Miter Saw Vs Circular Saw – What’s the Difference?

You can find many different saw types for woodworking, and that’s great – this allows you to find the right tool no matter how specific your needs are.

With that said, for a newbie, it’s pretty difficult to distinguish between different power saw types, their uses, benefits, and drawbacks.

Today, we’d like to talk about miter saws and circular saws specifically.

Both are very popular woodworking tools that have many common uses and benefits, but there are some big differences between them as well.

Miter Saw vs Circular Saw - What's the Difference?

What Is A Circular Saw?

A circular saw is a handheld power saw that uses circular saw blades. The blade rotates at high speed to make cuts in the workpiece which is usually made from wood, plywood, plastic, or metal.

Circular saws may be powered by air, electricity, and you may also be able to find circular saws powered by gas.

To avoid confusion, know that the phrase “circular saw” is typically used to refer to the handheld tool that uses circular saw blades.

But also know that table saws, miter saws, and other tools that use circular saw blades can also be technically considered circular saws.

Don’t Miss… 5 Best Circular Saws for Woodworking

What Is A Miter Saw?

A miter saw also uses a rotating circular saw blade, but the blade is mounted on a support arm that in its turn is mounted to a miter saw table. Unlike a circular saw, miter saws aren’t handheld – you place the material on top of the table and lower the blade to cut it.

There also are a few miter saw subtypes that you should know about.

Standard miter saws allow you to do miter cuts – that is, cuts where the blade is rotated to the right or left up to 45 degrees.

Compound miter saws also allow you to tilt (bevel) the blade right or left to make beveled cuts. Again, the range of tilting usually is up to 45 degrees.

Then, you also have sliding compound miter saws whose blade can move forward and backward across wide pieces of material.

Make sure to read… Top 5 Best Miter Saws for Woodworking

Miter Saw VS Circular Saw

Even though both tools use circular saw blades, there are big differences between miter saws and circular saws. Let’s talk about these differences below.

Use

With miter saws, the blade is dropped onto the workpiece to make the cut. With circular saws, you feed the piece of material through the blade.

Due to this difference in cutting fashion, circular saws are actually more flexible than miter saws. Since circular saws are handheld, you may do pretty much any cuts with it.

On the other hand, miter saws have a dedicated place for the material and don’t allow much positioning in the blade.

Types of cuts

The most important difference between circular and miter saws is that they excel at different types of cuts. For a quick overview, have a look at the table below:

CutCircular sawMiter saw
Rip cutsYes, with guide railsNo
CrosscutsYes, poor accuracyYes
Mitered cutsYes, poor accuracyYes
Beveled cutsYes, but if the saw base can bevelYes, but with  a compound miter saw
Rabbet & dado cutsYesYes, but with a sliding miter saw

This table gives you an idea of what you can and cannot do with circular or miter saws.

Now, let’s try to understand the “why” behind each cut.

Rip cuts

A rip cut is a cut that divides the piece of wood parallel to the grain. In other words, a rip cut is a cut that is made lengthwise to the material.

Circular saws frankly aren’t the best for rip cuts, but they can do them pretty well, especially if you use a guide rail.

On a side note, for making straight rip cuts specifically, table saws are much better than circular saws since they provide more support to the workpiece.

Miter saws can’t do rip cuts since in the default blade position, the workpiece is placed perpendicular to the blade. To do a rip cut, you would need to rotate the blade 90 degrees to the right or left, which no miter saw can do.

With that said, if the wood is short enough to be placed on the miter saw table, you could technically do rip cuts. But since rip cuts are usually made on long boards, this doesn’t really count in our opinion.

Crosscuts

Crosscuts are cuts made across the wood grain and this is where miter saws shine.

In fact, miter saws are designed specifically with crosscuts in mind. The wood is placed perpendicularly to the blade against the rear fence, and since the blade always comes straight down, it’s very easy to make perfect, consistent crosscuts on a miter saw.

Sliding compound miter saws are especially good with crosscuts since they can make much wider cuts than non-sliding units.

You could do crosscuts with a circular saw as well, but since you have to position the saw and feed the wood through the blade manually, you can’t ensure perfectly consistent cuts every time.

Mitered cuts

You could do mitered cuts both with a circular saw and a miter saw, but miter saws support miter cuts by default.

You can rotate the blade to the right or left up to typically 45 degrees in miter saws to make consistent miter cuts.

If you run a circular saw through a piece of wood at an angle, you could also perform mitered cuts but they won’t be as precise.

Not to mention that circular saws usually aren’t intended for miter cuts and don’t have guides to assist with them.

Beveled cuts

Compound miter saws can make beveled cuts as well where the blade is tilted to the right or left. Beveled cuts can be useful when making countertop edges or moldings, for example.

As mentioned above, the bevel capacity in miter saws is usually up to 45 degrees both to the right or left.

If you tilt the woodpiece at the desired angle, you could do beveled cuts with a circular saw as well.

But again, since compound miter saws have specific features for beveled cuts, no standard circular saw will ever come close in sawing easiness and accuracy.

If you find a circular saw whose base can bevel though, then you will be able to make bevel cuts conveniently. However, your accuracy may still suffer since you will have to position the saw manually.

Rabbet & dado cuts

To be fair, neither circular saws nor miter saws are great for rabbet & dado cuts. The best tool for this kind of cuts would be the router tool.

However, you could make rabbets & dadoes with both tools, although it may be impossible with some miter saws.

To make a dado or rabbet with a circular saw, you just have to progressively remove material in the area where you want to make the cut. Pretty much any circular saw can do this.

As for miter saws, you’ll be able to do rabbets or dadoes only with a sliding saw. This is because non-sliding miter saws can only move their blades up or down.

If you tried to make these cuts with a regular or compound miter saw where the blade only goes up and down, the bottom of the cut would be concave due to the shape of the blade.

A sliding saw would be able to make proper dadoes or rabbets since the sliding motion ensures that the bottom of the cut is flat.

Cutting capacity

One thing that circular saws are also better at is general cutting capacity. What we mean by that is that circular saws can make cuts in workpieces no matter their size, shape, or thickness.

Miter saws can effectively make cuts only in the workpieces that their tabletop can physically support.

So all kinds of sheets of plywood, plastic, or metal, for example, will be much easier to cut with a circular saw than a miter saw.

Portability

Miter saws can’t be moved around as easily as circular saws. Ideally, a miter saw should be placed on a miter saw stand to ensure additional stability and convenient working height, while circular saws may be used as-is.

Which Saw Type To Go For?

Since the main difference between miter and circular saws lies in their cutting capacity, you should base your decision on the kind of cuts and materials you are dealing with.

You would pick a circular saw if:

  • You work with workpieces of various shapes and sizes
  • You want to make a variety of cut types
  • Accuracy and consistency don’t matter to you too much

Keep in mind that for strictly rip cuts, a table saw would be a better option since it’s much easier to achieve perfectly straight and consistent cuts with it.

On the other hand, a miter saw would be good for:

  • Crosscuts
  • Mitered & beveled cuts
  • Workpieces that can physically fit on the tabletop

Remember that miter saws will be effective only if you securely fit the workpiece on their working table.

Safety Precautions

To close out this discussion, let’s have a look at some safety tips to follow with either saw type.

Circular saw safety tips

  • Carefully review the instruction manual of your tool model. Even if you have plenty of experience with circular saws, your particular saw may have very specific safety procedures to follow.
  • Don’t wear gloves, loose clothing, watches, or any other dangling items that may be caught by the saw blade.
  • Wear safety goggles when operating your circular saw. Consider wearing ear protection as well.
  • While not a must-have, consider also wearing a dust mask to protect your respiratory organs from fine dust particles.
  • Stand to the side of the saw to avoid being injured by kickbacks.
  • While working with the saw, make sure to stay balanced and in full control of the tool.
  • Before each cutting session, make sure that the blades are sharp and in good condition. Poor blades will not only cut worse but will also have a higher likelihood of kickback.
  • Before cutting, check the cutting surface for nails or screws.
  • Use both hands to control the circular saw.
  • Do not alter or remove the blade guard from the circular saw.
  • After turning the saw off, always wait until the blade is motionless before putting the tool somewhere. The same applies to when you need to power the saw off to replace or adjust the blade.

Miter saw safety tips

  • Again, carefully review the manual supplied with the miter saw.
  • Wear eye and ear protection and consider wearing a dust mask.
  • Don’t wear any loose clothing items when operating a miter saw.
  • Avoid cutting very small pieces since the blade rotation may launch them away from the tabletop.
  • When cutting long material, make sure that its both ends are supported at the same height as the saw table.
  • Make sure to hold the workpiece tightly in place against the fence.
  • With a sliding miter saw, start cutting with the blade close to you and push the blade forward on its sliders to make the cut.
  • After the cut is made, release the trigger and wait until the blade is motionless before raising the blade. The same applies to when you need to replace or adjust the blade.

Wrapping It Up…

If you made it this far then hopefully you have a good enough idea of which tasks miter saws and circular saws excel at.

The debate between miter saw vs circular saw does not end here as there will always be some woodworkers that prefer one over the other.

As with any tool you choose it really comes down to which one is right for the project you are working on right now.

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