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Chop Saws and Compound Miter Saws

Helpful Tutorial Buyers Guide
... by Andrew Wormer ~ in association with Amazon.com

The Motorized Revolution

It wasn't that long ago that making accurate crosscuts in wood required a skilled hand, a sharp handsaw, and a chunk of time. But in the early 1970s, a new saw began to appear on job sites that promised to speed up these cuts: the motorized miter saw, or chop saw.

A chop saw is essentially a lightweight circular saw mounted on a spring-loaded pivoting arm supported by a metal base. While these relatively small, inexpensive saws don't have the cutting capacity of a radial arm saw, they are very portable and rugged enough to stand up to daily use (and abuse) on the job and survive the pickup truck ride to the next job.

Chop Saw Cutting Capacity

A chop saw with a 10" blade and a hefty 12 to 15 amp motor can make quick, accurate 90° cuts in 2 x 4 and 2 x 6 boards. If you rotate the blade left or right, they can also make miter cuts, and some of them can be pivoted past 45° in one or both directions. But 10" chop saws have one major limitation: cutting capacity. Most of them are limited to about a 5½" cut at 90°, and even less when cutting miters.

For this reason, manufacturers also offer chop saws with 12", 14", and even 15" diameter blades, which enables them to make cuts that are wider (up to about 7½") and higher (up to about 3½"). For some users, this capacity still isn't enough, which is why the pricier--but more versatile--sliding compound miter saws have become so popular. In fact, regular chop saws are disappearing from the marketplace.

Featured Tool: DeWalt 12" Sliding Compound Miter Saw

chop sawThe DeWalt DWS779 12" Sliding Compound Miter Saw features a powerful 15 amp, 3,800 rpm motor that delivers extended power and durability. It has a super efficient dust collection system that captures over 75% of dust generated.

This Miter saw also offers an exclusive back fence design which cuts up to 2x16 dimensional lumber at 90° and 2x12 at 45°.

Compound Miter Saws and Fences

Chop saws that can make bevel cuts as well as miter cuts (and most of them can nowadays) are technically called compound miter saws . If you tilt the blade while cutting at an angle, these saws can cut crown molding while the stock lies flat on the table. But tilting the blade means that the fence has to get out of the blade's way when the saw head heels over. To achieve this, some manufacturers significantly reduce the height of their fences near the blade, then advise users to add a supplemental wood fence when making regular cuts that need extra-height support. But a better approach is to use a sliding fence, which provides full-height support and moves out of the way for bevel cuts.

Miter Matters

Preset detent positions on the saw's turntable (typically set at 0, 15, 22.5, 30, and 45°) help to position the blade quickly and accurately for common miter cuts. Some manufacturers also offer detents for the common crown molding angles on the miter and bevel scales. But the detents on some saws can be tricky to override if you want to make minute adjustments to the fit of a cut--say, a 32.25° miter instead of the 31.62° that crown molding typically requires. The miter and bevel scales offered by different manufacturers aren't equally easy to read, either. This is particularly true of bevel scales, which are often partially hidden behind the body of the saw.

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