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Last Updated: , Created: Friday, October 12th, 2001

Do you push or pull to cut wood in a sliding mitre box? Or is there any safe way to use these machines?

(This article was originally written in 2001 and is an interesting piece of history about learning how to use new tools.  Many years after this show I did a real serious job of studying Miter Saw precision and safety and developed a whole series of videos on the subject -- they can all be viewed on the Learning Curve tab above.)

I did it wrong

On my TV show in the year 2000 I quickly used a sliding mitre box to cut some molding on the show, and Randy from LaFontaine, Ontario caught me pulling the saw for the cut. His saw instructions say to push for the cut and he sent me a letter asking why I wasn't following the instructions.

Read the manual stupid

That actually set off an interesting piece of research. You see, in 2001 I didn't own a sliding mitre box, and had never seriously studied them. I still have and love my old radial arm saw, as well as a regular power mitre box, hence no reason to get involved with these newer saws. But when I asked my staff to check out all the instructions of all the machines to see if they all agreed, I discovered that indeed all the manufacturers recommended a push cut for the sliding mitre box. This kind of surprised me because that cut was always considered dangerous on the radial arm saw.

I know, I have worked with manufacturers on radial arm saw safety and many years ago I even wrote the "bible" on how to use a radial arm saw "dead square and to 128th of an inch". Lee Valley Tools publsihed "Fine Tuning Your Radial Arm Saw" and when it went out of print, I made an electronic version of that guide available in the Learning Curve section of this web site -- Radial Arm Saws.

Back to 2001 where on this TV segment we reviewed the strengths and weaknesses of all three machines.

Radial Arm Saw cut technique

The basic cut for a Radial Arm Saw is to place your wood on the fence and then pull the saw forward to make the cross cut. The saw blade will push the wood down to the table and back to the fence, holding everything safely in place. If the motor track is adjusted too sloppy, then the saw motor will tend to lift up from the pressure of the blade, the blade will bite too much wood and run forward or jam, which scares a lot of people. A properly adjusted saw will not do this because you take out the lifting slop. All of those details are in my book.

Fixed miter saw cut technique

The power mitre box resembles the radial arm saw a bit in that they are both what you could call "overhead" saws, with the motor in the air above the wood. The mitre box was really a power version of the old hand saw mitre boxes, not a derivative of the Radial Arm Saw. It simply chops down, again pushing the wood safely to the table and back. In fact this is probably the easiest to use and safest of all three saws. The problem was that it couldn't make a very big cut.

Sliding miter saw cut technique

So then the sliding mitre box was invented as a cross between a fixed miter box and a radial arm saw. The mistake that I made in continuing to use the Radial Arm Saw forward moving draw cut was not realising that the motor was totally free to rise up as you moved along, almost guaranteeing that running forward action that we work hard to avoid with the radial arm saw machine adjustments, the motor cannot be held down firmly against the force of the saw blade which is trying to climb up on the wood.

So to make this machine, which was engineered more out of consumer demand than any really good engineering, cut relatively safely, you must push the cut. That means put the wood in first, drop the saw into the wood and push back. The problem here is that the saw blade is always trying to lift the wood right off the table. A quick set of phone calls to local shops confirmed that every single operator we talked to has admitted to at least one piece of wood exploding upward towards the ceiling.

Hold downs

All companies make clamp hold downs, although only Delta includes them as standard equipment. Almost no-one uses them even if they do own them, because "they are too much trouble".

So the bottom line is that the sliding mitre box has largely replaced the radial arm saw today, much cheaper and more portable and less complicated. But the safety of the "push cut" is really no more safe than when we used to tell people to not cut that way with a radial arm saw. However it is the lesser of two evils in that it is easier to hold the wood down against the push cut, than to hold the saw back against the pull cut.

If you are really safety conscious, learn to use your hold downs. Then you have a versatile and safe saw. If you refuse, at least constantly remember that the saw is constantly wanting to lift and throw the wood upward. Hold that wood down firmly until the saw blade has stopped!

Keywords: Woodworking, Saws, Power Tools, Mitre Saw, Safety, Techniques

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