Before sliding compound miter saws landed on the jobsite, I remember cutting compound angles in wide stock with my circular saw. I'd use it for cutting stair risers and skirt boards, large baseboard, and exterior cornice pieces.
Now with the huge cut capacity on the new generation of sliders, I can produce a better, more finished product faster than ever. We use sliding compound miter saws to cut blocking, cornice, trim, crown, and stair parts.
I tested 11 saws for accuracy and cut capacity, and compared their toughness and mobility. But what's really important to me is their ease of use and comfort; that's where I found a world of difference.
These saws come in three different blade diameters: 8-1/2, 10, and 12 inches. In the 8-1/2-inch category, I tested the Hitachi C8FB2 and the Tradesman 8336. The 10-inch saws include the Bosch 3915, Delta Sidekick 36-240, Hitachi C10FS, Makita LS1013, Milwaukee Magnum 6497-6, and Porter-Cable 3807. The 12-inch entrants are the DeWalt DW708, Hitachi C12FSA, and Makita LS1212.
A sliding compound miter saw must perform lots of functions and work in multiple positions. The adjustments have to work well. The guard can't get hung up or obstruct the cut line. And for best control and performance, a good saw should start smoothly and cut powerfully. It also doesn't hurt if the tool is easy to pack up and move from job to job, and can withstand tough jobsite conditions.
Detents. These saws use one of two detent mechanisms for holding the blade at commonly used degree markings. Both Hitachi's saws and the Milwaukee each use a ball-bearing hold to lock the saw table into preset positions. The rest of the group uses a keyway hold where a "key" falls into a slot at a detent.
The Hitachi bearings roll along the saw body and fall into the detents as you rotate the table to different degree markings. Pushing through the detents is easy, but setting an angle close to one, like 23 or 45-1/2 degrees, is too difficult to dial in easily because the bearing wants to roll back into the detent. Milwaukee's works the same way. I like the keyway holds much better. They provide a more positive positioning and allow you to set the saw within a 1/2 degree of the detent. With the key-type saws you can set and hold a degree marking just off the detent without a problem.
Bevel scale. Hitachi's bevel scales also use ball-bearing catches, but they're the only scales in the group that have a stop for the crown settings. The rest of the saws simply call out the settings for crown cuts. Having those detent settings isn't a necessary feature, but it's definitely a nice convenience.
Degree markings. Degree scales come in two flavors as well. They're either cast into the saw body or printed on a plate that's fastened to the tool. Both types of scales work fine. The only one we had trouble with was Hitachi's. The company paints its cast markings the same color as the saw body, making them difficult to read. They're particularly difficult to see on the bevel markings. Each saw has an adjustable pointer that lets you fine-tune the blade to the degree marking, if necessary.
Adjustments and accuracy. All of these tools cut accurately right out of the box (always check a new saw to be sure though). They might need more adjustment after banging around in your truck. You can adjust the fence on each model to square it up with the blade. Most of the saws come with tools to perform these adjustments. Bosch, Makita, and Milwaukee put their tools conveniently on the saw bodies. It took me about 10 to 15 minutes to true up each model, and each tool was easy to adjust.
Comfort. Compound miter saws spend lots of time in our hands, so they must feel comfortable and easy to grip and use. Both Makita saws and the DeWalt model are especially sleek and easy to operate. Every-thing about these three tools feels good. They've got natural, gripable handles. Once you pull the trigger, the saws just seem to flow down through the work.
One advantage of the sleeker saws is their smaller footprint, which takes up less space than the larger ones on your saw stand. The smaller saws also seem to operate more easily.
The boxier designs on the Delta and Porter-Cable saws don't work as smoothly, and are less comfortable to grab and use. The Bosch, Milwaukee, and Tradesman tools lean towards the boxier body style, yet each has a nice, comfortable feel and operates smoothly.
Balance and mobility. These tools are moved around a lot every day. At 40-plus pounds, they're heavier than most tools on a jobsite, and their weight and balance play a major role when moving them.
The Tradesman saw balances well, has a great handle built into its rail housing, and packs up nicely. Although it's large, the DeWalt model is also easy to move. I like the way it packs and carries for travel. It didn't feel heavy or seem to take up much space. The easiest saw to move, though, is the Makita 10-inch LS1013. Its small motor and well-placed handle give this saw a big advantage. The only slight drawback is the tool's large footprint.
8-1/2-inchers. These small saws are limited to cutting 2-by stock or less; they lack clearance under the slide armature for cutting 4-by. They'll cut through 11-1/4-inch-wide stock on a straight cut. They're better than using a 10-inch chop saw, but the smaller blades limit their overall usefulness on my sites.
10-inchers. 10-inch saws are my workhorses. Using a sliding compound saw of this size is infinitely easier than using a standard chop saw to cut crown moldings or work any piece of wood requiring a compound cut. You can cut 4-by stock clean through when performing straight or miter cuts. However, compound cuts on 4-by stock don't work because the saw body can't clear the work on a bevel.
The 10-inch saws cut almost everything the 12-inch saws cut, however, neither size saw gets through a 2x12 piece of lumber at a 45/45-degree compound cut. All the 12-inchers and two of the 10-inchers can bevel both right and left. This dual bevel feature doesn't change the gymnastics necessary to cut your crown flat, but I bet a lefty can work it easier and it'll save you plenty of flips for cutting flat stock.
The wild card here is the 10-inch Makita model. Nobody told it that it's not a 12-inch saw. Its cut capacity is nearly the same as the 12-inch tools, it bevels both ways, and it costs less than the 12-inch tools. The Hitachi also bevels both ways.
If you often cut lumber that requires a deck clearance (meaning the space between the saw deck and the bottom of the sliding saw body) larger than 3-3/4 inches, then the 12-inch Makita saw or 12-inch DeWalt tool is better for you.
12-inchers. I know a lot of carpenters who love the idea of a 12-inch saw. Maybe they think bigger is better, but I don't get it. While you can use them to cut marginally thicker stock than a 10-inch saw, you still can't compound cut 4-by material.
When it comes to the basic applications we use these tools for -- framing, cornice, trim, and stairs -- I don't find a substantial performance difference between the 10-inch and the 12-inch models. The 12-inch saws tend to be heavier and take up more space at your workstation.
Power. These saws all have plenty of power for cutting stock lumber, but the biggest cutting difference shows up in the way their blades start-up. DeWalt, Hitachi, and Makita all use soft-start electronics on their models; this lets the blade get up to speed smoothly, eliminating that "jump" in the handle at start-up. I wish all the saw manufacturers would follow suit.
All the tools' owner manuals tell you how to set the saws and place material for flat crown cuts. Since the manuals usually don't make it to the jobsite, it's great that Bosch and Makita provide cutting diagrams on their saws. I also like DeWalt's lock down mechanism for holding a miter setting. It's comfortable, easy to use, and sets your angle securely. And the Tradesman has an adjustable bevel handle that worked even better after I repositioned it a little.
Without a doubt, my overall favorite saw is the 10-inch Makita LS1013. The company's engineers really thought the design of this model through. It performs every function I need in a sliding saw, has a soft-start motor, and gives you dual-bevel convenience.
My second choice is the 12-inch DeWalt saw. A very responsive tool, it's easy to use and easy to pack away. Third choice is the Makita 12-inch model which is almost as thoughtfully designed as its 10-inch brother. Next is the 8-1/2-inch Tradesman model. I'd put this saw on a jobsite with any of my framing/cornice crews in a heartbeat. Compared to the 10- and 12-inch saws, this saw might lack total cut capacity, but it's rugged, well built, and affordable. After that come the Bosch and Milwaukee models. If push came to a shove, I'd happily take any of the first six saws to work with me.
The remaining models, however, are another story. While my carpenters thought both the Hitachi 10- and 12-inch saws cut fine, they felt they had way too much plastic on them, and gave them both a pass late in the test. As for the remaining saws: the Hitachi 8-1/2 inch, and the 10-inch Porter-Cable and Delta models, my crew felt they left much to be desired.
Steve Veroneau owns Transformations LLC, a custom framing and trim company in Falls Church, Va., and is a contributing editor to Tools of the Trade. Thanks to Freud for providing the saw blades for this test.