What is a Miter Box?

Different types of miter box.

If you got transported back a hundred years ago to a traditional woodworking shop, you would indeed find no power tool in it. You would instead find a miter box. The miter box, of course, is the predecessor of the contemporary power miter saw. It is a crude device used by woodworkers to guide a hand saw in making 45° miter cuts. Moreover, it has a simplistic design and is wrought in either wood, metal, or plastic. 

How Does Miter Box Work?

Miter boxes will enable you to cut precisely those needed angled cuts. They typically cut at 22.5°, 90°, and 45° angles. They also come in myriads of sizes ranging from 12.7-millimeters by 51-millimeters wide to 325-millimeters by 180-millimeters wide. Moreover, miter boxes work in tandem with the handsaws like dovetail or tenon saws.

At present, however, power miter saws have already superseded the traditional miter boxes. Yet, some woodworkers can’t seem to part ways with the conventional miter boxes. They love these miter boxes and would argue that these devices provide better accuracy. Besides, they are safer to use, cheaper, and quieter. Plus, they don’t take up much space in the workshop.

2 Major Categories of Miter Boxes

Miter boxes come in a variety of designs and make. Yet, they basically function similarly, allowing you to make angular cuts on the workpiece. Miter boxes come in two categories, and below are these two major categories:

1) Basic or Standard Miter Box 

The basic miter box is the simplest and most common miter box you will see out there. This basic type of miter box comes in a U-shaped block wrought in wood, aluminum, or plastic materials. It has an open top and ends. It can accommodate the workpiece’s width. It also comes with slots on its walls, and these slots are at the exact angle at which you are going to make the angular cuts. 

These slots guide the saw when making angular cuts on the workpiece. Of course, the most common angles of the miter box are 45 and 90-degree angles. When miter saws were not yet invented, the miter boxes were indeed very popular and trendy. Moreover, during those times, the miter boxes lorded it over other tools when making angular cuts on workpieces. 

Steel miter box.

Though there were mass productions of the miter boxes, woodworkers often made their miter boxes using wood. Miter boxes are easy to make. You only need to glue together three wood pieces. Then, you cut the slots using the same saw you use to make those angled cuts on your materials. 

These basic miter boxes do not have a long lifespan. Over time, they start to show wear and tear due to continuous usage. When this happens, the miter box becomes less reliable when it comes to accuracy. So, you need to make another one for your woodworking tasks. Some innovative woodworkers fit their miter boxes with guides at the top to lessen wear on the angular slots.

2) Adjustable Miter Box

Adjustable miter box.

Another significant type of miter box is the adjustable miter box. The adjustable miter box can cut various angles between 45 degrees to 90 degrees. This type of miter box made of metal and has a base and a fence. It also comes with a mechanism that supports the backsaw at a given angle. 

To use this miter saw, you need to hold the workpiece against the fence while you cut using the miter saw. The miter saw is traditionally a kind of backsaw that comes with a wide blade. Woodworkers usually use the miter saw in tandem with the miter box.

When cutting using an adjustable miter box, you hold the workpiece against the miter box fence by clamping it. You also need to align the workpiece with the saw. Nowadays, the term “miter saw” refers to the power tools we commonly call miter saws.


3 Types of Miter Box

In the past, woodworkers make their miter boxes out of the materials they had at hand. Then they use the miter box in tandem with their backsaw or whatever saw at hand. Nowadays, however, you can buy miter boxes in the following three different designs:

1) Molded Plastic Miter Boxes

You will find ready-made miter boxes that feature molded plastic. You can buy these miter boxes from any brick-and-mortar hardware store. You can also buy it from home centers or online. Moreover, you can buy them at prices as low as $12 to as high as $25. 

If you compare their prices to the power miter saws, you will notice the big difference in their prices. Yet, they basically do the same thing. You can use the miter boxes for light works like making frames for pictures.

2) Precision Miter Boxes

You can also buy a precision miter box. This precision miter box offers a better quality of cuts. It also comes with more angular degrees with common angle stops. Plus, it comes with clamps for keeping the workpiece firmly in place. 

Machined metal usually composes this miter box. So, it is more durable and stable than the molded plastic. This miter box type is a perfect choice if you would use it for trim and molding installation.

3) Miter Boxes for Fine Woodworking

If you do fine craftsmanship, then this miter saw is perfect for your use. The fine woodworking miter box is ideal for use in types of wood that get easily damaged by power tools and rotating blades. This miter box is small and is a perfect option for light trim and pieces.

This is a classic and old-school miter box designed for fine woodworking craftsmanship.


Advantages & Disadvantages of Using a Miter Box

If you compare the use of the miter box to the contemporary miter saw, you will quickly say that the use of the miter box is backward and traditional. But during the heyday of the miter body, nobody dared ask the pros and cons of the miter box. The use of a miter box, however, comes with pros and cons, and here are the most apparent pros and cons of the use of the miter box:

Pros:

  • First, the apparent advantage of using the miter box is it’s being inexpensive. It would only cost you several dollars to get a miter box and a backsaw. If you are an occasional DIYer who occasionally cuts miters, then this device is perfect for you.
  • Second, it is small and would not take much space in your workshop. 
  • Third, it is simplistic in design, and it offers straightforward usage. 
  • It provides you with fine cuts. With the help of the manual miter saw, you can achieve fine cuts. It is also perfect for cutting moldings sans chipping. 
  • It is precise. Some woodworkers believe that the miter box with backsaw can provide precise cuts. You may end up with a misaligned cut using a power miter saw because it may lose its alignment sometimes. But with the miter box, you won’t experience misalignment. So, if you want fine craftsmanship, you might as well go for the miter box and the backsaw. 
  • It is safe to use. 
  • When I say it is safe to use, I mean that it is safer to use than the power miter saw. Statistics will tell you that more people get injured by using power miter saws.

Cons:

  • It has its limitations because it can’t handle large wood pieces. 
  • It is lightweight, so it shakes a lot. It is also difficult to hold still. It shakes the more when dealing with harder materials. 
  • It binds more often. Sometimes the back saw tends to cut into the box, causing binding. 
  • It is not durable. Most miter saws are fashioned out of wood or molded plastic. So, they tend to get damaged after continuous usage.

Steps on Using a Miter Box

You can go traditional by using the miter box. It is surely exciting to use and would not require you to plug it into any electrical outlet. If there’s no electricity in your place, you can still go on with your cutting of moldings and trims using the miter box. Here are the succinct steps you can follow when using a miter box:

Step 1: You start by clamping the miter box to any stable platform or surface. You can use a quick-release clamp for this purpose. You can also secure the box using bolts and nuts.

Step 2: You can measure accurately the cut length. Then use the triangle or square to mark your line of cut on the workpiece. Make sure to measure perfectly.

Step 3: Place the wood onto the miter box. Use the clamps to secure the piece onto the box. Ensure that you orient the wood to the direction of the angle of cut. Make sure you know what kind of cut you would like to make, whether bevel or miter. 

Step 4: Score the cut line a bit outside of your marked line with light passes. Afterward, you can increase the force of your passes to complete the cut.


Additional Tips When Using a Mitter Box and a Miter Saw

Aside from the abovementioned steps on how to use the miter box, you can also learn the following few tips on how to use a miter box and manual miter saw more effectively:

  1. You can raise the effectiveness of your miter box a notch higher if you set your miter box on a solid surface. You should clamp or screw the miter box firmly. This will reduce shaking and lessen the misalignment of the cut. Moreover, you can use a portable workbench or two sawhorses as your platform.
  2. Make sure that you engage in the sharpening of your saw more often. Remember what Abraham Lincoln once said that you need to spend more time sharpening blades than cutting.
  3. To avoid cinching, you should keep your saw vertical and move your saw deliberately and slowly. 
  4. Refrain from cutting large lumbers to avoid wearing out your miter box quickly. You should only use the miter box for light wood. 
  5. It will help to use a miter box that provides a clamping feature when you cut crown moldings. In this way, you can get your material solidly affixed to the surface to allow you to focus on cutting.

Conclusion

As a woodworker, it will help if you have a miter box and a miter saw at hand if there is a power outage. With a miter box, you can go on making angled cuts even if you are away from a power outlet or there is a power outage. Moreover, you can cut your workpiece at a precise angle without using a power miter saw. The miter box usually features three sides with open ends to allow you to insert your workpiece. 

In the past, the miter box occupied a high place among the woodworking tools until the power miter saw superseded it. Hence, if you want to feel how the traditional carpenters worked before, you could always try and use the miter box for a change.

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