the danger zone. To solve this issue, buy extra length when possible or use safety clamps to secure smaller pieces. Most saws will include safety clamps for this purpose.

3. Check your material! If you’re cutting salvaged wood, logs or other natural materials, be sure to check the material for any hard removable knots, splinters, nails or other embedded debris, which might fly loose during the cut or jam the saw and damage the blade.

Table saws are versatile tools; they allow you to cut large materials with relative ease, but they also provide smooth, precise cuts for materials of any size. The saw consists of a circular blade mounted in arbor that sits within the table and can be raised and lowered to change the depth of cut. They can be used for all kinds of cuts, including dado cuts, which are slotted cuts that are made by stacking several blades together. This ability makes table saws particularly good for cabinetry, joinery and other furniture-making techniques.

There are many types of table saws, ranging greatly in price from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Bench-top table saws are the most lightweight, inexpensive option; they may not be as powerful or durable as more professional-grade table saws, but they are capable of handling most basic tasks with precision and ease. Since bench-top versions are the most reasonably priced and realistic option for the average DIYer, I will focus on those for now. However, if money and space are unlimited and you’re investing in a long future of woodworking, my recommendation is for SawStop table saws.

Choosing a Benchtop Table Saw:

  • Adjustable Fence: The fence is a guide that runs parallel to the cutting direction of the blade and spans the length of the table. It is often called the “rip fence” because it is typically used for guiding wood through a rip cut. When evaluating saws, look for one that includes a fence that clamps onto the front and back and is easily adjustable to ensure parallel cuts. Also make sure the fence is sturdy; a rickety or cheaply made fence essentially defeats the purpose of having a fence at all.
  • Weight: Table saws will range in weight. The heavier saws will be more stable but also more cumbersome and less portable. If you plan to install it in a workroom, I recommend purchasing a heavier, more stable version, as any kind of movement of the table during cutting could be dangerous and cause inaccurate, sloppy cuts.
  • Table Insert: The arbor that holds the blades are hidden beneath the throat plate, which inserts into the table and surrounds the blade. It’s a good idea to inspect the throat plate to ensure it sits flush with the table, and also to try removing and reinstalling the blade.
  • Size: Table saws will range in size, with some versions offering a slide-out extension on the right side and a rear bar that helps support materials as they come out of the cut. Cramping a table saw into an awkward space provides room for danger, so be sure to choose a saw that is large enough to support the materials you need to cut, and to place the saw with enough extra room for you to maneuver and support your material safely.

Helpful Tips for Using the Table Saw:

1. Always wear eye protection!! This rule is a given when using all saws, and should never be broken. Table saws can be quite loud as well, so wearing ear protection is advised, especially if doing prolonged work.

2. Always turn off and disconnect power when changing the blades: This will provide you with peace of mind when your fingers are near the blades. Always double check the blades once adjusted to ensure they are secured tightly.

3. Minimize blade exposure: The best rule of thumb is to always ensure the minimum amount of blade surface is exposed. This means lowering the blade completely into the table when not in use. When making a cut, raise the blade so that the valley between the teeth just barely clears the height of your material.

4. Avoid kickback: Kickback is when the blade meets resistance on the material and thrusts the materials back toward you as you’re cutting. The blades spin very fast, and the kickback can be quite powerful and highly dangerous. Never stand directly behind the blade if possible and always make sure your material is not titling upward as it moves across the table toward the blade. This article provides useful information on kickback and how to avoid it.

So, to recap a bit from Saws Part I and the information above, here’s a quick list of the saws we’ve covered, and what types of cuts/projects each one can tackle:

  • Jigsaw — Curved cuts out of wood around 2″ thick or less (check the saw for the max depth). Also great for cutting out complex shapes and holes inside a piece of wood.
  • Circular Saw — Straight cuts from wood up to about 5″ thick (check your saw for the max depth). This saw can make cross, rip, bevel and miter cuts. It is a hand held saw, so a clamped guide would be needed to ensure straight, even cuts.
  • Compound Miter Saw — Cross, miter and bevel cuts out of wood, usually 10″ wide or less (12″ miter saws can cut wood 12″ or less; sliding miter saws can cut wider than 12″). This saw is stationary and has a guide fence perpendicular to the blade, making it easy to create straight, even cuts. Great for simple straight cuts out of wood planks.
  • Table Saw — Rip, cross, bevel, miter and dado cuts out of any size of wood. This saw is stationary and has an adjustable fence for making straight, even rip cuts. This is the best saw for cutting large sheets of wood or tackling any complex woodworking cuts, like finger joints, grooves, etc.

Now that you know what to look for and which saws to use for certain cuts, the fun can begin!! There are so many great projects involving wood, and once you get comfortable using these saws (which you will, with a bit of practice), you’ll never want to stop. Here are a few of our DIY projects that these saws can help you complete to perfection:

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  • this is the most awesome post. i have no idea when i would use a table saw, but i love the idea that i feel like i could now!

  • For miter saws:
    – You missed a category. Chop. Miter. Compound Miter…
    – Then there’s the “Sliding” bit. That’s what they are called, but I have no idea why. They are rightly considered to be radial arm saws merged with a miter saw.
    – Radial arm saws are MUCH more dangerous than miter saws. They can get out of hand in a hurry, in ways similar to table saws.

    For table saws:
    – Never stand /inline/ with the blade. Either side of it. For example, if someone is helping retrieve outfed stock (cause you are cutting lots of it) they need to stand to the side, even if at the end of a 10 ft outfeed table.
    – Pusher sticks! Not discussed, and critical. For miter saws you can use tricks like keeping your fingers closed, and a few inches away. For table saws, as far away as possible is good.
    – There are some really nice table saws now in the old bench saw range, with a bit more size and power, but reasonable weight and designed to be portable. I’d avoid the chinese knockoffs of the old Delta (as shown above), as precision matters.
    – Speaking of which, tables need to be discussed. Side and outfeed tables are a HUGE help in cutting. And then there’s all about making your own fence.

    For both of these, you need to consider a specific article about blades. Not only can are there specialized blades (to cut wide kerfs on purpose), but they have to be matched to the material, and can turn a pretty mediocre saw into a stellar one. Short version: Ditch the blade your saw came with and go to a good store (e.g. Woodcraft) to get something good.

    Measurement: You need to be able to square things up. Get a really, really good square and know how to adjust the saw.

  • This series of posts is amazing! Thank you so much for tackling the “how” and not just the “after”. My husband and I both learned so much from this!

  • Tip from a woodworker…if you are unfamiliar with a table saw, probably the most dangerous power tool [things go wrong very quickly], my advice would be to take a night course in woodworking from a nearby community college. You can learn and practice with an instructor..also will give you an introduction to the use of other tools. For a DIY’er, best investment you can make is one of these courses, you can also go home with something great you have made. or if you do not want to buy tools, the resitration fee gives you access to a ready made shop to create something you have always wanted to make. Also, use your SPLITTER on the saw ALWAYS !! JMO

  • oh this is so great! I can finally DIY without cutting my arm off! Thanks so much for sharing this. seriously. I’d be lost without this blog. xx

  • great series! i know its a bit off topic but i’m trying to buy a sander this weekend and was wondering if anyone had any recs?

  • min: i have a great Bosch palm sander but definitely at times with i got a random orbital sander. I say go with Bosch though… very great tool!

  • This is great!
    I was directed here from “sawdust & paperscraps.” It’s been a really huge letdown since they tried to make money off that blog – but they’ve redeemed themselves directing me here.
    You have explained and demonstrated this sooooo well! Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    I have to check out all your posts now!

  • Steven,
    Thank you for the additional tips, but if you read through you’ll notice I do discuss sliding miter saws, and never standing inline with blade. We might do an additional post on blades, but this is a starter post to familiarize people with the tools.

    We probably will not get into making your own fence or cradles, as this is not a woodworking site, but I will take your feedback into consideration and include links to good resources on blades and push sticks, etc. Thanks!

  • wonderful points altogether, you just gained a new reader.
    What could you suggest in regards to your submit that you made some days in the past?
    Any sure?


  • I like the safety trigger on this saw, which is a push button thumb-actuated style located at the top of the vertically-oriented handle. It’s all quite comfortable to use.Thanks..

  • Thanks for your sharing. I am going to buy miter saw cut metal and wood. I wonder two brand Hitachi with Dewalt from this site. You have many experience, give me your advice

  • I am going to buy miter saw. I read many website and I see Dewalt DW175 which suitable my need. I am going to buy this site . I read your article, I don’t know mitachi miter equal Dewalt DW175. Do you give information?