Last Updated on April 12, 2023 by Barry Gray
Miter saws and circular saws are both attractive options for beginning woodworkers’ first saws. They’re useful and inexpensive. But which one you should choose will depend on what you need it to do.
You can compare circular saws and miter saws using a variety of criteria. Cutting capacity, portability, cost, accuracy, and safety are all important considerations. However, the type of cuts that each saw can make is arguably the most important consideration.
A miter saw is able to make bevel cuts, compound miter cuts, and miter cuts because the blade is adjusted by turning the saw around its handle. A circular saw can make the same cuts, but often with a loss in accuracy because of its lack of mount, arm, and handle. However, a circular saw has its own advantages.
Because miter saws are limited by their stands, the hand-held circular saw has the capacity to cut more. But there are a number of factors that limit the depths and lengths of cuts that circular saws and miter saws can make. The two numbers that make up the cutting capacities of these saws are depth of cut and width or length of cut.
Depth of cut is simple: it measures how far into the wood the saw’s blade can penetrate. Miter saws and circular saws have about the same maximum depth of cut, which ranges from 2″ to 3″ depending on the blade size. That figure shows the maximum thickness of wood that the saws can cut in a single pass.
Miter saws and circular saws have the same maximum depth of cut in general, but true differences appear when you compare other parts of their cutting capacities.
Although you might be able to acquire specialized models with bigger cutting capacities, standard miter saws can cut wood that is 5½” to 7½” wide. Anything larger than that will have to either be cut into more manageable strips or be cut with a different saw.
On the other hand, circular saws aren’t limited in their cutting capacity. While miter saws might have other advantages over circular saws, circular saws’ lack of any built-in limits makes their cutting capacity clearly superior.
In general, circular saws can cut far more material than miter saws. While miter saws are severely constrained by their capacity, circular saws have no maximum cutting breadth or length.
Miter saws are considered among the most portable saws you can have in your shop, but their portability still has its limits. Most miter saws are too heavy to move from place to place easily, and their bulky stand can be a hindrance as well.
A miter saw has to be set up on a fixed bench, in the place you want to use it. This can be limiting for projects that involve cutting in multiple locations. Although there are more portable versions of miter saws, such as cordless models, these typically make sacrifices in either cutting capacity or power.
Circular saws don’t have this problem, being extremely lightweight, easily portable and compact. They can be set up on just about any surface, and their mobility allows you to take them wherever your project is located.
Portability is a significant advantage, especially for people who work mostly outside or who don’t have room for a permanent shop area. It’s hard to beat the circular saw in this regard.
Miter saws are usually much more expensive than circular saws. Their stand and multiple features increase costs over the simple circular saw. Despite this, it’s important to keep your purposes in mind–you might not need a miter saw with all the bells and whistles.
A normal circular saw usually costs between $50 and $100, while full-featured miter saws cost around $300. This represents what serious hobbyists and even many professionals pay for their saws, but it doesn’t necessarily cover the full range of possible costs.
A high-end miter saw can cost up to $1000, while the most you can expect to pay for a circular saw is $200. Meanwhile, a low-end circular saw can cost as little as $20, but the cheapest miter saw is still around $100.
However you look at it, a miter saw will almost always be more expensive than a circular saw. This makes circular saws much more immediately accessible for beginners and professionals who are just starting out.
Accuracy is the factor where miter saws have the most significant advantage over circular saws. A miter saw will cut to a 1/64th of an inch. A circular saw cannot cut as accurately, and can only cut to a 1/16th of an inch. The more exact and precise cut of a miter saw will make any project easier.
There are a few factors that make miter saws more accurate that circular saws. The most important is the fence, a low wall that hold the material you’re cutting still. With the material pressed firmly against the fence, there is less chance of the shaking and slipping that can cause serious errors when using some other saws.
Circular saws don’t have a built-in fence. While it’s possible to construct your own fence to use with a circular saw, it’s hard to build one that’s up to a saw manufacturer’s specifications for accuracy and durability.
Miter saws’ arm also makes precision easier. You have more control over the exact location and depth of the blade, and the arm also steadies the saw despite its powerful motor and motion. If you use a circular saw, you’re relying on your own control to steady the tool and cut precisely.
Circular saws are also prone to issues like tearout from their lack of precision. Circular saw users often find themselves buying accessories like saw tracks to compensate for the saw’s issues. Buying these bulky, expensive accessories can quickly eat away at other advantages of circular saws, such as their price and portability.
Types of Cuts
Because you can move them around freely, circular saws can make cuts of almost any kind, from almost any angle. This becomes especially easy when you buy attachments and accessories for your circular saw. Miter saws can only make four kinds of cuts, and no attachments will increase that number.
A crosscut is a cut across the grain of a piece of wood. It’s considered one of the most basic types of cut, and it’s the first one that many amateur woodworkers learn to make.
Circular saw crosscuts are straightforward. They aren’t necessarily the cleanest crosscuts you’ll find, but they’re quick and easy, and circular saws can often manage crosscuts with at least 3″ of depth. While the crosscut is not the circular saw’s expertise, it performs admirably.
While circular saws are good for doing crosscuts, miter saws excel at them. Miter saws can make precise, accurate crosscuts that are often significantly cleaner than circular saws. However, miter saws have limited cutting capacity, so it’s important to ensure yours is appropriate for the length of cut you want to make.
Rip cuts split wood down the grain where a crosscut slices perpendicular to the grain. Rip cuts are difficult to perform with most saws because the grain causes the saw to curve and make uneven cuts.
Circular saws, fortunately, are designed to make long rip cuts as simple as possible. They are one of the few saws that can be used to confidently perform long rip cuts, with the blade’s movement allowing for significantly longer cuts than alternatives.
Miter saws are just not designed to make rip cuts. Rip cuts with miter saws can be dangerous, so it isn’t even recommended that you try.
A bevel cut is an angled cut that separates a piece of wood vertically. It’s used to build baseboards, boxes, and other applications that require a smooth, flat corner of wood.
To make a bevel cut, tilt the blade at an angle so that it is no longer vertical. You can make this cut with either a circular saw or a miter saw because you can perform it with both. However, miter saws may allow you to cut more precisely, whilst circular saws can cut larger chunks.
Miter Cut and Compound Miter Cut
Miter cuts are similar to bevel cuts in that the blade is kept vertical while being turned to the left or right. A compound miter combines the two, tilting and spinning the blade at the same time.
Miter cuts and compound miter cuts, as the names suggest, are miter saw specialties. Despite this, miter cuts with circular saws can be made easier with the addition of accessories. But in general, you’ll find much better results from making miter cuts and compound miter cuts with miter saws.