The virtues of vertical saws

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The virtues of vertical saws
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Any shop that regularly fabricates with panel products knows all too well the importance of square and accurate panel cutting. Nothing is more frustrating than out-of-square cuts that come back to bite you later in the fabrication process.

A good panel saw could be compared to what the Marines do during a wartime skirmish — lead the assault because they have the ability to get the job done. When starting anything new, whether it be a cabinet job or a military exercise, you want to make sure you set the precedent with an accurate, well laid-out plan that can be built upon. Procuring a good vertical panel saw could very well be the instrument to carry out such a plan.

My first experience with vertical panel saws was at a cabinet shop where I worked several years ago. It was a small company specializing in custom residential cabinetry. When I started with the company, all panels were cut on a table saw. I remember being somewhat intimidated by the arrival of the vertical saw. It wasn't because I felt it was unnecessary, but because it was such a different way of cutting material. It just seemed awkward having panels on edge during the cutting process. I soon realized it was a great complement to the operation and worked much like the vertical router we had already been using in the shop.

Although I didn't work too long in that shop after they purchased the new saw, I left with an unexpected appreciation for vertical saws. First and foremost was the ease in dealing with the panels. A standard sheet of 3/4" particleboard (or melamine) weighs about 96 lbs. Couple that with an awkward size, and you've got an element that over time will cause a lot of grief and frustration on your back. Manhandling these unwieldy sheets of material is like a football player dealing with an aggressive, oversized opponent on the line of scrimmage; they eventually wear you down. The nature of having to control the size and weight of the panel while attempting to get accurate cuts is inherently difficult.

Examining the benefits
I can still remember my first experience of cutting a sheet on the vertical saw. Getting the panel onto the saw was simple, because it didn't require lifting the entire weight of the sheet. Once it was positioned in place, I was moving the saw head, not the panel. There is a definite difference in moving a saw head on rails designed for movement rather than a heavy sheet of wood. It seemed effortless. I also noticed how much less fatigued I was after cutting several sheets. And these were just the benefits I noticed for my body (very important ones, I might add).

The second thing I noticed was the quality of the cut and speed of process. Panels were perfectly square, had clean-cut edges and production was noticeably increased. Hmmm. Why did we wait so long? It was embarrassing when I considered my previous narrow-minded thinking on the subject of how panels are best cut.

The third benefit I discovered about the vertical panel saw is the relatively small footprint. When the owner of that cabinet shop talked about bringing in a new saw, I wondered what tool he was going to get rid of. The space we worked in was already tight. The shop was well laid out with equipment and raw materials strategically placed. When the dozen or so workers were cranking it out at full steam, there was no room for anything else. It was amazing how so much stuff could fit in a space and yet still be productive. Surprisingly, with the arrival of the new saw, nothing went out the door. It was logically placed by the panel storage, nuzzled up near the saw it replaced. I thought, "What is he thinking? There isn't enough room to maneuver the panels." What I didn't realize is that not only the bulk of the saw's square footage is vertical, but the square footage of the panels we would be cutting was also vertical. What a concept.

Vertically challenged
If they're so great, why is it all shops don't have a vertical saw? Probably because there are some downsides. Although they have the ability to cut cleanly, not all utilize a scoring blade. Scoring blade technology increases the success of consistently cutting cleanly on both sides of a panel. Next, they are primarily designed to cut square, 90-degree incisions on the panel only. You're just simply out of luck if you need to cut long miters. Unlike the horizontal panel saw, vertical saws are mostly efficient on only panel products.