Why you need a mitre saw


Today I learned an important lesson that I suspect every cockpit builder needs to learn. It’s a simple lesson, but one that would have served me well to learn quite some time ago. It’s simply this: you need a mitre saw if you want to build a cockpit.

What exactly is a mitre saw? It’s a circular saw mounted on an articulated arm and with a base and fence to hold strips of wood (exactly how wide the strips can be depends on the saw diameter and whether or not it’s a sliding mitre saw). The saw blade can be turned at an angle from -45 to +45 degrees to the fence to cut through the strip at that angle – in woodworking this is a mitre cut. The corner of a frame, for example, usually has two pieces of wood meeting at 45 degree angles; this is a mitre joint. You can buy mitre boxes for traditional saws – these are plastic (previously wooden or metal) boxes with grooves in them to fit a saw at various angles. If you’re laying flooring you’ll probably have one of these if you don’t have a full-on automated mitre saw.

So why is this piece of equipment so essential for the cockpit builder? 

Well, think about it. Not everything in a cockpit is flat and level. Joins between sheets and batons are regularly at an angle. You can cut an angle with any old saw, but it’s not particularly easy to get it accurate unless you’re a very experienced woodworker. Hence wonky joints and slightly off angles, which you can find throughout my work to date. In particular, when you’re building a cockpit shell, the frame you build is going to require lots of precise angular cuts. If you’re going with a rib-and-stringer frame that replicates the curves of a real structure, you’ll also need a good jigsaw to cut the curves, but for the angled ends a mitre saw is still invaluable. It’s fast and accurate (like a circular saw) but it also holds the angle set precisely, so no wobbly blades or visual errors. 

Your basic mitre saw does just one thing – cut strips of wood straight down across an angle of anywhere between -45 and +45 degrees (you can get saws that will go further but these are much more expensive). The next major step up is a compound mitre saw. This lets you cut at an angle horizontally and vertically at the same time, by having the blade assembly tilt (usually up to 30 degrees or so). For certain cuts this is absolutely essential and really, really, really hard to do any other way. A sliding compound mitre saw has all the above but the blade assembly can slide back and forth and thus extend the length of its maximum cut length (for wider boards or deeper angles – the steeper the angle the longer the length of the cut required). 

A mitre box


A manual mitre saw


A compound mitre saw


I bought a cheap compound mitre saw. They can get very expensive for full-featured models but I didn’t need all the bells and whistles or the motor wattage to cut through hardwood – this is strictly a softwood build. 

Once this arrived, along with some new wood, I set to work making the window frame for the cockpit shell. First I measured up the space and diagrammed it out in Visio, which allowed me to calculate the lengths and angles required precisely. Listing these, I then had a list of cuts to make with the saw, including some compound cuts. Cutting out all the pieces took about 10 minutes, whereas trying (and failing) to it by hand had taken hours. I then began the assembly. 

Partially assembled window frame


Here you can see the frame, partially assembled. Note that all the angles are identical and the pieces fit together very nicely indeed. This is work I just couldn’t have gotten done without the mitre saw. At less than £70, it’s money well spent. I advise you to consider one too.