Crosscut Sled – The Ultimate Guide Part 1 – Introduction

Credit: canadianwoodworking.com

If you watch woodworking videos, or read woodworking posts, or subscribe to woodworking magazines, then you’ve seen many versions of a crosscut sled.  It seems that everybody builds one and most everybody builds the best one.  But which one is best for you?

When deciding which crosscut sled to build, it is very easy to be overcome with information overload.  But I’m going to help you out by creating this ultimate guide.

The intro will cover the the basics and then be followed by a few more posts that delve deeper into the options.  Hopefully by the end you will have a clear picture of which crosscut sled is right for you.  Be sure to subscribe to be notified when Part 2 is posted.

So without further ado…

What is a Crosscut Sled?

The Family Handyman gives an excellent definition:

A crosscut sled is a movable contraption that slides in the table saw’s factory-machined miter gauge slots. The workpiece then rests against a wooden fence at the front of the sled, a setup that keeps the work from slipping and ensures a clean, perfectly square cut every time.

So a very simple crosscut sled would look something like this:

Simple crosscut sled

credit finewoodworking.com

There are endless variations that you can make to your sled, too.  We will address some of those in later posts, but a slightly more complex version would look like this:

from lumberjocks.com

credit lumberjocks.com

What is a Crosscut Sled used for?

Three words immediately come to mind:

  • Safety
  • Perfection
  • Repeatability

Safety

There are several reasons that a crosscut sled increases your safety.  One is that since both the workpiece and the offcut move with the sled and are backed by a fence, the chance of kickback is reduced nearly to zero.

Although you can’t use a blade guard with a crosscut sled, the improved ability to make a cut with your hands well clear of the work greatly reduces the chances of accidentally removing one of your fingers.  Also, you can easily clamp your workpiece to the sled which allows you to move your hands even further away from the blade.

Many crosscut sleds have additional safety features built into them.  You can add a block or box on the back that fully encloses the blade as it exits the back of the fence.  Some sleds will have guards integrated above the blade.  Designated handholds that ensure your hands remain far away from the blade are common, too.

You are in charge of your own safety, so you build in as many (or as few) additional safety features as you like.

Perfection

The perfection we are talking about here is the perfection of the 90° cut.  Much like safety above, the level of perfection achieved is up to you.

Generally, there are two schools of thought when it comes to how perfect your 90° cut should be.  There is the Jimmy Diresta school:

from jimmydiresta.com

credit jimmydiresta.com

And there’s the William Ng school:

from wnwoodworkingschool.com

credit wnwoodworkingschool.com

If you are a member of Jimmy’s school, you will do your best to get your sled cutting 90° without spending too much time or worrying about thousandths of an inch.  You will use your engineer square to get it close, then you’ll do a test cut.  You’ll check the test cut against your engineer square, then you’ll call it good.  And it will be good most of the time.

If you are a member of William’s school, nothing but exactly 90.000° will do.  You will use calipers and the 5-cut method.  If you’re not familiar with the 5-cut method, it’s actually relatively simple and here’s a video explaining it and demonstrating it in detail:


Many of the Youtubers that have built crosscut sleds have used this method.  As with everything, how far you go into the perfection abyss is up to you.

Repeatability

The rear fence provides a place to add a stop block onto the sled.  There are, of course, many different ways to hold the stop block in place, but all of them have the same purpose.  To allow positioning of the workpiece such that it is in the exact same place every time.

The simplest way to achieve this goal is to clamp a piece of scrap wood to the rear fence.

credit lumberjocks.com

credit lumberjocks.com

Another option is to put a T-track into the face of the rear fence to allow for an adjustable stop block.

credit lumberjocks.com

credit lumberjocks.com

A third option would be to add a track to the top of the rear fence like this:

credit ggober.com

credit ggober.com

And I’m sure there are many more.

Miter Saw vs. Crosscut Sled

I can hear you already – “But I’ve got a miter saw, why do I even need a crosscut sled?”  Well the absolute truth is that the two tools perform the same function.  But so do a screwdriver and a cordless drill and I bet you have both of those, don’t you?

They may perform the same function, but they don’t do it the same way.  Here are just a few of the reasons to pull the trigger on a crosscut sled even if you already have a miter saw.

First I’ll go back to safety.  Cutting small pieces on a miter saw is a nightmare.  Ever tried to figure out how to hold down and trim a 3″ piece on a miter saw? Cutting small pieces on a crosscut sled is a breeze.  Just clamp your workpiece in place and move your hands away from the blade.  Then slide the sled and revel in the fact that you still have all your digits.

Granted, the opposite is true as well.  It’s incredibly cumbersome and a somewhat dangerous to try and trim an 8′ board down to a 7′ board on a crosscut sled.  This is a job better suited for a miter saw.

With workpiece length being a potential draw between the two, let’s discuss width.  Whether you have an 8 1/2″ standard miter saw or a 12″ sliding miter saw, you still have limitations on the width of stock that you can cut.  You’re not going to be able to trim many panels with either.  However, you can make your crosscut sled to any width that you (reasonably) desire making it simple to trim panels.

Next, you’ve probably never heard anyone bragging about how accurate their miter saw is.  That’s because you have interesting friends.  Or it could be because miter saws are notoriously inaccurate.  As discussed above, your crosscut sled can be incredibly precise.  One feature that puts the sled ahead is the zero clearance kerf that allows you to line up the cut with your mark very accurately.

The last distinction I’ll make is that a crosscut sled allows for non-through-cuts and a miter saw does not.  What I’m talking about here is half-laps, dadoes, etc.  If you don’t want to cut all the way through the board, just lower the blade a bit.  This option does not exist at all on a miter saw.

 

Conclusion

If you are going to be an even somewhat serious woodworker, you should go ahead and build yourself a crosscut sled.  You will be safer in the shop and your cuts will be more precise and repeatable.

While a crosscut sled is not an end-all-be-all tool, this intro has only touched on the beginning of its uses.  In the following posts I will cover where to find free plans, where to find paid plans, videos and articles demonstrating how to build one, and – if all of those fail – where to buy one.  We will also discuss the many other uses and adaptations for the crosscut sled.

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