Working with big sheets of plywood, or worse yet MDF, can be a bear. Even on my cabinet saw, equipped with ample outfeed support, I dread man-handling those behemoth sheets. Its grunt work at best, and can be downright dangerous if the slightest thing goes wrong. I have stories among my circle of friends, and I will spare you the gory details.
The solution to this problem that can be found in some big-time cabinet shops and home centers is a panel saw, which is an amazing tool for quickly, easily and safely taming sheet goods. But two simple reasons prevent me and most other hobbyist woodworkers from taking the plunge into panel saw ownership. The first problem is price, and for me there don’t really need to be any other problems. At $900 for a basic model (and they go way up from there), I wouldn’t use it enough to justify the indulgence. Secondly, the dedicated footprint required for this tool is significant. Between the infeed space and the massive size of the tool itself, it is like having another stationary table saw for a specific task. These tools are impressive and a great asset for a shop, so if you have the space and the money, don’t let me talk you out of getting one. But if you are like me and don’t have one, the other or both, then read on.
As I looked around for options for breaking down sheet goods in my home workshop, I saw that there are many nice guide systems for circular saws that looked decent. Some guide systems even come with a circular saw, and these look like a great alternative to a panel saw. I knew I was getting warmer. But could I rig something like this up for my own circular saw, which cost $49 some 15 years ago and had mostly been used for building decks? I love cheap, but I hate junk. I wanted something that would deliver a chip-free edge on veneered plywood that would rival what a panel saw or high end guide system could deliver. If it compromised cut quality, I would go a different route.
My solution was a dirt-simple work around; a hardboard circular saw guide that is made custom for my circular saw. Here are some of the things that I love about this system:
- Cheap! I made two guides and had lots of material left over for about $13.
- Easy. Two guides took about an hour to make, and that included a coffee break.
- Zero clearance. The guides will prevent splintering on one side of the cut.
- Place directly on cut line. With many circular saw guides you have to accommodate the distance from the fence to the blade. Not here. Place the guide right on your cut line and go.
- Easy storage. These are super flat and durable. Drill a hole in them and hang them on the wall.
Make a Circular Saw Guide: DIY Panel Saw Instructions
If I have successfully sold you on the idea of building one of these, let’s get started. First, the shopping list is pretty simple. You will need a 4′ x 8′ sheet of 1/4″ hardboard and a bit of glue. That’s enough material to make an 8 foot long guide for ripping, a 4 footer for cross-cuts, and have lots of leftover material for future jigs.
First, cut pieces for base and fence. Cut a strip of hardboard 9″ wide and whatever length you want your guide long. The one I am making here is 8′ long. Then cut a strip of hardboard 5″ wide and the same length as the base, which will be used as the fence for your cutting guide. If you are tempted to keep the jig lighter by making the fence more narrow, be careful because the width adds rigidity which is critical for an accurate cutting guide, and it also provides more surface for clamping so that the clamp does not interfere with the circular saw operation, (I just saved you having to throw away your ‘rough draft’ project like I did with mine).
Place glue-up on flat surface and add weight to hold flat. This will keep the cutting guide flat as the glue dries. As an alternative to weighting it down, you might choose to use short brads to secure the two pieces together. Whatever you choose, be sure to keep the pieces held against a flat surface while the glue dries.
Cut base. Leave the edge overhanging enough so that your saw blade will not cut into anything that you don’t want it to. Hold your saw base carefully against the fence as you make this cut, leaving you a base that is perfectly matched to your saw, with a zero clearance edge that will deliver a chip-free cut on veneers.
Trim the other edge. This is an optional step that will tidy up the guide. Place the non-fence side of your base against the fence on your saw, and adjust the fence so that you will remove material from both the base and fence of your guide for the entire length of cut. After this cut, the jig is complete.
Using the Guide:
Place guide directly on cut line. Mark the plywood for your cut. Then lay the guide directly on the line, placing the guide on the side of the line that you will keep. This will prevent chip out from occurring on the project itself, because the base of the guide system will serve as a backer board for the cut.
Blade selection. Be sure to find a good blade for cutting veneer plywood, and not just go with the junky blade that came with your saw, which is typically designed for cutting framing lumber. Look for a blade with a high tooth count, in the range of 50-60, thin kerf to minimize resistance as you move through the cut, and carbide tipped teeth to maximize the time span between sharpenings.
Photos By Author