How to Cut Thin Plexiglass By Hand

Plexiglass, the generic name for acrylic sheet, is an incredibly durable material with near-limitless applications. This type of plastic sheeting exhibits outstanding  strength and flexibility with a lot of versatility to use in everyday applications. Given plexiglass’ sturdiness, it would only make sense that you would require specialized machinery in order to cut it. In reality, however, that’s not exactly true. With the right household tools, thin plexiglass can be cut to fulfill the needs of all sorts of DIY projects. Here’s a few things to keep in mind if you’re interested in working with this amazing material.

Thickness

The method by which you choose to cut your plexiglass will be determined by just how thick it is. Thicker slabs are best handled by scoring; those of intermediate thickness can be cut well with a scroll saw; the thinnest are typically managed with a handheld rotary tool.

Scoring

Thicker plexiglass, strangely enough, allows for the simplest of the cutting processes. First, grab a metal ruler and a utility knife (preferably one with a brand new blade). Measure the ruler against the cutting line and then draw the knife repeatedly down its edge, gradually increasing the pressure with each pass. Continue until you’ve scored a deep line in the plexiglass (it may take as many as ten or twelve scores), then turn the slab over and repeat the process. Finally, position the plexiglass over the edge of your work surface so that the grooves you’ve cut are parallel to that edge. Hold the side of the material on the work surface firmly against it (you can secure it with a clamp if you have one, or weigh it down) and then bring sharp downward pressure onto the side positioned over the edge. The plexiglass will break cleanly; be sure to have something soft for it to land on so as to prevent scratching.

Sawing

Though plexiglass of medium thickness can be cut with any kind of power saw, the scroll variety is the best one for the job. That’s because scroll saws produce much less heat than their brethren, which cuts down on the risk of your plexiglass melting as it’s cut. A table saw can also get the job done if you’re working with a larger sheet of plexiglass and need the extra space in which to work. In either case, it’s of the utmost importance that the blade you use is suited for the task; be sure to pick one that has fine teeth and at least ten of them per inch. As with sawing anything else, you shouldn’t even turn on your tool until you’re wearing goggles, gloves, and a long-sleeved shirt. Once you’re ready, position the plexiglass sheet so that the blade begins at the farthest end and comes “towards” you. Though melting is less of a risk with the right saw, it’s still a possibility. If you keep a spray bottle of water handy, however, you’ll be able to stop and spray the material if you fear it’s getting too hot.

Cutting

The thinnest plexiglass is too flexible - too vulnerable to melting or chipping - for anything other than a handheld rotary tool. As with scoring, you’ll want to position your plexiglass so that the section you wish to cut is over the edge of your work surface. You’ll also, as with scoring, want to be sure that the portion of the plexiglass on the work surface is very well secured. Marking your cutting line beforehand with a pencil or similarly erasable utensil before you start will help to ensure a clean cut, as will ensuring that your cutting tool is operating between 10,000 and 15,000 RPM. Once you’re finished, the cut portion will fall from the rest of the sheet. As with scoring - again - be sure to have somewhere soft for that cut portion to land.

Finishing

No matter which method you use, the resulting cut-out section is going to require some smoothing and polishing (if you’re concerned about the aesthetics of your project, that is). For this, you’ll need the following…

  • Multiple pieces of sandpaper suitable for wet-sanding ranging from 120 to 600 grit
  • A wood or rubber sanding block
  • A power drill with a buffing pad attachment
  • A polishing compound formulated for plastic

Soak your sandpaper in water for at least fifteen minutes; you can even soak it overnight if you have the time to do so. Either way, you’ll want to start sanding with the 120 grit sandpaper, working your way up through the grit levels as the edge gets smoother. Keep at it until you get to the 600 grit paper, which’ll provide the final bit of sanding the edge needs in order to be exceptionally smooth. Next, add the buffing attachment to the drill and apply the polishing compound to the plexiglass. Buff to a perfect polish.

Conclusion

Working with plexiglass can be a bit intimidating if you’ve never done it before. Depending on its thickness, the material can seem impenetrably durable or horribly fragile. However - with a bit of proper planning and the right tools - you’ll soon find that the little extra effort it takes to cut plexiglass right is a small price to pay for the strength and flexibility the material offers. Interested in learning more about working with plastics? Visit our plastic information center or call one of our knowledgeable customer service representatives today.

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