What's the Best Tool for Cutting Panels?

A start-up shop owner asks whether he should purchase a sliding table saw, a vertical panel saw, or maybe even a beam saw. Experienced hands offer thoughtful opinions. July 6, 2005

I am starting a cabinet shop, and will be processing a lot of 4x8 melamine panels. I have room to accommodate a slider, but a quality used and automatic vertical panel saw would be a better fit for my shop space, and would probably be easier to load a panel. The thing I'm wondering is, does the saw blade bind during the rip? Also, do you have to stop the machine and pick the cut piece after each cut?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor S:
I have a couple of questions. Do you get good blades for panel saws? I found that many panel saws have 8" blades and there are no melamine blades in 8", so you have to over cut and then trim on a table saw (with a melamine blade). I was looking at a Milwaukee panel saw that only had an 8" blade with no dust collection. Are there any panel saws that have 10” blades with good dust collection?

From contributor M:
I have a slider (Altendorf), which I recently upgraded from a Milwaukee. I believe that if you are cutting square parts, you will be more productive with a vertical unit. Yes, the material does close up after the cut and I’ve heard people talk about using shims to keep the kerf open. Also, a vertical unit can be run by one person. I use a helper when I cut on the slider. Streibig seems to be a strong saw. That is what I would look at if I were to do it again. If you are going to cut a lot of the same parts, you might want to look at a beam saw.

Contributor S, I really didn't have good luck with the Milwaukee panel saw. You can get blades, but you will probably need to go to a place that sells tooling. It was difficult to get a good splinter-free cut on plywood, and forget it with melamine - there is just too much slop with the saw movement. If you are looking at this level of equipment, consider something with stops. This will greatly increase your productivity.

From contributor K:
When ripping you need to slip in 2 shims. One goes in at the beginning of the cut, and the other goes in near the end of the cut. On narrow rips, 6" or less, I just grab the piece near the end of the cut. On a Streibig there’s a riving knife that rides behind the blade that keeps the blade from binding. On a vertical saw, you plan most of your cuts to be vertical cuts. The answer to your second question is no. You don’t have to stop the machine after a cut.

From contributor J:
Personally I would much rather have a slider. I think it's a whole lot more versatile. Not only can you slice up panels on it, you can use it for all sorts of solid wood applications, such as trimming off the ends of tables or truing up wavy edged boards. For me, using a saw with a slider is a one man operation. I have my saw arranged at the door of my shop and I slide the heavy panels right out of my van onto the slider. That way I'm not lifting 90 lb panels. I don't think I could manage that with a vertical machine.

From the original questioner:
Great advice - I kept thinking about how I would load the slider without a fork lift (one man shop) for now. I will be making all straight cuts and a whole lot of rips. It will be all melamine and the side panels could be 8 feet in height and 12 to 24 in depth. A lot of trim will 3 inches wide and 8 feet long. Mike S, I definitely need to take a good look at beam saws.

Although I've never seen a high quality vertical panel saw, I keep wondering if the rip is a finish rip, or does it require another run thru the table saw. Can a beam saw be the best solution? I haven't thought about it, because of the cost, and I know less about beam saws than vertical saws.

From contributor R:
Unless you are really confident about expanding rapidly and have a lot of space, I would not get a beam saw. I can't think of many small shops that can justify one. They take up a lot of space and you will need a fork lift or Doucet conveyers. Also, buying a beam saw or any complicated equipment used can be a real nightmare. A good slider is the way to start out, but I would suggest a used forklift as a mandatory accessory.

From the original questioner:
To contributor J: What is the year and make of your sliders? Sounds like sliders make quick work of a panel. I have my eye on an Altendorf f-90. Mike's thread has me checking out beam saws now. I guess beam saws are the ultimate in panel processing. However, I’m not sure if beam saws are within my money reach at this point.

From contributor M:
To the original questioner: With a vertical, some come with scoring and others allow you to make a scoring pass. You make the first pass just breaking the surface, like a scoring blade, and then you repeat the pass full depth. Again, if you are cutting three or more sheets at a time, and they are all the same size, a beam saw would be the way to go. This is just for breaking up panels. I am sure that you could make some odd cuts, but it would be easier on a slider or vertical. I agree with Reilly about the forklift. While not necessary, it would sure hurt production if you did not have one.

From contributor G:
To the original questioner: A beam saw is a definite alternative if you have the space. I opted to skip buying a slider and went straight for the beam. I did not know what I was doing at the time, but I am glad I did (and so is my back). We got an old SCMI Z45 which is a very basic machine. We have just sold it and moved up to an SCMI Alfa32. It is much more automatic and user friendly and you could find one of these on the used market and have it set-up in your shop by a tech. If you go with a Z series saw, get the one with the Epic 2 control. It works the best and is very maintenance free.

Some good advantages of a beam saw: It cuts perfectly square every time, it is extremely safe to operate, it is simple to operate, and it already has a digital pusher fence so you don't have to buy a Tigerstop. It is programmable to make several cuts just by pressing a button. You can turn a bundle of plywood into a pile of cabinet parts faster than you can believe. You won't outgrow it if your company expands.

From contributor C:
For a one-three man shop that does woodworking as well as panel processing, a slider will serve well. I would recommend an F45 rather than a 90, as you will want to miter and bevel. A forklift would be nicer, but you can also get hydraulic panel carts. But to start out, you can't do half of what a slider will do on a panel saw, and you will always want a sliding table saw in any well equipped shop unless actual woodworking is not part of the formula. A beam saw would be something to consider if you were looking to cut a unit or more of sheet stock on a daily basis, which is a task not many one-three man shops will be faced with. A Milwaukee panel saw would possibly work for crate or pallet manufacturing, and cabinet parts need to be square and free of chips.

From contributor M:
To the original questioner: I have an Altendorf Elmo 3, which has a CNC rip fence, blade height, and tilt, and a digital crosscut fence that reads .005". All this to say that the only thing that would make this machine more productive is a CNC crosscut fence. I bought it under the guise that it would make me more accurate and productive. Both of these, as with any slider, are relative. As a matter of fact, some will say that a slider will decrease productivity.

The problem with a slider for production in a one man shop is not the speed of cuts, but the off-cuts. Again, I will say that a slider is best used with 2 people. One to load, dimension, and cut, and the other to manage the off-cuts. I load and cut while my helper manages what is left, either trash or pieces. Unless a forklift can do these things without my direct input, a slider is still a 2 man operation to be moderately efficient.

As for the accuracy of a slider, mine has a guaranteed .006" of 10.5' for 5 years. Many machinists are envious with those numbers. The problem is the material that is being cut - if it has a bow in it (as most sheet goods do these days), your scoring blade will be rendered useless some of the time. Also, if you try to cut a long narrow piece, say 12" wide by 8', then you will have to use the rip fence, not the carriage. Let's just say that you are ripping material for uppers. You can make 2 passes at 12". There will be 33" left on the crosscut fence for your first pass (the cc fence does not all the way to the blade, hence 33" left on the fence).

Your second cut, after your forklift removes the off-cut and stacks it, will leave approximately 21" on the fence. The third pass will put approximately 15" on the table and 9" supported by the cc fence. This is not enough left on the fence to keep this square as it passed through the blade. Again, we are talking about depending on 9" to keep more than twice its size square through the cut. In practical terms, if your out of alignment by 1/64 with 9" over 8', your cut will be off by more than 5/32 (.167). That is more than 1/8"! So, you will be able the use the benefit of a slider, the carriage, for 2 of the 4 cuts when busting down a sheet into upper material, or book cases, etc.

My case for the vertical is that it is much more useful for one man who is busting square parts down than a slider. With the vertical, you do not need a forklift, or another pair of hands to remove the material. You don't have far to walk, and getting back to the loading part is relatively close. If you are busting down 12 x 96's you can keep the same setup and run the material through the same. Your last piece is just as accurate as the first. If you are looking for a machine that can cut up square parts effectively by one man, then a vertical is the best choice. If you are cutting a bunch of material, look at a beam saw. Now, the benefits of a slider are that it is more versatile and it will miter and bevel. If you need these features, a cabinet saw can do that. If you need for this to be very accurate, you will need to look at a slider.

From contributor A:
We have both a vertical ( Striebig ) and a slider (Felder). A vertical saw is the fastest saw this side of a beam saw for cutting up cabinet parts safely, accurately, and easily. We use our slider as a table saw for whatever table saws are used except to cut panels. It is so much easier and faster on the Striebig. We use our slider to rip panel parts that are too small to process on the Striebig without the small parts attachment which we do not have.

From contributor K:
To contributor M: I read your method of ripping those 12"x96" parts on your slider, and wanted to share my method for doing the same. After I have made an initial rip to straighten the edge, I set my rip fence for 12" and use the slider to help guide the panel past the rip fence. The trajectory of my slider and the rip fence are in pretty much the same plane, and I can peel those strips off fairly good.

I do agree with your observation about needing a second hand if you want to be as productive as possible while using a slider to cut panels. The reason I stick with mine is the double duty it can do. It's nice to be able to use the 10' slider to straight-line rip lumber. I use the jointer much less now then before.

From contributor M:
To contributor K: I love my slider for SLR. It saves about .07 per board foot and I always get better yield. But I am still not productive on the 3rd and 4th pieces using the carriage and rip fence. I always put a fresh cut on the 48", then turn to rip using a dust cut to square. But even with all this, I don't think there is enough support left on the crosscut to square it up and keep it from moving. I am dragging more than I am pushing. The only solution that I have found is Altendorf's panolin attachment, which provides a second crosscut at the back of the carriage that keeps things lined up.

From contributor K:
To contributor S: I do use the rip fence on those cuts (3rd and 4th). With the Elmo, that should be a piece of cake. I do have a parallel cutting attachment that acts as a second fence that hangs off my slider in the rear that will also accomplish the same thing. When using it, it's nice (and nessesary) to have a set of pneumatic clamps on both ends of the slider to hold the piece in place.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor B:
I have used the following machines: a Streibig, a Felder Format 4, and a Mayers beam saw. The beam is best for a high production shop with lots of space. It ties into your design and label software. However, it is not suited for a small shop. The Felder is versatile for a wider range of woodworking, angles, straight edging, etc. The Streibig is the best I have ever used, bar none. If you have used a panel saw, you can use one. With an excellent blade (one made for it), tear out is minimal.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor D:
Saw Trax makes a panel saw with a 10" blade called the 3062. When used with a Freud HI AT blade, you can get really good cuts.

Comment from contributor O:
I used sliders for many years and was informed by a nee employee that a vertical saw would not only save valuable floor space but it would also only require one operator. This interested me very much. After auditioning several vertical saws I chose a Hendrick Pro-V as it was fully automatic and a very impressive machine to say the least. This machine has been my smartest equipment purchase that I have made since being in the business for almost thirty years.

I looked at both the Striebig and Holzher machines but they seemed very labor intensive to operate. The Hendrick has a Tiger Stop system installed and it allows my guys to simply enter in the part dimension, load the 4x8 sheets and press a button to make the cut which is done automatically! Is what I have now is a true beam saw with the cut quality and accuracy of a $100K saw for 75% less money and it saves my valuable floor space.