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How to Cut Wood at an Angle With a Hand Saw or Miter Saw

Eugene, an avid self-taught DIYer and engineer, has acquired 30 years of experience with power/hand tools, plumbing, electrics and woodwork.

3 Ways to Cut Timber

Making accurate square (90-degree) and mitered (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, skirtboards (baseboards) at the base of a wall have to be renewed, or a board from the cladding on your home or shed gets damaged and must be replaced. This article shows you three methods to cut timber.

Using a square to mark a 90 degree line as a guide for cutting.

Using a square to mark a 90 degree line as a guide for cutting.

How Do You Cut Wood at an Angle?

  1. Mark and cut by eye. This is not terribly accurate, but it's ok if measurements and squareness aren't critical.
  2. Use a miter box. This guides the saw and gives better results. However, you can only make 45- and 90-degree cuts.
  3. Use a miter saw. This is the most accurate method of cutting lengths of timber at any angle.

Note: 'Miter' is spelled 'mitre' in British English

Method 1: Cut Without a Guide (by Eye)

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 beforehand 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

Mark the required measurement on the timber with a short pencil tick

Mark the required measurement on the timber with a short pencil tick

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

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

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

You can also use your knee to hold it

You can also use your knee to hold it

Keep your thumb out of the way in case the saw slips!

Keep your thumb out of the way in case the saw slips!

Quick release clamps are useful for holding timber

Quick release clamps are useful for holding timber

How Can You Measure Angles?

You can use a protractor or a digital angle finder. These are useful for DIY and construction if you need to measure an angle between two sides, or transfer the angle to another object. You can use this as a replacement for a bevel gauge for transferring angles e.g. when marking the ends of rafters before cutting. The rules are graduated in inches and centimetres and angles can be measured to 0.1 degrees.

how-to-cut-wood-square-by-hand-or-with-a-miter-saw
An angle finder can be used to measure cut timber, and also as a bevel gauge to transfer angles when it's necessary to cut more pieces.

An angle finder can be used to measure cut timber, and also as a bevel gauge to transfer angles when it's necessary to cut more pieces.

Method 2: Using a Miter 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.

Note: 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

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

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 are 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

A miter box and tenon saw produced these results

A miter box and tenon saw produced these results

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

Using a marking knife to mark a section of timber.

Using a marking knife to mark a section of timber.

Method 3: Using a Miter Saw

A miter saw 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 and are ideal for structural work. Blades with lots of fine teeth are slower at cutting but give cleaner results with less splintering, important when cutting architrave, shelving, baseboard (skirting).

It's usually possible to calibrate a 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. Follow these tips to reduce the risk of injury while using a miter saw.

  • 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 causing an accident. It also gives a ragged, splintered cut on the edges of timber.
  • Don't work in wet conditions
  • Keep your hand clear of the blade while cutting. You might lose 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
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.

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

Fine pitch blades are available which give a cleaner cut when cutting e.g. baseboard (skirting) and architrave. A coarse tooth blade is adequate for cutting structural timber.

Fine pitch blades are available which give a cleaner cut when cutting e.g. baseboard (skirting) and architrave. A coarse tooth blade is adequate for cutting structural timber.

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

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

If you plan to cut a lot of lumber, one of these miter saws is practically essential. This 12" Dewalt Sliding Compound Miter Saw (model DWS779) will do everything you need. It's a corded power saw with a 120 volt, 15 amp motor and is suitable for cutting rough or planed lumber up 2 x 14 at 90 degrees and 2 x 12 at 45 degrees. Another option is the cheaper Metabo HPT C10FCG 10 inch Compound Miter Saw. (This is a non-sliding saw, limited to cutting approximately 2x5 or 3x3 at 90 degrees).

Mitre saw

Mitre saw

A miter saw is virtually essential for rapidly producing accurate square cuts when framing (building timber frame walls)

A miter saw is virtually essential for rapidly producing accurate square cuts when framing (building timber frame walls)

I used a miter saw to cut all this timber to size.

I used a miter saw to cut all this timber to size.

Tips for Cutting Wood Using Hand Saws and Power Saws

  • Keep your hand saws clean. Remove any rust with wire wool or sand paper. Lubricate with light oil, Vaseline petroleum jelly or a candle.
  • Keep pencils sharp so that they produce a fine marking line and timber can be cut more accurately.
  • Timber, especially softwood, swells somewhat in damp humid weather conditions, for example if it's indoors in an unheated garage or warehouse. This can result in gaps in floorboards or paneling as it shrinks on drying. If possible allow timber to dry indoors for a few days before using.

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. Thanks!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Is there a better saw to use for cutting at an angle than a Miter saw. Will the boards will be short?

Answer: You can clamp the boards to a table, bench or whatever and use a jigsaw, but the result won't be as good. The blade on a jigsaw will flex somewhat and never give a perfectly square cut, but whether that's important depends on whether the cut edges will be exposed and the degree of accuracy you require. I can mark an angled line on a board using a protractor, roofing square or protractor and easily cut the boards with a hand saw to an accuracy of +- 1 degree of 90 degrees, but that's after years of practice! You could try this on a scrap and see the results, but of course, if you have a lot of boards to cut on a continuous basis, it wouldn't be practical.

I've never seen them, put possibly miter boxes are available for boards as wide as 6". If not, it wouldn't be difficult to make up one from timber as a jig and use it as a guide for cutting the boards. Then you could use a hand saw, or reciprocating power saw to cut them.

Edit: Look up "Talking Tools," my Facebook group. There are lots of experts there who might have further suggestions.

Question: I need to cut 2X6 boards with angles at the top. The boards are cut down to 8 and 12-inch pieces. Picture the tops looking like a roof. This is for crafting. Will a miter saw work for a 6-inch wide board?

Answer: Yes, a miter saw will cut boards this thick and wide. However because they're so short, it could be difficult to hold them by hand and push them back against the fence of the saw. So make sure you use the clamp on the saw, if fitted, to hold down the boards when cutting, or at least a corner of them. If the blade on a saw is blunt, it can potentially snag on a board and pull it up into the blade, which could startle you and cause an accident, so your hand needs to be well clear. When cutting long lengths of timber, this is less likely to happen because of the weight of the board. Lower the blade slowly and advance slowly to lessen the chances of this happening.

Note: If the saw has mounting holes, it's a good idea to screw it to a bench, at least temporarily, for stability, so that it doesn't tip over or slide when you're cutting.

© 2014 Eugene Brennan

Comments

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on June 26, 2020:

Hi Robert,

You can use a protractor which you can buy in a school supplies shop to mark the angle. Alternatively you can use an electronic angle finder as described in the article. Mark the widest section of the timber top and bottom (4" or 6" surface). Then draw right angles down the 2" side and cut by hand. The problem with a mitre saw is that it may limit mitre (angled) cuts to a minimum of45 degrees. If you want to cut at 30 degrees to a long side, the best thing would be to clamp a piece of timber onto the 2 x 4 or 2 x 6 at a 30 degree angle to act as a guide and use a circular saw to make the cuts. Make sure you support the timber adequately while cutting. If the 30 degree angle is with respect to a line drawn at right angles to the long side of a timber, then you can just set the mitre saw to 30 degrees and cut.

robert l reed sr on June 26, 2020:

how do you cut a 2 by 4 or 2by 6 at a 30 degree cut to be straight on the ground or saw buck or picnic table? what type square do I need or what type toll . I am building both

Frank on June 24, 2020:

Zero info on the vital part about cutting the angle by hand

Leigh on September 14, 2016:

TERRIFIC DETAIL FOR A NOVICE!

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on January 20, 2015:

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.

Mazlan from Malaysia on January 20, 2015:

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 :)

Diane Ziomek from Alberta, Canada on January 20, 2015:

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

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on January 20, 2015:

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.

Diane Ziomek from Alberta, Canada on January 19, 2015:

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!

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on January 19, 2015:

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.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on January 19, 2015:

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.

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on January 19, 2015:

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!

Patsy Bell Hobson from zone 6a, SEMO on January 19, 2015:

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.

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on January 19, 2015:

Thanks Elsie. Glad you liked it!

Elsie Hagley from New Zealand on January 19, 2015:

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.

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on January 19, 2015:

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

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on January 19, 2015:

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.

RoadMonkey on January 19, 2015:

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

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on January 19, 2015:

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.

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on January 19, 2015:

Thank you RTalloni! , much obliged for the comments!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on January 19, 2015:

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

RTalloni on January 19, 2015:

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.

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on January 19, 2015:

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!

Emily Tack from USA on January 19, 2015:

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.

Eugene Brennan (author) from Ireland on January 19, 2015:

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.

Dennis L. Page from New York/Pennsylvania border on January 19, 2015:

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.

Judy Specht from California on May 16, 2014:

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