Your First Saw: Circular Saw Vs. Miter Saw
When I first started getting into woodworking, I told my dad I wanted a miter saw. He pushed back, insisting that a circular saw was more versatile and therefore a better first saw. I caved, and he got me a circular saw for Christmas.
I’ve been woodworking for five years now, and guess what? My dad was wrong. I’m completely convinced that in most cases, miter saws are the better choice for beginners over circular saws.
Miter saws are easier and safer to use than circular saws. While they can only cut boards up to 12″ wide, for beginner projects this is usually enough. If you need to cut larger pieces, home improvement stores are able to do this for you, negating the need for a circular saw until tackling advanced projects.
There are a few times when you might want a circular saw, though, so lets look a little closer!
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What is a Miter Saw?
Miter saws are sometimes referred to as “chop saws,” because that is an adequate description of how they work. The blade sits above the piece, and you move it down to cut the wood.
They can cut straight up and down, as well as angled cuts. The first type of angled cut is called a “miter,” and you can see that below:
Miter saws can also do beveled cuts, which is when the blade is tilted at an angle:
Where miter saws fail is when cutting wide pieces of wood. As you can see in the pictures, a miter saw cuts on a track. If the wood is wider than the track, the saw can’t reach it to make the cut.
The width a miter saw can cut depends on the type of miter saw. I recommend purchasing a sliding miter saw, which will allow for a wider board, and increase the versatility of the saw (for more about buying miter saws, check out this post.)
Most miter saws have around 12″ or 14″ of cut depth. I’ve found that I can typically double this by cutting half the board, then flipping the board around and cutting the other half in the same place. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s typically good enough for beginner projects.
For my miter saw, that means I can cut boards up to 24″ wide. Circular saws can certainly cut boards larger than this, so lets talk a little bit about those.
What is a Circular Saw?
Circular saws are portable saws. The saw and blade sit on top of the wood, and the operator moves the saw forward to cut the wood.
Circular saws are versatile, which is why some people recommend them as a good first saw. They can make every single cut a miter saw can, plus more.
They can cut wide boards and make dados (cuts that don’t go all the way through the board,) which are both things miter saws struggle with.
For a beginner woodworker, this means that circular saws can cut down big pieces of plywood, while miter saws can’t.
However, circular saws are more difficult to use than miter saws. It takes practice to cut straight, and it’s easy to get yourself into an unsafe situation. Cutting on sawhorses, for example, can pinch the blade and cause kickback, which is when the saw jumps backwards toward the operator.
Because of this, they’re scarier to use, and if you’re a little nervous about power tools, they’re more intimidating than a miter saw.
Why a Miter Saw Should Probably Be Your First Saw
Circular saws do have more versatility than miter saws. Every cut you can make on a miter saw can also be done on a circular saw, plus a few more. This is why my dad (and some others on the internet) recommend starting with a circular saw.
But circular saws are tedious to use. First off, it’s challenging to cut straight without some sort of guide. I have the Kreg Rip-Cut guide, and I use it on almost every circular saw cut I make, because I just can’t cut straight without it.
Secondly, your boards have to be clamped and secured, which means extra time during the setup process, whereas with a miter saw, you can just hold the board to the fence and cut.
It takes me less than 30 seconds to make a miter saw cut, whereas I probably take about 10 minutes to setup and make a cut with a circular saw.
Additionally, circular saws are more dangerous. Miter saws are a pretty safe tool – short of sticking your hand in the path of the blade, there’s not much that can happen.
But if you don’t arrange and clamp your wood properly, it’s easy to create dangerous kickback with a circular saw. There’s also blade running underneath the wood as you cut, and since you can’t see it, it’s easy to accidently put your hand or leg or something near it.
Despite all of that, though, maybe you’re still worried about the versatility aspect, so lets look at that a bit closer.
What Projects Actually Require a Circular Saw
I went through every single wood-based project on this site, and classified them into three categories: Miter saw only, circular saw optional, circular saw mandatory.
Circular saw optional posts just means that I used my circular saw to cut large pieces of wood, but you could have these cuts done at the home improvement store when you bought the wood.
Circular saw mandatory means that I used my circular saw in a way that couldn’t be done at a home improvement store. For example, on the TV lift cabinet, I used my circular saw to make half-cuts in the wood to make it look like there were drawers even though there weren’t.
Note that “mandatory” is a bit misleading – all the cuts could also be performed by a table saw, but if you’re trying to decide between a miter and a circular saw, you probably don’t have a table saw.
The takeaway here, is that the large majority of projects can be done without a circular saw. Yes, someday, you will want to purchase a circular or table saw to be extend the repertoire of projects you can complete. But I really don’t think it needs to be your very first saw.
When a Circular Saw Should Be Your First Saw
Now, despite everything I said above, there are definitely some cases where a circular saw is the better option.
First off, if you’re purchasing a saw for general home improvement purposes, not for small wood projects, a circular saw might be a better option.
For example, a circular saw can trim a door that’s just a little too big. It can cut down butcherblock countertops to be installed in a kitchen. Both of these things are too big to be handled by a miter saw.
Or maybe, you just straight up don’t have space for a miter saw. Miter saws are big, stationary tools. If you live in a small apartment, you might not have space to store a giant miter saw. In that case, a circular saw is the way to go.
(Sidenote: In that respect, to give credit where credit is due, my dad was correct. At the time I was buying my first saw, I lived in a one bedroom condo, and really didn’t have room for a miter saw. Thankfully, I’ve since moved.)
Miter saws are also significantly more expensive than circular saws. Circular saws start around $50, while miter saws start around $100, with the larger, more versatile sliding saws ranging between $150-$200.
If cost is a major issue, a circular saw is better than no saw.
Finally, circular saws are excellent for cutting down large sheets of plywood. If you’re planning projects that are all plywood-based, then you might be better off with a circular saw.
Just be aware the learning curve is tougher if this is your first saw.
What About Table Saws?
Table saws can do everything miter saws and circular saws can do, but they’re expensive and dangerous.
I don’t recommend table saws for beginners simply because they’re the most dangerous tool in the shop. If you ever meet someone who’s been seriously injured woodworking, chances are, it was by a table saw.
That’s not to say I don’t love table saws. I do! I have a table saw! And I find table saws 100% easier to use than circular saws, to be honest.
But they’re also dangerous, and for that reason, not a tool I recommend for beginners.
Miter Saw Recommendation
I’ve had this Ryobi miter saw for the last three years, and it’s always served me well. I found it was a good intersection of price, quality, and features. The sliding 10″ blade allows me to cut up to 12″ of material (24″ if I flip the board over and do a second cut,) which is more than enough for most projects.
While there are more expensive miter saws on the market with a number of luxury features, I’ve been quite happy with my saw, and think it’s perfect for beginners (which I was when I bought it!)
If you’re interested in learning more about the costs of miter saw, check out this post where I go into all the different miter saw features available, and break down the cost of the different saws!