When building a workshop, you may find yourself deciding between two common power tools: table saws and miter saws. The two saws have many similarities and a few defining differences. When choosing one, you need to know those differences.
Table saws and miter saws are both great power tools for cutting wood and other materials to size. They’re also capable of more advanced cuts like angles and even bevels. But how they go about physically cutting differs between the two saws and those differences matter for both what they are capable of and how safe they are to use.
Miter Saw Blades Move to the Wood
Miter saws and table saws both rely on a spinning blade concept, similar to a circular saw. It’s even possible to use the same blade in both tools (though generally, you won’t). But where that blade physically resides and how you use it differs between the two tools.
A miter saw holds its blade high with the teeth facing downwards. You place your wood or other material below it, then bring the spinning blade down onto the wood. A table saw holds its blade in the table with the teeth facing upward. If you imagine a circular saw resting upside down on a table, that’s the basic concept. Instead of the spinning blade moving to the wood, you move the wood into the blade.
For a beginner, this difference in design makes the miter safer. Instead of pushing your limbs and fingers towards a spinning blade, you move the blade in a predictable downward fashion. That makes it easy to keep your arms out of the way.
Table saws, on the other hand, require knowledge of concepts like kickback, three points of pressure, and proper usage of safety gear like push sticks and push blocks. Kickback occurs when the table saw blade grabs trapped wood (or other material) and throws it, possibly at you. That leads to severe injuries. While kickback can also occur on a miter saw, it’s less likely to happen. As such, table saws are inherently more dangerous than miter saws with more room for error.
Table Saws are More Versatile
With a miter saw, you can accomplish three kinds of cuts: crosscuts, miter cuts, and bevel cuts. Crosscuts make a long piece of wood shorter. Miter cuts are an angled cut that joins two pieces of wood like your door frame’s corner or a picture frame. Bevel cuts are similar to miter cuts but come in at a different angle.
The bevel cut allows two tall pieces of wood to join together nicely, as seen with the baseboards in your home. To miter cut, you turn the blade from left to right, while keeping it in a straight up and down position. To bevel cut, you tilt the blade sideways, left or right. It’s possible to both bevel and miter cut at the same time.
For most woodworking projects, crosscuts and miter cuts are the two most common cuts you will make. But, for some types of projects, you may need additional options that a table saw provides.
In addition to all of the above cuts, you can use a table saw to rip cut, resaw, and create french cleats. A rip cut makes wide board narrower. Depending on your blade height and the size of the board, a table saw can also resaw wood to divide a thick board into two thin boards.
A french cleat looks like a combination of a rip cut and miter cut. This involves taking a narrow strip of wood and cutting a 45-degree angle down the length of it (making it even narrower). The two boards joined together are a powerful and versatile mounting point, which is commonly used for hanging cabinets. You screw one board to the wall, the other to a cabinet, and then set the cabinet on the wall piece.
So Which Should You Get?
If you’re new to woodworking and still developing your skills, you should probably consider a miter saw. While it’s not as capable as a table saw, it’s less prone to kickback and generally safer to use. You can accomplish the two most common cuts you’re likely to need, as well.
And while you can crosscut material with both table saws and miter saws, if you have very long wood boards (say 10 feet or more), it’s better to use a miter saw. That’s because you won’t need to slide a 10-foot board back and forth while cutting it. And if you are setting up your first shop, miter saws are usually cheaper than table saws.
On the other hand, if you want to accomplish more complicated projects, then a table saw will serve you well. It can do everything a miter saw can and more. That includes miter cuts! A miter saw is also limited in how wide a piece it can crosscut (depending on the size of the blade your saw uses).
Table saws don’t have that limit since you push the wood through the saw. So long as you learn proper cutting techniques, they are relatively safe and can make short work of large jobs.
In the long run, you may want both, as miter saws tend to be better for quick repeated cross cuts, while table saws are great to more intricate cuts that require precision.
But if you have to pick just one, a miter saw is a good starting point.
The Best Miter Saws
We’ve covered miter saws before, and our overall recommendations remain the same. When looking for a miter saw, pay attention to blade-size. 10-inch blades are most common and cost less than a 12-inch blade, but limit your crosscutting ability. A sliding miter saw lets you cut even wider boards. Look for a fold-out fence and either a dust collection bag or port for a vacuum system. Some miter saws include a laser guide, but those typically cost more than they’re worth.
Metabo is the new name for Hitachi, and they’ve made reliable power tools for years. This powered miter saw has a 10-inch blade, which is suitable for most people. It also has a fold-out fence for longer pieces of wood and a clamp to secure the material.
Metabo HPT Compound Miter Saw, 10-Inch, Single Bevel, 15-Amp Motor, 0-52° Miter Angle Range, 0-45° Bevel Range, Large Table, 10" 24T TCT Miter Saw Blade (C10FCGS)
The Matebo nails all the basics for not a lot of money. The ten-inch blade is good enough to crosscut everything but the widest boards. And the built-in stop block is a handy feature.
If you need to cut something larger than 10 inches, the DEWALT sliding miter saw will do the trick. Not only does it have a 12-inch blade, but you can also pull it toward you, and then push back to cut a total of 16 inches in the material. Like the Metabo, you get a fold-out fence, and while it doesn’t come with a clamp, you can use your own to secure the wood.
DEWALT Sliding Compound Miter Saw, 12-Inch (DWS779)
The DeWalt steps up by offering a sliding feature. That lets you cut much wider boards, which is great for large projects.
The Best Table Saws
Table saws come in several form factors, from portable “job site” saws to large industrial-sized cabinets. The latter takes up a great deal of room and aren’t designed to move, but they are more powerful and have better dust collection options.
When buying a table saw, you’ll want to pay attention to the rip fence. Rip fences are crucial for straight rip cuts. Very cheap saws tend to come with subpar fences and often aren’t accurate. You’ll also want to pay attention to blade size and safety features. Every table saw should come with a riving knife and blade guard. If you’re looking at a used table saw that’s missing those two components, skip it. Your fingers will thank you later.
The compact DeWalt DWE7491RS table saw is great if you don’t have a lot of workshop space. And in a pinch, you can take it somewhere else for remote projects. When you need to cut larger pieces, like plywood, the fence slides out to a maximum of 32.5 inches. This version comes with a detachable stand, but if you prefer, you can skip that to save a little money.
DEWALT (DWE7491RS) 10-Inch Table Saw, 32-1/2-Inch Rip Capacity
Small, compact, and portable, this table saw is great for small shops and for going where you need it to. You'll get 20 inches of rip capacity and a removable stand.
The first thing you’ll notice about Saw Stops is a dramatic increase in price. But if you can afford it, these table saws are worth the price of entry. In addition to quality rip fences and surfaces, the Saw Stop features technology that will save your fingers if you have an accident.
The saw runs an electrical current through its blade. If your skin comes in contact with the blade, the change in charge fires its safety system. In 5 milliseconds, a brake engages that stops the blade and forces it down and away from your finger. At the same time, the system stops the motor from driving the blade. That might make the difference between a nasty cut and a missing finger. Here’s a video demonstration:
After the safety system fires, you’ll need to replace the saw blade and the brake system to get going again.