Handling Sheet Goods in the Shop

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This article is from Issue 49 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Strategies for working solo

By Paul Anthony

As much as I like to work with solid wood, I find plenty of uses for plywood, MDF, and other sheet goods in my projects. Relative to solid wood, sheet goods are less expensive and more stable. They’re also big (typically 4 × 8'), eliminating a lot of the work involved in making large cabinet sides and door panels. However, that size has its disadvantages, too, especially if you’re working solo. Sheet goods can be a challenge to hoist and move around in the shop, especially the thicker, weightier material. In fact, having reached a certain age, it seems to me that they’re making this stuff heavier every year.

Fortunately, there are lots of strategies for wrangling sheet goods alone with efficiency and minimum muscle. Of course, handling these big panels isn’t just about transporting them. It’s also about maneuvering them to produce efficient, accurate cuts. Here, I’ll show you some low-tech tricks for moving sheet goods while ensuring a smooth workflow. I’ll also introduce you to some helpers to assist you when you’re working solo.

Note: For our purposes here, “crosscutting” refers to sawing across the grain on the face veneer of plywood or across the narrower dimension of a sheet of MDF or other composite board. Vise-versa for “ripping.”

Transport tips

If you lack a vehicle for carrying full-sized sheets, most lumberyards and home supply centers will “cut to haul” for you at little or no cost. Keep in mind that these are not likely to be clean, precise cuts, so make sure the resulting sections are oversized enough to recut at your shop. If you plan to have pieces downsized at the store, bring a cutting diagram and tape rule with you.

It’s usually not a problem to get help loading your vehicle at the store, but unloading back at your shop can be a pain if you’re working alone. If you’re dealing with heavy sheets, get help–human or otherwise. Various carry aids are available for the solo human mule; just type “panel carriers” into your Internet search engine. One of my favorites is the Gorilla Gripper (above left). It isn’t cheap, but it doesn’t cost any more than a typical chiropractor visit. 

If it’s just you and a heavy sheet, try “walking” it on its short edge, as shown (above right). Alternatively, slide it on its long edge. Don’t worry too much about buggering up the corners or edges, as you’ll want to trim them off anyway.

The Gorilla Gripper allows you to carry full sheets of plywood by yourself with one hand.
You can “walk” a full-sized sheet of heavy plywood on its shorter edge by pivoting from corner to corner.

The downside of downsizing at the store

Having hardwood plywood sheets precut at the store limits opportunities to lay out parts for attractive grain composition when making door panels and other prominent parts. When having plywood “cut to haul,” minimize the number of cuts to yield the largest possible sections.

Plan your cut sequence

When working with full-sized sheets, the first order of business is to break them down into more easily manageable pieces. If you didn’t already make a cutting diagram as part of your project plan, make one before you begin sawing, and plan a sensible cut sequence, like the one shown in Figure 1.

For example, if your layout includes a wide section such as a cabinet back, lay it out at one end of the sheet. Your first move, then, will be to crosscut that section from the panel, allowing you to halve the remainder of the sheet into two easily manageable pieces that can then be cut up as necessary. The aim here is to do as much of the cutting as possible on the tablesaw, rather than wrangling a portable circular saw and guide, which is more time-consuming and often more error-prone. Just remember to lay out the pieces oversized when they include factory edges that will need to be trimmed.

Crosscutting a full sheet

Crosscutting a 4 × 8' panel on a typical tablesaw is about as smooth an operation as bicyling on a narrow curb. It can be done, but it requires delicate balance and nuanced control. It’s generally better to crosscut a full-sized sheet using a portable circular saw guided by a straightedge.

A straightedge can be as simple as a board clamped in place the appropriate distance from the cutline. Commercially available “clamp guides” serve the same purpose, but set up more quickly because of their integral clamps. Personally, my standby is the classic shop-made, measurement-free version shown in Figure 2.

One simple approach for staging the cut is to lay the panel on the floor on top of a 4 × 8' sheet of thick rigid insulation (above left). Then make the cut with the saw blade adjusted for minimal protrusion through the panel. If crouching on the floor 

is uncomfortable, work on a pair of sawhorses, with the insulation laying atop a sheet of 1⁄2"-thick plywood (above right). In my shop, I simply pull my large, freestanding outfeed table away from my tablesaw, which creates a channel through which the portable saw can travel (below).

A typical portable circular saw blade is unlikely to give you a smooth, splinter-free cut. You can reduce tear-out by first scoring your cutline with a utility knife, but the panel edge will probably still be rough. Because of this, I almost always trim the cut afterward on the tablesaw, guiding the factory edge against the rip fence. (The factory edge will be removed when cutting the piece to final width later.)

Rigid insulation serves as a reusable sacrificial platform for cutting sheet goods on the floor using a clamp guide as a saw fence.

When cutting atop sawhorses, support the rigid insulation with plywood that’s at least 1⁄2" thick. For efficiency, use spacers to offset the guide from the cutline.

Pulling a freestanding outfeed table away from the tablesaw creates a platform with a channel for the saw blade.

Ripping a full sheet

Ripping a full-sized sheet on the tablesaw isn’t hard to do with the proper setup and approach, especially when the first cut is at or near the center. For ease of handling when working alone, proper outfeed and infeed staging is critical. First of all, a large outfeed table or other support is a must. Ideally, its outermost edge should sit 50" back from the rear edge of the saw’s splitter, to prevent a full-length sheet from tipping at the end of a cut.

Infeed support is important, too, especially when wrangling heavy sheets. Lots of commercial support stands are available, or you can make your own. My favorite is the type of flip-top work support shown in the sidebar on page 51. Its low-friction top is adjustable, and the stand is sure-footed and collapsible for portability.

Once you’ve set up your feed supports and locked your rip fence in place, you’re ready to hoist the sheet into place for the cut. I’ve found with heavier material that it’s easiest to lift it completely onto the saw table first and then retract it onto the infeed support, rather than trying to load it directly in place spanning the support and saw. Better yet, treat yourself to a panel-lifting tablesaw accessory like the one shown in the photos on page 48 and 51. It’s a real back- and time-saver.

Spread arms and feet wide, and begin the cut by maintaining intimate contact between fence and panel.

Continue feeding from the side, pushing straight forward while monitoring contact along the length of the fence. 

Near the end of the cut, move around to the front of the saw, centering each hand between the blade and panel edge.

Situate the sheet against the fence, with its leading edge an inch or so in front of the blade. Rock the sheet side to side a bit until you can see that it’s in intimate contact with the fence. Turn the saw on, and position yourself at the left rear corner of the panel, with your right hand grasping the trailing edge and your left hand as far forward on the adjacent edge as is comfortably possible (top left). Maintain a wide stance for strength and balance.

Monitoring the contact between workpiece and fence, push the panel straight forward with your right hand, and apply enough sideways pressure with your left hand to keep the panel against the fence. Keep pushing in this fashion (center left) until the trailing edge of the sheet nearly reaches the front of the saw. Letting the panel sit for just a moment, move around to its rear edge and place your hands so that each one is centered between the blade and the panel edge, which helps direct the panel straight forward. All the while, maintain your focus on the fence. Continue pushing straight forward with each hand until the cut is complete (bottom left).

A tablesaw sled is the safest, most accurate tool for guiding sheet goods parts for crosscutting.

Finishing up the cuts

After the sheets are cut into manageable sizes, you can easily saw them into smaller finished parts. Again, plan your cut sequence to result in squarely sawn pieces with all factory edges removed. Keep in mind that–just as with solid lumber–accuracy demands that pieces be ripped to final width before crosscutting them to length.

Begin by trimming any rough edges left by the portable circular saw, orienting the factory edge against the rip fence. Then work with the newly sawn edge against the fence to rip any long groupings of parts that share a common width.

After ripping all the pieces to final width, use a crosscut sled to saw them to length (above). Again, make sure that the final pieces are free of any factory edges or rough cuts left from the portable circular saw.  

Wrestling Aids

For help muscling sheet goods around the shop and onto the saw, consider enlisting these accessories for the job. The Gorilla Gripper (1) grabs a panel as you lift or pull it, the Leg Up panel lifter (2) helps you hoist a full-sized sheet onto the tablesaw, and the Ridgid Flip Top Portable Work Support (3) aids in infeed or outfeed support.

About Our Author

Senior editor Paul Anthony is the author of Taunton’s Complete Illustrated Guide to Tablesaws.

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