Using A Miter Box

By: Mark Clement , Contributing Writer
In: Home Improvement Tips

I don’t often reach for hand tools in my old house remodeling and repair projects. As much as I love to pull up a curl with a low-angle block plane or tune a door’s lock-set with a screwdriver, power tools are where it’s at for most projects.

Stanley 20-800 Adjustable Angle Clamping Miter Box

Stanley 20-800 Adjustable Angle Clamping Miter Box

However, it’s not always the case and sometimes there is no beating what a hand tool can get done. I find that’s often the case on a finicky element of trim projects: cutting returns.

For those that might not know, it might be best to show you what one is: Look at the apron at the bottom of your window trim. On the ends, see how the molding profile seems to turn the corner and go back to the wall. The little piece that dies into to the wall is the return. Ditto with the lefts and rights on your mantle, shoe molding along your floor and in a zillion other places. Note: lots of people don’t know what to do in these situations so they “clip” a corner off the molding such that it tapers off. This works in some cases, others not. Returns take more time (and sometimes glue and a pinner) than clip-cuts, but they’re usually a more graceful solution.

Anyway, the reason for describing what a return is is to point out that the smaller the piece–think shoe molding and base cap–the harder they are to cut in a power miter saw. The blade is whirring at 3500 or so RPM. This creates wind which–at least half the time–sucks the tiny return into the saw and which is then shot out the back never to be seen again.

Furthermore, this is a finicky cut to get right. A return that’s too big presses the molding off the wall, creating a gap [Can you tell I've spent time on this?] too small and it sinks in behind the molding and doesn’t carry the profile back properly.

Solution: hand-powered miter box. But not just any off-the-shelfer will do on our sites. Since Stanley sent us the 20-800 Adjustable Angle Clamping Miter Box some years ago for us to look at, we’ve been setting it up on trim sites ever since.

The saw’s cut capacity is large enough that we can cut returns in modest-sized crowns (with a sacrificial fence installed) but what I really like about is that I can cut returns on all that stuff too fragile for 12-inch sliders. The 20-800 is accurate and the saw moves smoothly through the armature–which is critical to both accuracy and my sanity. When you’ve got a hundred little pieces to deal with, sanity is a big criteria. What I also like about this saw is that I can turn it to a left or right 45 easily for left and right returns. The feet are bossed, so I can screw the 20-800 to a work table (which means I’m not messing around with clamps or wasting energy trying to hold it still; see “sanity” above.)

And maybe the main thing I like about the saw is the safety factor. Nothing will shoot out the back and even if I get my fingers close to the blade cutting a small piece, so what. Sometimes old school is the only school.