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6/6/2007

Miter Gauges


Miter Gauges
11/1/1998

Why would anybody spend over a hundred bucks for a miter gauge?
Especially since it's a standard item that comes with most table saws. That's what we wanted to know when we decided to test these "after-market" miter gauges. Are they really that much more accurate? And are the "extras" that go with them worth the cost?

To find out, we bought four of the most popular miter gauges, see chart and photos below.

Accu-Miter 10Lb. 8oz $166.85 18" 35" 803-798-1600
Inca 4Lb. 13oz. $107.50 24" 24" 888-593-2453
Osborne 3Lb. 4oz. $149.95 15" No Stop 717-368-1493
Vega 9Lb. 13oz. $144.95 18-1/2" 28-1/4" 800-222-8342

One reason we selected these miter gauges is they all have a head that adjusts to any angle between 45° and 90°. (Some models we considered were designed to cut only 45° or 90° miters.) Note: The Vega miter gauge is the only one we tested that includes a hold-down as a standard accessory.
TEST. With miter gauges in hand (and a lot of questions still to be answered), we rounded up a team of three woodworkers with different types and amounts of experience to test them. While Kent is a professional cabinetmaker and woodworker, Bryan spends his spare time building projects in his home workshop. And Kurt has just finished building a house where he made extensive use of his table saw and (of course) his old standby miter gauge.

Q: What are your first impressions of these miter gauges?
Bryan: The biggest thing is that there are two completely different styles of miter gauges.
Three of them (the Accu-Miter, Vega, and Inca) remind me of the miter gauge I use on my table saw at home. They have a tilting head that pivots on a single point. And the angles are laid out in an arc like a protractor.
But the Osborne miter gauge is definitely new to me. It's like a big, triangular support that rides in the miter slot. One "leg" of the triangle has a telescoping arm that changes the angle of the fence.
This arm can be quickly attached to either end of the fence. This way, you can use the miter gauge in either one of the miter slots on the table saw.
Kent: This system seemed to work fine. The only problem is the end of the arm digs into my palm when I grab the handle.
Still, I do like the idea of a tall handle. Not because I need it when I'm making a cut. But because I'm always lifting the miter gauge on and off the saw table. And with some of these miter gauges, that's like picking up a dumbbell. (See chart above.)
Kurt: I wouldn't knock the weight too much. In fact, the extra heft is one of the things I liked about the Accu-Miter and Vega. Both of them have a nice, solid feel when I'm making a cut. And the Accu-Miter in particular feels (and looks) like a precision, well-machined tool.
Q: There's more to a miter gauge than weight. To produce an accurate cut, the miter bar has to glide smoothly in the miter slot without any “play.” Is there any way to adjust how the bars fit in the miter slots?
Kurt: Some of the miter gauges have a pretty elaborate system to adjust the fit of the bar in the miter slot. The one that intrigued me was the Osborne. It has an adjustment slot at each end of the bar. When I tighten an Allen screw in the slot, it spreads the bar apart. That makes for a nice, snug fit. And it only takes a second to adjust.
Kent: It's too bad the adjustment system for the bar on the Inca isn't thought out as well. It has four cylindrical blocks that fit in holes in one side of the bar. When you tighten Allen screws in the opposite side, they push the blocks against the miter slot.
These blocks work fine -- as long as the end of the miter bar never sticks out past the saw table. But when I push the miter gauge forward, the blocks vibrate loose from the end of the miter bar. As a result, I can't even pull the miter gauge back because the blocks "catch" on the saw table. That seems downright dangerous.
Kurt: Those blocks are frustrating even when I'm not making a cut. Every time I tip the miter gauge, the blocks fall out of the holes onto the floor.
Kent: All that makes me think that sometimes simpler is better. The bars on the Vega and Accu-Miter are a good example. Each one has a straight, flat bar. To fit it into the miter slot, all I had to do was tap the side of the bar with a punch to make a little "dimple."
Bryan: One last thing. The miter bars on the Accu-Miter and Osborne both have a large washer on the end to keep them from falling out of the T-shaped slot in a saw table. It comes in handy when you pull the miter gauge back to crosscut a wide workpiece.

The Head
Q: You said earlier that these miter gauges use two types of systems to adjust the angle of the head. So how did they work out? Bryan: At first, I thought I'd be more comfortable using a miter gauge with a protractor-style head. That's what I have on my miter gauge at home. So loosening the head, tilting it to the angle I want, and then locking it down is a pretty familiar routine.
But the more I used the Osborne, the more I liked it. It's just a matter of getting used to the idea that the "head" is really a combination of parts: a fence, the miter bar, and a telescoping arm that fits inside a sleeve. As the arm slides back and forth, it changes the angle of the fence.
Kent: The type of adjustment system doesn't matter to me. As long as I can easily set the head to the exact angle I want and then lock it securely in place.
That's why I had a bit of a problem with the head on the Inca. The angle markings on the scale are squished together and hard to read. And I have to depend on a pointer to indicate the angle.
The pointer just isn't accurate enough. So I have to make a bunch of test cuts to set the head at the correct angle. What's worse is that when I tilt the head to make a cut at a different angle, I can't return to the original setting -- that's frustrating.
Bryan: The other miter gauges solve that problem by establishing a number of preset stops at 22-1/2°, 30°, 45°, and 90°. So I can make a 90° crosscut, tilt the head to cut a 45° miter, then set it back to 90°. And I never have to check the angle setting again.
Q: How does that work?
Kurt: The Accu-Miter has a spring-loaded pin that fits into holes in the head of the miter gauge. When I pivot the head to one of the preset stops, the pin pops into the hole.
That's handier than the Vega. It has a pin too -- but no spring. So to make sure the head is tilted to the right angle, I have to wiggle the pin to push it in.
Q: What if the pin drops into the hole for the 90° angle setting, but the cut is “off” just a bit?
Kent: No problem. After adjusting the head to make a perfectly square cut, you can shift the pin assembly so the indicator aligns with the mark for the 90° angle. This "zeroes out" the head which makes all the other preset angles accurate as well.
Q: What about the preset stops on the Osborne?
Kurt: It's a nifty system. It has a spring-loaded ball inside the sleeve. The ball fits into a small dimple on the bottom of the arm at each of the preset stops. One thing about these preset stops is there's no way to adjust them. Fortunately, I didn't need to -- they were right on the money.

The Fence
Q: The first thing I noticed about the fences on these miter gauges is they're made of two different types of materials. What gives?
Bryan: The fence on the Osborne is made of a hard, nylon composite material. But the other three fences are made of extruded aluminum.
Kent: I wouldn't get too worked up about the material. As long as the fence is perfectly flat and it's square to the saw table, you'll get an accurate cut.
The Accu-Miter and Osborne both have fences that are flat and square. But the fence on the Vega had a "twist" in it. And I had to shim the fence on the Inca to square it up to the saw table.
Q: I'm always cutting pieces to identical lengths. So I'm curious about how the stops worked.
Kurt: First of all, the Osborne doesn't even have a stop. So I have to clamp a block to the fence.
Bryan: That's one advantage of the aluminum fences. They have a T-shaped slot along the top edge that acts as a track for an adjustable stop.
The nice thing about all these stops is I can flip them up out of the way. This makes it easy to square up one end of a board. Then I flip the stop down and use it to cut the piece to length. Along with a rule that comes with the Accu-Miter and Vega, the stop provides a quick, accurate way to cut pieces to length.
Kent: The stop on the Accu-Miter is a heavy-duty casting that doesn't budge when I butt the workpiece against it. This way, the length of the pieces won't vary.
I had to be more careful with the stop on the Inca. It twisted just a bit no matter how tightly I locked it down.
Bryan: One interesting thing about the stop on the Vega is it has a built-in micro-adjustment. But when I "tweak" the adjustment, it loosens the stop.
Kurt: That stop does come in handy though. It fits on an extension that slides in and out of the main body of the fence. This way, I can cut much longer pieces.
The Accu-Miter has a similar extension with a stop attached to the end. I'd use that a bunch.
Q: Okay, time to answer the question we started with. Are these miter gauges worth the money?
Kent: The only one I'd spend that much money on is the Accu-Miter. It's a well-machined tool. And it provides much more accurate cuts than my old miter gauge.
Kurt: I'd buy the Accu-Miter too. I'm sold on the convenience and accuracy of its preset stops. And I like the solid flip stop and the long fence extension.
Bryan: I like the Osborne. It's lightweight, yet the triangular head provides plenty of support for a workpiece. If it had a flip stop, I'd buy it in a heartbeat. But without that, I'd stick with the miter gauge I've already got.
Editor's Note: The folks at Osborne are currently working on a miter gauge that will include an aluminum fence and a flip stop. Once it's available, it will only cost about ten dollars more than the model we tested.

This article was originally published in ShopNotes Magazine No. 42, November 1998.

© 1998, August Home Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved.

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