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Solo Handling of Plywood

The large size of plywood sheets (8’ x 4’ US; 125 x 250 cm metric) is ideal for the rapid construction of homes and completion of home improvement projects. However, those large sheets also come with a few problems; most notably how to effectively handle the sheets. The combination of their large, awkward size and weight , with a ¾” (20 mm) sheet weighing up to 70 lbs (32 kg), can make them a challenge to handle, especially for the do-it-yourselfer who doesn’t handle them all the time.

Professional carpenters have an advantage over us do-it-yourselfers, in that they are more accustomed to handling those heavy sheets. While a 70 pound sheet of plywood is still a 70 pound sheet of plywood, professional carpenters handle that all the time, building muscle in the process. Those of us who sit in an office all day, then go home to work on projects, probably don’t have the same muscle mass.

Fortunately for us, there are several tools, tips and jigs to assist the home DIY’er in handling these large, heavy and awkward sheets. These jigs or handles are commercially available at your local home center or readily prepared using scrap lumber you probably have sitting around from previous jobs.

Panel carriers

The home DIY’er can purchase a variety of items that all fit under the heading of ‘panel carriers.’ These carriers come a variety of prices to fit any budget; though even the most expensive versions won’t break the bank. We’re talking $7 to $50, depending on how good a one you want. All panel carriers have a basic “J” (or hook) shape to them where the plywood rests in the bottom of the hook with a handle that’s offset for more convenient handling.

The less expensive models are nothing more than a piece of plastic with a narrow slot for a piece of plywood (or drywall). The narrow slot doesn’t afford tremendous control of such a large panel and the thin plastic construction won’t win any durability contests. Nevertheless, for the home DIY’er with only a few panels to move about, this would suffice; but you’ve got to remember that you often get what you pay for. These low-cost carriers will only last so long.

More robust and expensive carriers (like the Gorilla Gripper panel carrier) give additional support as the panel is locked between two padded jaws with an offset handle. It’s still a little awkward for someone working solo, but it is also a lot more durable than the low-cost options.

Perhaps the best way to control a piece of plywood solo would be to use a plywood panel carrier with wheels; this product solves two problems at once— easily moving an awkwardly sized panel and taking the strain off of your back.

Making your own carrier

Even though the commercially available items are relatively inexpensive, the home DIY’er can easily construct their own panel carrier for little to no money out of scrap material or even just a piece of rope. Using rope to carry plywood is cheap, fast and effective.

To make a rope carrier, take approximately 20’ of rope (~600 cm) and tie it into one continuous loop. Place one part of the loop around each bottom corner of the plywood sheet, pulling the slack up to make a “handle” point in the middle of the sheet, as shown in the diagram below.

rope carrier,grab here,loop around corners
Rope carrier

This method may also be used by people needing to move plywood sheets up a ladder. However, this is very awkward and can be dangerous.

The J-hook

While the rope method mentioned above is probably the simplest way of carrying a sheet of plywood solo, it does have its limitations. More than anything, it is limited in that it really only works with one sheet of plywood at a time. However, you can handle multiple sheets, using a J-hook, as long as you can handle the weight.

You can see the basic design of the J-hood in the section on the rolling panel carrier below. If you are going to use it to carry plywood, rather than with casters, you’ll want to make the well at the bottom of the J-hook smaller, as there is no way that you’re going to be stacking that many pieces of wood on it at one time.

Whether you are carrying it or putting casters on it, you’ll need to reinforce the joints at the corners. Just nailing or screwing them together probably isn’t going to be enough. The easiest way to reinforce them is to install metal corner brackets, in addition to nailing or screwing them.

Another excellent way to strengthen these joints is to dowel them with normal ½” to ¾” dowel rods, as opposed to doweling them with the packaged short dowel rod pieces normally used for doweling. Those are less than 2” long and we really need something that’s at least 4”.

To dowel these, clamp, nail or screw the corners together, keeping room open for the dowels. Then drill through the board forming the bottom portion of the well, into the ends of the vertical 2”x 4” pieces, with the right sized spade bit to match your hardwood dowel. You’ll want to use two dowel pins per connection. Point the end of the dowel slightly with your pocket knife, put glue onto it and pound it into the hole until it bottoms out. Then cut off the excess material with a flush-cut saw.

Rolling panel carrier

For the home DIY’er who wants to move panels at home with the ease and control found at the home center, then making a rolling panel carrier is pretty straightforward and can be made inexpensively with common materials. At its core, it fuses two J-hooks with a long (4–6’ or 120–180 cm) bottom well that has casters at each corner. All you have to do to make this is take two J-hooks and attach them together at the bottom with a 2”x 4” or 2”x 6” board. Add casters at each corner, to allow you to roll the carrier.

J hook, drawing
J hook

Going from vertical to horizontal

Another thing that can be done with the H-hook is to attach it to a rolling workbench, allowing it to be rotated to the horizontal for working on it. If you make your rolling workbench the same height as your table saw, then it can serve as an extension for your table saw as well.

j-hook,cart,hinge,casters
J-hook cart

This cart allows you to load sheets of plywood onto it, with the J-hook in the lowered position. In that position, the cart can be rolled to wherever you need. Then the J-hook can be raised, laying the plywood on the top of the cart/workbench to work on it.

It would be a good idea to make such a cart with storage inside it, as there is never enough storage space in a workshop. Using that storage for your circular saw and a few other power tools would be convenient, as they would be readily at hand for working on your plywood. At the same time, the weight of the tools could act as a counterbalance for the weight of the plywood, helping to give the cart more stability.

Getting plywood onto your roof

Rather than trying to carry a sheet of plywood up a ladder, with all the danger that such an action might incur, you’re better off turning this into a two-stage operation. To start with, lean two 2”x 4”s against the eaves of the house, two to three feet apart. Stake them at the bottom, to keep them from moving. In addition, brace them on the back (building) side, near the top and at the bottom end, and add a 2”x 4” or 2”x 6”, mounted horizontally, to act as a material rest, roughly three feet above the ground.

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Plywood to the roof

With this setup, you can set full sheets of plywood vertically on the rest, then climb onto the roof to retrieve them. Since the rest is three feet above the ground, the top end of the sheets should be above the edge of the roof, allowing you to grab them and manhandle them up, sliding on the rails, onto the roof.

Another option is to have an assistant loading the sheets onto the rest, one at a time, while you pull them off from above. This same sort of idea can work, even if you are trying to get the plywood onto a two-story house. You would just need longer rails and some rope.

To do this, make a rope sling out of 20 feet of rope, as we were discussing earlier. Then tie another long piece of rope around the handle area, holding the handle together and giving you something to pull the plywood up with. The person on the bottom would load the sheets onto the rails, and loop the rope around the corners, allowing the person at the top to pull the sheets up.

Be careful while doing this, so that you don’t lose your center of gravity and pitch over, falling off the roof. Precautions should always be taken, when working on the roof, using appropriate personal protection equipment to help prevent accidents.

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