How We Tested the Saws
To evaluate each saw’s performance, controls and features, we made multiple crosscut, miter, bevel and compound miter cuts in 3/4-in. mahogany and 1-3/4-in. white oak using the factory-supplied blade. We used 9-in.-wide and 12-in.-wide pieces of both thicknesses to test each saw’s capability over its entire mitering and crosscutting range. These extreme cuts tested the merit of the saw’s sliding mechanism as well as its blade.
We made the same cuts several times using both types of wood. To see if the cut ends were straight and flat, we stood the test samples on a dead-flat steel plate. We also checked to see whether the ends were squarely cut. The largest gaps were about 1/32 in. on crosscuts and slightly wider on compound miters.
Our results were consistent. On every saw, cut-quality imperfections we noted in the 3/4-in. mahogany were amplified in the thicker white oak. Comparing the results from subsequent tests with top-quality blades installed on every saw revealed which imperfections were due to the blade (roughly cut faces and surface tear-out) and which were due to the mechanism (gaps and uneven cuts).
Top-ranked cuts were perfectly flat, showed no tear-out around the edges and had minimal tooth marks on the faces. Middle-ranked cuts noticeably rocked or showed daylight between the cut and the steel plate. Bottom-ranked cuts showed daylight and areas of tear-out or splintering. With almost every saw, the blade’s teeth left a mark or groove in the board’s face at the end of a sliding cut.
Limited Play in the Head
All the saws we tested made accurate chopping cuts in stock up to 4 in. wide, but when we made sliding cuts in wider stock, the results varied.
A 12-in. sliding compound miter saw cantilevers a lot of weight on the rails when the saw head is fully extended. In this position, all the saws exhibit noticeable side-to-side play. The amount depends on a number of factors, including the spacing and location of the slide mechanism’s support rails and the number and location of support bearings (Photo 1). Side-to-side play can allow the blade to wander. Cutting problems are most likely on wide boards, because the amount of play decreases as the saw head moves toward the fence. In our tests, the saws with the least amount of play made the straightest cuts.
A Good Blade
The blade has a big impact on a sliding compound miter saw’s cut quality. Most of these saws come with blades that sell for $40 to $60. The Makita saws, which are outfitted with a $90 blade, made the cleanest, smoothest cuts (Photo 2). Switching blades among the saws confirmed our findings: The Makita blade improved the cut quality of every other saw. Switching out the DeWalt’s rough-cutting blade transformed that saw into a top performer. On almost every saw, upgrading the blade ($70 or more) would be a wise investment.
Because of their slide mechanisms, these saws occupy a lot of space, on average about 40 in. from the lever in front to the sliding rails in back (Photo 3). We prefer saws that are most compact. When the saw isn’t in use, you can limit its intrusion by rotating the miter table to the left or right. With the extension wings closed or removed, widths hover around 2 ft.
Simple Bevel Adjustment
Each saw head tilts left and right to make bevel cuts, but the process of operating the bevel controls while supporting the heavy saw head ranges from simple to complicated (Photo 4). Unlocking and tilting the head can require up to four steps, depending on the saw. Obviously, fewer steps are better. On most saws, the location of the bevel controls isn’t as important as the number of steps needed to make adjustments. On some saws, however, the control’s location makes the adjustment process awkward.
The saws’ miter scales vary in appearance, but they’re all large, easy to read and precise. Unfortunately, most of the saws’ bevel scales were hard to read (Photo 5). To set anything less than half a degree was really just a guess—which was a little annoying given that some of the owner’s manuals include long tables with 1/10-degree settings for cutting crown molding when it’s lying flat. Most saws have detents for common angles.
Cursors are a mixed bag. Generally, we prefer metal cursors, although some are so wide they make precise settings difficult. Most of the clear-plastic cursors were hard to read. Some even trapped sawdust underneath. We liked the Hitachi saw’s digital display, but we wish it were more finely calibrated (see “Digital Display,” page 52).
Hold-downs help with accuracy and general safety, particularly when you’re cutting large pieces (Photo 6). These saws all have small support beds and, even with perfectly aligned outfeed supports, it’s both difficult and dangerous to hold big pieces of wood with hand pressure alone (see “Maximum Capacity Has a Price,” above).
Manufacturers recommend using hold-downs for every cut. We tested each saw’s hold-down by cranking it down tight and marking the board’s position against the fence. Then we checked to see whether the board moved during demanding compound miter cuts.
For easy removal, some saws employ hold-downs that don’t lock securely in the base. These loose-fitting hold-downs were harder to tighten. Several saws have quick-release hold-downs, some of which held more securely than others. In general, short, squat hold-downs—and those that could be adjusted to be short and squat—were a little more tenacious, and every hold-down worked better when solid outfeed supports were used to help support the board.
Top-Mounted Laser Guides
Laser guides are included or are available as accessories for all these saws. We prefer the top-mounted lasers (Photo 7) because their guide lines stayed on the mark through each cut. The line from a rear-mounted laser is blocked and disappears as the saw head is lowered. Several saws use arbor-mounted laser guides that aren’t adjustable and only come on when the saw is running. We think it’s safer to line up cuts with the saw turned off.
Effective Dust Collection
On most of these saws, dust collection is just plain dreadful. When attached to a shop vacuum, only the Hitachi and Metabo saws collected dust adequately (Photo 8). However, to make Metabo’s innovative system work, you have to buy a dust-extraction accessory ($35) or use two jury-rigged hoses.
- The swiveling miter tables are all easy to adjust, even by as little as 1/8 degree. The detents for commonly used angles are solid but easy to override if you need to shave a quarter-degree. All the saws will cut at least several degrees past a 45-degree miter on both sides, and most go to 60 degrees on at least one side.
- All the saws bevel both ways. We prefer those with a bevel capacity beyond 45 degrees. This extra capacity is invaluable when you’re bevel-cutting tall baseboards and need to tweak a cut to 45-1/2 degrees.
- Handles on the saws are horizontal, vertical or adjustable. Adjustable handles allow choosing the position you like best. We thought all the handles were easy to use, so our advice is to try before you buy.
- The same is true for the fences. They’re all tall and consist of two sections. The top sections are adjustable and/or removable. Some swivel and some slide.
- We prefer the saws that come with extension wings. They’re handy if you frequently move the saw or don’t have an outfeed support table.
- Almost every saw has a double-depth stop for limiting the depth of cut—a useful feature for making rough dados or multiple shallow kerfs. These stops can be set, then moved out of the way for regular cutting.
- We prefer blade guards that are mounted on the outside of the blade housing. Blade guards that fit inside the housing were more likely to hang up on the leading edge during compound miter trim cuts. They also occasionally jammed when small offcuts got stuck inside the housing.
- A few saws we tested needed the miter and bevel settings trued right out of the box. This process is not always obvious, so save the owner’s manual.
- Most saws’ manuals include helpful instructions and charts for setting up compound miter cuts.
Every saw has likeable features, but the Makita LS1214F and LS1214L models come closest to getting the whole package right. Fine woodworking demands perfect results, so a saw’s ability to cut cleanly and accurately carried the most weight in our ranking. The Makita saws delivered top-grade cuts every time. There’s nothing flashy about these saws; their features are straightforward, dependable and user-friendly.
The other saws are capable, but every one would benefit from a higher-quality blade, which would add at least $70 to the bottom line. These saws have different strengths. If effective dust collection tops your list, look first at the Hitachi and Metabo. For maximum capacity, check out the Ridgid and DeWalt saws. The saws from Bosch and Craftsman feature user-friendly bevel controls and adjustable handles. The Hitachi and DeWalt saws are the most compact.
You should also know that locking in precise setups for bevel cuts can be challenging on all these miter saws. Fractional degree settings are almost always a guess. Either the scale is too small to accurately read, the top-heavy saw head is hard to control or both.