Plexiglass, a type of acrylic, is a common material used in hobby projects. In this guide we break down how exactly cutting Plexiglass works.
Plexiglass and acrylic are different, although they are made of the same material. Plexiglass is a trade name for acrylic that’s manufactured in a certain way. You see, acrylic comes in two types: Extruded and cell-cast. Cell-cast acrylic is created in a closed system where it is solidified from molten plastic, whereas extruded acrylic is created using an extrusion die, similar to how a 3D printer creates plastic parts.
Plexiglass is cell-cast acrylic, not extruded acrylic (which is known simply as “acrylic”). The main difference between cell-cast and extruded acrylic is that cell-cast acrylic tends to have a tougher surface. This makes it less prone to impurities and more resistant to scratching.
Common uses of Plexiglass include replacement windows, as well as small craft project applications that require transparency. For craft projects, Plexiglass needs cutting in order to create 3D structures in shapes where glass would be prohibitively expensive. So let’s explore a few ways Plexiglass can be cut.
One of the easiest and least expensive methods for cutting Plexiglass is the use of a scoring tool. If you simply need to cut along a straight line, this method should work quite well. Before beginning, you should get some goggles and gloves to keep your eyes and hands safe during the process.
To use a scoring tool, you simply score/lightly scratch the surface of the Plexiglass along the line you wish to cut several times. Using a ruler in this process might help. Once scored, the Plexiglass can be snapped along the score line. Unfortunately, this method does not work well for cutting very thick pieces of Plexiglass (beyond 3/16″ or so), and score lines need to be straight for this to work.
If you’re willing to use a power tool for cutting Plexiglass, the use of a jigsaw with a special blade is a great option. To use a jigsaw, you’ll need safety glasses and gloves as well as a decent work area to clamp your Plexiglass so you can make a clean cut.
Next, you can simply use the saw to cut the Plexiglass even if it’s particularly thick or you need to make slight curves in the cut. In contrast to the Plexiglass blade, some makers think that a metal cutting blade has advantages over the traditional Plexiglass blade as it creates less of an odor and less of a mess.
For cutting large quantities or extremely thick (more than 1″) pieces of Plexiglass, a bandsaw is the perfect tool. As compared to our previous tools, bandsaws require more safety considerations such as goggles, gloves, and a large work area for cutting.
In addition, given the extremely sharp nature of the blade and quick cutting of the bandsaw, slow and methodical cutting using a guard or larger pieces of plexiglass is advised. Conveniently, the bandsaw can be used to cut large curves.
For thinner sheets of Plexiglass that require extremely tight curves and even circles, a nibbler is the perfect tool. Unlike the bandsaw or jigsaw, a nibbler cuts small pieces of Plexiglass using a biting motion. This tool is a great “middle-ground” tool that isn’t as expensive as a bandsaw but is more capable of cutting very intricate cuts in thinner sheets if material.
It’s possible to cut a variety of materials, including metals for multimaterial projects, with the nibbler. In the safety department, it’s important to wear protective goggles and gloves as this tool tends to throw small plastic shards in many directions as it cuts rapidly.
For cutting circles, an adjustable circle cutter is a great tool to use in combination with a drill to cut perfect circles in Plexiglass. Safety considerations include wearing goggles and gloves.
While this tool cannot cut shapes other than circles, it does its job quite well, particularly if a large number of repeated circles are needed. As compared to the jigsaw, bandsaw, or nibbler, this tool can cut much more exact circles than other tools.
While laser cutting may not be the most economical option for cutting Plexiglass, it can be done and is a very exact method of cutting. For example, the Glowforge Plus, a machine suited for this task, can cut materials up to 1/2″ thick. Regarding safety, it is important to note that cutting acrylic creates a very noticeable odor. You definitely need to use a carbon and particulate filter to take care of nasty things your lungs won’t care for.
Using a laser can come with an intense learning curve, depending on the laser purchased. Some lasers are plug-and-play while others take many hours to set up. In addition, cutting requires the creation of a CAD file that can tell the laser how to cut the plastic. This may be more work than it is worth if it’s just simple cuts that are desired. Nevertheless, the intricate results of this cutting method make it very attractive for makers who need precision.
If you simply need some straight cuts of Plexiglass, you can get it cut for you for free. Conveniently, most home improvement stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot have glass and plastic cutting sections of the store located near the actual Plexiglass and glass.
If you need a lot of straight pieces of Plexiglass, the employees will cut these for you to the exact sizes you need. This can be convenient if you have a set of dimensions you need but you don’t have the time to make the cuts yourself. The only drawback to this approach is that you can’t get curved cuts or complex shapes cut at the store. Nevertheless, the straight cuts will save you time and effort if you’re buying the Plexiglass there, anyway.
With these tips, you should be well on your way to your next Plexiglass project!
(Lead image source: Ali Express)
License: The text of "Cutting Plexiglass: How to Cut Plexiglass – Simply Explained" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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