Though simple in concept, installing drywall is a bit of an art form and requires a fair amount of patience and precision, especially when cutting drywall to size. If you can use a tool like a table saw to rip sheets of plywood into perfectly straight strips of material quickly and accurately, you might be wondering if you could do the same for a sheet of drywall.
The answer is: “you can cut drywall panels with a table saw, but you probably shouldn’t,” and here’s why..
An Overview of Drywall
Drywall is known by many names, including gypsum board, Sheetrock, plasterboard, and wallboard, and is made from mined gypsum. Gypsum is a soft, light-colored mineral made mainly of hydrated calcium sulfate.
Manufacturing drywall with gypsum is an interesting process: Gypsum is first ground into a fine mineral powder and then mixed with small fibers of paper or glass and various additives that can change the specific uses for the drywall by achieving certain performance characteristics like mold resistance and fireproofing. This creates a bit of a paste or slurry which is then placed between two sheets of paper and dried, thus forming a sheet of fairly strong yet lightweight material.
Sheetrock® is a trademark name for the drywall panel made by USG (United States Gypsum Company).
Why You Shouldn’t Use a Table Saw to Cut Drywall
Now that you know that drywall is essentially just a crumbly, powdery mineral encased in paper, you might have already guessed why using a really powerful tool meant for ripping through dense wood boards might make quite the dusty mess when used on something so brittle and unsubstantial. This is the main concern when using a table saw to cut drywall, and not only for how obnoxious it will be to clean up later.
Safety and Health Issues
Apart from the intrinsic dangers of working with table saws, working with drywall adds another layer of potential hazards. Gypsum can be a somewhat inconsistent mineral in terms of the elements it is composed of, and some drywall has been found to contain a chemical profile that includes heavy metals like mercury. Other drywall products have been found to contain unsafe levels of sulfur. Though drywall isn’t dangerous to work with or be around as an unchanged sheet or when gently cut, once dust is created from breaking or cutting the drywall, especially haphazardly, it can quickly become concerning when inhaled.
Of course, you could use some basic PPE and a vacuum setup for your table saw in order to mitigate the dangers associated with creating big clouds of gypsum dust in your garage, but just be aware that even dust getting on your clothing and the dust that you will undoubtedly have to sweep up later (which will create additional mini clouds of dust) are both real concerns that should be taken seriously.
Now that we’ve talked about your health, let’s talk about the health of your power tools. Drywall dust is tiny (only 3 microns) and is exceptionally invasive in that it seems to make its way into every nook and cranny that exists in your work area. Picture that dust accumulating up your table saw’s motor and blade components. Wood dust particles are three to ten times larger than drywall dust particles, so if you’re thinking, “Sawdust doesn’t do this to my table saw, why would drywall dust?”, it’s likely worth re-evaluating that mindset.
Even if you are okay with the dust factor, the performance you will get out of your table saw when cutting your drywall sheets will leave much to be desired. You might be looking to make repeat cuts quickly and easily, or maybe you’re looking for top-level precision. That’s all fair, but think about how some softer woods experience fraying or splintering along the cut-line when using a table saw without much modification. Now, remember that you aren’t about to cut softwoods that have at least a somewhat consistent and strong fiber profile. Nay, you are literally about to cut paper that’s on top of powder that’s on top of more paper. You will probably experience a lot of fraying along your cut-line which may then require much more work during the install and mud stages of your drywalling operation to smooth or otherwise correct these areas, which wouldn’t be the case with many other tool options.
Not Suitable for Installled Drywall
One more knock against using a table saw for this purpose is that, for obvious reasons, you cannot use a table saw on existing drywall that’s already been installed. You would only be able to utilize this tool on fresh sheets of yet-to-be-installed drywall.
This leads me to my next point: there are a multitude of better options to keep in your collection to cut drywall and I’ll share them with you, below.
What Type of Saw is Best for Cutting Drywall?
The type of tool you choose to cut your drywall should really be based on whether you are cutting fresh drywall in preparation for installation, or whether you are removing existing drywall already installed on a wall. If you are removing existing drywall, say for the purposes of accessing plumbing or doing electrical work, the questions then become how much and what shape are you removing?
Best Tools for Cutting New Drywall
- Utility Knife with T-Square: This tool option combo is not only inexpensive, but also highly portable, quick, and effective. You simply mark your measurements, then use your T-square as a straight edge and run your utility knife along your cut-line. The drywall is easy to break along the score-line at this point. After breaking the drywall, run the utility knife along the back side of your cut-line to finish the cut. Easy peasy!
- Track Saw with Vacuum System: I know this sounds a little silly after I lectured you about dust from a table saw, but many professional drywallers swear by using their track saw for almost factory-edge-like precision and clean cuts when cutting drywall. After all, track saws are designed for clean, precise cuts along the fragile fibers common in plywood, so it’s not surprising that they can handle drywall too. Plus, the fact that they are portable and allow for repetitive cuts makes them a game changer for larger jobs, and their vacuum systems are often very effective due to their enclosed blade chamber.
- Powered Drywall “Cut-Out” Saw: These saws are very similar in appearance to jig saws, but their specialty is cutting out medium to large sections of drywall. They come with a shoe that helps guide the saw while also allowing you to line up the blade clearly on your cut line, much like you would a circular saw. Powered drywall saws come with a dust collection chamber with a vacuum attachment, so you’ll be able to avoid the mess while keeping your quick, precision cutting ability. These saws are best used for things like window and door cut-outs on already-installed drywall, but they could also be used for cutting new drywall to size.
Tools for Cutting Out Sections of Existing Drywall
- Manual Drywall Saw (Jab Saw): A drywall saw is a hand tool that is best used for small drywall cut-outs, like those meant for electrical outlets. It’s highly maneuverable and can handle curves or straight lines.
- Oscillating Multi-Tool: Often referred to as zip tools, these tools are great at “zipping” through larger sections of drywall quickly, easily, and cleanly and are great for creating cut-outs for things like plumbing access panels because the panels that are cut are relatively clean-cut and can easily be placed back into position afterwards.
- Reciprocating Saw: Sometimes referred to as a Sawzall, a reciprocating saw is a powerful tool that is best used for the removal of large sections of drywall when equipped with the right drywall blade. Due to its less-than-precise but efficient cutting of nearly anything, it’s often a great choice for demolition.
- Rotary Saw: These tools are designed for smoothly cutting tight curves and turns into drywall, so they make an excellent power saw that can be used for projects similar to the jab saw. Unlike a jab saw, a rotary saw has bit options that can help guide the saw around things like electrical boxes.
- Drywall “Cut-Out” Saw: As we’ve discussed above, these saws provide a quick, smooth cut to existing or not-yet-installed drywall and are best for cutting out medium to large sections of drywall. Aside from their performance, the dust chambers and vacuum attachments make these tools a great option.
How to Cut Drywall Cleanly?
When cutting large panels before installation, using a utility knife to score and snap will give you a clean cut.
- Position your drywall square at the location you want to cut and with a sharp knife score your cut line on the good side of the sheet.
The drywall T-square that runs along the width of the standard-sized sheetrock panels will keep your cut straight.
- Next snap the drywall from behind, by carefully supporting the panel.
- Finally, cut the backing paper along the snapped line to separate the two pieces.
Use a Drywall Rasp: A drywall rasp helps smooth cut edges of the drywall. This comes in handy in a variety of scenarios, but especially when cutting out sections of drywall for windows or when your cutting tool leaves a particularly jagged edge. A rasp can also help you fine-tune your drywall measurements for a more precise fit if you happen to cut your drywall a bit too large for the opening, for example.
Try Using a Laser Level: For very precise cuts, consider using a laser level in conjunction with a cutting tool listed above.
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