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How to Cut Wood Square by Hand or With a Miter Saw

Updated on March 5, 2017
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Eugene, an avid self taught DIYer, has acquired 30 years of experience with power/hand tools, plumbing, electrics and woodwork.

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3 Ways to Cut Timber

Making accurate square (90 degree) and mitred (angled) cuts in timber is an essential skill when making joints in furniture and in building construction. Even if you don't attempt any serious DIY, the need sometimes arises to cut a length of timber reasonably accurately. For instance, architrave may need to be cut around a window or doorway, skirting at the base of a wall has to be renewed, or a board from the cladding on your home or shed gets damaged and must be replaced.This hub shows you three methods to cut timber.

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How Can Wood be Cut Accurately?

  1. Mark and cut by eye. Not terribly accurate but ok if measurements and squareness isn't critical
  2. Use a mitre box. This guides the saw and gives better results
  3. Use a mitre saw. This is the most accurate and accurate method of cutting lengths of timber

Method 1 - Cut Without a Guide

The most basic method of cutting timber is to simply mark it and cut by eye. For basic work where accuracy isn't important, this is quite adequate. However unless you have a good eye and have become skilled from years of practice, the results are variable, and beginners will end up with crooked cuts on the end of timber.

Step 1 First Mark the Dimensions on the Timber

Use a sharpened pencil to produce a thin marking line on the wood. Hold the tape close to one of the edges and mark the required dimension.


Note: If you buy lumber from a store, the end will likely be a 90 degree cut, but check it before hand with your carpenters square. If it isn't, initially follow steps 2 to 4 of the marking out and cutting instructions below to remove a small section at the end of the timber (keep about 1/2 inch in from the edge). Once this is done, you can continue to measure, mark and cut the required length.

First check the end of the timber is square
First check the end of the timber is square | Source
Mark the required measurement on the timber with a short pencil tick
Mark the required measurement on the timber with a short pencil tick | Source

Step 2 Use a Carpenters Square to Mark Top Side

A carpenters square allows you to make a right angled mark across the timber. You can also use an engineers square or a triangle (set square in UK English). Hold the "stock" or handle of the square tightly against the wood while marking. Ideally you should position the tip of the pencil on the mark you made initially when measuring, and slide the square so that it butts against the tip, then mark along the square.

Use a square to produce a right angled pencil line guide
Use a square to produce a right angled pencil line guide | Source

Step 3 Mark the Two Vertical Sides

Continue to mark the two vertical sides of the timber.

Mark a guide line on both the vertical sides
Mark a guide line on both the vertical sides | Source

Step 4 Hold the Wood Securely and Cut With a Hand Saw

If you have a vice, use this to hold the wood securely while sawing, alternatively use your knee and a stool, low table, Black and Decker Workmate or whatever.

Use the pencil lines on the vertical surfaces of the timber as guides while sawing and try to keep the saw blade straight.

Hold the timber securely in a vice
Hold the timber securely in a vice | Source
You can also use your knee to hold it
You can also use your knee to hold it | Source
Keep your thumb out of the way in case the saw slips!
Keep your thumb out of the way in case the saw slips! | Source
Quick release clamps are useful for holding timber
Quick release clamps are useful for holding timber | Source

Method 2 - Use a Miter (Mitre) Box

This gives improved accuracy when cutting. A miter box has slots in its vertical sides which act as guides and prevent the blade of a saw from sloping from the vertical. Metal, wood and plastic versions are available. Some need to be held in a vise while others have a "hook" or raised edge on the underside which can be butted up against the edge of a bench.
A miter box enables you to make 90 degree cuts in timber and usually 45 degree cuts also.
When cutting timber, cut on the waste side of the line rather than the center line.

Various types of miter boxes
Various types of miter boxes | Source
This miter box has a "lip" or hook on the underside which allows it to be pushed tightly against the edge of a bench
This miter box has a "lip" or hook on the underside which allows it to be pushed tightly against the edge of a bench | Source

Using a Tenon Saw

A tenon saw is shorter than a "normal" hand saw and is less cumbersome to cut with. It also has smaller teeth (the pitch is greater), which reduces the tendency of the blade to tear or chip the ends of wood fibers whilst cutting. Thirdly the rigid spine of the saw stops the blade from curving and warping too much while cutting. All this helps to give better results, which is important if you are making furniture or other stuff where accuracy and finish is important.
When cutting, position the blade and teeth of the saw so that you cut on the waste side of the pencil line rather than cutting along the center of the line. The kerf or width of the saw cut can produce "gaps" if you are cutting joints or doing other fine work. The slight error in length due to the kerf of the saw when cutting on the center of the pencil line, can accumulate and cause a greater error (e.g. if several pieces are cut to size and placed side by side)

The slots in metal miter boxes don't wear away as quick from contact with the teeth of a saw
The slots in metal miter boxes don't wear away as quick from contact with the teeth of a saw | Source
A miter box and tenon saw produced these results
A miter box and tenon saw produced these results | Source

Making and Using a Marking Knife

A pencil is fine for rough work, however a marking knife never gets blunt and produces a fine line, allowing you to produce more accurate results when cutting joints. You can make one by cutting a 45 degree angle on an old dinner knife with an angle grinder and then sharpening it. You could use a Stanley knife, however the advantage of a long bladed flexible knife is that it can reach into tight spaces. (This knife also comes in handy for spreading silicone sealant and putty!)

A sharpened dinner knife used for marking timber
A sharpened dinner knife used for marking timber | Source
Source

Method 3 - Using a Miter (Mitre) Saw

A miter saw (spelled "mitre" in UK English) is a power saw designed to produce rapid and accurate 90 degree and angled (mitered) cuts. It's a virtually essential tool when framing, i.e. building stud walls. A basic saw will cut timber up to 4 x 2 in size, but a sliding miter saw has a cutting head which slides on a rail, allowing timber up to 9 x 3 to be cut without requiring a huge diameter disk.
Blades are available for miter saws with a varying number of teeth. Coarse toothed blades cut rapidly through timber. Blades with lots of fine teeth are slower but give a cleaner cut.
It is usually possible to calibrate the saw by way of adjusting grub screws to ensure that the saw actually does give a square cut. You can check your cuts with a carpenter's square to see if the saw is cutting accurately and make adjustments as necessary.
The kerf, which you'll remember is the width of the saw cut, is normally wider, typically 2 or 3 mm (1/8") for a miter saw blade than it is for a hand saw. So it's more important to cut on the waste side of your pencil line to avoid inaccuracy.

WARNING

Like any power tool, a miter saw can be dangerous.

  • Make sure the guard on the saw is operating correctly and covers the blade when the cutting head of the saw is returned to its rest position
  • Hold timber securely against the back fence of the saw while cutting, and ensure that long lengths of timber are adequately supported so that they don't overbalance the saw or rise up and hit the blade. Usually clamps are provided on the saw for holding timber in place while cutting
  • Don't work with power tools if you are tired. Poor concentration can cause accidents
  • Don't use a blade with blunt teeth or teeth which have lost their tungsten carbide tips. A blunt blade can snag in timber
  • Don't work in wet conditions
  • Keep your hand clear of the blade while cutting. You might loose fingers!
  • Always wear safety glasses in case you hit knots or nails/screws in waste timber. If you are doing lots of cutting, wear ear muffs or plugs and a dust mask

Miter Saw

A mitre saw can make 90 degree square, and angled (mitred) cuts in timber.
A mitre saw can make 90 degree square, and angled (mitred) cuts in timber. | Source
This scale indicates the miter angle. 0 degrees is for cutting right angles. The table can be turned to make cuts up to 45 degrees
This scale indicates the miter angle. 0 degrees is for cutting right angles. The table can be turned to make cuts up to 45 degrees | Source
Fine pitch blades are available which give a cleaner cut
Fine pitch blades are available which give a cleaner cut | Source
Cutting with a miter saw. The guard retracts when cutting and should return when you raise the cutting head
Cutting with a miter saw. The guard retracts when cutting and should return when you raise the cutting head | Source

Mmmmmmm Square!

A miter saw gives an accurate cut if it's setup properly
A miter saw gives an accurate cut if it's setup properly | Source
A miter saw is virtually essential for producing accurate square cuts when framing
A miter saw is virtually essential for producing accurate square cuts when framing | Source

Did You Find This Article Useful?

Was the info in this article useful and instructive? How can I improve it? Would you like to ask me any questions?

Please provide some feedback below, and also I would appreciate if you could pin it on Facebook or Pinterest.

Thanks!


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    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 3 years ago from California

      Love our miter saw. We struggled for years with a miter box or cutting by hand. Nice instructions.

    • pagesvoice profile image

      Dennis L. Page 2 years ago from New York/Pennsylvania border

      When I began woodworking several decades ago, it was by trial and error. I probably would have saved a lot of money and wood if I had your wonderful article and pictorial guide way back then. This is a great post for those looking to get into the joy of woodworking.

    • eugbug profile image
      Author

      Eugene Brennan 2 years ago from Ireland

      Thank you Dennis!

      It was the same for me, learning by trial and error over the last thirty years or so. Wood is a wonderful material to work with, planing and carving especially, is very satisfying. I think craftwork, whatever form it takes, alongside exercise, is great therapy for body and mind.

    • Shades-of-truth profile image

      Emily Tack 2 years ago from USA

      Great article, and wish I had written it first! Kidding...

      A few years ago, I decided to make my own bed. I really should have taken photos along the way, of my project, but I was determined to get it finished as fast as I could.

      It only took me about 3 days, working on it in the evenings, after I got home from our store. I measured the two mattresses I intended to use, and left myself some leeway, for bedding. On a mission, I made a double-decker, full-size bed, constructed out of 4x4's and 2x4's; complete with a ladder to the second deck. I thought it would be great, when the grandchildren stayed over - it was, too!

      After my creative frenzy was finished, and my lovely bed was ready to sleep in, it "dawned on me" that I could have been finished with my project in a fraction of the time it took, if I had used an electric miter saw. I had made it with my square, my wooden miter box, my old hand-held power saw, and my ancient hand saw, and my power drill. What was I thinking?

      The finished product was delightful, and I really enjoyed sleeping in it; convinced it was the most comfortable bed in which I had ever slept.

      Then, I remarried, after being a widow for over 10 years, and moved into my husband's home. One of my grown children and their family moved into my room, at my old house, and had beds of their own. My beloved bed had to go. It was so large, that they could not get it out of my old bedroom, so they dismantled it. I felt bereft of an old friend; it was a great bed!

      Shortly after I built the bed, I bought myself an electric miter saw. What a joy it was to use! I should have done that before I started on the bed. The next time I take on a big project, it will most definitely come into play.

    • eugbug profile image
      Author

      Eugene Brennan 2 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks for the comments Emily , and the anecdote!......

      Many years ago, I made a bench for my desktop computer which was destined for an attic room. I had stupidly guesstimated the width of the doorway instead of measuring it, and yes you guessed it, the finished bench was too wide to fit through the door! I was practicing making mortice and tenon joints and of course these were glued together. Luckily I discovered my error in time before the glue dried and was able to do some disassembling, and reassembling inside the attic. If I ever remove it, its going to have to be cut up!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 2 years ago from the short journey

      Congrats on your Hub of the Day award for this tutorial with useful information on saws and other tools. This is a very useful post for people interested in learning to cut wood correctly. Your old square is neat to see.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Congrats on your HOTD. This will be useful come summer when we go to the cottage and start having projects.

    • eugbug profile image
      Author

      Eugene Brennan 2 years ago from Ireland

      Thank you RTalloni! , much obliged for the comments!

    • eugbug profile image
      Author

      Eugene Brennan 2 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks aesta1 , good luck with the projects in your cottage!

      Sorry about the quality of the video, I need to make a new one with my smartphone when I get a chance.

    • RoadMonkey profile image

      RoadMonkey 2 years ago

      I got myself a mitre saw a few years ago, so I could make my own picture frames. They are very useful.

    • DreamerMeg profile image

      DreamerMeg 2 years ago from Northern Ireland

      Mitre saws are only useful when no one else borrows them and loses pieces! As you can tell, I did have one and I will get another when I have time to try out a new hobby again. Useful hub, thanks.

    • eugbug profile image
      Author

      Eugene Brennan 2 years ago from Ireland

      Yes, those dreaded borrowers, they won't buy their own tools and lose bits from yours! I know the feeling - Thanks for the comments!

    • Elsie Hagley profile image

      Elsie Hagley 2 years ago from New Zealand

      Congratulations for HOTD, you deserve it, explained so well.

      But I still think I will leave it to the experts as I have a problem with my shoulder and somehow I can't hold on to any moving item, never mind old body young heart.

    • eugbug profile image
      Author

      Eugene Brennan 2 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks Elsie. Glad you liked it!

    • Patsybell profile image

      Patsy Bell Hobson 2 years ago from zone 6a, SEMO

      Wow, this is a great hub. And may I say, it makes working with power tools less intimidating to folks unfamiliar with shop tools. Voted up IU, tweet, pin.

    • eugbug profile image
      Author

      Eugene Brennan 2 years ago from Ireland

      Great, thanks for that! Power tools aren't dangerous once you remember where you've put your hands and feet, and keep your head out of the way!

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 2 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Congratulations on HOTD! Well done, with excellent photos!

      My husband and I have done a lot of this sort of work around our home, as well as formerly running a small handyman remodel/repair service. In years before I met him, he was a general contractor. We have a shop full of all these tools and more.

      So many people are clueless about handling tools and cutting; not knowing to allow for the saw kerf, which in fine finish work, can make a huge difference. It is somewhat less critical in rough framing, but nevertheless, it is good to have good habits even there. It drives is NUTS these days to see guys using chain saws for framing!

      My own miter saw (chop saw), is the type with the blade that lowers down and cuts straight through, not a sliding type. It is stored in the locked-down position.

      Voted up, interesting and useful.

    • eugbug profile image
      Author

      Eugene Brennan 2 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks for the vote of approval!

      Mitre saws do may life easier, especially for framing and for cutting roof timbers. Their cousin, the metal cutoff saw, is great if box, angle or flat lengths of steel need to be cut.

      The saw in the photo is a 10 inch model, however I have added removable hardwood spacers so that I can use it with 8 inch blades.

    • brsmom68 profile image

      Diane Ziomek 2 years ago from Alberta, Canada

      This is an excellent tutorial, as I am starting to do more of my own building. I have done some basic loom frames, but would like to make them prettier. I am also planning on building some animal housing this summer, so this is good to have for a reference. Thank you!

    • eugbug profile image
      Author

      Eugene Brennan 2 years ago from Ireland

      Thanks Diane! If you decide to use metal cladding for the roof of the animal housing, thin angle grinding disks are more effective for cutting this type of material than standard types.

    • brsmom68 profile image

      Diane Ziomek 2 years ago from Alberta, Canada

      Thank you. That is a good thing to know. I am going to have to go shopping for more tools soon. :)

    • greatstuff profile image

      Mazlan 2 years ago from Malaysia

      Yes, this article is useful and instructive, with lots of photos to guide us through. A well-deserved HOTD award and a good start to your 2015. Well done. Maybe I should copy your template :)

    • eugbug profile image
      Author

      Eugene Brennan 2 years ago from Ireland

      Thank you Mazlan! It's probably the way to go now. Google seems to like articles with lots of photos and some of my hubs which have a high image count, and not so much text weren't affected by the Panda update.

    • profile image

      Leigh 8 months ago

      TERRIFIC DETAIL FOR A NOVICE!

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