Is there plastic in a future project? It is inescapable and turns up everywhere. Looks like the famous line from “The Graduate” was right, “There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?” Today’s reviews look at ways to cut plastic – thin plastic, thick plastic, soft plastic, hard plastic.
Cutting plastic is not that much different than cutting wood or other materials with the exception that you can melt some plastics when using high-speed tools. Those are generally the softer types (polyethylene) and don’t have much application in DIY and small contracting projects.
We are going to give you the low down on the best way to handle the plastics that show up in your projects so that you are prepared with the tools you need for the job. One special category we’ll look at for you is cutting plastic lattice. We know this can be tricky for first-timers and want to take the frustration out. Let’s slide off and learn how to cut plastic!
|Rank||Model||Our Favorite Product|
|#1||A Utility Knife|
(The Best way to Cut Thin, Softer Plastic)
|Milwaukee 48-22-1903 Fastback 3 Utility Knife with 4 Blade Storage
|#2||A Bench Top Band Saw||WEN 3939 2.8-Amp 9″ Benchtop Band Saw
|#3||A Compact Circular Saw|
(Our Top Choice for Thick Plastic)
|Rockwell RK3440K Versacut
|#4||A Jigsaw||Bosch JS470E Jigsaw
|#5||A Table Saw||G1023RLWX 10” Cabinet Table Saw
As you read these reviews, you’ll see we have different #1 picks for thin and thick plastic. We will also comment on what shape of plastic can be cut with each different tool. Each review focuses cutting sheet plastic unless stated otherwise.
Throughout the reviews, we will provide stock notes about what kind of plastic a tool can handle. Our terms will be flat and round. Here flat means sheet and bar round means pipe and tubing. We also want you to be aware that there are both soft and hard plastic. Hard is a relative term when comparing plastic to wood. You should not have any issue cutting hard plastic with any of our suggestions.
Brittle is another thing altogether. Polycarbonate and PVC are brittle. They can splinter and crack if cut improperly. Since your exposure to polycarbonate is likely limited to thin sheets, we give proper cautions there. PVC is also brittle, but that will only impact you if you do not support the good side of the stock when cutting. It can be chipped, like wood, it the cutting action breaks the last little bit rather than cutting all the way through.
Note: Our definition of thin is plastic less than a ¼ inch. Which, by default, makes everything else thick! This applies to sheet and round stock.
For thin sheet plastic, the best way to cut is using a utility knife and a straight edge to score the plastic then break it on a bench with a sharp edge. If this reminds you of cutting glass, you are correct. The technique is almost identical to cutting glass with a key exception, you cut approximately 2/3 to ¾ of the way through the plastic versus scoring the glass.
You need a utility knife with a sharp blade and a metal straight edge that has a precise edge. Stay away from wood and plastic straight edges because you can damage them with your utility knife. Here’s a tip to see if your straight edge is straight or if it has a bow. Set the straight edge on top of your kitchen counter and look to see if any light comes underneath. No light = straight edge! We recommend metal rulers of levels for this task.
Your technique is like that for cutting glass; mark your line, line up your straight edge and hold it firmly on the plastic, and make several slow passes with the knife blade tight to the straight edge. When you are nearly through your plastic, line the scoring up with the edge and briskly snap downward.
Hint: Keep your straight edge on top of the plastic when you are snapping. This protects the edge of the plastic from shattering or breaking at a point other than your line. This is especially important when working with brittle plastic like polycarbonate.
We recommend the Milwaukee 48-22-1903 Fastback 3 Utility Knife with 4 Blade Storage, Wire Stripping Compartment, and Gut Hook:
Stock note: You can cut round stock with a utility knife. You need to hold it against a backstop and rotate the stock while applying cutting pressure. This is not the best way to accomplish this task but can work in a pinch?
Benchtop bandsaws are an excellent choice when making intricate cuts in thin stock. They have no problem slicing through any plastic you want to feed it. If you want a straight cut a fence is recommended for best accuracy. For curved and complex cuts, they are a joy to use.
The band saw produces clean, vertical cuts and rarely bogs down, even in denser plastic. Cutting UHMW is a treat. This plastic is so slick; the blade cuts through it like a hot knife through butter. Where they fall down is when your piece of stock exceeds the throat depth of the saw.
We recommend the WEN 3939 2.8-Amp 9″ Benchtop Band Saw:
Stock notes: Can cut flat and round stock easily. Not able to accommodate sizes and lengths greater than its throat depth.
Why not a regular circular saw? That can work except the size of the tool relative to the size of the stock can be an issue. Full-size circular saws are great on 2x4s and large sheets. They are not as easy to use on typical plastic stock sizes. That’s why we are recommending the compact saw.
We think you’ll like the smaller saws because they are easier to control when working with small stock, provide better visibility of your cut line, and don’t provide so much power that your stock vibrates and moves. This last bit is important for answering the question of the best way to cut plastic lattice.
Plastic lattice is exceptionally flimsy, as you already know (or will find out). The weight of a big saw will make the lattice sage and bow. Plus, it can increase the stock’s vibration when cutting. The compact saw has none of these issues. It is more manageable and bridges the open spaces quickly and easily. Mark your cut line clearly, clamp the lattice securely, and make the perfect cut.
We recommend the Rockwell RK3440K Versacut:
Stock note: Cutting anything flat is fair game. Cutting round stock is not a good application.
The versatile jigsaw takes second place in our reviews for cutting thick plastic. When used with an edge guide, it performs well making straight cuts. It is also a top choice when making complex and curved cuts. So, why didn’t we put it first? Vibration is the short answer. Jigsaws use a cutting action like the larger reciprocating saws. When the tool’s vibrations are transferred into the stock, control and precision become more difficult. This can be overcome in most stock by clamping the stock. However, cutting lattice with this tool is not the most pleasant of experiences.
You do want a jigsaw in your workshop at some point. When that time comes, buy a top of the line tool. For that, we recommend the Bosch JS470E Jigsaw.
Stock note: Good for straight and intricate cuts in rigid stock. Not the best for lattice. Properly clamped round stock can be cut if the diameter doesn’t exceed the blade length. The accuracy of these cuts may not be the best.
If you need long, straight cuts time and again, a table saw is the way to go. So long as you can bring the stock to the saw, that is. We are talking about workshop-based tools. Portable saws are available, but for ripping thick plastic, we think you’ll like the power and precision of a genuine stationary table saw.
The fence and miter gauge make control and precision a snap. The power of even a modestly priced saw is more than enough for plastic. The limitations of the table saw show up when you need complex and curved cuts. They are not designed for that work.
We recommend the Grizzly G1023RLWX 10” Cabinet Table Saw:
Stock note: Excels at straight cuts in flat and round stock, maximum thickness/diameter limited by the depth of cut capacity. Avoid trying to cut lattice – too difficult to control the stock.
AS you have noted in the reviews, you have quite a few options when cutting plastic. The utility knife and straight edge, as simple as that combination is, happens to be the best way to cut thin stock. For cutting thicker stock, we think the Versacut is the champion for straight cuts and lattice. For complex cuts, the Bosch is a gem. It can make straight cuts but do not use it on lattice if you don’t have to. For you readers who have some of the tools we mention in your shop, we hope our hints on what shape stock can be easily cut. Thanks for reading and come back for more reviews and tips!
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