A Panel on Panel Saws

Vertical panel saws allow sign makers and graphics producers to be able to cut a large variety of sign blanks safely, easily, and accurately. "[They're] designed to cut large sheet goods into smaller, more manageable pieces, and they do it much more efficiently while only requiring one operator," says Tom Houska, marketing director at Safety Speed Manufacturing. (Note: A table saw without a proper floor stand would take two people to cut large sheets of material.)

There are several other advantages with vertical panel saws. An important one is that they're less dangerous to use than a table or hand-held circular saw. "With a table saw, you have to physically push the material through a stationary saw blade," explains Dan Wiggin, owner and president of Hendrick Manufacturing, "and with larger materials, that can be quite cumbersome.

"With a vertical panel saw, the material actually lies at rest while you set the clamp and blade and then cut."

Space savings is probably the second-most promoted advantage, according to Steve Sheetz, sales representative at Safety Speed Manufacturing. "Being upright and completely against the wall, it doesn't take up as much shop space as a table saw," he says.

Still there are misconceptions about vertical panel saws—mainly from people who've never operated one. Jeffrey Grant, vice president of Hendrick Manufacturing, thinks one of the biggest is that material in a vertical orientation is difficult to handle. "When gravity takes over, the material actually rests there very easily," he explains. "There's very little operator effort that's required."

Set up. On the shop floor, it's important that you have adequate open space around the panel saws to handle material going in and coming out. For example, if you're going to be rip cutting materials (cutting parallel to the wood grain), Michael Della Polla, president of Saw Trax, advises, "Whether using a compact or full-size machine, you're still going to need the same amount of room (eight feet) around the machine."

Because dust will inevitably be created when using a vertical panel saw, Della Polla stresses to keep the panel saw away from equipment that's dust-sensitive, like a digital inkjet printer. "Ideally you'd like your machine in a place near the stored full sheets," he suggests. "This will make getting material on the machine much easier."

Wiggin adds that the panel saw needs to be positioned in a space with adequate lighting. "Also keep it in an area that's near the power outlet, so no one will trip over or run over cords," he states. "Avoid high traffic areas to prevent any problems with people or forklift trucks bumping into the machine inadvertently."

PanelSawPanel 3Safety. Although panel saws are safe to use (on many models, the blades are typically hidden behind the carriage, meaning there's no casual contact), injuries obtained from them rest more on the operator than the machine. Wiggin adds that no one should operate a vertical panel saw without being fully trained or without first reading the operation manual. "Always take the time to measure twice and cut once," he adds.

Della Polla advises not to become complacent and place your hands under the saw carriage when the machine is in use. If working with smaller items, use a sheet clamp to hold them in place. "With our machines, the blade can be lined up with a cut mark," says Della Polla. "Measuring tapes on the machine can also be used for alignment or dimensional cutting."

Be very careful of the saw blade or knife when they're off the panel saw. "If your panel saw doesn't have a protective guard and the knife holder doesn't retract," says Della Polla, "build a specific holder for these tools, so that accidental blade contact does not happen."

Safety Speed panel saws include important safety features. "Our blade enclosures significantly reduce the risk of casual contact with the operator, and our precision guide systems eliminate the need for a fence, which is the cause of most serious kickback injuries," says Houska.

Sheetz states that, while gloves aren't necessary, you still don't want to be wearing any loose clothing, ties, or jewelry during operation. "Always wear safety goggles," he comments.

Operation. Almost all sign substrates can be cut with a vertical panel saw—acrylics, hardwoods, melamine, aluminum, foam board, PVC, corrugated plastic, etc. "The limitation is that the material has to be rigid enough to stand up on the frame, so a really thin material can be difficult to cut," says Sheetz. "If it's under 3-mil, it'll want to buckle a little bit as you pull the saw down."

Another material that can be cut is polycarbonate. This durable, impact-resistant plastic might seem a difficult substrate to achieve a smooth cut on. "Polycarbonates have a tendency to chip the edges when you're cutting," says Wiggin, "but if you use the proper tooling, you can achieve excellent results."

Houska shares, "An eight-inch-diameter 200 tooth hollow ground steel blade works very well for cutting polycarbonate sheets. Blades with a smaller tooth count (40-60) will tend to grab the material and leave an undesirable cutting edge."

When sawing thin-gauge polycarbonate that's flexible, Houska stresses the importance of having a good supporting surface on the backside of the material. "Use a backer board that supports the material," he adds. "This helps prevent the material from vibrating and chattering while being cut."

Whatever material you're cutting, Houska advises using industrial, high-quality, carbide-tipped saw blades that are sharp. "These will ensure smooth, clean, chip-free cuts," he says.

When you feed the substrate/material through the tool (either vertically or horizontally), Houska recommends doing so slowly and smoothly and (whenever possible) without stopping. "Overfeeding results in poor-quality cuts, shortened blade life, and motor overloading," he explains.

Houska mentions that panels being cut should always be fed against the rotation of the saw blade. "For best results, place the work piece onto the tool with its backside facing you," he elaborates. "This provides the smoothest possible cut on the face side of the panel.

PanelSawPanel 4Storing materials. Another important consideration is material storage (before and after the cut). While Della Polla's company manufactures the Panel Express Panel Cart for moving full sheets or parts of sheets around the shop, he does stress that when it comes to storing sheets for panel saw cutting, it's easiest to store them vertically so they can more easily be moved around a shop.

However Della Polla points out that this position can be a problem with semi-rigid sheets like 3-mil PVC. "One way to keep this material from bowing during vertical storage is to clamp several 3-mil sheets together," he says. "When 'bundled,' they are much stronger and rigid.

"If you don't have several sheets, you can spring clamp it to a more rigid sheet."

—Jeff Wooten


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