Panel Saw, Table Saw, Mat Cutter or Combo Machine, which is Right for your Shop?
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Panel Saw, Table Saw, Mat Cutter or Combo Machine, which is Right for your Shop?

One way for sign shops to increase their efficiency is to have the right tool for cutting sheet goods to size. There are a few basic considerations that every sign shop must address when purchasing a cutting machine: space restraints, ease of use, capability, safety, cost and dust.

By Michael DellaPolla

Cutting blanks to size is an everyday operation for sign shops. Time spent cutting blanks of overlaid plywood, PVC, acrylics, aluminum composite or corrugated plastic adds up over a week. One way for sign shops to increase their efficiency is to have the right tool for cutting sheet goods to size. There are a few basic considerations that every sign shop must address when purchasing a cutting machine: space restraints, ease of use, capability, safety, cost and dust.

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  • These may vary with priority, but all will be factors when making your buying decision. First we’ll discuss space restraints. This will eliminate the table saw option right off the bat. Table saws work on the horizontal plane with large in feed and out feed tables on either end of the saw. Cross cutting is difficult, usually requiring two people. With a table saw, kick back and blade exposure are safety issues that can send a user to the hospital. Practically speaking, there is no room for them in a sign shop. Panel saws, mat cutters and combo machines work in the vertical plane easing floor space requirements and sheet handling issues.

    Before we go much further, I want to explain what a “Combo” machine is. It is a combination panel saw and mat cutter. The saw plate is removed from a sliding carriage and a knife plate is inserted in its place to cut foam boards and corrugated plastics. Thus, one machine can cut materials with a saw or with the knife. Since no cutting capabilities are lost with a combo machine vs. a straight panel saw, the only consideration is increased cost vs. added capabilities. It is our experience that the combo machines with their bundled accessories cost little more than the straight panel saw with the same accessories. The minimal added expense vs. the capabilities of the saw / knife “Combo” machine eliminates the plain panel saw from further consideration.

    Combo machine vs. Mat Cutter
    Mat cutters cut with a straight blade or pinch with rolling blades. They are limited by the thickness of materials, density of the materials and cutting direction (up and down only). When cutting with a knife, several scoring passes may need to be made to get through a piece of expanded PVC. It is possible to cut some aluminum composites but it’s more a matter of pinching the material through two rolling cutters. It requires user strength and is very limited in the thickness and hardness of the aluminum and the wear of the blades. Since they slit or pinch, they don’t make saw dust.

    Mat cutters use a knife to cut materials. Combo machines use a knife to cut materials but can also use a saw to cut thicker or denser materials that can’t be cut with a knife or pinched with rolling blades. The saw makes cutting much faster since one pass is made instead of several with a knife. Combo machines are made out of steel and are much sturdier than their mat cutting rivals that are made out of aluminum. Combo machines have a base that is up to 10’ wide for support of large sheets vs. the 5’ wide support of Mat cutters.

    Combo machines can cut up and down and sideways on sheets, and can be purchased in models that cut 4’, 5’ and 6’ feet wide. This rip cut capability means that you can cut 6‘x 3’ sign blanks from a 4‘x 8’, which you can’t do with a Mat cutter. Cost is not an issue because the list price of a Fletcher type cutter is about as much as a Saw Trax “Sign Package” Combo machine with a 10 foot wide, powder coated steel frame. Addressing the dust issue with a dust brush under the saw, dust collection on the saw and a dust port at the base of the saw to catch the dust before it hits the floor are all real benefits to your shop.

    Because ”Combo” machines have a greater cutting capability, are sturdier, and are easier to work with when handling full size sheets, we'll recommend the Combo machine over the Mat Cutter. Of the “Combo” machines, which one do you buy? There are basically two brands to choose from. Cost for similar models may appear close, but looking at exactly what is included with the package shows about a $450 difference. So compare apples to apples when you’re looking.

    Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

    Panel Saws
    Panel Saws are inherently safer than table saws or hand held circular saws. The saw is guided in a carriage on a track and the saw blade is only exposed under the carriage. Safety issues arise when the saw plate or knife plate is removed from the machine. Look for the blade guard on the saw to be on at all times to prevent oops’. With the interchangeable knife, you’ll want to look at exposure of that blade as well. These important safety features cannot be stressed enough in these days of lawsuits.

    Also take note if it comes assembled with a folding stand and a “set and forget” alignment system for ease of use. A sheet clamp option that holds a sheet in place close to the cutting area under the carriage is also a very handy feature for holding in place a long piece on the mid-fence or for holding a narrow piece on the material rollers.

    Consider the backer board for the knife, this eliminates the tedious task of reaching behind the machine with one hand to screw on a wing nut, while holding a Phillips head screw in place on the front of the machine with the other hand. Tool swaps are easier because it uses two spring-loaded pull pins that are permanently attached to the top of the carriage. These are all things to look at when you’re considering which one is right for your shop.

    When you look at tool change times, which include the backer board, you are looking at 10 seconds with a Saw Trax vs. several minutes with the others. The saw replacement will be an issue at some point. Consider off the shelf replacement parts like the Porter Cable Mag saw that can be purchased at a home center store and uses a new sealed bearing system on its carriage called “Accu-Glide”. This makes the movement of the carriage much easier and more precise. This is a factor if you have a big job that requires a lot of vertical cuts at one time.

    Saw blade changes are faster with the Porter Cable saw because of “Tool-less” blade changes, where a wrench is not required. Blade change times may be a significant consideration due to the need to change blades for cutting aluminum and plastics, which should be cut with different types of saw blades.

    While we are talking about blades, look at the cost of replacing your blades. The use of the very common 7¼” size blade and cutting on a mark is easier when you can see the blade line up with a mark on your material.

    Lastly, a good knife is essential for good sign making. How easy is the knife to replace and keep sharp while you’re doing RIP cuts, as well as cross cuts repetitively? An OLFA knife with a segmented blade may be your new best friend. These blades retract when it is off the machine and can be sharpened by snapping off a segment.

    The short story is that the combo machine gives you the benefits of a panel saw and a mat cutter without buying both. It costs about the same as a mat cutter and saves floor space. So look at all of the features that you’ll need in your shop and weigh your choices so that you’ll make the right decision before you take the leap. Safe and happy cutting!

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