Tool Test – 12-in Sliding Compound Miter Saws
by Eric Smith
Lots of capacity, but at a cost.
Prized by carpenters for its amazing versatility, a sliding compound miter saw is also great to have in a woodworking shop. The blade swivels for miter cuts and the head tilts for bevel cuts. To make compound miter cuts, you simply swivel the blade and tilt the head. Compared with a nonsliding compound miter saw, the big difference is capacity: A typical sliding saw easily cuts 12-in.-wide boards. That’s 3 to 4 in. wider than the largest nonsliders can cut.
A sliding compound miter saw easily makes cuts that are difficult on a tablesaw. For example, accurately mitering the end of a long, wide board on your tablesaw is virtually impossible, because the miter gauge is too small and the saw table isn’t big enough to support the angled board during the cut. With a sliding miter saw, just position the board, swivel the blade, line up the laser guide and go. Switching from crosscutting big timbers to cutting compound miters in delicate trim takes only seconds. Making 60-degree cuts for an equilateral triangle is simple and cutting exotic compound miters for complex assemblies is no sweat.
Sliding miter saws are available in many sizes, which are determined by blade diameter. We tested 12-in. saws because they have the largest capacity and are available in the widest variety of models. We also compared different sizes of saws (see “Choosing a Sliding Compound Miter Saw,”).
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.
Choosing a Starter Set of Measuring & Marking Tools
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.
Photo 1: We prefer saws that minimize side-to-side play when the head is fully extended, because they make the straightest cuts. For example, the Metabo’s widely spaced rails effectively limit play.
Photo 2: A good blade is key to a clean cut. The Makita saw’s blade consistently made amazingly clean cuts and saves you spending $90 for an upgrade.
Photo 3: We like saws that save space. Many sliding saws require more than 30 in. between the bench front and the wall. The DeWalt saw takes only 26 in., thanks to its compact sliding rail design.
Photo 4: The best bevel controls are simple and accessible. We prefer designs that require only one or two steps to unlock and tilt the head. Front-mounted controls mean you don’t have to support the saw head with one hand while reaching to the back with the other to release the bevel lock.
Photo 5: We like large, readable scales. Although the miter scales are good on every saw, a readable bevel scale, like this one on the Bosch saw, is rare. On most saws, the bevel scales are so small or awkwardly located that it’s tough to dial in fractional degree settings.
Photo 6: A hold-down that securely locks the workpiece to the saw table is a must for safe operation. Locking firmly in the base is one requirement. The ability to set the arm low—close to the workpiece—is another. This squat position minimizes play between
Photo 7: We like top-mounted laser guides, like this one on DeWalt’s saw, because they light both the face and front edge of the board. They independently switch on and off, so you can position the board without starting the saw. They’re also adjustable, so you can use them with different blades.
What looks like an alien eyeball on top of an insect’s body is actually a welcome step by Hitachi toward precision woodworking: a digital display of miter and bevel angles.
Unfortunately, the scale is only calibrated in half-degree increments, which isn’t quite precise enough. Also, it’s hard to read the display and make adjustments at the same time. But when the bugs are worked out, this could be a great feature.
Maximum Capacity Has a Price
The Ridgid and DeWalt saws feature the largest crosscut capacity, 1 in. to 1-1/2-in. more than any other saw we tested. (The DeWalt crosscuts up to 16 in. with modifications). Both saws achieved this, in part, by dropping the blade deep into the bed of the saw so it cuts closer to its full diameter. The downside of this design is that during a sliding cut, the teeth on the blade’s back edge rotate directly up into the board. If the board isn’t firmly clamped in place, especially during wide compound miter and bevel cuts, the blade can violently kick it up. Owner’s manuals for both these saws strongly urge using the hold-downs for all cuts. We second that.
You can eliminate kick-up on the Ridgid saw by adjusting its depth stop to raise the blade and change the exit angle of the teeth. But when you raise the blade on the DeWalt saw, you have to add a 3/4-in.-thick subfence to finish the cut.
The $180 Sliding Compound Miter Saw: In a Class by Itself
Intrigued by its astonishingly low price, we also tested the 12-in. Chicago Electric 91852-2VGA saw. Although this saw isn’t engineered as precisely or built as heavily as the expensive saws, it still makes most of the cuts they make, just not as easily or as accurately.
If you only want to construct a deck, frame the basement or do rough crosscutting, the price—one-third the cost of the other saws we tested—makes this saw a real contender.
The more we used these saws, the better we liked them. They consistently made straight, silky-smooth cuts, even on compound miters. The LS1214F has a fluorescent light; the LS1214L has a top-mounted laser guide.
– Feels solid during adjustments and rigid while cutting.
– Minimal side-to-side play, due in part to the way the sliding rails, well-supported underneath the saw bed, actually gain support as the saw is pulled forward to make a wide cut.
– Has a user-friendly soft start.
– The factory-supplied blade is excellent.
– Bevel control is simple and easy to reach.
– Hold-down works well.
– We liked the adjustable fluorescent light.
– Bevel scale is small and difficult to read.
– Bevel range is limited to 45 degrees.
– Dust collection is average.
– Adjustable fences are not as user-friendly as those on the other saws and don’t spread as wide.
This saw has many user-friendly features.
– Front-mounted bevel controls are
easy to use.
– Bevel scale is large and readable.
– Quick-release hold-down is tenacious.
– Built-in extension wings are perfectly level with the saw bed.
– Handle adjusts to horizontal, vertical and diagonal (45-degree) positions.
– We liked the viewing slot in the blade guard; some editors preferred it over the laser for lining up cuts.
– The factory-supplied blade required
a good push to get through bevel and compound miter cuts in the 1-3/4-in. white oak.
– Hold-down isn’t particularly user-friendly.
– Dust collection is average.
– Saw requires a lot of space.
This saw appears similar to the Bosch 5412L, especially regarding several user-friendly features.
– Front bevel controls on this saw are
simple and appealing—just tilt and lock.
– Bevel scale’s readablity is above-average.
– We liked the quick-lock lever for setting miter angles.
– Handle adjusts to horizontal and
diagonal (45-degree) positions.
– Cut quality is average.
– Blade guard catches on 45-degree
right bevel cuts.
– Built-in extension wings sit below the saw bed.
– Bevel range is limited to 45 degrees.
– Dust collection is average.
If you need big cutting capacity, this is an excellent choice.
– Removing the main fence and adding a 1-1/2-in.-thick subbase increases crosscut capacity to 16 in. and miter capacity to 11-5/8 in.
– We like this saw’s unique, simple system for truing the miter settings: Instead of aligning the fence with the saw blade, you loosen a few Allen nuts and shift the saw bed into alignment with the fence.
– This saw is light in weight and very compact.
– We like the front-mounted laser,
a $59 accessory.
– Blade makes rough, splintery cuts.
– Saw head jumps on start-up more than any other tested saw, so can drop down and nick a board if you’re not prepared.
– Dust collection is average.
– Hold-down is difficult to securely tighten.
These saws have many innovative features and the most compact footprint. The C12LSH includes an LCD digital display.
– The miter table’s rack-and-pinion adjustment system works well.
– Dust collection is good, the best in the test.
– Hold-down is one of the best.
– We like the innovative digital
– Cut quality is average. Compound miter cuts are slightly curved.
– We found tilting and locking the top-heavy saw head difficult, in spite of its rack-and-pinion adjustment.
– Tiny bevel scale is nearly impossible to read and the digital display is only calibrated to 1/2-degrees.
– Side-mounted rails allow considerable side-to-side play.
– Bed’s surface area is very small and extension supports are extra-cost accessories.
This saw has minimal side-to-side play and
a wide, stable base.
– Widely spaced rails minimize its side-to-side play.
– Dust collection is better than average.
– Quick-release hold-down is effective; an adjustable arm extends its reach by 1-1/2 in.
– Has a wide bevel range.
– The factory-supplied blade cut smoothly, but left slightly curved faces. However, with the Makita blade installed, this saw cut straight and true.
– Requires a lot of space.
– Awkwardly placed bevel lock doesn’t work well enough. It’s finicky to adjust; we never got it to securely lock the saw head without being impossible to operate.
– Right-tilt bevels are hard to set accurately because you can’t see the scale when you reach around and under to lock the saw head.
– Built-in extension wings sag below the saw bed.
– Bevel scale is tiny; the bubble-style plastic indicators were difficult to read.
This saw features large capacities, big,
readable scales and user-friendly controls.
– Has the widest miter range, second-widest bevel range and second-widest crosscut capacity.
– Has the biggest bevel scale.
– Locking miter handle and detent release are combined into a smooth, user-friendly control.
– Bevel lock is convenient and easy to use.
– Cam wheel design makes blade-depth adjustments easy.
– Dust collection is average.
– Quick-release hold-down was difficult to securely tighten.
– Bubble-style bevel-scale indicator traps sawdust, making it hard to read. (We had to remove the indicator to clean it.)
– Bed is smaller than most, only 10-1/2 in. from the blade to the edge, and extension supports aren’t available.
– Requires a lot of space.
Harbor Freight Tools, (800) 423-2567, www.harborfreight.com, Makita USA Inc., (800) 462-5482, www.makitatools.com, Bosch, (877) 267-2499, www.boschtools.com, Craftsman, (800) 377-7414, www.sears.com/craftsman, DeWalt, (800) 433-9258, www.dewalt.com, Hitachi Power Tools, (800) 829-4752, www.hitachi.com/powertools, Metabo Corp., (800) 638-2264, www.metabousa.com, Ridgid, (800) 474-3443, www.ridgid.com
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker July 2006, issue #122
Source information may have changed since the original publication date.