This article was updated on 06/01/20.
Woodworking jigs come after laying out the big bucks for that new lathe, bandsaw, or table saw. Theyre helping tools, they're handmade, and some say they hold a cult status in the wood shop. Many sources of woodworking tips will overwhelm you with plans for jigs that leave you scratching your head saying, "Why didn't I think of that?"
How many and how clever the jigs that a woodworker has devised and built is often a point of pride in the crafting DIY community. Its fair to say that woodworking jigs are right up there with homemade wood putty.
You are most likely familiar with acrylics by the brand name Plexiglas®. Likewise, a popular trade name for polycarbonate is Lexan®. Youre probably also aware that most eyeglass lens today are made of polycarbonate plastic.
So what purpose do these plastics serve with jigs? Theyre clear, so they serve as a window into the jig. This way you can see what youre doing; you can tell when to stop making a cut on your router table, for instance.
So which should you use? Well, it depends on the application. Plexiglas acrylic is a brittle material so use Lexan polycarbonate if shattering is an issue.
Phenolic plastic is a very interesting material. Its made by laminating layers of paper bonded with a resin. To complete the process, its compressed in a heated press to a precise thickness.
The end result is a very hard and smooth sheet. Making your own router table? Phenolic makes an ideal router mounting plate due to its smoothness. The downside is that this plastic is surprisingly expensive and you probably wont find it at Home Depot or Lowes.
Its not just for kitchen countertops anymore! You know this material as Formica®. This is, in fact, a brand name. Its also made by Bruce, Armstrong, Wilsonart, and others. You know the process; just as folks call drywall Sheetrock® and call carbonated beverages Coke the names for this ubiquitous material have become swappable in the popular venacular. Terminology morphing like this is the ultimate proof of commercial success. God bless Capitalism; down with Socialism.
The advantages of plastic laminate are that its cheaper than phenolic and more readily available; even the big box stores have a wide variety. The disadvantage is that its a bit more work since its thin, so youll need to mount it on plywood or hardboard with contact cement.
UHMW (Ultra High Molecular Weight)Plastic
No wonder the name is abbreviated! But what sets UHMW apart from the pack? Its slick as molasses. Things slide across it like they were on ice, the result of its self-lubricating property.
This property makes it ideal for use as a runner in the miter slot of your benchtop table saw. Its available in thin strips that are ideal for sticking on the auxiliary fence of your table saw or router table or for applying to sticking points of drawers.
So whats the catch? Like phenolic plastic, its a bit hard to find in your local home improvement store. It's mainly targeted towards the industrial market but most on-line suppliers are more than happy to supply DIY woodworkers. (There's that Capitalism again!)
Where else is UHMW used? You might be surprised. On boat hulls, for one thing, which makes perfect sense. But the food industry uses it in an antibacterial form for food cutting boards. Of course, you would probably rather have abutcher block countertop. A lot better looking and so much more fun to make.
The Bottom Line on Plastic Jig Materials
Wood shopWood shop jigs have a niche of their own in the world of power tools. And you dont have to design your own; most woodworkers and craftsmen are glad to show them off and share. All of these plastic materials for woodworking jigs have their place when it comes to enhancing your tools and making your shop a safer place.
Kelly R. Smith is an Air Force veteran and was a commercial carpenter for 20 years before returning to night school at the University of Houston where he earned a Bachelors Degree in Computer Science. After working at NASA for a few years, he went on to develop software for the transportation, financial, and energy-trading industries. He has been writing, in one capacity or another, since he could hold a pencil. As a freelance writer now, he specializes in producing articles and blog content for a variety of clients. His personal blog is at I Can Fix Up My Home Blog where he muses on many different topics.