Options for handling sheet goods in a tiny shop

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Forum topic by William Shelley posted 05-31-2016 03:57 AM 1751 views 0 times favorited 25 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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William Shelley

147 posts in 889 days

05-31-2016 03:57 AM

Topic tags/keywords: saw plywood

Hey guys,

I just had to break down two sheets of 1/2” ply for a shop project and realized, while I’m not in my shop working on stuff for 8 hours a day or anything, it is rather un-fun to deal with sheet goods. I have a 15×18 shop in my unfinished basement, with a door and stairs that lead to the outdoors. The ceiling height is about 7’4” but there are numerous obstructions. Some of you may be thinking “wow, lucky guy” ... and yeah the basement ceiling height in this house was one of the factors in the purchase of this house… that being said, it’s still really awkward to handle sheet goods in here.

My current method involves using the outfeed table of my table saw plus the saw itself as a work surface, getting a straightedge and my circular saw, and trying to accurately rip the sheet down into something I can cut on my TS. I don’t have a track saw and I’m not keen to drop $400-600 on something like that.

One of the issues I have is that once I’ve cut a sheet down with the circular saw, my cuts are not anywhere near as accurate as i’d like, and it’s difficult to square them up. My first thought was to build a larger crosscut sled that has 50 or so inches of depth so I can cut 4ft sheets square on it. I’d need to store such a large sled in my already cramped shop. There’s still the issue of not having enough clearance left and right of the blade to be able to lay a full sheet down to cut it. Also, it’s really a pain in the rear to get full sheet goods into my workshop.

Still with me? Alright. My next thought was to build an as basic as possible vertical panel saw which I could put outside under my large 14ft x 28ft covered patio area. I would probably reuse my existing 7-1/4” circular saw for that as I only use it for breaking down sheet goods now anyway.

Commercial panel saws allow the saw carriage to rotate 90 degrees to allow long rip cuts by dragging the sheet through the saw which requires 16ft of horizontal wall space. My idea is to use a pair of rails that are at least 11 to 12ft long, and allow the saw to have a full 8ft of vertical travel, eliminating the need to rotate the carriage. I have plenty of ceiling clearance in my outdoor covered patio area for such a tall saw.

I expect I might spend $150-250 on materials for this, after it’s all said and done. That excludes the saw itself ($99) as I already own that, and a nice blade ($30) as I already have a really nice 60-tooth 7-1/4” freud diablo blade that does a great job on sheet goods.

I’m looking for feedback on this project, suggestions, comments, etc. If it makes any difference, I find that building tools like this is as enjoyable or more so than actually using them… so that’s a factor too :)

-- Woodworking from an engineer's perspective

25 replies so far

View clin's profile


485 posts in 415 days

#1 posted 05-31-2016 04:43 AM

If possible, I suggest breaking down the sheet in your driveway or garage. I do this all the time. Full sheets are heavy and awkward. To do this I lay some 2” thick construction foam on the driveway and slide sheets right out of my pickup onto the foam.

I set my circular saw to just cut through the sheet and not too deep into the foam. Doing it this way works very well, since the foam supports the sheet everywhere. Not like using saw horses or other where you have to support the cutoff.

Now, to getting a straight cut. I use an 8+ ft long clamp on aluminum straight edge. Sort of like the things track saw use. My is 20+ years old and cost a small fortune then (or maybe I just had less money). But I think they are relatively much less expensive today.

Another way to go is make your own guide. This is nothing more than a piece of particle board or similar stable stock with another piece attached to it.

Here’s the 1st video I could find showing what I’m talking about. The trick to this is you need a straight piece of wood to start with.

I do this to make the piece manageable for making finished cuts on my table saw. But if you use a good plywood blade, you can get excellent cuts this way.

What you can’t do easily is make square cuts. That’s why I have a large sled that has about a 34” space between fences. It’s been large enough for me to make a set of shop cabinets (very similar to kitchen cabinets). But there is of course always going to be some project that is too big.

But you could use the old 3 4 5 right triangle thing to mark a right angle cut. In that case the bigger the piece the more accurate you can get the 90 deg angle.

-- Clin

View Planeman40's profile


788 posts in 2180 days

#2 posted 05-31-2016 12:57 PM

I have a fairly large shop and I prefer to have my plywood sheets cut down before I bring them in. What I do is figure out a “rough cut” plan to take with me to Lowe’s or Home Depot. They will cut the plywood sheet down for free when you buy there using a large panel saw. Makes carrying the wood into the shop easier too.


-- Always remember: It is a mathematical certainty that half the people in this country are below average in intelligence!

View Waldo88's profile


188 posts in 716 days

#3 posted 05-31-2016 01:17 PM

I have a shop about that size. I decided to ditch the table saw in favor of a band saw in order to save space. It works better for the kind of stuff I typically make anyway.

I break down sheet goods outside in the driveway with my circular saw, a straightedge, and some 2×4’s. I lay the 2×4’s down to support the sheet, keeping one relatively close to the cut on either side of it. My straightedge is a piece of oak that I planed perfectly straight and waxed. As long as I clamp the straightedge precisely, making accurate square cuts is not an issue.

View Kirk650's profile


272 posts in 168 days

#4 posted 05-31-2016 01:33 PM

I have a barn, half of which has been enclosed as a workshop/bedroom/bathroom. I take the sheet goods into the barn side and cut them into sizes easier to handle in the workshop. I use a purchased metal guide, that’s a bit longer than 8’, and clamps to keep the cuts straight.

View BinghamtonEd's profile


2263 posts in 1789 days

#5 posted 05-31-2016 02:02 PM

Another vote for breaking them down outside. I have a smaller shop (20×20 garage), which with all the tools, makes handling sheet goods a pain. If I just have one or two sheets to break down, I’ll screws a couple 2×4’s lengthwise to some sawhorses to make a temporary table. If I have a lot to do, I’ll get a panel of insulation to use for support on top of the 2×4’s. I use a simple crosscut guide made from scrap plywood, it is long enough to crosscut a sheet, and has a cleat screwed to the underside that is square to the guide, so I don’t have to worry about the cut being square. It is worth taking a lot of time to get that cleat square. I will use the guide to check the plywood for square, and trim up the end if need be. I don’t find that I have to clean up any cuts on the table saw. If I have smaller pieces to cut, I’ll leave them as one larger piece, and then rip that apart on the table saw afterwards.

-- - The mightiest oak in the forest is just a little nut that held its ground.

View Holbs's profile


1347 posts in 1449 days

#6 posted 05-31-2016 02:25 PM

I had the same problem for my 2 car garage area: breaking down sheet goods was a chore. Sure, I could do it outside on the ground & 2×4’s if needed. Opted for a multi-function table. Wonder if something like this would be useful:

Breaking down sheet goods with accuracy is a challenge. I did end up buying the Grizzly track saw for $200. Or the mini Grizzly track saw for $89.

-- Yes, my profile picture is of a Carpenter Bee! The name is derived from the Ancient Greek "wood-cutter"

View CharlesA's profile


2973 posts in 1217 days

#7 posted 05-31-2016 02:38 PM

I, too, ask for HD to cut boards in half or so if that works for the project. Unfortunately, Menards, who has a better selection of plywood, carries some of it only in 4×8 and doesn’t have a panel saw.

I used a clamp-on aluminum straight edge with a nice Freud blade on my circular saw, and I get pretty good results. I would guess close to what one gets with a tracksaw, something like this

-- "Man is the only animal which devours his own, for I can apply no milder term to the general prey of the rich on the poor." ~Thomas Jefferson

View jeffswildwood's profile


1287 posts in 1397 days

#8 posted 05-31-2016 02:38 PM

I too use an unfinished basement which is small. I always break down sheets by taking them outside. Circular saw. I clamp a stright edge to the sheet. Works for me except if the rain starts!

-- We all make mistakes, the trick is to fix it in a way thats says "I meant to do that".

View mramseyISU's profile


406 posts in 965 days

#9 posted 05-31-2016 02:42 PM

I made a couple of the woodsmith circular saw guides. One 8’ long and one 4’ long so I can rip or crosscut full sheets and I keep a couple sawhorses and 2×4’s in the garage to help support the length.

The other thing I do is get a nesting plan to rough cut everything and buy my plywood at home depot. They’ll make a couple cuts per sheet of plywood free of charge for you. I always have them cut things about a 1/2” oversized so I make the finish cuts on my table saw.

-- Trust me I'm an engineer.

View CharleyL's profile


190 posts in 2784 days

#10 posted 05-31-2016 03:20 PM

I have a small shop too, and my shops have never been large enough to handle full sheets of any sheet goods material. Many years ago I used saw horses, a straight edge, and a circular saw in the driveway to break down my materials but saw horses just don’t work very well for this. Pieces are always falling just before the end of the cut, breaking the corners or smashing the corners when they hit the driveway.

Then I built a cutting table. It’s just a pair of banquet table legs bought from either Harbor Freight or Northern, a 1X4 frame 30” wide and 6-7’ long with short 2X4 pieces across the short dimension, laid flat and flush with the top. There are 5 of these, one across the center, and two where needed near each end to mount the leg assemblies. These pieces are also laid flat and flush with the top edge of the frame. I used biscuits and glue (no metal) to join the frame and cross pieces. The only metal is the leg assemblies and the short screws that hold the legs to the bottom of the 2X4 cross pieces. When the legs are folded they recess up into the recess of the bottom side of the frame, so the whole assembly sits against the sheet goods pile, requiring very little shop space when not in use. These photos are of a friends table. Mine is lighter than this one, because I used 1X4 for the frame and 2X4 cross pieces. The rest is the same as his, but lighter.

When I need it, I set it up on my driveway and lay a full sheet of plywood or other material on it, set my circular saw to cut about 1/4 deeper than the sheet is thick, position my straight edge, and make the cut. I always position the cut line over about the middle of the table, so more than enough of the material is on the table to keep the pieces from tipping off when they are cut. Nothing ever falls to the driveway, so all of the corners of the pieces remain in good condition. As the larger pieces get smaller I just slide them around to be sure that the table holds both pieces well so they won’t fall when cut. With a good straight edge of any kind, a couple of clamps, and careful measuring, I can pre-cut all of the pieces that I need. I now use a 54” and 102” aluminum straight edge clamps from , but a straight factory edge off a sheet of plywood will work well too. I break down my sheets to within 1/4” and then finish cut them to exact size on my table saw. Eventually the 1/4 excess depth of my circular saw will cut up the top surface of my table enough to cause problems. I’ll just make another top and transfer the legs if this ever happens, but I don’t think I’ll ever live long enough for this.

The third photo shows a Lexan shoe cover on my circular saw. Notice the cutout for the blade guard (important for safety), but also notice the narrow blade slot where the front cutting edge of the saw blade rises up through the Lexan. This provides a zero clearance function and reduces chipping and splintering of the material as it’s being cut. Don’t use Plexiglas for this. It shatters too easily. Use Lexan (they make bullet proof windows from Lexan) or use thin plywood if you can’t find Lexan. Thicker wood or Lexan will just reduce your saw’s cutting depth, but it will still work for cutting sheet goods. 1/8” thick should be the minimum thickness to use.


View Redoak49's profile


1819 posts in 1408 days

#11 posted 05-31-2016 03:24 PM

Not only shop size is an issue for many but age is an issue. I can not handle a 3/4” sheet of plywood easily and get it up on the saw. I break it down with a guide and circular saw.

My Menards has the best plywood of all the big box stores. TheY have the Aruaco Plywood and store it flat and not on arms like HD.

View Rentvent's profile


144 posts in 268 days

#12 posted 05-31-2016 03:33 PM

I put this $14 Upgrade blade on my el-cheapo Ryobi 18v circular saw a couple years ago and haven’t used the corded circular saw since. It cuts through 3/4 plywood effortlessly. I think cordless is the way to go – especially if breaking things down outside.

View JBrow's profile


744 posts in 339 days

#13 posted 05-31-2016 03:42 PM

William Shelley,

A tall vertical panel saw would be nice, but building and using one is not without its problems. I am just under 6’tall. Reaching up at over 8’ to cut a 4×8 sheet is something I could not do with a ladder or a stool. The bigger challenge seems to me is building the panel saw so that it is rigid and operates smoothly. I suspect one reason commercial panel saws cost so much is all the engineering and fabrication required to achieve the rigid frame and smooth operation. My guess is that to build a panel saw that meets these requirements may exceed your $150 – $250 material cost estimate and take quite a bit of time. The last issue with the panel saw option is it is setting outside, where weather may take its toll, even when protected by a cover porch.

Shop made solutions for breaking down sheet goods have already been pretty well covered. But there are a few other commercially available options which have not been mentioned and may be well within your budget. For example Kreg offers a guide that attaches to your circular saw for making long rip cuts on sheet goods. I not have this gadget, so I have no opinion on how well it works. Several years ago, I opted for the EurekaZone EZSMART track saw system. This system retrofits to your circular saw and works quite well. I see Woodcraft offers the complete kit for breaking down plywood for about $280.

I also noticed on the EurekaZone site that they offer other accessories, some of which may interest you.

If you opt for breaking down sheet goods on the flat, making a breakdown or fixed table or frame on which the sheet good rests when making the cuts would be easier to use, putting the work at a comfortable height.

View William Shelley's profile

William Shelley

147 posts in 889 days

#14 posted 05-31-2016 10:03 PM

Wow, thanks for all the replies. It appears that the “circular saw plus guide / jig” method is the most common. I did not know about the track saws less than $500 (for example the Grizzly unit).

I do often have home depot break down sheets for me to rough dimensions however my luck is pretty bad. I recently bought a sheet of 1/4” ply to use for drawer bottoms and asked the employee to cut it into four 2×4 pieces, then I said “wait, can you cut to within 1/8th of an inch?” and she said yes not a problem, so I said “ok, 23 7/8 each” ... I measured them afterwards and she had cut three at between 24 1/8” and 24 1/2” somehow. So I don’t necessarily want to rely on unskilled operators.

I still feel like I could assemble some panel-saw-esque device for even less than the cost of the Grizzly track saw though…. I’ll keep you guys posted.

-- Woodworking from an engineer's perspective

View MadMark's profile


965 posts in 872 days

#15 posted 05-31-2016 10:25 PM

Here’s how we did it in the field for sheet goods. A pair of sawhorses (the cheap metal kind) with two 2×4’s lain flat on top of the sawhorses and the sheet goods on all.

Plywood / panelling:
Good face down and a 4’ level as a saw guide – normally true to +-1/8” with any reasonable circ saw.

Use your finger as a guide on your wooden rule with your utility knife, good side up. Slide to edge and snap, reach under & slit crease to separate pieces. Typ +-1/2” which is good enough for most rock jobs.

No fancy rigs, no dedicated stations, just the same field panel cutter as ever.


-- Madmark -

showing 1 through 15 of 25 replies

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