Shop Skills #7: Cutting Small Pieces on the Compound Miter Saw

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Blog entry by Todd A. Clippinger posted 11-06-2009 06:23 AM 23634 reads 6 times favorited 15 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 6: Holding and Routing Small Profile Mouldings Part 7 of Shop Skills series Part 8: Improved Support With Roller Stands »

A Challenging Situation

Cutting small pieces of trim or moulding accurately on the compound miter saw can be challenging and a bit dangerous. The compound miter saw (known as the chopsaw in the trades and hereafter) has a large opening in the table for the blade and, most often, the plastic insert in the table drops down slightly from the level of the surrounding table. This is characteristic on my Hitachi, DeWalt, and Makita chopsaws. (I am a contractor so I sport 3 chopsaws.)


This provides poor support when cutting small pieces of trim or moulding and this situation creates a safety issue. Poorly supported pieces may be sucked into the blade and drag fingers into it or at least go flying around the shop, ricocheting like a bullet. A zero clearance table surface is the solution and is very simple to make.


It is important to understand that this table is a consumable item and new ones will need to be made regularly and perhaps specific for each job. This is not like making an auxiliary table for the drill press that will last for years.

The table surface can be 1/2” or 3/4” plywood. Since you are cutting small pieces, the table does not need to be too big. It needs to be big enough that you will not cut through the far edge of it easily which would cut it clean apart, but small enough that you can still read the miter gauge on the saw. It looks like I have cut clean through mine but I have not.

If you are primarily making 45° cuts, almost every saw has a stop that allows it to pretty much snap into location if you are running a little blind from the zero clearance table.

The fence should be tall enough to provide support for the full height of your particular trim. This provides back support for a clean cut the full height of your trim or moulding piece.

I keep the auxiliary table in place by attaching with screws from the backside of the chopsaw fence through predrilled factory holes.


You may notice that I have a laser on my chopsaw and it is very accurate. But I find that the saw blade’s own path on the sacrificial table and fence provides the best indication of where to position the piece for my intended cut.

Making the Cut

When performing a cut, hold the piece firmly and, very importantly, adjust your feed rate to provide the most controlled action. Advancing the cut too quickly raises the chances that the small piece can be grabbed out of control. The best thing to do is let the blade be the guide by appling just enough pressure to let the blade advance at it’s own rate.

Installing a premium blade for detailed cutting will provide the best results and aid in making cuts more safely. It is the same principle that a sharp knife or chisel is safer to use than a dull one.


When cutting stock I prefer to mark for a cut, cut close to it, then creep up on the final cut. This provides me with the best results for a clean and accurate cut.


A Cautionary Statement

Cutting small pieces tends to place your appendages closer to the blade consistently more than general cutting and this ramps up the risk factor. The zero clearance table helps control small pieces and reduce the risks associated with this type of work.

Use extreme caution and common sense. If it does not feel safe, then that alone will raise your personal risk.

Share the Love~Share the Knowledge

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

15 comments so far

View studie's profile


618 posts in 3175 days

#1 posted 11-06-2009 07:10 AM

Great safety & accuracy tip! I used to cut small pieces “almost through” then finish the cut with a sharp knife or fine saw. Now I use a clamp on the out feed side & just make the cut, sooo much faster. Thanks for sharing, Like the backstop lining up with the true cut of the blade path.

-- $tudie

View a1Jim's profile


117128 posts in 3606 days

#2 posted 11-06-2009 07:16 AM

Thanks Todd

-- wood crafting & woodworking classes

View John Ormsby's profile

John Ormsby

1288 posts in 3765 days

#3 posted 11-06-2009 08:23 AM


I use a 100 tooth aluminum cutting blade to make small moulding cuts. The cut is satin smooth and clean. The advantage is that the 100 tooth blade is not as aggressive a blade and thus does not grab the trim as readily. You might give it a try sometime. Note that this is for small trim. The trick I use is to use a sacrificial zero clearance board that is clamped to the fences and then cut through. This will eliminate almost any problems with the off fall piece shooting around the room.

-- Oldworld, Fair Oaks, Ca

View nmkidd's profile


758 posts in 3201 days

#4 posted 11-06-2009 10:01 AM

Thanks for the safety tips.

-- Doug, New Mexico.......the only stupid question is one that is never asked!........don't fix it, if it ain't broke!

View Roger Strautman's profile

Roger Strautman

656 posts in 4162 days

#5 posted 11-06-2009 12:10 PM

Todd, I found that if I apply double stick tape where the small piece will site when cut it helps not only physically but mentally.

-- " All Things At First Appear Difficult"

View Dick, & Barb Cain's profile

Dick, & Barb Cain

8693 posts in 4328 days

#6 posted 11-06-2009 03:40 PM

Thanks for the tip Todd.

-- -** You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream ****************** Dick, & Barb Cain, Hibbing, MN.

View stefang's profile


15881 posts in 3363 days

#7 posted 11-06-2009 11:28 PM

Very good and helpful blog Todd. I always set up a fence/zero clearance plate like yours for small pieces. The thing I don’t like is having to make new ones all the time and waste materials. I have an idea for a reusable one for any cutting angle, including a compound angle. It’s just in my head now, but if I am able to actually make something that works I will post it with a plan. This would at least save some materials. I hope I’m not getting in over my head.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4128 days

#8 posted 11-07-2009 01:16 AM

Stefang – Be sure to let me know when you post that one. I am interested in seeing your version.

My tables are always made from scraps and when it is disposed of we collect the heat value out of it in our wood burning stove in the house. So I don’t mind making them, and I am not sure that it is worth over-thinking.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

View cabinetmaster's profile


10874 posts in 3587 days

#9 posted 11-07-2009 03:59 AM

I’m like you Todd. Make a new one everytime I need one and throw the old one out.

-- Jerry--A man can never have enough tools or clamps

View stefang's profile


15881 posts in 3363 days

#10 posted 11-07-2009 11:28 AM

Todd and Jerry. I can understand your attitude to making new fences all the time. I’m sure that as professionals that you have limited time to use on conserving materials. The thing is, here in Norway a 3/4” platter of MDF costs close to $90. I have no idea what it costs in the States, but I would bet it is less than half of what I pay. Plus, since I don’t sell my stuff, it’s pure expense, and I can’t therefore factor in and recover material waste expenses. I suspect quite a few LJ members are in a similar situation except for Norway’s ultra high prices where the government takes a 25% added value tax for the sale of almost goods and services.

If I do come up with something, I will try to make it very simple. I do have my doubts about success, but it will be fun to give it a try. Keep tuned.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4128 days

#11 posted 11-07-2009 06:27 PM

notottoman – YIKES!

Stefang – You bring up a very good point. I have to measure my materials cost against making a new one. I have often been asked to salvage lumber out of walls that I tear out, but I can buy 2×4’s cheaper than if I take the time to clean them up.

If 3/4” MDF cost me as much as it does you, I would rethink the situation. I don’t know what the conversion rate is from US to Norway currency is, but I currently pay about $35 for a sheet of 3/4” MDF. I was just thinking this was high because it was not long ago I paid $28 for it.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

View stefang's profile


15881 posts in 3363 days

#12 posted 11-07-2009 09:30 PM

This is turning out to a very valuable blog for a lot of people Todd. I first learned about the need for an auxiliary in an FWW article a few years ago before I acquired a mitersaw. It’s easy to assume that everybody is aware of the safety and good cutting it provides, but in fact this is a better place to make it known since there are so many LJ members and many of them are new to woodworking.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View Beginningwoodworker's profile


13345 posts in 3702 days

#13 posted 11-13-2009 04:08 AM

Thanks for the tip, Todd.

View hasbeen99's profile


183 posts in 3568 days

#14 posted 11-13-2009 11:51 PM

Nice tip! I’ve often thought about making a zero clearance insert & fence for my miter saw, specifically after getting bitten by small cutoffs flying about.

-- "The only thing that counts is faith, expressing itself in love." --Galatians 5:6

View DAC's profile


148 posts in 2025 days

#15 posted 07-05-2013 03:01 PM

you just solved a very big problem for me. Thankyou very much

-- Wood is a zen like experiance.

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