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I'm a complete amateur trying to turn an old 14 wide x 22 long single car garage into a wood shop. Nobody in my immediate family or friends does any serious woodworking, but I do have some family members/friends who have been in other trades for decades and are pretty handy, so I'm learning by researching and getting advice from them.

Lately I've been finding myself needing to cut full 4' x 8' plywood panels lengthwise down the middle for shelves or other things. I'm the type that usually likes to research myself silly to find the best possible solution before committing to something. In this case, it seemed to me that the answers online were pointing to a panel saw, though that may just be because I started from the perspective of "What do places like Home Depot do?" And I remembered they have large panel saws for things like this, and it seemed fitting since the word "panel" is in the name, it's obviously for cutting panels.

Note

I'm working on a serious budget, so I'm trying to avoid spending 1k+ or even more on a pre-made aluminum frame panel saw. I looked around and saw that some folks have in fact built their own, such as this youtube video, or there are apparently kits you can buy such as here, or here. Though upon suggesting the idea of building a panel saw for this purpose, I was met with pretty strong resistance from 2 people, who both suggested their own solutions.

Options

1) Table Saw

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One family friend suggested that a panel saw is too large and unwieldy, requiring 16 feet to push a panel fully through, or otherwise too difficult/a hassle to make, and I should instead use my existing 4x8 workbench, modify it to the height of a table saw he could lend, and buy some infeed rollers and push a full 4x8 panel through a table saw, outfeeding onto my workbench.

He at first convinced me, but upon further reading and thinking I realized some points:

  1. Safety - On many woodworking sites/forums, I see many members claim that attempting to maneuver a 4x8 panel through a table saw could be pretty dangerous, and that table saws are best for smaller boards/panels.
  2. Practicality - It seems to me that this method would still require at least 16 linear feet of space, probably realistically more like 18-20, but would be even more unwieldy than a panel saw since the board would be horizontal rather than vertical. Additionally, this solution almost certainly would not work for also cutting an 8 ft piece width wise, so I'd ultimately have to use 2 different solutions.
  3. Quality - I have never used a table saw once in my life, but I imagine it might be hard to hold and maintain a 4x8 panel steady and straight against a fence, so I don't imagine getting high quality cuts perfecty every time would be easy with this method.

2) Circular Saw

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This is my current method. Another family member of mine essentially suggested I should continue with my current solution, which is propping up the plywood sheet above my workbench with 2x4, clamping down, setting up a guide board, and using a circular saw along the length, though he suggested I should lower my workbench height to make this easier. (Currently, my workbench height is approx 40 inches. Would lowering to 36 really make this much easier?)

My thoughts on this were:

  1. Safety - Seems fairly safe, as long as boards are securely clamped, and the saw is handled securely.
  2. Practicality - Practical in that it fits into the footprint of my workbench, but the entire reason I'm searching for another solution is because in my opinion, it's a pain to prop up a plywood sheet and clamp it down, tack on a guide board, and then struggle to securely hold a circular saw halfway across (2 ft) while cutting down the middle of the panel. Additionally, in cases where I need to first cut along the length, and then go back and cut across the width, I have to adjust and turn the 2x4 tracks underneath and the guide board every time. Since I used 8ft board lengthwise, the boards are too long going the other way so I have to swap them out.
  3. Quality - Quality seems to be good, as long the guide is setup properly.

3) Panel Saw

enter image description here

This is what places like Home Depot have setup for customers to use. Assuming I can build a safe, reliable panel saw for fairly cheap, it seemed to me this would be the best option. Note - I do not count having to put in time and effort to build a panel saw as a negative of this option, because in fact I'm trying to build as many projects as I can, though I would count expense as a negative.

  1. Safety - If the panel saw is sturdy, including the supports, the saw carriage, and the saw carriage rods, then it seemed to me this would be the safest of the 3 options. The saw is fixed rigid, can only move in 1 axis, and is always facing away from the operator.
  2. Practicality - Very easy to use. Just plop in the panel, adjust to position, and slide panel through saw (or saw across panel).
  3. Quality - Again, the saw is rigid, and if the bottom track support for the panel is perfectly inline with the blade, then the quality should be top notch and consistenly repeatable, correct? One good point brought up was if I'm trying to turn the saw 90 degrees and cut horizontally, isn't the top of the panel going to weigh down and bind up the blade?

Other Thoughts - I had the idea of making a panel saw with traveling x and y axes, in order to deal with the issue of needing 16 feet of space, though this idea was lumped into the bag of "too difficult".

So ultimately, the question is what is the best method to make the most difficult 4x8 panel cuts (which seems to me to be lengthwise, down the middle), with respect to the 3 qualities I've brought up: safety, practicality, and quality? Am I right in thinking the panel saw is the answer to that question, or am I being naive and is one of the other suggestions made to be a better solution?

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    I don't think there is any best solution. Answers are more likely to address experience and setups with the various options you outline. – Ashlar Nov 27 '16 at 20:14
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    My 2c, the simplest and cheapest (and if you do it right, decently accurate and repeatable) way of doing this is on the floor using a circular saw. The only key thing is to run the saw against a reliable straightedge, everything else is just a detail. You can't expect cabinet-grade straight cuts with this sort of setup but it's more than adequate for the initial cuts to break down a full 8'x4' sheet, as you can see from all the pros and semi-pros who use this method. Note that in a number of cases this is in preference to doing the cut on the table saw that they also own.... – Graphus Nov 27 '16 at 23:26
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    Forgot to address the issue of workbench height. 40" is very high for a bench, particularly one where you have to reach across fairly far, but workable/ideal height is all about individual height and arm length. If you're very tall 40" makes much more sense than if you're 5'9" :-) But in general, if you're doing a mix of power-tool and hand-tool operations somewhere in the region of 36" is more typical. And if the bench is primarily for hand tools as low as 32" might be most beneficial (although you'll want to raise work height for dovetailing and other tasks). – Graphus Nov 28 '16 at 8:07
  • "go back and cut across the width, I have to adjust and turn the 2x4 tracks underneath and the guide board every time" - why? Just set your circ saw to cut a few mm over the depth of the board you're cutting, and then run the saw through the guide rails too - they're only cheap bits of wood. In your life you'll probably never spend as much on replacing them when theyre too cut up to be usable as you did on a saw.. – Caius Jard Nov 28 '16 at 14:46
  • Nit pick that might have been unintentional: places like Home Depot have setup for customers to use -- I assure you that customers are never allowed to use saws in the store, and if they do the employees standing around would be fired on the spot. – JPhi1618 Nov 28 '16 at 18:50
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Woodworking encompasses a lot of different project types to practitioners. By far and away, I believe the most important and versatile tool in any woodshop is a table saw. Cutting your panels in the area you have available is very doable. Take a look on youtube for countless videos showing converted garage shops all of which have kicked the car out and utilize the whole space for more important things!

One key to installing a tablesaw in a limited area shop is to make the tools and work surfaces mobile. Putting the table saw on wheels allows it to be easily moved to accommodate the work. I do not recommend using the roller supports as shown in your photo, rather work with input rails and an off feed table. The key to making safe straight cuts is having full support for the panel on both the in and output sides of the table. I recommend making a mobile bench to use for output that matches the height of the table saw so that it can be placed against the back to receive your panels as they move through the blade. A 3'x6' surface is desirable so that it can be used to support panels several feet on either side of the blade line. The table can also serve as your assembly and finishing bench. When not in use it can be stored against a wall leaving room in the center for other work. A smaller mobile tool cabinet can serve as a side table to support the panel as on the sides of the table saw. Support on the front (input face) cannot be a solid table since you must move towards the table with the panel as you feed it in and a table would force you to reach too far. I would recommend making two support rails that can clamp to the table fence guide. The type shown in the photo fold up to take very little space.

https://jayscustomcreations.com/2014/06/table-saw-infeed-support-arms/

The image is from Jay's Custom Creations, an excellent site for ideas regarding how to build your shop.

6

So, this edges perilously close to opinion, but I'll do my best to be occasionally factual...

To step back and think about your goal of setting up a woodshop, I'm tempted to say that a tablesaw of some description is inevitable. One can do surprisingly good work with a portable jobsite tablesaw, though it's easier to have some beautiful hunk-o-metal cabinet saw.

So, if we accept my claim of inevitability, one possibility is to just buy a tablesaw now and have done with it. Personally, I'm not a fan of anything on the infeed side, but I'm a huge fan of having a big outfeed table. Your workbench would be excellent for that if it was a little lower. (You could fabricate some riser blocks if you have a hankering for a 40" high bench to do some kinds of work on.) Another 'food for thought' kind of idea is to google the Paulk bench. They're pretty nice and if you don't want a table in the middle of your workspace, they'll pack up nicely.

To your points, I respectfully disagree that sheet goods through a tablesaw are dangerous. Tablesaws are dangerous -- don't get me wrong -- but I can't think of anything innately more dangerous about sheet goods. (In fact, you've got more mass, so the tablesaw would have to work much harder to kick an entire sheet back into your face.)

Practicality-wise, it's true that you need space, but only for as long as you're cutting. For most people that means benches and saws on wheels. Cutting across a sheet requires as much as a 52" fence, which kicks your saw well into the 'cabinet saw' category. That could be good or bad.

Initially, it's not easy to get perfect cuts with an ungainly sheet on the tablesaw. If you can round up a helper with a bit of woodworking experience, they can push the sheet sideways against the fence while you push from the back. (This is only for when you've got a lot of sheet goods hanging off the side of the saw -- don't ask anyone to get closer than 2' to the spinning blade.) What I'll do is cut close to the line (imperfectly), then re-set and cut a perfect line. (You can also do the rough cut with a circular saw and a chalk line.) When you're only muscling the last bit of sheet goods, it's easier than you think. Plus, if you want, you can set up featherboards to help keep the stock securely against the fence. (Featherboards are an under-appreciated tool in some circles.)

Your circular saw with guide thing is excellent. If you stuck with it and didn't get a tablesaw right away, you'd have a lot more money to spend on other good stuff like routers. I know you mentioned that it was a bother to set up, and so on, but you can comfort yourself by remembering that you probably aren't spending all your woodworking time cutting down sheet goods. (You aren't, right? Please tell me you aren't.) If you get tired of hoisting it onto the workbench, you can throw a sheet of styrofoam or a few 2x4s on the floor and crawl around. (That certainly makes cutting down the middle easier.) Agree that quality is high, and will be even higher if you use a new, high-tooth count blade, and masking tape on your cutline to help with tearout on the top surface. (This matters more with veneer and crosscuts than rips.)

I see the appeal of a panel saw, but for the love of whatever deity you like, please stop thinking about this. It's a sledgehammer for a mosquito. I'm the biggest tool hussy I know, and never in a million years would I think seriously about a panel saw. Rips would be okay enough (with the burning/binding at the end of the cut being an issue unless you enlisted a helper to stuff shims into the kerf as you cut), but cutting across the sheet accurately will require an extremely precise set of slides, which would crank the price beyond sensible levels.

Whew! Any other questions?

6

Home Depot, and probably most other suppliers, will cut plywood and other sheet goods to your specs - the first couple of cuts are usually free. There may be a small charge if you want several cuts.

Using this service can usually get large sheets down to easily-managed pieces (easier to take home than a full 4 x 8 ft sheet, too!).

5

In general, if you have a large production shop, a panel saw or sliding table saw might make sense, otherwise a circular saw/track saw makes the most sense. However, what works best for any given person depends on several things:

  1. How often you need to make these cuts, and whether or not you really need to cut full sheets yourself
  2. How much time it takes you to set up
  3. Available space for storing the necessary tools and jigs
  4. Available space to make the actual cuts
  5. Budget

1: If you only cut full sheets 5 times a year, it probably doesn't make sense to buy a panel saw, and a table saw is not the ideal tool for the initial cuts, although it is a good tool for other operations and to clean up rough cuts once you've broken down the full sheet into slightly oversized parts. Most places that sell large sheet goods will cut them for free or for a nominal fee. You can always let them use their tools to get the parts roughly to size, then cut to final dimensions yourself.

2: If it takes you more than 5 or 10 mins to set up and make a cut after unloading the plywood, you won't enjoy the process, especially if that involves rearranging your shop to accommodate the cut. And all that time will add up if you have to do this often.

3: A table saw alone doesn't necessarily have a huge footprint, but if you use it a lot you won't want to keep rolling it up against the wall and pulling it out all the time. A panel saw, while nice, also takes up a lot of valuable space--in your case, probably wall space which could be better used for lumber or several other tools. A circular saw or track saw takes up 1 cubic foot or so (more if you have a storage case for it), plus whatever space is needed to store your track/guide and a 4'x8' sheet of foam (possibly broken down into easier-to-store pieces).

4: A table saw requires a lot of space to cut a full sheet, and in a small shop you'll most likely have to move things around every time you need to make these cuts. It is probably the least practical way to break down sheet goods because of all that overhead. A panel saw doesn't necessarily require a lot of additional space during operation but you do need to have space at both ends to help ease loading and unloading. A circular saw or track saw requires 4'x9' plus about an additional foot or so along the axis of your cut. It's easy to drop a piece of foam down on your driveway with your sheet of plywood on top, run an extension cord, set up your guide, and make a cut.

5: If money is no object, build a bigger shop and buy all 3 tools. Maybe for your table saw, get a large sliding table saw, which will be better suited for cutting sheet goods right from the start. If your budget is less than $10k, the panel saw is almost certainly overkill in such a small shop, but you will get a lot of use out of both a table saw and circular saw, even if you don't break down sheet goods on the table saw.

5

None of the above - I have a small shop and run into the same issue, have you looked into a track saw? There is plans on-line to essentially make your own using your existing portable saw.

4

I cannot comment, so I have to reply here.

My brother has the Festool circular saw with the track. It is really nice, but not budget friendly. You may not find yourself cutting plywood often. While getting the store to cut the panels down is an option, the accuracy can be off.

Use your current method and just take your time. When supporting the plywood, you can put some sacrificial boards on top of the sawhorses and cut into them as well. I have a couple cutting jigs such as the one you show for different lengths. Just take your time and watch what you are doing.

Once you are ready to spend a little more, if you find you are still cutting a lot of panels, then get a guide rail. or other track saw option. Or you will find your accuracy has improved and your money is better spent on wood.

  • When having the store cut plywood for you, make them rough cuts a little bigger than what you'll need. Even if you weren't having the store make the cuts, you'd pretty much want to do this anyway so you can square everything up on your table saw. The factory edges on plywood can't be counted on to be square. (They don't usually meet my tolerances, anyway!) – Charlie Kilian Nov 30 '16 at 15:38
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I often have to rip full sheets of plywood. I've tried several different methods.

My favorite by far is to do it with a circular saw on the floor on a sheet of 4x8 rigid pink Styrofoam installation. You don't have to mess around with saw horses or having support for cutoffs. A sheet of insulation costs about $11 and lasts for dozens if not hundreds of cuts.

I also use a Kreg Rip Cut jig for my cordless circular saw. It's quicker and easier than clamping a straight edge guide and much cheaper than a track saw.

BTW, I've got a track saw and still always reach for the Kreg Rip Cut when breaking down full sheets.

  • This is what I do, too. I lay the foam either on the floor or supported across my table saw/outfeed table, place the plywood on the foam, clamp a guide to it, and make the rough cuts with the circular saw. Then I clean it up on the table saw. By sticking with rough cuts with the circular saw, I don't have to worry about the foam being perfectly supported. – Charlie Kilian Nov 30 '16 at 15:35
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It all depends on how much you want to spend and how often you'll be doing this. Not the table saw, though. Not safe that way.

As someone who does this only to create pieces of wood for use in my own home, and who doesn't own a circular saw (for confidence/safety reasons), I'd get the shop that sold me the panel to cut it into boards the width I wanted. They have a much better rig than you can afford and will get a precisely parallel cut accurate to a millimeter or so. Or, if I wanted to make a board narrower at a later date, I'd use my trusty jigsaw. Yes, it's slower than a circular saw, but it's far harder to do yourself a serious injury with one. Especially so, if you do not have a proper bench to put large panels or boards onto, and just prop the board up on a couple of garden chairs in your back yard.

I do have a power plane so I can straighten the edge. However, if the jigsawed edge is against a wall, nobody will notice. Plastered or plain brick/block walls are never exactly straight in any case!

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I have a table saw, and I used to cut panels on it. I have stopped (because of the manouvering difficulties), and I now use a hand-held circular saw.

If you are doing this a lot, I would strongly recommend a "sawboard". (For example http://www.subwoofer-builder.com/sawboard/). The basic idea is that you glue a fence to a piece of board, and then run your circular saw along the fence. The edge of the board is then exactly aligned with where the cut is going to be (which makes set-up very simple).

protected by rob Nov 30 '16 at 21:38

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