Friday, February 5, 2016

All about miter boxes Part 1 The boxes

I recently exchanged lots of info with Gerhard over troubleshooting his Langdon Mitre box and his mitre saw so that it would cut true.
So I thought I should make a post(s) covering all the basics and proper set up .

First a short description on the various types of Mitre box.

Long before being replaced today by the ubiquitous power mitre saw, some of which also handle compound angle cuts, the simple wooden mitre box ruled the shops.

Probably the most common form we are used to see today 
when we think: Mitre box for hand tools. 
This modern one is missing an old timer feature,
 a front bench hook to use on the bench.

There are nothing new and the numerous designs all evolved from the need to cut a square 90 degrees cut or a 45 degrees miter cut, the two types of cuts most employed in our work.  Some will also cut the often used 22-1/2 degrees and some are infinitively adjustable in between these common angles.

Here is one different take on the common miter box, a variable angle one called Magic miter box.

Magic (gizmo) Miter box.
It slice, it dice, it shred??...

One of the first useful appliance you should built for your hand tool shop is a simple bench hook. These also comes in various flavours, but this common form is useful as a cutting help for 90 degrees .
They do not have to be too large, this one is 6 in wide, plenty big. When cutting longer piece you simply add a short bench hook to support the end.

From the Jig Journal Chris Schwarz
Popular Woodworking June 2007.

Now add one or two of your most often used angle cuts on the rear fence part and you have a "mitre box".

Some seems to think that the use of a mitering device is nothing but like using a crutch and would rather cut them free hand, but there is a lot to be said about doing repetitive, duplicate cuts.
Yes you can train your hands and eyes to cut straight or a 45 degrees using the reflection of the saw plate, but there is nothing wrong to be using a mitre box when you want repeatability. Add a length stop and you will find it easier to make square assemblies with mitered corners.

The form we are perhaps the most used to by now, is a simple variation on this design, that was mostly in response to the increase uses of molding pieces around the rooms. What was once the domain of the house joiners, now finish carpenters, is now routinely done by DIYers everywhere.

One small detail often missed on the modern form, is the fence wall has to be high enough to be able to stick the moulding pieces at the same angle as it would be on the walls. If you cannot do that and are cutting on the flat, you then would have to figured out the compound angle required with a bit of trigonometry. Yikes, easier cutting at the sprung angle :-)

Here is a clever compound angle calculator I found on line that will save you from reaching for that Aspirin bottle :-).

And here is another for cutting mouldings on the flat

Nonetheless, if you simply sprung your molding piece at the same angle that it would be installed on the wall or ceiling, you can then simply cut it at 45 degrees.

There are endless variations in plastic and metals and adapted to various tasks from big moulding pieces to small decorative banding pieces.

A modern plastic one from Stanley with removable plastic stops.

My Zona small back saw and mitre box
for really small work like miniature work or cutting banding (what I used it for)
That back saw has a 4-1/2 in long saw plate X 1/2 in deep cut.

Perhaps the biggest draw back to this design is that as the slots becomes damaged or worn out, you loose accuracy. They also makes them in anodized aluminum but they will still suffer the same fate down the road.

In a bid to overcome this problems, some comes with adjustable shoes or wear plates that can be adjusted to the saw plate.

Adjustable shoes miter box

But not everything we comes across has square 90 degrees corner (despite our best effort :-) and having the possibility of infinite variable angles is a blessing.

A Stanley No 115, 4-3/4 in capacity.
Pic from EBay

Stanley No 150 mitre box with a 16 X 3-3/4 back saw

Picture framers have to make precise 45 degrees cuts all day long, so there are specialized mitering devices made for them.

A Stanley No 100 Miter machine.
Original design is from Marsh tool company which was bought by Stanley in 1926. Early models are not marked Stanley.  Pic from EBay.

Guillotine type devices that slice rather than cut the wood can make very accurate angle cuts and with some clever attachments will handle compound cuts.
The original Lion miter trimmer from Pootatuck Corp.
I think that they recently stopped production, but there are lots of Taiwanese copies out there, some better than others. They are only as good as the casting and machining. 

There are no shortage of patented design thru the years, but perhaps some of the best known ones are the Langdon/Millers-Falls design and the equivalent Stanley models.

Langdon/MF No 75 with a 30 X 5 in backsaw.
Pic from Gerhard blog.

Stanley No 60 mitre box with a 24 X 4 in backsaw.

These two models exemplified the two common approach for these types of mitre box. Where as the Stanley as a replaceable sacrificial board which gets chew ups badly with time and with poorly adjusted saw guides, the Langdon/MF type uses instead a fix cast or stamped metal bed and a pivoting cutting slot which sometimes have adjustable plates on each sides. Much like our modern powered mitre box.

Pivoting cutting slot.
Fixed cast guide that support the wood on each side of the cut.
This is on my Craftsman 881-36301 Hempe made mitre box. 

Another popular type today is the modern European style that uses a frame saw versus a back saw. There are a multitude of cheap Far East copies being made and sold, but the original NOBEX's ones made in Sweden are pretty good.
Good enough to be sold by LV ;-)

NOBEX Professional model.
The small drawing on the RH side shows how the ribs on the cast bed can be used to sprung moulding to the correct angle.
Pic from LV site.

These types of boxes work great but they requires a flat bed for accurate operation, so regardless of types, you must take care not to introduce twist on the bed by tightening the box on an uneven surface. Either stamped feet or cast brackets will introduce twist if you are not careful, hence it is a good idea to fasten the box on a stout base. I Like to use 3/4 in plywood, providing the piece is dead flat...

Finally rounding up our look at saw guides and mitering devices, there are some adapted to be used with Japanese styles saws used on the pull stroke.

But for this series of posts we will concentrate on the conventional miter boxes such as my Stanley No 60, as I go thru its rehabilitation and set up. Including sharpening and tweaking the saw for the box. Spoiler alert if you read Gerhard post you can learn how I do that :-)

One last thing. In case you are by now wondering, why in this day and age does anyone would still want to use one of these antiquated design instead of a new fangled powered sliding miter box with laser guide etc, it is because we care about our fingers ....
If f you ever had to trim off a small piece on one of these fingers eating power devices, you will quickly appreciate the safety of these miter boxes.
Or what about having a small piece fling off the power miter box. Just cannot happened on one of these true time tested design, so yes they still have a place in our shops and bonus, they are inherently safe!
Bob, the shop time deprived woodworker.


  1. Interesting as usual.

    I was watching a Paul Sellers video on making Christmas stars. Instead of using a commercial miter box, he used his combination square to lay out () and 45 degree lines that he then cut with a hand saw. I tried it and it works but you have to be pretty good with a hand saw and the end result is not a permanent fixture, but it allows you to proceed with a project without buying a specialized tool,

    On another subject, I hope to see a future discussion on marking gauges. That should consume a bit of web space.

  2. HI Terry
    Thanks, yes I saw that video too and he sure makes it looks easy... :-)

    Re marking gauges, I published a post on using them back on march 23rd 2015. Use the Label technique and it is in there.

    Hope to see you this summer

  3. Hi Bob

    Yet another excellent post. Thanks for that. It really looks like I made a good choice and were quite lucky to get the mitre box I did.

    Have a wonderful day

  4. Another great post Bob. Thanks.


  5. Oh yes Gerhard, you really got a good one there, take good care of it :-)
    And like they says in some tool circles; You suck !

    Bob, the old Galoot

  6. Thanks Jonathan,
    Always nice to know someone read my dribbles :-)

    Bob, sipping a cold one

  7. Why are the guides in the wooden box not cut all the way down to the base?

  8. Hi John

    Good question. Two reasons: 1- it helps keep the side stronger until it is used for the first time (and minimize possible warping)
    2- when you make your first cut, you end up with a perfect zero clearance. Of course no two saws have the same set, so after repeat usage the slots are worn wider and you loose accuracy.



  9. This blog is so rational. Left its readers stun.

  10. Hi all, My Hubby & I where at the ARC. Today and he found a Stanley MB 116MR. Her last owner took care of her,no saw with it through. Very nice site