Miter Saw Vs. Radial Arm Saw (The 14 Differences)

A radial arm saw has been a feature in the workshop for the last 30 years. The miter saw came much later. Both saws earn their keep in my carpentry business. The quality of work produced and time saved by having a quality radial arms saw to cut down lengths of lumber in addition to a saw made for miter joints cannot be underestimated. 

The main difference between miter saws and radial arm saws is that the miter saw is portable and specifically designed to cut beveled cross cuts on thicker lumber accurately. The radial arm saw is stationary and designed to cut through thicker lumber due to its larger diameter blade.   

Modern miter saws fitted with the rail system have made traditional radial arm saws obsolete. Radial arm saws do, however, still have a dedicated following amongst carpenters. Let’s explore the differences between them.

miter saw vs radial arm saw

What Are Miter Saws Used For?

A miter saw is electrically powered, free-standing, and placed on a bench or the floor surface. Miter saws are for cutting angles in moldings and trimming accurately. 

The saw blade moves in an up-down motion, with some models offering a sliding rail that allows forward and backward movement of the saw. 

The saw’s design can cater to angles between 0 and 90 degrees in a vertical or lateral plane.

What Is The Radial Arm Saw Used For? 

A radial arm saw is electrically powered and is attached to its table. As such, the saw is not easily portable. Radial arm saws are used for precise cross-cutting of long lengths of lumber or boards.

The saw is attached to, and hangs from, an arm that can be swiveled both left and right. This allows the saw to run along the length of the arm. 

The 14 Differences Between A Miter And Radial Arm Saw

The below table lists 14 differences between the miter and radial arm saws.  

Miter SawRadial Arm Saw
PortableYesNo
Compact designYesNo
Cross-cut thick lumberNoYes
Rip LumberNoYes
Accommodate long lumber NoYes
Average Blade Size8″ to 10.”10″ to 22.”
Vertical (90 degrees) cutting onlyNoYes
Saw rotatable? (Parallel to the fence)NoYes
Cutting actionPush downPush, pull rail
Versatile for joint cutting, besides only miter jointsNoYes
Metal CuttingYesNo
Miter Joint cuttingYesYes
Dado Blade CompatibleNoYes
Commonly availableYesNo

Primary Differences Between The Miter And Radial Arm Saw

miter saw

Let’s look at three key aspects in which miter saws and radial arm saws differ:

1. Convenience

The miter saw design is more compact than the radial arm saw, making it convenient and more practical to transport between work areas. 

Contractors and carpenters prefer using the miter saw due to its portability. It is more practical to have a miter saw on-site where cutting needs to be done. Radial arm saws are relatively heavy and far less practical to transport between job sites. 

2. Lumber Cutting

Both miter and radial arm saws are well suited to cross-cutting lumber. The miter saw is better suited to cutting smaller diameter lumber, including moldings and wooden trim where accurate miters or joins are needed. The radial arm saw is better suited where larger diameter lumber needs to be cut.

The size of the saws’ blade is the determining factor for cross-cutting lumber. Radial arm saws can accommodate up to 22″ diameter blades, whereas the miter saw is limited to 12″ on average.

Radial arm saws can rip lumber due to the saws’ ability to turn parallel to the cutting fence. The lumber is fed through the saw in the same manner as a table saw would be used. The only difference is that the blade cuts from above the lumber, whereas a table saw blade cuts from below. 

3. Joint Cutting

Miter saws cut precise angles or miter joints at various angles. Miter saws can bevel, meaning that almost any practical angle can be sawn. 

Radial arm saws excel at cutting various joint designs such as rabbet (or rebate in some countries), compound miters, and dados. The sliding action of the radial arm saw makes it possible to cut grooves into lumber accurately. 

Over time the miter saw manufacturers fitted some models with a rail system that duplicates the action of the radial arm saw, making the miter saw well suited to joint cutting and cross-cutting. 

Can A Radial Arm Saw Be Used As A Miter Saw?

using radial arm saw

A radial arm saw can be used successfully to cut vertical miter cuts by turning the arm to the desired angle. This can be done on models with adjustable arms by moving the radial arm either left or right.   

Radial arm saws were specifically made for cross-cutting lumber. Often the frame and chassis of the saws were made from pressed sheet metal which lacks the rigidity required to cut with precision. The possibility is high that the miter angles won’t be 100% accurate. 

Miter saws are designed to deliver cuts of 100% accuracy purely by selecting the desired angle on the miter scale. 

Which Saw Is More Popular, Miter or Radial Arm?

Miter saws are by far more popular than radial arms saws. Miter saw manufacturers have effectively combined a rail system into the miter saw, making the radial arm saw obsolete. 

The greater portability of miter saws and its versatility in terms of the multitude of cutting angles give the miter saw the edge in popularity. It can also perform the duties of the radial arm saw.

Conclusion

The main difference between a miter and radial arm saws lies in the portability of the miter saw. Both saws are made for cross-cutting lumber, but the radial arm saw is stationary. 

The radial arm saw can cross-cut and deal with larger lumber better due to its design and larger blade diameter. 

The miter saw is better suited to cutting accurate angles and smaller pieces of wood, which ultimately makes up the bulk of the work done with this type of saw.

James Thomas

James Thomas

Tool Enthusiast

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