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SawGear – A First Look

Are electronics the future of carpentry?

In the early spring, I was up in Oregon straightening out my fly line—sometimes that takes a week or more, if you know what I mean. While I was up there, Brandon Vaughn from SawGear invited me to his office for a peek at their new automatic length measuring tool.

(Note: Click any image to enlarge. Hit "back" button to return to article.)

I’d heard about the SawGear, and played with it a little at the JLC Live show in Providence last March. Mike Sloggatt had dragged me over to the saw he was using, with my heels smoking. I kept saying: “Who needs a computer for measuring at a miter saw? All you need is a tape and a #2 1/2 pencil.”

But Mike was serious and convincing: “You have got to see this. It’s the future. You know how younger guys are more and more into computers? And the guys we’re getting on the jobs know less and less about carpentry? This thing’s the answer.”

I spent the better part of a day with Brandon, getting a private tutorial on how the tool was developed. I met some of the engineers and received one-on-one training. Ever the skeptic, my last words were: “Send me one and let me work with it. I’ll let you know what I think.” Brandon showed me how it cut casing, but I wanted to get it in my shop, make a cut list for baseboard and crown, and really see if it worked.

Here’s what I learned in my shop.

Setting up the SawGear

Setup on my saw stand was a snap. In fact, it took a lot longer to unpack the new tool than to set it up. All I did was screw the two mounting brackets down to my wooden extension wing.

The fence snaps into the brackets.

Two knobs lock it down.
A long spindle on the bottom of the Controller—the brains of the tool—mounts to a matching gear in the top of the fence.

The Controller is locked to the fence with two pivoting cam locks. Rotate the levers parallel with the fence to engage the locks in the channel, then rotate the levers perpendicular to the fence and lock down the cams (below). It’s that easy to set up the Controller.

Once plugged in, you simply push the on-off button and the screen lights up with questions, like “Which side of the saw is your fence on?” You can use the SawGear on either side. After picking your language and units (metric or inch), the Controller prompts you to push the START button.

Honestly, when the flip stop suddenly came alive and hummed out to the end of the fence, I was thrilled. That’s the first step when you start up the saw—it measures the length of your fence and enters that measurement in the Controller. You’re asked to confirm the length, which is also included by the manufacturer on a tag at the back of the fence.

Calibrating the Controller

There’s only one more step to go: calibrating the saw so it knows the distance from the stop to the blade. And that’s easy. Just make a cut and measure it precisely. Then press the CALIBRATION button. I like to call it the Distance button, maybe because there’s a D on it? (see photo, left) Enter the length of the piece you cut, then press the START button. Now the SawGear is ready to cut—at least ready to cut any butt-cuts.

The more precise you are about measuring and entering the distance to the blade, the more precise the SawGear will be. I never learned to count thirty-seconds—I just called them a “hair” strong or a “hair” weak. And sixty-forths? Right.

One easy way to set the saw precisely is by using the INCREMENT button. Here’s how I do it:

Make a mark at an easily identifiable measurement—like 12 in.

Enter 12 in. into the SawGear and press START.

Put the piece of wood against the fence, and then push the INCREMENT button until the saw blade is lined up perfectly with the measurement mark.

For some carpenters, it might be easier to make a small kerf and align the blade with the kerf by pressing the INCREMENT button. On my Kapex, I calibrate the distance to the laser, which is adjusted to cut right in the center of my pencil lines.

Cutting casing is like cutting cake

Cutting casing with the SawGear is different than the technique most carpenters use. Since the SawGear is really a computer-controlled flip stop fence, instead of measuring to the short point, you have to measure to the long point. But you don’t have to do the math. The SawGear does that for you.

Start by pressing the WIDTH button, then enter the width of the molding (see photo, right). Once again, the precision of the tool is dependent upon the precision with which you measure the molding. Enter the width of the molding then press the START button.

To use the SawGear while cutting casing legs, either the long point of the casing will be against the flip stop, or the butt end of the casing will be against the flip stop. Be sure to press the correct X or Z button prior to pressing the START button, so that the stop will be positioned in the right location.

When you cut casing legs with the SawGear, you'll be using both the X and the Z angle buttons for right-hand and left-hand legs.


Cutting head casing is just as easy. Simply cut a miter on one end, then press the Y button and enter the short point length (see photo, left). The SawGear will calculate the length of both miters and set the stop accordingly.

One word of advice: be sure to check the calibration of the saw before you start making repetitive cuts! Right—measure twice. If the length of a miter cut isn’t precise, it’s easy to re-calibrate the saw for each of the X, Y, and Z angles.

Start by pressing the CALIBRATE button, then choose the X, Y, or Z buttons (whichever angle you’re working on). Make a cut, measure it precisely, and then press the START button to enter the length of the cut in the Controller. Now you’ve calibrated the Controller precisely for that angle/cut.

Laser etched digital precision

I couldn’t help but ask how the thing worked. I was surprised by the answer, even more surprised at how computers and technology have changed the way we work and the way we will work in the future.

The motor on the SawGear is etched with 3,000 laser marks every inch. An encoder reads those marks as the motor turns, and the flip stop races along the fence. That’s how the Controller always knows precisely where the stop is located.

Cutting Baseboard and Crown

Cutting baseboard and crown using the SawGear is much different than cutting casing. For one thing, it’s easier—you only have to push an angle button when you’re cutting with the long point of an outside corner against the fence.

But cutting baseboard and crown molding also reveals a minor hiccup with the SawGear.

Ironically, the kink in this system isn’t related exclusively to the SawGear, but also involves the saw you use. I’ll get to that below. First, I’ll explain how to cut baseboard and crown using the SawGear.

Most miter saws are designed to pivot around a single point, and that point is flush with the line of the miter saw fence.


Therefore, when measuring for cuts on the left-hand end of material that is standing up (cutting baseboard and crown in-position), or when cutting bevels in material that is lying down flat (cutting baseboard on-the-flat), you don’t have to enter any angle information—you don’t have to press the X,Y, or Z buttons—if the right-hand end is a butt cut or an inside corner. If the right-hand end isn’t an outside corner, all cuts on the left-hand end of the molding are measured as if they’re butt cuts.

Let me say that again: When using the SawGear, you push an angle button only when there is an outside corner on the RIGHT end. Here’s why:

For pieces that have an inside corner on the right end, you measure to the long point of the miter, which is the same as measuring for a butt cut.

But for pieces that have an outside corner on the right end, you measure to the short point of the miter, so the Controller must be programmed to add the thickness of the molding.

Therefore, when cutting pieces that have an outside corner on the right end, you have to press the Z button and then enter the measurement before cutting the left hand end. Of course, before you do that, you must first calibrate the SawGear for the molding you’re cutting: Press the WIDTH button then enter the thickness of the baseboard.

If you’re cutting crown molding, press the WIDTH button and then enter the projection of the crown molding.

The Hiccup

You might have already guessed that the functionality of the SawGear is dependent on the miter saw’s engineering: If the saw isn’t designed to cut at a single pivot point—and not all saws are!—then cutting crown and baseboard with the SawGear isn’t as simple. Here are a few examples.

I made test cuts on my Kapex in the miter position first. The measurement for the inside corner and butt cut was dead on, but the measurement for the outside corner was off by 1/16 in. After adjusting the saw fence and moving it back just a hair, the measurements were within 1/32 in. (see photo, left). When I tested the bevel cuts, all the measurements where within 1/32 in.

I tested my Milwaukee chop saw, too (model #6950-20). Cutting miters, the measurements were dead on, but cutting bevels, the butt cut measured 8 3/16 in., the inside corner measured 8 in., and the outside corner measured 8 1/4 in. Definitely not within an acceptable tolerance range (see photo, right).

I also tested my old DeWalt 706. The miter cuts were within 1/32 in., but the bevel cuts weren’t. The butt cut measured 9 3/16 in., the inside corner cut measured 9 3/32 in., and the outside corner cut measured 9 1/8 in.

Finally, I tested my Bosch 4410. Both the miter and the bevel cuts were within 1/32 in., which really surprised me. I’ve adjusted and calibrated the miter angles on all my saws. To adjust the miter angles on Bosch saws, the fence must be moved incrementally (see “Miter Saw Tuneup.”)

Surprisingly, even though I’ve tapped my fence around a few times, the saw still cuts almost dead-on using the SawGear.

Is there a workaround?

For most carpenters, 1/32 in. isn’t a deal-breaker. And from what I’ve found, that small error occurs only during one cut—usually the outside corner cut. It wouldn’t be tough to learn that you have to push the INCREMENT button once to adjust the flip stop for outside corner cuts. The default measurement for the increment button is 1/32 in. (that can be calibrated, too!). So each time you push the increment button, the flip stop moves 1/32 in. to the left or to the right.

However, if your saw doesn’t pivot almost perfectly around a single point, the workaround isn’t easy or full-proof. While you might be able to program the X and Y buttons for making butt cuts (you can’t re-program the Z button because you use that one for cuts with outside corners on the right end), inside corners, or outside corners on the left-hand end of moldings, those “special” programs would make it impossible to cut casing simultaneously, or even crown and base simultaneously. Those special programs would also have to be figured out and entered each time you cut that particular molding, slowing down productivity. Understanding and entering these ‘special’ programs might also be beyond the ability of some crew members.

The manufacturer claims the SawGear will cut labor costs by 30%. I haven’t tested that. I’m not sure how I could. But I do know that once the tool is set up, it’s MUCH faster than using a tape measure! The 8-foot system will run you $2,200, and the 12-foot system goes for $2,500, making the SawGear a pretty expensive tape measure; but I suspect we’re seeing an early preview of what the future holds for carpentry: laser measures, automatic digital mitersaw fences, bluetooth, iPads….

. . .


Please don’t try anything you see in THISisCarpentry, or anywhere else for that matter, unless you’re completely certain that you can do it safely.

. . .


28 Responses to “SawGear – A First Look”

  1. Jesse Wright

    Great article Gary!

    I too am working out some of those issues with the SawGear in my testing using the old Hitachi 8.5in Compound Mitersaw. The pivot point on the hitachi is 1 3/16″ away from the fence. However I have worked out a work around for it and its cutting Great! I just have to program the XYZ buttons for my offset and its easy to do that. Then all I have to do is enter the width of the material or projection from the fence that the sawgear is referancing.

    I also have worked out how to cut crown “on the flat” using the “flip over” technique But more testing is still needed.
    I am really loving this tool so far. But I can’t offer an opinion on it yet as I need to work with it more. But the precison is unmatched. That is what I’m loving most about it so far a week into testing it.

  2. Scott Hinkle

    Anyone try to calibrate it using a laser measurer? Perhaps SawGear will incorporate one to automatically calibrate off of the saw blade?

    • Gary Katz

      I can see some real great possibilities for this system: an on-board laser system that measures and enters the Width of the material you’re cutting, so you don’t have to use a tape measure for that either–and entering that dimension precisely is a critical part of setting up the SawGear so that it cuts miters on baseboard, casing, and crown accurately. Also, it would be cool to have a laser measure that speaks to the SawGear through Bluetooth or something–which was Greg Burnet’s idea.

  3. John Chinn, owner of III Nails Carpentry, Richmond VA

    Yes, but does it understand the binary language of moisture-vaporators or speak Bocci?

  4. John F. Bunday

    Well all this high tech stuff is interesting but the reality of job site conditions makes me wonder if an investment of two grand is worth the risk. Lets face it, tools and equipment get beat up in the process of the building game. stuff gets stolen, rained on, bounced around in trucks, etc.
    After a decade of work, my DW706, after market Irwin laser guide and low tech saw stop stand and fence system still get the job done
    On another matter, Just keep up the good work on this web site.

  5. Sternberg

    The cutting of crown and coping it, only takes a minute or so. The measuring, not much longer. What does take the time is stopping to think those things thru. When you start getting too automatic, working on autopilot, you often end up backing up to make corrections. If all your walls were square to the world, and no ceilings sagged, nor floors bowed, you might be able to hand one of these things to Mr. Newby, and let him have at it.
    That isn’t going to work until these goomers can measure the walls, and the angles, and translate that to the stick you want to put up.

  6. Bruce

    Cool idea, but I would never buy one. There are too many alternatives that are far less expensive, much simpler to use and have worked for carpenters for decades. And nope – I’m not anti-tech. Just as comfortable in front of the saw on a work site as As I am maintaining our computer network for the team in the office.
    But I’m a lot happier making sawdust!
    Simpler sometimes is better.
    Sternberg,s comment applies too.

  7. MacMarty15221

    Interesting tool. Never thought I’d see a 1-axis CNC machine!

    • Gary Katz

      I never thought I’d see a 1-axis CNC machine either.

  8. Sim Ayers

    On my last rough frame job I was asked to do the interior trim on the house and I said no. I was too burnt out on the house and I’m glad I didn’t do the interior trim, because I got to see the high end interior trim carpenters from Masters Fine Carpentry install 1000 lf of 7″ crown molding. All of the rooms in the house, except the closets had the 7″ crown molding. The lead interior trim carpenter went around the house and used the Bosch Angle finder on each of the corners of house and wrote the corner angle, miter angle and bevel angle on the sheet rock where the crown molding was to be installed. He also used a Bosch Digital Laser Rangefinder to measure the length of each piece of crown molding and wrote the crown molding length on the sheetrock. He then went to his compound miter saw and cut all of the pieces of crown molding for each room. So the other interior trim carpenters could install all of the crown molding for an entire room. I could definitely see this interior trim company buying the SawGear so they could leave their tape measures in their truck.

    • Gary Katz

      I’m seeing the same thing you are. For a fine-tuned crew, especially one that uses laser measures and cut lists, the SawGear would be awesome, if the saw they’re using cuts precisely on the pivot point. But programing each button on the saw, as Jesse suggested, can be problematic: once you re-program the X,Y, or Z buttons for a specific workaround or task, you can’t cut other material at the same time–like base, casing, chair rail, etc. On our crew, we often have two guys using the same miter saw for different tasks. That wouldn’t be possible.

  9. Joe Stoddard

    We had a fairly lengthy thread about this tool on the JLC Business Tech (computer) forum. I think you and I are in agreement… basically automated tools like the SawGear aren’t for everyone but they are going to have a place in the industry going forward.

    I think the mnfcts. example of a guy saving 30% on labor framing an attic are misplaced… It’s possible that increased quality and not shortened cycle time could be the real benefit. I can’t imagine any time savings hauling this rig into a place where it’s way easier to bring the saw to the framing. But that doesn’t mean the idea is without merit. I can definitely see a production framing crew or finish crew setting up their cut station with a SawGear.

    And when any technology takes off, the price comes down quickly. Instead of a free-standing tool for $2500.. maybe parts and pieces of the system become integrated into off-the-shelf fence systems for a couple hundred bucks.

    My biggest concern with tools like the SawGear is whether or not it’s going to be rugged enough to withstand a greenhorn smacking it with a 2×12 or tipping it over into the mud. If they’re going to the jobsite, these kinds of tools have to be designed to be bulletproof, and without any little parts and pieces that can break, fall off, or be misplaced.

    Something as simple as a setscrew rattling off in your truck could eliminate any potential time savings as your laborers run back to your shop or the lumberyard to try and find replacement parts. Next thing, it’s lunchtime.

    But overall – these kinds of tools are coming. Some will be like nail guns and cordless tools and fundamentally change how we do things, others will go down in the history books as bad experiments.


  10. William Cazeault

    This is truly a cabinet makers shop tool.Most carpenters I know have a rough time pricing a Kapex let alone a tape measure @ $2500, including me.

  11. Mike O'Brien

    I saved for a year just to get my Kapex saw, which is a terrific tool and worth the $$ to me. I am not anti-technology, as an owner of the following: iPhone 3 GS, MacBook Pro, Wixey digital angle gauge, Wixey thickness gauge for my thickness planer, digital calipers etc. So while the SawGear is an impressive instrument, it is not one the average woodworker (me) would ever buy. Too expensive, too much hassle, overkill. How does it handle dust; as electronics and saw dust are not good bed-partners I understand?
    Also, I don’t own an electric toothpaste cap remover, a thermal induction heater for my hide glue pot, or a robotic fried egg turner.
    When it sells for $199, e-mail me and I’ll think about it.

  12. Dave Mannion

    (Note- I am NOT an affiliate for following systems mentioned. Just research. :)

    I guess the selling feature (IF it catches on in the carpentry fields) is that it’s half the cost of a TigerStop Optimizer system, which has been around for a decade

    I thought it was interesting that it looks just like the TigerStop Pro model (currently on their homepage)which is being sold as a more affordable fence system. I’m wondering which was first and it’s likely we’d need a head to head article to narrow now the differences? Looks like it will still take 10 programs vs SG’s (?) TigerStop Pro I found for $2,995 at Hermance Machine Company among others. However the installation brackets appear to much beefer for the cost than the ones for similar price from SawGear.

    I’ve used TigerStop on a number of machines (beyond a mitersaw) such as automatic notchers, drilling, double cutoff, upcut saws and aluminum cutoff saws. The extra cost is for the programming saving and recall abilities and for the more rugged (and permanent) support tables/wings.

    A cabinet shop’s advantage at least for going with the TigerStop’s product line up is just that, it has many other systems including rip fence positioning and gang rip saw fences with many accessories to match.

    RazorGage is another brand in the cabinetry industry making noise and a few others that are sold proprietary with saws like from OMGA and CTD.

    None are systems I’ll be taking to the field anytime soon, I like using all of Gary’s methods and techniques and not worrying about incremental adjustments and how my saw’s pivot points and overall inherent and developed “non-preciseness”. His teachings have already made my work far less stressful and in need of head scratching than one fence system (that I’ll stress about damaging constantly) ever will provide. It’s more about the overall picture and how all things are thought out and through than just the time at the saw. This I’ve learned from him, not from the saw fence manufacturer. Cheers! :) Dave

  13. Dave Mannion

    Okay, so I’m digging a little further after I posted and I’m seeing on SawGear’s blog, that they “introduced” their The New Universal Brackets Unveiled! in December that appears to be the exact same one that comes with TigerStop Pro.
    I hope this is a case of the same supplier for a non-proprietary part of either’s system and not of a new to market SawGear trying to dip into TigerStop’s existing business by putting up a nearly identical product. I don’t know about anyone else but that kind of situation is getting a bit old these days.
    I’d much rather some company at least TRY and make their product 10%+ better than their competitors.

    Maybe some head to head article could go on to provide some more insight into these two company’s offerings ?


    • Gary Katz

      Rest easy, Dave. SawGear is manufactured by the same folks that make the TigerStop.

      • Dave Mannion

        I would hope so Gary. They are very much identical twins :) Take care. Now where did I put that portable CNC?? :)~

  14. Bobby Slack

    Computerized ripped and crosscutting technologies have been in the market for at least 20 years. This is something people use a lot in furniture because the guy in the chop saw is deciding how you are going to spend your biggest expense (wood). There are machines that scan a piece of wood and tell you the ripping and crosscutting.
    What is new is that we have that in a lower end version for the jobsite and is fantastic.

  15. Rob Potter

    This is a good article, and the technology is interesting indeed. I have no doubt we will see more of this, and I’m not necessarily opposed to this. I does strike me as much more of a shop tool, geared to cabinets and furniture making and such. I don’t see myself getting one anytime soon but that doesn’t mean that it wont works wonders for some framers and finishers alike.
    But what really struck me from the article was the following quote from the beginning:

    “But Mike was serious and convincing: “You have got to see this. It’s the future. You know how younger guys are more and more into computers? And the guys we’re getting on the jobs know less and less about carpentry? This thing’s the answer.””

    Is this really the answer to people knowing less and less? To what end and to who’s benefit? Will a saw gear really help anyone who is on the green side become a better carpenter? If this is truly the future, I’m a little sad and more than a little scared.
    – Rob

    • Gary Katz

      Keith Mathewson is working on a series of articles about working with hand tools. You’ve probably already read one of his stories– “Why Hand Tools (Still) Matter”. That’s the flip side of what’s been going on in our industry for decades–for “generations” as Keith likes to put it. Brent Hull says that since the industrial revolution, carpenters have become ‘installers’. I agree. It seems to me that there are many techniques being lost even in our generation. While the ideal solution is to save what we’ve learned in the past and share/teach it to upcoming carpenters, the cultural tendency is almost the opposite: dumb down the task and rely on technology to overcome inexperience. While I don’t believe that’s the purpose or value of the SawGear (I found the tool incredibly accurate and FAST), there will be a lot of carpenters in the future who won’t be so quick with tape measures (if they can read one at all!)–they’ll be using laser measures, digital cut lists, automatic spread sheet programs that calculate the optimum pieces to cut from each stick of molding…. Well, maybe I should stop there.

  16. E M Cieri

    I am likely to be in line for the $399 version too. But it will have to be more robust than this one.

    As an aside, in the next to last paragraph of the article, the word is “fool-proof” not “full-proof” (damn English Majors).

    • Gary Katz

      E. M.,
      I always hated that phrase ‘fool-proof.’ For some reason, I thought it was directed at ME. That’s why I use the other version. But thanks for the the correction!

  17. Bill S

    Nail guns were first rejected because carpenter’s said their hammer was not broken, and they said nail guns and compressors cost too much. Now many of us have lost some of our skill at wielding a hammer and a hand saw. I don’t think that is a bad thing, just evolution.
    Most of these tools require the operator to know more, not less. With nails guns you have to know which one to buy, maintenance, how much air pressure, correct nails, length and sizing for air hose and on and on.
    The Sawgear is just starting its jobsite evolution. Each saw could be programmed for correct cuts. Plus down the road your laser-measuring device will hold your cut list with buttons for each room (LR, DR,) left end cope, 142″long, right end butt. You plug the laser into the workstation at the saw and it makes your cut list from long to short. You pick a board from the list on the touch screen and hit which cut you are making. The stop sets, the hold-downs clamp and you hit the foot pedal for the cut. This may sound great to some and others will want to go back to their hand saw and hammer. But the nice thing is…This is America and you can do it anyway you want! But tool evolution is not going to stop.

    • Rob Potter

      In the future you describe,will we be hauling that to site for punch list work or a small job? Or will we be sending the old timer who still owns a tape and can read it with that quaint old 12″ slider?
      I don’t intend a mocking tone. I just wonder how ubiquitous this sort of things will be on the jobsite.
      I am not a Luddite. And, to your point,I won’t be giving up any of my air nailers any time soon.
      I just don’t see this sort of technology as the answer to a lack of basic knowledge and expertise in our trade. – Rob

  18. kev

    The way technology works is that each job requires less experience to do it proficiently, therefore its easier for people to get into, in the mean time each job requires more money for the set up
    This all leads to only bigger companys can afford the set up whilst being able to pay less for their labour
    Its a way of getting people to do work for less and the big companys getting richer
    we are all amazed by technology but it is really just taking money out of our pockets and decreasing job satisfaction from doing a skilled job


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