Working With Sheet Goods in a Small Shop
We all know how to work around the downfalls of solid woods to create furniture, but sheet goods require a different plan of attack. Though they don’t shrink and swell with the changing of the seasons like solid wood does, their large size is their main stumbling block. However, strength, flatness, how to finish edges and how to minimize chipping while cutting are some other challenges when working with sheet goods. Almost all sheet goods are 4′ wide and 8′ long. Some sheet goods come up to 1″ oversize, while Baltic birch is mainly available in 5×5′ dimensions.
A Closer Look
Flexply (top) is fairly thin and flexible. It’s used in multiple layers as a core for curved parts. Baltic birch (middle) is a high-quality board with a higher number of plies than other plywoods. Standard plywood (bottom) is great for many applications. Here its face and back is covered with black walnut veneer.
Brown hinged a simple out-feed table to his tablesaw that can be swung into position when needed, yet stays out of the way when it’s not in use.
Keep it Simple
Standard hinges, some construction lumber, a 2x4' piece of 3/4" thick melamine particle board and some simple hardware is all that’s needed. The outfeed table has to be attached to each type of saw differently, depending on the type of rails on the saw.
Brown temporarily installs a shop-made fixture on top of his sawhorse when cutting sheet goods. Any portion of a sheet that isn’t supported by his tablesaw’s surface can ride on the fixture. He built the top fixture so its upper surface was the same height as his tablesaw’s.
Many Helping Hands
Brown moves his router table into place while cutting sheets. In conjunction with his sawhorse and outfeed table, he has lots of support. He also makes sure the area around the saw is free from obstructions.
A track saw has many uses around the shop; it makes short work of sheet goods, and can help with angles if required. (Photo by Festool)
If all you need to do is break down the odd sheet here and there, keep things simple. After marking the locations of each part directly on the sheet with chalk, use a jig saw to make the cuts. Be careful of chipping on the upper surface, and work on the underside of the sheet if necessary.
A very simple approach to edging sheet goods is iron on edging. Although it doesn’t stand up to wear and tear, nor look as good as solid edging, it is fast and can be very effective in the right situation.
Plywood – Very strong, and is lighter than other sheet goods. It’s also on the more expensive side. It’s readily available in thicknesses from 1/4″ to 3/4″, and can be found slightly thinner or thicker if you look at higher-end suppliers. Economy-grade plywood is available, but it’s generally not as flat overall, and the surface isn’t as even as you may require. Quality plywood is available with veneered surfaces. Its surfaces tend to be more even than cheaper plywood, though it can still be far from flat overall. To keep plywood as flat as possible, keep it stored upright, or horizontal, with light pressure on both sides until you need it. Plywood holds fasteners like screws in its surface pretty well, unlike its edges, which may also split if you’re not careful.
Baltic Birch Plywood – Made with more, thinner plies than standard plywood and is generally higher quality than other plywood. There are no voids on the surface. It warps, similar to other plywood. Baltic birch plywood is sometimes sanded and finished for use as drawer boxes or other furniture parts.
MDF – Heavy compared to other sheet goods. It also has a very flat and even surface, which is great for veneering. MDF has mediocre strength when asked to hold fasteners in its face, and very poor strength in its edge. It will also drastically swell and weaken if it gets wet, so generally speaking, keep it away from bathrooms and kitchens.
Particle Board – Particle board is fairly heavy, flat and even, and is generally cheaper than most other sheet goods. Similar to MDF, it doesn’t hold screws in its face overly well, and poorly in its edge. It also doesn’t like to get wet. Particle board is usually what melamine surfaces are applied to.
Wiggle Board / Flex-ply – When you want to make curved panels this is a good place to start. With two thicker, flexible outer plies, and a thin inner ply, oriented at 90°, it will curve to a fairly tight radius. It’s usually about 3/8″ thick. These 4×8′ sheets are available in two types; one rolls into an 8′ long tube, the other rolls into a 4′ long tube, so be aware of what you’re purchasing.
Hardboard – Hardboard is similar to MDF, and generally quite thin (1/8″ to 1/4″). It’s cheap and flexible, yet rarely ends up as part of a quality piece of furniture; it’s great for making routing/shaping templates or for vacuum pressing platens. It’s really more of a tool than a material to be included in a piece of furniture.
Getting them home
Unless you have a vehicle or trailer that will house a full sheet of plywood, you will have to either have the store cut it into more manageable pieces, or, in extreme cases, bring your own tool to cut the sheet down to size. When you’re having the sheets cut to size, keep in mind your workshop. If it’s in a basement, smaller pieces will likely be much easier to carry inside, and down a set of stairs. I have seen one home shop with a 3″ wide x 50″ high slot cut into the exterior wall so sheet goods could be transferred inside, but obviously this is not for everyone.
It’s pretty incredible what you can fit into a smaller vehicle. I had a Pontiac Sunfire when I started my business, and with the back seat folded down I could fit two 2×8′ halves of plywood inside my car.
You can also bring whole sheets home, then cut them to size outdoors or in a garage, before bringing them down a set of stairs to the basement. Canadian winters tend to make this difficult, but for the warmer months can be a good option.
The machine that’s typically used to break a sheet down to size is the tablesaw. As long as there’s enough space in front, behind and beside it, cutting sheet goods can be fairly easy. If you’re cutting a lot of sheet goods on your tablesaw an aftermarket rolling crosscut fence will help out a lot.
When I’m cutting sheets to size, I extend my 2×4′ out-feed table. It supports the material once it’s cut, making the job safer and easier. The out-feed table is hinged to the back of the tablesaw, and when extended, two simple hinged legs swing out to support the surface. It folds away when not in use. I routed two grooves in its surface so my crosscut sled and mitre gauge could be used when it’s up. The grooves weakened the outfeed table, so I fixed a couple of 36″ long 2x4s to its underside, which run perpendicular to the grooves.
When cutting sheets, I use a couple of sawhorses equipped with a removable fixture attached to its top. This can be used in front of, behind or beside the tablesaw as needed, to help support the sheet during the cut. I work alone and the sawhorses make the job easier.
I have also placed my other equipment very carefully in order to not inhibit cutting sheet goods, and in some cases, to assist me. A router table, assembly table or workbench can be moved into place to help support the workpiece if you need more assistance.
A track saw is also a great option for cutting sheets to size. If you regularly cut a lot of sheets to size, this might not be the most efficient option, but it works great for smaller quantities. There is also nothing wrong with throwing a few pieces of rigid Styrofoam insulation on the floor, placing a sheet on top of it then using a circular saw to break the sheet down to size. Just be sure the blade will not make contact with the floor.
If you rarely cut sheets to size, there is a very simple, cheap option. Once you have the parts laid out directly on the sheet, use a jigsaw to cut the sheet down to size. Be careful of the chipping on the upper surface, and keep this in mind when laying out the parts. You will likely need at least one straight edge to eventually cut the workpiece to exact size, but this will only be a problem if you end up with a part that has no factory edge on it. In this case you can use a straight edge and a router with a flush trim bit to cut an edge straight on any part if necessary. This process is a little on the slow side, but if you rarely work with sheet goods, and don’t have the space or money for new equipment, it might be the best option.
Cutting a nice edge
Sometimes workpieces require both upper and lower surfaces to be finished cleanly. In a larger shop either an automated panel saw or a large tablesaw with a scoring blade will be used. In the small shop, without a scoring blade on your tablesaw or a good track saw, a bit more ingenuity may be required. In this case, I ‘double-cut’ the parts on my tablesaw. It’s much easier with smaller parts, but will work on any sizes.
Set the rip fence on your saw to cut about 1/4″ wider than the final size. Lower the blade so it cuts just over half the thickness of the material. Make your first pass, then flip the workpiece over and make the second pass, cutting all the way through the material. With the first edge cut readjust your fence to the final dimension to double-cut the other edge.
When cutting a sheet in one pass, the chipping occurs on the underside of the piece, so this method is counter-intuitive, as both surfaces will be on the underside. Because the exit angle of the blade’s teeth is almost parallel to the underside of the workpiece, there is virtually no chipping at all.
Another way to create a clean edge on some sheet goods is to clamp a straightedge to the workpiece and flush trim the edge. Some materials, like MDF and Baltic birch, finish nicely with a router bit, while others don’t.
The finished edge
Some sheet goods have edges that lend themselves to be left unaltered before applying a finish. Others, like MDF and particle board, don’t. Their edges tend to be much weaker, and will chip or break if not protected. Covering up their ugly edges is another reason to finish their edges.
Iron-on veneer or melamine tape is very easy to apply and most non woodworkers will never know the difference, visually. Iron-on tape doesn’t offer as much protection and artistic license as some of the other options though. It comes in rolls either 50′ or 250′ long and all you need to apply it are an iron and a push stick. To trim melamine edging, I use a somewhat dull plane iron or wide chisel, and just run it along the face of the workpiece. To flush trim wood edging, a file that is rectangular in cross-section and has teeth on its edge is used. Making swiping passes, with the file held on a slight angle, work your way down the edge. A light sand and you’re ready to finish the edge like the rest of the project.
For a stronger edge, and one that will look a bit nicer, I would opt for solid wood. A thin strip, about 1/4″ thick, can be glued to an exposed edge by applying masking tape all along its length. Once dry, the waste can by removed with a hand plane, or by setting router up to flush the edge.
You can also apply a deeper solid edge, which can later be hand- or machine shaped, to a workpiece. This method will give you lots of options when it comes to designing a unique piece of furniture.
If you plan on veneering the part, you have a few options. You can veneer the part first, then add the edge, or you add the solid edge before the veneering operation. As long as you can flush the joint nicely, there will be little chance of it telegraphing through the veneer. To help ensure the joint will never be seen, use quarter-cut material to reduce seasonal movement, and only make the solid edge as big as it needs to be.
I realize some woodworkers take the term very literally, and only work wood. I prefer to use solid wood as well, but I think there is also a place for man-made sheet goods in the workshop. Once you know how to work with them, they will become yet another material to turn to while creating one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture.
Toronto Tool – A Helping Hand
Toronto Tool has a number of products for cutting sheet goods to size. Their BTS-50 Clamp and Saw Guide ($229) is great for small shops. A single operator can use the product to break down full sheets, yet it folds up for easy storage or transport. It will make a cut up to 4′ long. The BTS-50 clamps the sheet in place, then, with a circular saw the operator cuts accurate and square parts from a full sheet.
Toronto Tool also has a number of other products that specialize in cutting sheet goods. Their SRG-50 ($589) and Pro-Cut 50 ($894) are both more robust versions of the BTS-50 and include some extra features.
EDITORS NOTE: This product is no longer available