If you’re new to woodworking and DIY, you might be trying to figure out what tools you need. Both circular saws and miter saws are common tools used in DIY projects, but when you don’t want to buy a whole tool collection at once, it can make things tricky.
A circular saw is less expensive than a miter saw, but is it the best choice for you? Do you even need both a circular saw and miter saw?
In this post, we’ll dive deep into comparing miter saws vs circular saws so that you can decide which is the best choice for you. We’ll cover what a miter saw is, what cuts it can make, when you will use it, and what features to consider when purchasing a miter saw. We’ll then cover the same for a circular saw.
Before we deep dive into each of them, let’s talk about the general differences between a miter saw vs a circular saw.
Miter saw vs. circular saw: what are the key differences?
- A miter saw is a stationary saw where you simply pull down the blade. A circular saw must be pushed through the wood, requiring more accuracy from the user.
- A circular saw is great for ripping down large sheets of plywood to nearly any size while a miter saw can only cut across boards that are approximately 5-8” wide in one pass. The maximum board width depends on the size of the miter saw blade. More on that in a minute…
- A circular saw is less expensive than a miter saw, but because it is guided by the user instead of being stationary, it tends to be less accurate and precise.
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Because a miter saw is stationary, it is what I recommend most to beginners or anyone who is intimidated by power tools. You can keep one hand on the power trigger and the other far away from the blade. You know exactly where the blade is going to go and don’t have to worry about pushing it off track. In my opinion, it’s much less intimidating to use compared to a circular saw.
Sure, you might be a little more limited in what wood you are able to cut, but there are still plenty of projects that you can complete with just a miter saw. We’ll get to that a bit later.
Overall, I would recommend starting with a miter saw for most beginner DIYers. There are a few instances where a circular saw might be better for you, so let’s dive into each of the saws so you can decide for yourself.
What is a miter saw?
A miter saw is a stationary saw that is used to make cross-cuts. A cross-cut is when you cut across the wood grain of the wood rather than in the same direction as it.
The maximum board width a miter saw can cut depends on the blade size, but most miter saws can cut a 2×6 board or smaller. Though there are ways to cut wider boards using a miter saw, this is the biggest limitation of miter saws.
What cuts can you make with a miter saw?
A cross-cut is the most common cut you will make using a miter saw. It is a cut straight across the wood grain of the wood. You’ll make a cross-cut when cutting a long board down to a shorter size.
As the name suggests, a miter saw can also make miter cuts. A miter cut is when you cut across the face of the wood at an angle.
Miter saws have a miter gauge that allow you to adjust the angle, typically anywhere from 1 – 45-degrees. There are ways to cut angles greater than 45-degrees, but those angles will require a little more work.
A bevel cut is also an option if you have a compound miter saw (more on that in a minute). A bevel cut allows you to tilt the saw blade between 1 – 45-degrees and cut through the board at an angle.
The final cut you can make with a miter saw is a compound cut. This is when you cut both a miter and bevel cut at the same time. You will cut both across and through the board at an angle in a single cut.
What features should I consider when buying a miter saw?
Sometimes referred to as “bevel” and sometimes referred to as “compound,” you’ll definitely want a miter saw with this feature. This is what allows you to tilt the blade so that you can make bevel and compound cuts.
Most miter saws will be compound miter saws, but it’s always good to double-check. The other thing to consider is if it is a single or double-bevel. A single bevel miter saw will allow the blade to tilt in only one direction.
With a double bevel miter saw, the blade can tilt in either direction.
For most people, I would say that a single bevel is enough. Unless you are planning to do a lot of complicated trim work or crown moulding, you can make a single bevel work just fine. We have a single bevel miter saw and have never needed a double bevel.
Sliding miter saws allow you to cut boards that are wider in size.
Rather than just pulling the blade up and down, you’ll pull it closer to your body, down, and then slide back through the wood as you cut.
Sliding miter saws are a great choice if your budget allows because you’ll be able to cut wider boards on it. I will say, we don’t have a sliding miter saw and we’ve made do just fine. Through all the projects we’ve done, there have only been 1 or 2 times when I’ve wished we had a sliding miter saw.
That being said, if you want your miter saw to be your only tool and don’t ever want to invest in a $100 circular saw, I’d recommend the sliding to open up more possibilities.
There are three common blade sizes for miter saws: 7.5”, 10”, and 12”. If you’re only planning on working with small trim, a 7.5” would be fine. But, I would recommend getting at least a 10” miter saw if you plan to be building any sort of furniture. If your budget allows, get a 12”.
The bigger the blade, the bigger the board you can cut through. A 10” miter saw can cut through a 2×6, but a 12” miter saw can cut through a 2×8 in one cut.
Here is the miter saw that we use and love. It’s a 12” single bevel miter saw and has gotten us through countless projects over the years.
When do you use a miter saw?
Now that we know what cuts a miter saw can make and what features to consider, let’s talk about when you will actually use a miter saw.
Cutting Dimensional Lumber To Length
Whether you’re cutting down a 1×2 or 2×4, a miter saw is a great tool to use to cut it down to the length you need. It’s fast and accurate. All you need to do is line your wood up, hold/clamp it in place, and pull the blade through the wood.
Accurate Repeat Cuts
If you’re making several cuts that need to be the exact same length, you’ll want to use a miter saw. You can set up a stop to make those repeat cuts quickly without having to remeasure between cuts.
A miter saw is built for trim work. It requires lots of angles and precise cutting, which you can easily do with a miter saw. If you have any accent walls or crown moulding in your future, you’ll want a miter saw.
If you have a 12” miter saw, you can cut through a 4×4 piece of wood in one cut. Since circular saw blades are smaller, you’d need multiple passes to cut through a 4×4 using a circular saw.
When should a miter saw be your first saw?
For most people, I would recommend starting with a miter saw.
If you’re planning to tackle any accent walls or do any trim work, start with a miter saw.
If you’re intimidated by power tools, but still want to learn to DIY, start with a miter saw.
If you want to venture into building furniture, you can start with a miter saw. Sure, using plywood is great when building furniture because it gives you complete control over your dimensions, but you can build a lot of furniture with just a miter saw.
In fact, we have a whole course that teaches you to build magazine-worthy furniture with just a miter saw!
Beyond what we teach in I Made That™, we have several furniture tutorials that just require a miter saw:
- DIY Outdoor Chair
- DIY Desk
- DIY Outdoor Side Table
- DIY Entryway Table
- DIY Canopy Bed
- DIY Headboard
- DIY Dog Bed
If you love DIY and building furniture, will you end up wanting to get a circular saw eventually? Most likely. But a miter saw is the perfect place to start. Not only is it less intimidating to use, but it’s also easier to get accurate cuts with it. And accurate cuts are a key to making great furniture!
What is a circular saw?
A circular saw is a common saw among DIYers because it can be used to make a variety of cuts. It can be used for both cross cuts (like a miter saw) and rip cuts. A rip cut is when you cut through the board in the same direction as the wood grain rather than across it like in a cross-cut.
Circular saws are a popular choice because they can make nearly every cut that a miter saw can (yes, even bevel cuts) and also cut through large boards and sheets of plywood.
Circular saws are less expensive and more versatile than miter saws, but they can be less accurate. Since you are in charge of guiding the blade and propelling the saw forward, it is more susceptible to human error.
Because of how you use it, it can also be more intimidating for beginners. We’ve found that using guides like the Kreg Accu-Cut and Rip-Cut can help ease the fear around using a circular saw and make cuts more accurate.
What cuts can you make with a circular saw?
With a circular saw, you can make cross cuts, miter cuts, and bevel cuts like you can with a miter saw.
You can also rip plywood down to smaller pieces or cut it down to any size you need.
What features should I consider when buying a circular saw?
The most common circular blade sizes are 5.5 and 7.25”. I would recommend getting the 7.25” blade so that you are able to cut through thicker materials.
Corded vs Battery-Powered
This one is going to be a matter of personal preference/where you are planning to use your saw. I recommend getting a corded saw. Yes, you have to have a place to plug it in to use it, but you don’t have to worry about the battery dying and it will always operate at full power.
Here is the circular saw that we use.
When do you use a circular saw?
Though you can use your circular saw to cut boards down to the length you want, there are three primary ways that you’ll use a circular saw.
Cut Down Plywood or Large Boards
Whether you need to cut plywood into smaller pieces or trim a wood countertop, a circular saw is great for long, straight cuts.
Having a circular saw opens you up to being able to cut down plywood sheets, which means you can create furniture with more custom dimensions.
Cutting Designs or Faux Drawers
You can adjust how far the blade cuts into the wood when using a circular saw. This is a great option if you want to cut a pattern into the wood without cutting all the way through. We used this technique to make a faux drawer in my desk.
Long Angled Cuts
If you have to make an angled cut that’s longer than your miter saw can handle, you can turn to a circular saw. Whether you need a miter cut or a bevel cut, you can do it with a miter saw.
Check out this bevel cut we did for this x-side table project.
When should a circular saw be your first saw?
If you aren’t too intimidated by power tools and feel like you have a steady hand, a circular saw can be a great first saw to choose.
If you want to use plywood from the start, get a circular saw.
If you can’t afford a miter saw, but want to get started with DIY, get a circular saw.
If you need to trim things like doors or wood countertops, get a circular saw.
If you do get a circular saw, I would recommend getting the Kreg Accu-Cut and Rip-Cut guides as well. They will help you get more accurate cuts.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Can a circular saw replace a miter saw?
If you aren’t planning to do any detailed trim work or crown moulding, technically, probably. A circular saw can make all the same cuts as a miter saw, but they might be less accurate and more time-consuming, especially if you don’t trust your free-handing skills and want to set up a guide for every cut.
Which is better? A circular saw or a miter saw?
I won’t say either is better than the other. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. Personally, I would recommend a miter saw to anyone just getting started because they are easy to use, less dangerous, and require less setup.
However, a circular saw is a must if you want to cut down large pieces of plywood. Sure, the home improvement store might make a few cuts for you, but don’t count on them making all your cuts for you.
Every store is different, but ours has been cracking down on DIYers trying to get wood cut to specific sizes for their projects. The intention of those saws was to cut wood so that it could fit in your car, not to do half your project for you.
Pro tip: Whether you get a miter saw or a circular saw, upgrade your saw blade. The blades they come with are meant for fast, rough cuts, not necessarily precision. If you get a blade with more teeth, you’ll get cleaner cuts with less splintering.
Are circular saws dangerous?
When using a circular saw, if the wood you’re cutting into isn’t properly supported, the wood can bind and cause kickback which can be dangerous. This is why it’s always important to properly set up your wood before cutting and to stand to the side of your saw instead of directly behind it. Check out our favorite way to support wood when we cut it.
If you used oil-based stain, you’ll wash out your brushes with mineral spirits. Rags with pre-stain or stain on them can spontaneously combust, so it’s important to dispose of them properly.
Is it worth buying a miter saw?
Absolutely! Even if you already have a circular saw and use it to cut down everything, a miter saw is a great tool to have. You get cleaner, more accurate cuts, faster. Who doesn’t want that?
Do I need a miter saw stand?
Technically, no. Yes, they are nice to have, but they aren’t required. We used our miter saw on the floor in the corner of our garage for years. If you choose this option, might just want to get some knee pads.
Both miter saws and circular saws are great tools for DIYers. They both have their strengths and any serious DIYer should have both in their workshop.
Before buying a saw, you’ll want to consider what types of projects you are planning to do.
If you are just getting started, I recommend getting a miter saw to start. Not only are they less intimidating to use, but they are great at making accurate cuts.
However, if you need to cut down large items like doors, countertops, or plywood, a circular saw might be a better option for you.
Figuring out what tools you need to DIY is just the first step. There’s still so much more that goes into creating a beautiful piece of furniture, decor, or accent wall.
If you’re just getting started with DIY, you’ll want to grab our Beginner’s Guide to DIY. It’s the guide created to shorten your DIY learning curve so you can build more impressive things with less frustration.