Miter saws and circular saws are two of the most commonly used power tools. They are essential for all woodworkers and DIYers. While some think it is essential to own both, others may not have that luxury. There are some key differences between the two saws that we will take a look at. Hopefully this helps you decide which saw is best for you.
Circular Saw vs Miter Saw
Circular saws are much smaller and compact. They make cross, bevel, and rip cuts. They’re less precise and more dangerous. Best used for cutting plywood. Miter saws are larger and heavier. They make cross, miter, and bevel cuts. Length of cuts limited to 12-15″. Best used for precise cuts like trim.
A circular saw is a power tool that uses an oscillating blade to cut materials. The saw rotates the blade around an arbor to make cuts. It is most commonly hand held, but can also be mounted to a steady surface. Circular saws can be electric or battery powered. They are best used for long rip cuts, but can make a variety of different cuts. When using your circular saw, you push the blade through the material you are cutting.
Types of circular saws
A. Standard (sidewinder) circular saw: these are the most common types of circular saws. They have a motor mounted on one side (typically the R side). These are more commonly used on the East coast. The motor position allows the blade to spin a bit faster on this saw vs. the worm drive.
B. Compact/mini circular saw: most commonly used for metal and smaller pieces of wood. Typically, these have 4-1/2 inch blades. They can cut to a depth of: 1-11/16 inch (at 90 degrees) and 1-1/8 inch (at 45 degrees). These saws are very light and compact so easily used on a ladder or overhead.
C. Worm drive circular saw: these types of saws are most commonly used in the Midwest/West. Their motor is in the back so the saw will tend to be a little thinner then the sidewinder. They have longer blades and more power. These saws are useful when frequently cutting longer boards. Most of them require you to add oil depending on how much you use it.
Miter saws are a type of power tool that can be electric or battery operated. They have a large circular blade mounted on a hinged handle that is brought down to the material. You pull the blade down to the material. They contain a small table and fences that are used to ensure the stability of the material you are cutting. They make precise, duplicate cuts very fast. Due to their size and weight they are often stationary. They are most commonly used for making angled clean cuts, such as crown molding or trim work.
Types of miter saws
A. Compound miter saw: this type of saw will allow you to make miter and bevel cuts at the same time. This is a must if using your saw for crown molding.
B. Single bevel: these saws will allow you to make miter cuts and bevel cuts. The bevel cuts can only be in one direction. In order to cut bevel in different direction you will need to flip the material around.
C. Double bevel: this saw type allows for bevel cuts to be made in 2 directions, as well as the typical miter cut. The bevel moves to the left and the right. This will eliminate the need to flip your material around. If the saw is also compound, you can make bevel and miter cuts at the same time.
D. Sliding miter saw: these saws include rails so the blade can slide forward and backwards. Typical miter saws just move straight down to cut. The sliding feature increases the width of cuts that can be made. Typical width of cuts increases from 5.5-7.5 inches to 12-15 inches. Typically, these saws can also make compound cuts.
Types of cuts
The big difference between miter saws and circular saws when it comes to cuts is that circular saws make rip cuts while miter saws do not. Otherwise, most circular saws can make all cuts that a miter saw can make. Circular saws are just less accurate and need a little more finese to maximize the precision of the cut.
Let’s discuss the types of cuts that these saws make in a little more detail:
A. Cross cuts: this is when you cut against the grain of the wood. Circular saws can very quickly and easily make these cuts. You just need to have the material you are cutting supported.
Miter saws need no adjustment to make these cuts. If the miter angle is set to 0 you will get a perfect cross cut every time.
B. Rip cuts: this is when you cut with the grain of the wood. These are typically longer cuts such as cutting the length of plywood. Miter saws ARE NOT able to make these kinds of cuts. When making these cuts with your circular saw it can be difficult stay straight. Often to increase precision of these cuts you can use other tools.
C. Miter cut: this cut is made at an angle across the width or face of a board. This means you are changing the angle of your cross cut from 90 degrees to a desired angle. The angle of the blade does not change in this cut. An example of this type of cut is the corners of a picture frame.
Circular saws are able to make miter cuts, but are much less accurate. The saw itself comes to the wood at an angle, which can be more dangerous and difficult to perform.
Given the name, these cuts are the miter saws bread and butter. They are very accurate, quick, and easy to duplicate. All miter saws have a measuring system on the base of the saw. This allows you to quickly and easily change the angle of the cut. My Dewalt miter saw has a simple knob to turn and pull to adjust the miter angle.
D. Bevel cut: this cut is performed with the blade of your saw positioned at an angle. The blade cuts the material at an angle through the thickness of the material. Most common angles cut at are 45 degree. These cuts are used for trim or baseboard work. Most circular saws are able to perform bevel cuts, but only in one direction.
Miter saws allow for much more precision and accuracy on these types of cuts. Depending on the saw you can adjust the angle of the blade left and right to quickly make bi-directional bevel cuts.
Size and portability
Circular saws are much smaller and more compact. They weigh less then miter saws and are very easy to travel with. A miter saw is much heavier and takes up a lot more space, making it harder to transport. The measurements of my miter saw are: length 24 inches, width 26 inches, height 16 inches. Therfore, it takes up much more space in my garage.
Miter saws also require a lot more setup prior to using. A circular saw you can just pick up and start cutting. So if speed is something important to you, a circular saw is your answer.
Due to the small size of circular saws, they can be used in areas that a miter saw cannot be used. This may include on a ladder, on the roof, overhead, etc. Miter saws are very stationary.
Circular saw blade size varies between 4-1/2 inch (mini saws) to 7-1/4th inch. There are larger blade sizes but they are much less common. Skilsaw and Makita makes saws with a blade 16-5/6th inches (that’s a beast!)
Miter saw blade sizes vary from 7-1/4th inch, 8-1/2 inch, 10 inch or 12 inches.
In both miter and circular saws it is important to use the right size blade for the saw that you have. If you use the wrong blade size, this can impact the RPMs of the saw and quality of cuts.
No matter what saw you have, it is imperative you monitor the sharpness of the blade. Both circular saw and miter saw blades need to be changed (timing depends on how often you use them). One way to know the blade is dull and needs to be changed is if you notice more resistance when making cuts. There are a number of signs that will tell you when the blade needs to be changed.
Accuracy of cuts
Miter saws are much more accurate with there cuts then circular saws. Miter saws are able to cut to 1/64th of an inch while circular saws cut to 1/16th of an inch.
Miter saws allow you to set the angle you are cutting and forget it. Whether it be a miter or bevel cut, once the adjustment is made you lock it in. Every cut after that will be the exact same. Miter saws have a table and fences that are key in stabilizing the material and ensure perfect cuts. With that being said it is important to make sure that your miter saw is square prior to using it.
Conversely for a circular saw achieving the same cut each time is much more difficult and often requires other accessories. Circular saws allow there to be much more user error in regards to precision. These saws require the user to push the blade through the wood each time which allows more room for error.
In general there is inherent danger whenever you are working with a saw. It is essential that you follow safe saw techniques when working with a miter saw or circular saw. Bother miter saws and circular saws have blade guards that ensure the blade is covered when not using.
With that being said, miter saws tend to be safer. They are stationary so less room for error. On most miter saws the blade guard stays over the blade until you initiate the downward pull of the blade.
Circular saws are handheld so there is much more that can go wrong leading to possible injury. Sometimes when using a circular saw you may experience kickback. This can be very surprising and dangerous for the user. This happens when the blade is pinched (by the material you are cutting). This pinched blade leads to the saw lifting up and out of the material and kicking back towards the user.
Similarly circular saws and miter saws can both cut the same materials. This is more dependent on the type of blade you have. They can cut: wood, metal, PVC pipes/plastic, and masonry.
There are a lot of factors that go into choosing the right saw blade. I recommend you do some further research when it comes to picking the right blade for you project.
Of note, the cheaper miter saws usually are standard single bevel. So they cannot make double bevel, sliding or compound cuts.
There are also plenty of accessories that you can get for each saw. For miter saws the most common accessory is a portable table or stand. This will cost you at least another $100. When using my miter saw I make a table with 2 folding sawhorses and a big sheet of plywood or drywall.
For circular saws a majority of the accessories out there are to help increase the accuracy of the cuts. These can help not only increase precision of cuts but also help improve the overall safety of the saw.
Below is a Kreg portable crosscut. This will help ensure you make perfect/even cross cuts every time.
Depth of cut
How deep can the saws cut? Obviously this will vary depending on the size of the blade.
Typical rule of thumb for circular saws is the depth of cut is about 1/3rd of the blades size. Below is a graph that includes the depths of the most commonly used circular saws.
Since miter saws have larger blades, they are able to cut through thicker materials. The two most common blade sizes include 10 inches and 12 inches. A 10 inch blade will cut to a depth of 3-1/8th inches. While the 12 inch blade will cut to a depth of 3-1/2 inches, which is enough to cut a 4×4 (fence post).
Determine which saw is best for you
So now it is time decide which saw is best for you. While it is annoying to hear, the best answer is that it depends on what you are looking for.
If you want more accurate cuts and do not need to make rip cuts, go with a miter saw. If you need a more portable saw and trust your ability to make straight cuts, go with a circular saw.
Personally, I have both. I do enough household projects that I use both very frequently. With that being said the only reason I have a miter saw is because I got it used for under $100. If I had to choose one saw to own, I would go with the circular saw. It is more versatile and that is most important to me.
If this was helpful for you please let me know in the comments!
A current home owner and dad of two, who loves to fix things. I have spent countless hours fixing and repairing things around the house. I started this blog to share my knowledge with you. I hope you find what you are looking for!