PVC was one of the first plastics ever invented. Discovered in 1872 and first available commercially in the 1920s, this durable plastic has seemingly endless applications.
Strong and inexpensive, PVC is a favorite with commercial plumbers, tradesmen, and DIYers. It regularly finds its way into everything from utilitarian drainage systems to stylish and trendy home decor projects.
For the properly equipped, using PVC is a dream. For the unprepared, it can be a nightmare. Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about using and cutting PVC pipe easily in your next project!
When to Use PVC
PVC piping is affordable, readily available, and easy to work with. It is non-toxic and sturdy, which makes it safe for use in a wide variety of applications. It is a popular choice for:
- In-ground or in-building water systems
- Insulating electrical wiring
- Utility, recreational, and sports equipment
- Theater props and set design
- DIY games and toys
Using simple techniques, PVC can be painted or stained to look like wood and other substances. This can help it blend with any style or setting, making it an ideal choice for almost any project.
When selecting PVC for your project, there are two primary factors to consider. The first is the pipe's "schedule." The second is its diameter.
The "schedule" of a PVC pipe is a categorization that tells you how thick it is and how much pressure it is meant to withstand. There are two primary schedules for PVC piping: schedule 40 and schedule 80.
Schedule 40 piping is typically white. It has relatively thin outer walls but is fully capable of handling a great deal of pressure. It is appropriate for:
- Drainage and irrigation systems
- Coldwater systems
- DIY furniture and crafts
Schedule 80 piping is much thicker. It is usually grey in color to make it easy to identify, though other colors are available. Schedule 80 piping is specifically designed for high-pressure applications.
Schedule 80 piping is almost always intended for industrial use in commercial projects. The maximum amount of pressure a given pipe is rated for is always printed on the outside of the pipe for safety purposes.
When selecting pipe, bear in mind that:
- Schedule 80 piping will be heavier than schedule 40
- Schedule 80 piping is more expensive than schedule 40 piping
- 1" schedule 80 piping will have a smaller interior diameter than 1" schedule 40 piping due to wall thickness
- Other schedules are available and may be more appropriate for specialty projects
The diameter of your pipe is less crucial to safety than the schedule. Choosing the right diameter is, however, essential to ensure the functionality of your end result.
To find the correct size you can check local code requirements for your intended use. Alternatively, look up and abide by the dimensions that professional trade sources recommend. When in doubt, size up.
Cutting PVC Pipe
There are lots of "hacks" online that claim to make cutting PVC pipe easy. What every expert and experienced DIYer knows, however, is that when it comes time to cut PVC pipe for your project, there's simply no substitute for having invested in the right tools.
Proper cutting tools ensure a safe working environment, a clean cut, and a safe and functional end result.
Cutting Freestanding Pipe
Small, freestanding pipe can be easily and safely cut using a standard pipe cutter. Larger freestanding pipe is best cut using a wide blade handsaw. In both cases, it is important to secure the pipe first.
Using a vise or V-bracket to hold the pipe in place for cutting:
- Protects you from injury
- Ensures a clean, consistent cut
- Prevents slips, accidents, and unnecessary waste of piping
- Makes cutting faster and less strenuous
- Simplifies cleanup
Cutting Pipe in Place
Cutting freestanding pipe stock is simple. Both experts and weekend warriors can be left scratching their heads, however, when faced with piping already mounted and sealed in place.
It's not uncommon to find PVC piping installed:
- In the ground
- Inside building walls
- Directly against walls
- In tight corners
- In crawlspaces
- Against ceilings
In each of these and many other scenarios, there simply isn't room to maneuver a standard pipe cutter or hand saw effectively. You may not have room to get into the space or there may be insufficient area to work the tool itself without damaging walls or fixtures.
The best way to cut PVC pipe in these difficult areas is from the inside.
Inside Pipe Cutters
The best tool for cutting PVC pipe from the inside is a dedicated inside pipe cutter.
These innovative tools are available in both small and large sizes to suit varying needs. Their design is as simple as it is effective.
First, a diamond blade and a guide wheel are mounted together on a quick release arbor. The arbor is then fitted into a hand-held power drill.
When you are ready to cut, you lower the blade into the pipe. When you turn the drill on, the blade will spin rapidly and stably. By pressing the blade against the interior of the pipe and moving around the whole diameter, you can quickly, easily, and safely cut the pipe.
Once you have cut the PVC pipe to size, it is time to connect them. PVC should always be attached to PVC fittings or other pieces of piping using approved PVC cement.
Unapproved products or alternative, multi-use products such as super glue or wood glue will not provide safe, reliable results. Even if you are only making a fun DIY project, it is essential to use the correct glues for your own safety.
PVC glues come in both clear and colored varieties. Check your local code requirements before purchasing glue. You may need to meet specific standards if your project is:
- Related to your home's drainage or water systems
Many municipalities require that these types of projects be completed using purple or other dark-colored glues. They may also dictate that these glues still be visible around the joints or sealed areas when the project is complete. This is so that inspectors can clearly identify that the right products were used and that no areas were missed or skipped.
Checking these codes before you begin can save you from the nightmare and expense of having to undo and redo your project after the fact.
PVC glue or cement should always be used with a cleaner or primer. In many cases, you will find these products packaged together for convenience.
Primers remove any grease or other substances that may be on the pipe which might interfere with a clean connection. They prepare the pipe for the glue, ensuring a snug fit and a solid bond.
PVC fittings are also sometimes referred to as joints. Fittings come in all shapes, sizes, and angles. They may be angled or straight and may have multiple openings. Fittings can also be used to transition from one diameter of piping to another.
It is important to take fitting size and depth into consideration when measuring out the size of your piping before cutting. Dry fit your piping into the desired fittings to ensure everything sits as desired before applying primer or glue.
When you glue your pipe and fitting together, be sure to rotate the pipe in the fitting one quarter-turn. Although this step is easy to forget, it is important. It spreads the cement around, ensuring that there are no gaps that might compromise the seal.
Do not rotate the pipe more than a single quarter-turn or move it back and forth as this may comprise the joint.
Expert Tips and Tricks
Ready to get started? Here are a few more tips and tricks to keep up your sleeve when working with PVC.
- Keep a towel handy for quick cleanup as you go
- Use a small knife or deburring tool to clean up the edges of your pipe after cutting and before gluing, if needed
- Don't use PVC or its glue or primer near open flames
- Work in a well-ventilated area whenever possible
- Avoid getting primer or PVC cement on your skin, or wear gloves to protect your skin
Using PVC in Your Project
Now that you know how to cut PVC for your project, as well as how to choose the right piping, you're ready to get started! Before you dig in, though, take a moment to buy the tools you'll need for cutting PVC pipe to size. It's an investment in your work you simply can't afford to skip.