Panel Saws vs. Mat Cutters, Who’s winning the War?
Any self respecting sign shop has a panel saw or mat cutter or both. They have traditionally had their own niche in what material each will cut but now there seems to be a battle to see who is the dominant sheet cutter in today’s sign shop.
As you probably know, a mat cutter uses a knife blade, etching blade or rolling blade to cut, pinch or etch a material so it can be cut, cracked or snapped along a straight line. They are quiet and virtually dust free but can only cut in one direction and are limited by the thickness, hardness and type of material cut.
Panel saws are basically a big jig for a circular saw to cut sheet goods. They can cut in both directions, up and down or sideways. With the right blade, they can cut most any hard material. But, they are loud, dusty, big, intimidating and shred softer material.
The first shot across the bow was when Saw Trax Mfg. came out with a Knife insert plate for their panel saw back in 2000 or so. Suddenly a panel saw could cut foam boards and softer sheet goods reserved for mat cutters. Next came the “Sign Makers Package” from Saw Trax that included a stand, wheels for the frame, spring hold down, knife cutter and stops. A competing panel saw company shortly jumped into the fray with their Sign Saw package that included some of the options offered by Saw Trax. Improvements to the Knife insert and spring hold downs help the panel saw combo machines erode some of the mat cutter market share.
The mat cutters had fired back in 2007. The mat cutters came out with a substrate cutter that has expanded the thicknesses and types of material it can cut. It has done this by using a cutting head design that pinches, shears and splits the material. As it splits the material, guides on the cutter head direct one side up and the other side down. This separation allows a pair of connected rolling scissors on one cutting head to pinch, shear and split the material from the top and bottom.
The downside with the rolling cutter on the aluminum is the tremendous amount of wasted material. One side of the aluminum being cut is turned into a long, bananna shaped, unusable scrap. If trimming one printed piece or sizing just one blank from a sheet, this system is fine but it makes the rest of the sheet unusable. If sizing multiple blanks from a sheet or trimming two or more prints from a sheet, this rolling cutter does not do the job.
By varying the type of cutting heads, foam boards, plastic, aluminum and aluminum composites can be cut with a mat cutter. The two biggest advantages of the mat cutters remained the dust free cuts and the hold down clamp that was next to the blade.
To answer these dust free advantages, Saw Trax has come out with a rolling shear and pivoting knife of it's own.They bother make dust free cuts on material. The advantage of the Saw Trax rolling shear is it's length. The longer releif slots (3 times longer) don't noodle the material like the mat cutters.
The pivoting knife can make cuts on the coro and foam boards as the normal knife but can now score cut expanded PVC. This helps reduce dust in the shop.
In addition, Saw Trax has improved the dust collection built into the saw (Makita 5007NK) With a large 2.5" dust house and a dust containment brush under the saw carriage, the dust collection is surprisingly effective.
In 2008, Saw Trax answered the hold down and dust issue by introducing two new accessories designed for their combo machines in sign shops. The first is a nice to have “safe hands” sheet clamp. It keeps the user’s hands away from the saw or knife blade but allows them to make smaller cuts on smaller materials. So much for the hold down clamp advantage of the mat cutter.
Most shops can handle a few seconds of a whining saw in the back room. What they can’t handle is the saw dust. That’s where the mat cutters were king, or at least used to be king.
The nuclear bomb is the Saw Trax Freedom Saw. This saw is supposed to be “next to dust free”.
What exactly is “next to dust free” and how does it work? “Next to dust free” allows the manufacturer a bit of wiggle room. It means that on some material, it will pick up all of the saw dust and on other material it picks up almost all of the saw dust. In either case of materials, there is an incredible difference between the Freedom saw and the traditional saw.
“How it works” is a good question. Traditional panel saws suspend the saw above the material as it cuts. This leaves a “gap” between where the saw blade exits the material and where it enters the saw carriage and the dust collector. A wrap around brush has been used to contain the saw dust that gets thrown in this gap, but the brush mostly knocked down the dust and contained to from going everywhere. The Freedom Saw actually lowers down and floats on your material, eliminating the gap where almost all of the saw dust came from. It uses a Delran plate on the bottom to prevent scratching of the material and an enclosed saw that uses a 2.5” dust connection and hose that is compatible with most 2.5” dust hoses bought at your local home center. Its max depth of cut is ¾”. It can cut laminated plywood, acrylics, polycarbonate, aluminum, aluminum composites, MDO, and most any rigid material you can throw at it besides glass. The non-rigid material can still be cut with the knife insert.
Judging by the video on the Saw Trax web site and seeing it work in person, I have to admit, it is impressive to see this saw in action, especially when rip cutting. Rip cutting, length wise cuts, is something the mat cutter can’t do. This saw should be a helping hand to the folks who make plywood composite material like NUDO. Finally a shop can cut most any material, “next to dust free”.
So, to answer the question of “Who’s winning the war?”, I’d have to say the panel saw combo machine with this new floating saw and sheet clamp has won me over. It can do most of what the mat cutter can do except cut glass and a ton of things the mat cutter can’t do. Unless you have a “0” tolerance for dust or need to cut glass in your sign shop, I’d be looking very hard at this Saw Trax Signmakers machine with the Freedom Saw and Sheet Clamp. That would be my choice.