Circular Saw vs Miter Saw : Which one is right for a beginner?

You’ve seen so many plans online for building a cute end table that would match perfectly with your new couch. You’ve looked them over and you finally have the courage to give it a try. You look at the list of required tools and the first one it lists is a Miter saw. You don’t have a miter saw. You borrow a circular saw from your friend to make this first project but after making it you know; you know you have to buy one for yourself. You enjoyed the first build so much that you know the investment will be worth it.

So which one do you start with?


Is one better than the other?

One is not better than the other, but they are different machines.

Circular Saw

A circular saw is great for rip cutting. Rip cutting is when you have to make a long continuous cut going with the grain. It can also be used for cross cutting (against the grain and typically a shorter cut). Although it can be used to cut smaller boards, it is often used for plywood. In order to keep a circular saw straight over a long distance it would need a track. You can also clamp down a straight edge of some sort and run it along that line.

Circular saws come in varying sizes (it’s the blade that is measured) but an average is 7 ¼ inches. They also come in right or left handed so if you’re a leftie pay extra attention or else you’ll have the same issue you have with scissors just with a more powerful set of scissors.

Miter Saw

A miter saw makes really accurate cross cuts. As I just mentioned a cross cut is against the grain and parallel to the longest edge of the board.

Keep in mind sometimes a miter saw is called a chop saw, although a chop saw is actually for metal but the design of the machine is very similar, a chop saw is just made of different material so that it does not catch on fire while cutting metal and sparks are flying. But back to our miter saw. These come in sizes as small as 7 inches and all the way up to 12”. You might ask, where is that size measured from? It’s measured by the blade across the center.

Newer Miter saws often have a laser so that you can more easily see where you’re about to cut.  


Which one is more expensive?

A circular saw is going to be a lot less in cost than the miter saw. Circular saws can range from $40 to a small one to $100 for a little nicer one.

Miter saws can range from $200 to $600 at most big box stores. You could find either of these in gently used condition at estate sales, craigslist, or on ebay.

Factory reconditioned tools from Direct Tools are our favorite, we buy a lot of our tools there.


Is one easier to operate?

Contrary to the pricing above where the circular saw seems to win, I am a much bigger fan of the ease of use of a miter saw. You are able to keep your hands at a safer distance and keep much more control of a miter saw than a circular saw.

You technically can cut angles with a circular saw but it would require setting up a jig or straight edge and having to measure the angle and then hope it’s right.

With a miter saw you can adjust the angles in multiple directions. This might not sound useful at first but there are so many little things I use the angles for on my miter saw. 

Like these arrows I made. 

arrows made with the angle of a miter saw cut

Both of the saws have a little kickback when they fire up. Kickback is when it wants to jerk suddenly as the motor spins up, don't let it scare you.

Both also have finger triggers to start and stop the blade.

With the circular saw (mine is right handed) you pull the "trigger" with your index finger while also depressing the button closest to your thumb. 

The Miter saw's "trigger" is pulled by your fingers gripped around the handle and when the trigger depresses it fires up the motor. 

The circular saw is much more portable than a miter saw, although a miter saw can be packed up easily into a truck or even a car, the circular saw could fit in most duffle bags it’s so small.

Do I have to have skills to use either?

You really just need to have one accessible, buy one, or borrow one and have the courage to try it. As long as you are safe about it they are pretty easy to use. Wear eye and ear protection and keep your hands steady and your grip tight.

Just like any other tool, woodworking related or not, they get easier to use with practice. Think about your computer compared to the first time you used one, easier now huh?

With all of that in mind, which one is the best to start with if I can only afford one right now?

Let me just say, I’m all about saving some money. That’s a huge part of why I love to build.

I also try to keep in mind that on any ONE single build I can be saving anywhere from $100-$1000 depending on the project.

If you really are just starting out and want to try one project and see how it turns out, go buy a circular saw, use it for an easy project, and if you like it you have two choices. You can either keep it, or you can sell it on craigslist (again even if you loose $20 on it, you saved a ton by building it yourself). If it’s a total flop and you didn’t like building you can always keep it to try one more project or keep it around, never know when you might need it.

If you already had $300 saved up for coffee table and instead commit to building one with $100 in wood then buy a $200 miter saw, new or used, and start off with the better one in my opinion.

There are also a lot more beginner projects that require dimensional lumber (think 2x4 pine), easier on the miter saw, than ones that require plywood, which the circular saw would be great for.

One last tip

You can have the guys at Home Depot or Lowes cut any piece you need there. In their nicer wood section they even have a hand saw you can use if you’re really about saving some money and using your sweat to pay for it!

I personally use my miter saw almost daily, definitely every time I’m in the shop working, but my circular saw stays put most days and might come out once a month for something.

One of my favorite tips for woodworking and building is buy what you can when you can.

So which one did you choose? Did you go with the miter saw or the circular saw?

If you're still curious about which one to choose leave a comment and I'd be happy to help!