There are tons of woodworking projects available online that allow you to build some great-looking stuff with inexpensive lumber. But so many of them assume you have a table saw. How do you square up cheap dimensional lumber without a table saw? How do you cut plywood without a table saw? It turns out you can.
You can buy or make clamp-on jigs that allow you to make long cuts in a straight line with a circular saw or jig saw. This lets you do many things people normally do on a table saw, such as cutting the rounded edges off 1×4 or 2×4 lumber or ripping plywood. It’s much less expensive than a table saw, and in some cases, it’s also safer.
What’s wrong with a table saw?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with table saws. They’re just expensive. I may or may not get one someday, but for now, not knowing how much I would use one, I’d prefer to find a way to get things done with the tools I have.
There are inexpensive table saws that cost under $200, but you’re limited in what you can do with them. Notably, you’re limited to rips about four feet long. There’s a Ryobi table saw out there that’s currently selling for around $140 and that’s tempting. But its limitations got me seeking out other alternatives. It’s difficult to find a saw worth having for less than $500, and a table saw for pros or serious hobbyists costs more than tat.
But what if I can make four foot cuts just as quickly and easily for $25 using the tools I already have? That’s a compelling alternative. If I can make eight-foot cuts with just a little more setup work for another $25, that’s a compelling alternative too.
The Harbor Freight clamp and cut edge guide
Ye Olde Harbor Freight sells a 50-inch clamp and cut edge guide. As long as the board you want to rip is shorter than 50 inches, you snap the edge guide onto it using its built-in clamps, set your circular saw’s cut depth to match the material you’re cutting, then let it rip. All you need is the guide, a couple of sawhorses, a circular saw, enough room to set up, and, of course, a power source. You probably have all of those things except the guide.
And if you have the vertical clearance, you can use a jig saw to make the cut if that’s what you have available at the moment. It won’t be as fast, but it’ll do the job.
This guide is enough to allow you to cut a 4×8 sheet of plywood or OSB in half, then cut it down further if necessary to make cheap, sturdy utility shelves. It also makes other plywood projects realistic.
Squaring up dimensional lumber may be a bit more tricky. First you’ll have to cut it down to shorter than 50 inches in length. Depending on the width of the lumber, you may have to set a second piece of lumber next to the one you want to cut to support the guide enough. But being able to cut the rounded edges off cheap lumber allows to you glue boards together into longer boards to make nice, smooth work surfaces at a much lower cost than buying what the home centers call common boards that are squared and smooth on all four sides.
The Harbor Freight 24-inch clamp and cut edge guide
Harbor Freight also sells a 24-inch clamp and cut edge guide, but that seems less useful. It would be nice for evening up the edge on glue-ups, or if you need to cut smaller pieces of plywood into still smaller pieces. But you can use the bigger guide for that, it’s just overkill. Looking at the reviews, it seems a lot of people use the 24-inch version as a replacement fence on cheap table saws, ironically.
Worried about Harbor Freight’s quality? For stuff like this, don’t be.
The homemade edge guide
If you need to make longer cuts, you’ll have to make your own edge guide. You do this with a sheet of plywood and the circular saw you already have. Use any thickness of plywood you want, but the thinner you use, the less you’ll limit the depth of cut you can make. You may want to get some quarter-inch flooring underlayment and use that.
Measure the plywood to make sure it’s exactly 4×8 and perfectly straight and square. It should be. Mark the factory edge of the board. Then cut off the edge a couple of inches back. Take the piece you just cut off, and set it about four inches from the edge of the board. You want it to be a little further from the edge than your saw is wide. Square the piece up with the top and bottom of the board and attach it with some wood screws. This is your saw guide. Line the saw up against the guide, then cut. Now you have a perfectly straight line to cut against, and a guide customized to your saw.
Cut on the other side of the guide to make the whole jig a reasonable width. Now when you need to make a cut, just mark the beginning and end on your board, line up the jig right on the cut, and clamp it down with spring clamps or c clamps. Then cut.
The homemade edge guide isn’t as quick and simple as the one you can buy from Harbor Freight. But it’s cheap, and if you need to rip 8-foot boards, it’ll do the job for a lot less money than buying a track saw.