Get the most from every sheet and make cutting easier with these handy tips
Plywood is a great material for project building, but it presents some challenges. One of the biggest is making sure you get the most out of every sheet. Doing that will help you eliminate waste and save money on your projects. To do that, it really comes down to effectively laying out the parts, and then cutting them efficiently.
Organize similar parts
When laying out your parts on a sheet, try to organize them so items of the same/similar dimensions are aligned. This helps you cut more effectively, and it can help you use all of the sheet. You’ll stay more organized, and often be left with cutoffs that are more usable for making other small parts.
If you’re working from a well-designed project plan, then the cutting diagram should do this for you, like the diagrams shown below. You can see that the parts are organized to use the sheet as efficiently as possible, and to make cutting easier—which we’ll get to shortly. If you’re using a plywood cutting diagram that isn’t arranged effectively, you may want to make your own.
Make your own cutting diagrams easily
One of the best ways to get better at working with plywood is to learn to create your own cutting diagrams. Whether you’re reworking a cutting diagram from an existing plan or you’re designing your own project, knowing how to make your own cutting diagrams gives you options.
Rather than start with a blank page, draw your cutting diagram on graph paper. That used to mean making a trip to an office-supply store, but these days graph paper is as close as your computer. Just go online and search for “printable graph paper.” You’ll find lots of free options.
Paper with 1/4″ squares works great, as you can make 1 inch equal to 1 foot (which makes each 1/4″ square equal to 3″). And you can draw a full-size 4×8 sheet of plywood on standard printer paper. Draw the 4’x8′ sheet border in pen, and then lay out your parts using pencil, as shown below. That way you can erase and move parts around as needed until you create an effective parts layout. Your cutting diagram doesn’t have to be perfect, or even pretty. It just needs to help you organize the parts effectively, and to serve as reference when you cut.
Go with the grain
When your laying out parts on your cutting diagram, it’s important to remember that the wood grain runs lengthwise on a plywood sheet. So, you’ll want to make sure you don’t lay out similar parts in different directions on the sheet.
There are a few times, though, that it’s ok to break this rule. On painted projects, the grain won’t show so it won’t matter. For utility or storage projects, appearance may not be as important. Finally, sometimes you may need to change things up to maximize your sheets. The blanket chest used as an example here has all the major parts cut from a single sheet of plywood.
To fit it all on one sheet, though, a couple of the large panels had to be turned. The chest wouldn’t look right if the grain ran across the front, top, or sides instead of along their lengths. The bottom will really never be seen, though, and the back won’t really show because the chest will probably be against a wall or at the foot of the bed. So, having the grain run across these panels instead of along their lengths isn’t a big deal, and it prevents having to purchase a second sheet to complete the project.
Group your cuts
Another big advantage of organizing your parts on your plywood sheet is that it makes cutting a lot easier by letting you group your cuts. Instead of trying to cut one piece at a time, you can rip (cut lengthwise) or crosscut (cut across the sheet) to break the sheet down into smaller pieces, and then cut the individual parts to size from those. Plus, it means you won’t have to change saw setups as many times.
These illustrations show how the cutting diagram we’re using here can be broken down. The process, in this case, starts with a series of cuts crosscuts across the sheet/across the grain. Then, those smaller pieces get ripped (cut in line with the grain) to create the individual project parts.
For this plywood layout, it makes sense to start with a crosscut at the dimension marked for the Side width.
Another crosscut yields two more project parts. They’ll get ripped and trimmed to final size later.
The third crosscut removes a narrow strip of waste. It’s the only piece from this sheet that’s really wasted, since it’s too small to save. Then one more separates the parts named “Back” and “Bottom.”
Now, it’s time to cut the individual parts to final size. All of these cuts will be will be rip cuts–going in the same direction as the grain–except for one final crosscut (across the grain) to trim the “Front” to final length.
Use saw guides for straight, accurate cuts
When you’re cutting plywood, a circular saw is a great tool to use. But it can be challenging to make long straight cuts accurately using one.
The solution is to use saw guides, such as the Kreg Accu-Cut™ and Rip-Cut™. They help you keep your saw moving straight and accurately. You can learn more about cutting plywood using saw guides in the related topics at the bottom of the page.
Bonus Tip: Chalk it up!
When you’re cutting project parts, it can be all too easy to get them mixed up. And that can lead to drilling holes in the wrong places, assemblies that go together wrong, and extra trips and expense to get more materials.
A great tip is to mark each part with its name. Many people reach for a pencil to do this, but pencil lines can be tough to see, can dig into the wood, and can be tough to get rid of later. Instead, reach for a piece of chalk. It’s bold, easy to see, and available in many colors. Plus, you can wipe chalk away with a damp rag and, if necessary, a little bit of sanding.
Maximize your cutting efficiency
Check out the short video below to see how easy it can be to cut plywood parts when you organize your parts, group your cuts, and then make those cuts using guides.