Circular Saw vs Miter Saw: Which is Best for Your Shop?

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When I first got back into woodworking after a long hiatus it was to build a shed in my backyard. Building a shed is one of those projects that can ultimately be done with surprisingly few tool but one of the decisions I had to made was between a circular saw vs miter saw.

Ultimately, I decided that the circular saw would be best suited for my needs at the time. I wanted to be able to trim the plywood and could get away with using a speed square to make cuts on the construction lumber.

At this point in my woodworking career, I now have both a circular saw and miter saw and use both frequently.

What is the difference between a miter saw vs a circular saw?

Miter Saws

Miter saws are a stationary saw with a fence that can be set anywhere between 45 – 90 degrees to the blade. The blade is then brought down across the wood to cut it to length or the angle needed.

Common Miter Saw Features

  • 10 – 12 inch blade
  • Up to 8-inch crosscut capacity (14 inches with a sliding miter saw)
  • Built-in dust collection
  • Ability to make crosscut, miter, bevel, and compound cuts
  • Built-in miter and bevel stops for accurate cuts

Miter saws come in a number of different setups –

The most basic models will simply pull straight down to make the cut and can be moved to cut angles between 90 degrees and 45 degrees. These are actually fairly difficult to find now as almost all miter saws offer compound cuts now.

Compound miter saws are the next step up and have a blade that can also tilt so you can make compound miter cuts. These are great for trim work, especially crown molding, where the elevation of the trim changes throughout the room.

Sliding compound miter saws are the most advanced miter saw. The blade runs on a slide which increases the cutting capacity from 6″-8″ on a compound saw to 12″.

Many high-end saws will also feature options like laser lines which makes lining up your cuts an extremely quick process.

Most miter saws are light enough to move around the shop or to bring to a jobsite. They do need a stable surface to sit on though when making cuts.

What kind of cuts can a miter saw make?

1. Cross Cut

Crosscuts are typically the most popular use for the miter saw. The blade is brought down at a 90 degree angle to the wood to cut it to length. This is great for breaking down larger pieces of lumber or cutting a piece to its final length. If you combine the saw with an extended fence then it is super easy to set up repeatable cuts that are extremely accurate.

2. Miter Cut

With miter cuts the blade is swiveled at an angle to the fence between 45 – 90 degrees. These cuts are great when working on trim around windows or doors.

3. Bevel Cut

Bevel cuts are made when the blade comes down at 90 degrees to the fence but is tilted to one side. These cuts are popular when cutting baseboard trim as it is a great way to hide the seam or the trim in corners.

4. Compound Cut

Compound cuts are a combination of a miter and bevel cut. These are most often used when cutting crown moulding.

5. Dados

Many miter saws have a depth stop on the blade which makes cutting dados a quick and easy task. Note that this works best with a sliding miter saw to ensure a flat cut.

Circular Saws

Circular saws are small, handheld saw that can be used to either crosscut material or as a rip saw to break down large sheet goods.

Common Circular Saw Features

  • 6 1/2 – 7 1/4 inch blade size (beam saws come with blades up to 16 inches wide!)
  • Corded or cordless
  • Tilt-able blade to make bevel cuts
  • Electric brake to quickly stop the blade

Their smaller size and portability make them a mainstay on construction job sites. Circular saws can be used to make quick cuts on framing lumber, can cut out a window opening, or be used, along with a speed square, to cut out stair or rafter joists.

Another big advantage for a circular saw vs miter saw is their ability to be used like a portable table saw.

By adding a track you can quickly make straight, accurate cuts on sheet goods or large wooden slabs like tabletops.

What cuts can a circular saw make?

1. Cross cut

Cross cuts can be made quickly with a circular saw. Just mark a line on the wood or use a speed square to guide the cut.

2. Dado cut

Dados are easy to make with a circular saw by setting the cut depth accordingly. I actually made an entire bench using the circular saw and it turned out great!

3. Rip cut

Rip cuts are where a circular saw truly shines. Mark a line on the wood or add on a track and you can quickly make long cuts on large boards or sheet goods without having to break out the table saw.

4. Bevel cut

Most circular saws have the ability to tilt up to 45 degrees. This makes bevel cuts an easy task.

5. Plunge Cuts

Circular saws can be plunged into the middle of sheet goods for instances like cutting out a window.

Pros and Cons of a Circular Saw vs Miter Saw

Here are some pros and cons to think about when deciding between a circular saw vs miter saw.

Circular Saw Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Lightweight and portable
    Circular saws can be held in one hand and many models are even offered in cordless options. That makes these an excellent tool for job sites or making awkward cuts.
  • Can be used to cut sheet goods
    This is where I use my circular saw most often. Rather than having to lift a piece of plywood up onto the table saw I can quickly break it down on the ground using the circular saw.
  • Cheaper than the miter saw
    Circular saws are a far less expensive tool that miter saws. Base models can typically be had for under $50 while the top of the line models will still typically be under $150.

Cons

  • Not as accurate for detailed work
    Harder to make precise cuts as the saw has a tendency to wander unless you’re using a track.
  • Does not work well with small pieces of wood
    Cutting small pieces of wood like trim is almost impossible and it will be hard to make accurate cuts.
  • Most don’t have any dust collection
    Circular saws are a messy tool as most don’t have a dust collection port. I make almost all of my cuts near the garage door with the door open.

Miter Saw Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Great for accurate, repeatable cuts
    Since the wood can be clamped to the table or fence miter saws are great for making extremely accurate and repeatable cuts. This is key when doing any fine woodworking or trim work.
  • Most have dust collection
    Almost all miter saws have dust collection ports which makes them a far cleaner tool than the circular saw
  • Safer
    As long as you keep your finers clear of the blade and clamp the wood to the table or fence there is very little risk of injury on the miter saw.

Cons

  • More expensive
    Miter saws are a far more expensive tool. Quality miter saws will run between $250 – $500.
  • Limited cutting capacity
    Miter saw’s have a fairly limited cutting capacity unless you upgrade to a sliding saw.
  • Not as portable
    While I can lug my miter saw around the shop if needed it is still fairly heavy and cumbersome.

Which saw should you choose?

Well, this may sound like a cop-out but…it depends. Personally, if you’re a woodworker building small projects around the shop, then I’d recommend spending more money on a miter saw and maybe picking up a cheap circular saw for breaking down sheet goods.

On the other hand, if you’re working more on home projects or construction sites then the circular saw will be a better choice for its versatility and portability.

Either way, they are both incredibly handy tools to have around the shop and I have no doubt you’ll be able to find plenty of use for either.

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