What’s the worst thing that came with your table saw (except the expense)? All together now: “The MITER GAUGE!” It hardly bears mention; by now, everyone must know this. Even professional-class cabinet saws most often come with an inexpensive protractor-style miter gauge that’s difficult to set and lacks even basic amenities, like a fence and reliably accurate stops at the most common crosscut angles. And while the reason for this continued deficiency in standard table saw equipment remains a mystery, one thing is clear: An impressive variety of aftermarket miter gauges and sleds has sprung forth to make up the difference.
There might be a little too much variety, as a matter of fact. Most add-on gauges aren’t exactly cheap, and without the opportunity to test all of their various features firsthand, making a decision can be fraught with potential for a misstep. Fortunately, a few pros have recently tested the best of the lot and published the results for the benefit of us all. In the current issues of both the Woodworker’s Journal and Wood magazine, you’ll find head-to-head comparisons of the most popular aftermarket gauges on the market, along with insights into the features and conveniences that really matter.
And there is more to consider in choosing a miter gauage than whether it will cut a decent 45 degree angle. To clarify this, Wood magazine’s Dave Campbell and Pat Lowry break the worth of a miter gauge down into four “Rs”: Reliability, Readability, Repeatability, and Range. In other words, a miter gauge should - first and foremost - cut an accurate angle. Then it should let you do the same thing again later, in exactly the same way as you did the first time, without an undue number of test cuts or having to squint and scratch your head over an angle calibration scale that’s hard to read or interpret. Finally, it should let you do all of that over as wide a range as possible – since in the real world, life doesn’t end at 45 degrees.
In the Woodworker’s Journal, George Vondriska uses different words to say essentially the same thing. For him, easy operation, accurate pre-set angle stops, and the ability to cut any angle are the important points. Both reviews also place a good deal of importance on having a solid fence to support the work and the added convenience of a fence stop, which allows you to easily accomplish the common task of making multiple cuts at exactly the same length. And last, both point out the requirement of having a miter bar that can be adjusted to fit in the miter slot exactly. Without this important feature, even a small amount of slop in the slot-to-gauge fit will render the most sophisticated angle setting system inaccurate.
So, who won? Not unexpectedly, two manufacturers made nearly a clean sweep. While all of the gauges tested proved accurate once calibrated, the Incra Tools and JessEm Tool Company offerings blew by the rest in terms of convenience, flexibility and just plain good engineering. Campbell and Lowry lauded the Incra 1000SE for its dead accurate per-set stops at 5 degree increments, and its clearly marked 1/10 degree angle scale for fine tuning odd angled cuts.
The pair’s other “Top Tool” pick, JessEm's MiteRExcel, offers the same fine-tuning accuracy and easy to read scale. And while the JessEm’s range (45 degrees in either direction) is only half of the Incra 1000SE’s, the MiteRExcel makes up for it with an impressive number of angle stops. Naming it the one of two “best bets” Vondriska cited the JessEm’s unique locator pin system, which allows quick and accurate angle settings at ½ degree increments over its entire range, for a total of 180 positive stops.
Both the Incra and the JessEm were found to have superior fence and length stop systems as well. And both offer the added convenience of miter bar width adjustment from the top (as apposed to the side or bottom), making it a quick and easy matter to snug up the miter slot fit. When it came right down to it, Incra and JessEm seemed well ahead pack, but between the two it was a bit of a toss-up, with only a few minor trade-offs to consider.
But that’s only part of the story. We didn’t mention cost, for example. If a $200-plus table saw accessory isn’t in the picture, you’ll find serviceable alternatives at an easier-to-absorb price in the Incra V27 and Rockler’s Sure-Loc (both of which are covered in the articles). But whatever your financial situation, if you’re sick of battling with inferior crosscutting equipment, we encourage you to get a hold of these two timely reviews. Together, they add up to a primer on table saw crosscutting, and between the two offer even the most discriminating woodworker enough info to pinpoint an aftermarket miter gauge with the best possible qualifications.