Woodsense: Choosing Sheet Goods

Discover a whole lineup of wood-related options.

Consultant: Larry Osborn

Lumber comes from a tree felled by loggers in a forest, as does the base material for sheet goods. But that’s all that the two have in common, because all sheet goods, including the many forms of plywood, are “engineered” in manufacturing to alter and enhance their natural performance properties for a better end product. That’s why you don’t have to weigh heavily the thought of using sheet goods for many of your woodworking projects. Their strength, stiffness, stability, overall uniformity, and frequently lower cost may offer a more viable option than solid boards.

More choices than ever

Traditionally, saying “sheet goods” in the same sentence with “woodworking” implied hardwood plywood. Today, though, the forest products industry produces a far greater selection in sheet stock suited to your woodworking and workshop needs, as shown in the chart on the facing page. Note: Not included are sheet materials such as oriented-strand board (OSB), wafer board, and pressure-treated plywood, products primarily designed for building construction.

Current technology has enabled sheet goods manufacturers to go far beyond plywood’s multiple layers of glued and pressed, thin-sliced wood. Now sheet goods can incorporate wood chips or pulverized wood powder mixed with additives and adhesives, which are then pressed into sheets having higher-quality outside faces. Ongoing research has also led to products in the works that incorporate other organic as well as inorganic materials in the mix—from stem fibers such as inner bark, to leaf fibers like hemp, jute, and flax, to polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, and polypropylene. With a durable “skin” of natural wood or laminate applied to the outer surfaces, these innovative products expand your options and applications. So consider the product list on these pages as a valuable resource for cabinetmaking, storage projects, and shop jigs.

Handling sheet goods in a one-man shop

Moving a 4 × 8' sheet all by yourself is no easy task, let alone cutting it down to manageable pieces for more exact trimming later. Use these tips to lighten the load:

Getting sheet goods home

If you don’t own a pickup truck or van to haul 4 × 8' sheets to your shop from the supplier, don’t even think about securing them atop your automobile! Instead, pay for delivery. Prices vary, but major home centers and lumberyards charge about $50 for delivery if you live within 25 miles.

Rent a truck. Some home centers rent pickup trucks for as little as $20 for 75 minutes. Plus, their employees help you load it.

Break down the sheets where you buy them. A home center or lumberyard will cut sheets to rough size for you on their panel saw for free or a nominal charge, depending on the number of cuts. Remember to bring a cutting diagram with you.

Hefting full sheets into and around the shop

No doubt a 4 × 8' sheet of plywood is awkward to lift and carry about. Ease the load by buying a sheet-goods carrier like the one in the opening photo (Gorilla Gripper) or solicit a helper.

Rough-cut full sheets safely into manageable parts

Make a circular saw straightedge from two pieces of scrap 3/4" plywood or MDF like the one shown on page 69. A metal straightedge (like the Bora Clamp-N-Cut 50" edge guide, Woodcraft #148687) clamped to the sheet and offset from the cut line also works. Next, install a plywood-cutting blade for a crisp, clean edge. (We used Freud’s thin-kerf, 60-tooth Diablo, model DO760X). Install a similar blade in your table saw, too, to trim the parts to final dimension.

Now, lay down a full sheet of 2"-thick rigid foam insulation, available at home centers, for support. The insulation keeps the sheet goods off the floor and also protects the face from scratches. As an alternative, use sacrificial 2 × 4s, one in the center and at each side.

When using a portable circular saw, always cut plywood and other sheet goods with the good face down, because the teeth exit on the top face and can splinter or mar the cut edges. With a table saw, keep the good face up. As a precaution, mark the cutline on blue painter’s masking tape and saw through it. The tape prevents splintering and won’t pull off wood fibers when removed.

Rough-cutting sheet goods

Clamp a plywood straightedge to the workpiece, aligning the bottom piece with the cutline. To protect the good face, use a sheet of foam insulation between the floor and plywood when rough-cutting the piece.

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