I needed you 20 years ago
When I started building, 20-something years ago, we were lucky to have had a ‘chop saw’ on the job site. No air-nailers, certainly no cordless drills, no portable table saws, no Festool. And we certainly didn’t have a small indestructible “idiot proof” gadget that told us the exact miter for a particular corner, so that when we cut our molding, or even our fascia for decks, the joinery would be perfect.
Nope, back then, we’d cut a few scraps, then eyeball it, check it, go back and cut it again and again until the scraps looked good, and then we’d know the right miter angle and cut the final material. What a waste of time and materials. If we thought an outside miter looked like it was 45°, we’d cut the first piece 22 1/2—we’d gamble to see if the next mate was going to look good at 22 1/2. Talk about trial and error.
I can remember temporarily nailing fascia or trim in place, purposefully making it extra-long. Then I’d take scrap material and lay it on top of the final material intersecting the first piece. I’d draw two parallel lines on either side of the scrap and go back to the monster Hitachi 15-in. chop saw (with a broken or missing miter gauge, I might add) and do my darnedest to intersect my pencil marks through that little plastic viewfinder. If you weren’t cutting with the saw locked in a detent at 0° or 45° it was a real crapshoot.
Not knowing what miter you needed, a single cut or miter cut could be troublesome. Get two carpenters going about the problem of using a protractor with a miter saw and forget it! You may as well take the day off. It was like each of us spoke a different language. Single cut, miter cut, 45°, 90° (are you talking about the actual angle of the corner or the ‘miter’ setting on the saw to cut a piece to fit that angle?)…. You could never take two guys that hadn’t worked together and put them on a job. While both could be great carpenters, they wouldn’t understand what or how the other was describing what the other needed. Is your angle 90° or 45°? My saw doesn’t have a setting for 90° so it must be 45°, right?
Fast forward to the present day
Today, miter saws are more precise, miter gauges on some saws have 1° increments, we have laser cut readings, and micro-fine adjustment knobs so we can dial in an angle just right. Great, right? Well, how do you know if you need to cut a 45°, 46°, or even a 50° miter for a corner that may be a little out-of-square. Even better, how do you determine the required miter angles for crown molding when it has to run around an oddly shaped room with unusual corner angles? Use a protractor, right? Wrong. They’ve been around for years. But they’ve never worked with a miter saw! I’m a carpenter, not a mathematician. My miter saw has a different numbering system than a standard protractor (well, not really, but that’s a different story—see “Miter Angles and Miter Saws”).
A ‘special’ miter saw protractor—like the Starrett ProSite—is the answer for a mathematically challenged carpenter like myself. This gauge is easy to use, needs no batteries, has no LCD that can break, and isn’t finicky in extreme temperatures, like a lot the of equipment we lug around. I should say that although the gauge is certainly very handy, it only gives you the miter angles you need—not the bevel angles. If you cut crown nested in position you’re fine. If you like to cut crown on the flat, or your material is simply too big to fit nested on your saw, be sure to buy the Starrett 5-in-1 Tool—it has a crown chart on it, too (see photo, right). Of course, the chart is only good for two types of crown—38° spring angle and 45° spring angle; but for off-the-shelf moldings, that simple chart covers a lot of territory. For anything else (like custom moldings and high-end crown profiles, you’ll need to use a Bosch electronic miter finder, or a construction calculator, like a Construction Master Pro or Build Calc (a great app for iPhone users!).
But the Starrett protractor is a very-easy-to-use tool. It has two scales: The red miter cut arrow and outer scale are for cutting miter joints; the black “Single Cut” arrow and inner scale are for cutting a single angle. At first, the tool might be a little confusing, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll love it.
The easiest way to explain how it works is to set the Starrett for a 135° angle (the same angle in “Miter Angles and Miter Saws”). Most of us look at that angle and think it’s a 45°, but, really, that’s just the Single Cut. Look closer at the Starrett scale and you’ll see what I mean. The Single Cut arrow is pointing at 45°. The red Miter Cut arrow is pointing at 22 1/2°. Those are the actual angles on your miter saw. There’s no thinking or math involved.
Of course, if you want to know what the real angle is, you can turn the Starrett 5-and-1 Tool upside down and read the “protractor” angles.
That scale reads 135. The red metal tab and indicator reads just like a normal protractor.
In some of these photos, I’m using my original ProSite Protractor, not the newer 5-in-1 Tool. But the scales read the same. The Single Cut for this corner would be 20° on a miter saw, but for mitering two pieces, like the crown I’m installing, I have to set the saw at the Miter Cut, which is 35°.
Remember, if you’re cutting miters, you’ll want to read the outer scale with the red Miter arrow. That gauge gives you the angle to cut BOTH pieces so that you have a perfect miter. If the corner is out of square, the gauge will give you the correct miter for your miter saw.
I’m sure many of you have had the same experience I’ve had. I used to look at a miter that wasn’t closing up tight, and I’d guess that I needed to cut it 46°, but 46° on a miter saw is really 44°. I’ve wasted a lot of time and material trying to understand that!
The Starrett solves all those brain twisters. It is available in a large and small size, both plastic and metal. While I personally own both the large and small in metal, I’ve been thinking of getting several plastic versions for the crew. The scales on the metal version are on an adhesive-backed material—be careful not to wipe the unit down with certain chemicals, as it will take the printing off and leave the device useless.