Shop Upgrades: Crosscut Sled

Published Thursday, March 21, 2024 by Bryan

You may have noticed a giant grey-and-brown ‘T’ on the wall in my post about french cleats. That's the item that forced the redesign of that wall's storage. It's my new crosscut sled.

A T-shaped crosscut sled on a table saw.
The new sled, in place and ready to use.

I built my first crosscut sleds while making my dresser four years ago. The sleds you've seen in my recent videos and posts were parts of those sleds, reworked to fit my newer table saw. They have helped me create some projects I'm quite proud of. But the cheap plywood they're made of has started to show its age. Each sled has a slight warp or twist to it that requires special attention to manage.

I watched a lot of videos, and read a lot of advice about crosscut sled design. It's definitely one of those, “Ask three woodworkers, get four opinions,” topics. Everything from materials to features and dimensions is up for debate. The most obvious true thing is that no sled will be ideal for every task. That's no surprise to me, and it's the reason I have several already. But I was still looking for a general-purpose sled to handle a wider variety of cuts I make often.

Cut variety is the thing my old primary sled lacked. In order to keep the clearance around the blade as tight as possible (to reduce tear-out in the cuts), I used the sled only with my two 1/8in-kerf blades, and only when they were set to 90°. For angled cuts or dadoes I switched to one of two additional sleds. But even those sleds, after multiple projects, only provided tight blade clearance at a 45° or a 3/4in dado. Shallower angles or narrower dadoes required extra sacrifical backers.

As described in the caption. Each insert has one cut in it. 'What lives behind them' is the combination of all those cuts.
Four inserts I've accumulated so far, and what lives behind them. Clockwise from upper right: 1/8in-kerf at 90°, 1/8in-kerf at 45°, 3/4in dado, 9/16in dado.
A shallow shelving unit with four shelves. Many of the inserts seen in the other picture are stacked on the shelves.
The wall-hanger includes storage for all the inserts.

So on the new sled, I've incorporated the sacrificial backers into the design. The dark-brown strips in the middle are 1/8in hardboard that are attached via screws and T-nuts embedded in the sled. Whenever I'm making a cut at an angle I've never used before, or a dado at a width I've never used before, I screw in fresh hardboard strips and cut through them on my first pass. After I'm done with that angle/width, I take the strips off and label them with the details of the cut, and save them for the next time I need that setup. The french-cleat hanger for this sled has four shelves to provide space for storing many sets of inserts. I've cut the full range in the base below them now, and they're still providing great support, tearout reduction, and cut alignment after countless swaps.

From the closeups of the inserts, you may have noticed that I departed from the most frequently recommended construction material. It's basically impossible for me to get baltic birch plywood, let alone the melamine-coated variety. The plywood I can get is still expensive, and is also difficult to transport. So I've chosen less common materials: MDF, formica, and solid oak.

A side view of the base, showing the edge of an MDF panel with thin formica layers attached to the top and bottom.
The base is MDF sandwiched between skins of formica.

Medium Density Fiberboard is not that uncommon of a suggestion, especially if you look to older designs. It's just as flat as high-grade plywood, and really only suffers in the rigidity and durability departments. Those problems are fixed by the application of formica to either side. Just a coat of contact cement on each piece, and they're attached forever. The rigid skins on either side dramatically stiffened the MDF. They also provide a low-friction surface to make sliding across the table easy, and an adhesive-friendly surfaced to make attaching and detaching temporary jigs easy (via double-stick tape, or painters tape and super glue). MDF really won in the cost- and transport-friendliness departments. I bought a smaller 2x4ft sheet for not much money, and brought it home without borrowing a truck.

I expect most people won't argue with me too much about MDF for the base - as long as it lays flat, it's good. But the fence is another story. Surely I would want the absolute straightest, most stable material I could find to make the piece that keeps my work straight as I cut it. That's true, but have you ever seen a piece of red oak that didn't come from a big box home center? It's not as warped as you're used to. I also have a lot of it, so I could be a little picky about the pieces I chose.

A side view of the main fence.
Each fence is three layers of solid red oak.

As for the stability, I'm not too worried. As long as I keep the dehumidifier running in the summer, my shop stays 35-55% humidity year-round. That should keep movement to a minimum on its own. The structure of the fences, I hope, will take care of the rest. Each fence is composed of three layers of 3/4in-thick oak. The grain in the middle layer runs perpendicular to the other two. It was clamped to a flat surface while the glue in the enormous contact patches between them all dried. It will take a lot of force to bend. Until we make it through the rest of the seasons, I can't say that it won't, but I'm pretty confident.

A clamp has one end sticking into a hole in the middle of the fence. The other end is a long screw holding a piece of wood against the fence.
The holes in the middle layer were originally intended for clamps.

The holes in the middle layer serve three purposes. Their initial inclusion came to me as a way to avoid buying T-track for attaching stops and clamps. I have two clamps that have a 3/8in dowel for one end. That dowel can slide into any of these slots, and then the clamp can be tightened to hold things like stop blocks against the face of the fence.

The sled is suspended in front of the shallow shelving cabinet holding the inserts, via two pegs that protrude through holes in the center of the fences.
Two holes in the middle layer became storage supports.

When deciding how to hang this sled on the french cleat wall, the holes in the fence found their second purpose. I drilled through the base of the sled at the bottom of two holes near the right side. Two pegs stick out from the cabinet holding all the hardboard inserts, and slide into these two holes. The sled hangs sideways, which I think should reduce stress on the fences, since they're not trying to fold or bow under their own weight.

A pencil has been placed into the hole nearest the end of the fence
The holes found other uses.

The third purpose was found accidentally, before trying any of the other purposes. Even before completing the five-cut method to square up the fence, I absentmindedly set down the pencil I was using … by sticking it in the whole on the end. It's perfect - out of the way, but within quick reach.

The final component to this fence is the runners that slide in the miter slots. I had intended to use some HDPE (high density poly-ethylene) plastic, as often recommended for its complete lack of seasonal change. Unfortunately the used cutting boards I was going to scavenge it from turned out to be LDPE (low density …). The material was not at all up to the task - it was too easy to deform.

The sled has been tipped on end to reveal the runners on the bottom.
The runners are laminate hardwood flooring.

My original sleds had solid hardwood (cherry) runners. I had very little trouble with them swelling or srinking. I very nearly chose the same again, when I noticed the small stack of laminate hardwood flooring I had acquired during our neighbor's garage cleaning. It just happened to be the perfect thickness to engage the miter slot without rubbing on the bottom. I ripped down a 4ft plank, and now I have extra runners for future sleds. I've even used part of an extra strip to make a tool I should have made ages ago, for dialing in blade alignment.

The new sled is working great. I've made straight cuts, angled cuts, and dadoes. I've attached and detached mitre and taper jigs. I've cut short stock and long. It has been on and off its french cleat hanger dozens of times as I've used the table saw in other ways. I'm quite happy with it.

Categories: Woodworking