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If you need clear plastic sheeting then most of the time you are going to go for Perspex (acrylic) or polycarbonate sheets, they are probably the 2 most popular clear plastic sheets on the market today. Firstly, let me point out that Perspex and acrylic is exactly the same thing. Perspex is the brand name and brand leader, acrylic is the generic term, think Hoover vs Vacuum cleaner. This little guide will take you through the pros and cons of both materials, which will hopefully help you when choosing which cut plastic sheeting to go for.
So which is the strongest material?
Polycarbonate sheet is by far the strongest, in fact it is one of the strongest clear materials you can buy. That’s not to say acrylic is a weak material, compared to glass of the same thickness acrylic has approximately 10 times the impact resistance. Polycarbonate has 250 times the impact resistance of glass of the same thickness.
However, acrylic sheet is quite a bit more rigid than polycarbonate sheeting, making it more likely to crack under stress. Polycarbonate can be more bendy and flexible, especially in thinner grades.
Acrylic or Perspex is often still used in secondary glazing, as well as the display market. Polycarbonate is the option to go for if you want an almost unbreakable clear plastic sheet. Polycarbonate sheet is often used in bullet proof glass and riot shield and helmets.
What about light transmission?
Acrylic is the clearer of the two material, with a light transmission of 92%, whereas polycarbonate sheeting is a little lower at 88%. Both materials still offer good clarity and can be used in secondary glazing.
The edges on Perspex or acrylic sheet can be polished back up to restore the clarity, making it ideal for the display industry. Polycarbonate cannot be polished, so the edge will remain dull once cut.
How to work with Acrylic and Polycarbonate
Acrylic sheet can be saw cut, router cut and laser cut. It can also be drilled and heat bent. It is widely used in point of sale displays, kitchen splashback and as secondary glazing.
Polycarbonate can be saw cut or router cut, it cannot be cut using a laser. It can also be drilled by hand or CNC router. Heat line bending is possible but you can get some bubbling, when the moisture leaves the material. Polycarbonate can also be could bent, often using machinery more widely used for steel.
Polycarbonate is a lot more chemical resistant than acrylic. Chemicals use on acrylic can cause fisher cracking around the edges or even on the surface.
Which material cuts the easiest?
Both materials are quite easy to cut with conventional power tools such as saws or routers. Although, if you had to choose, then polycarbonate is slightly more difficult as with it being so strong it will fight against the initial cut.
Which material drills the best?
Polycarbonate is the easiest material to drill due to its high strength. You can even drill it very close to the edge with no danger of it splitting or cracking. Acrylic can crack or split, especially when drilling close to an edge. You must leave enough gap around the edge and take it slow and steady when drilling acrylic.
Which material polishes the best?
Without doubt acrylic or Perspex can be polished to a really nice shine, almost to the same clarity of the front face. Perspex sheet can be diamond or flame polished and can even be shines back up on a buffing wheel.
Polycarbonate cannot be polished under any circumstances, not matter what you do you will still be left with a dull edge.
Can I bend acrylic or polycarbonate?
Being a thermo plastic, acrylic is ideal for heat bending, lots of point of sale displays are manufactured using heat line bending. Due to its hardness and stiffness you cannot cold bend acrylic.
Polycarbonate can be heat bent, however, moisture is often released when bending, so you can get unsightly bubbles in the bend. Polycarbonate can be cold bent using industrial metal being equipment.
Can they be glued?
Both materials can be glued but acrylic tends to be more widely fixed by this method, as you get a lot neater and clear glue joint. Polycarbonate sheet tends to work best mechanically fixed with screws or bolts.
How do I clean acrylic or polycarbonate?
Both materials are very easy to clean but should be treated slightly differently. As mention earlier, you need to ensure no strong cleaning chemicals are used on acrylic or Perspex. Warm soapy water is one of the best ways to clean acrylic sheet. There are specialist acrylic cleaners or polishes on the market, a quite internet search will bring you up many options, if you follow the manufacturer’s instructions you can’t go far wrong.
Polycarbonate can be cleaned in the same way as acrylic and warm soapy water is still usually the best solution. Polycarbonate sheeting does have a higher chemical resistance, so cleaning chemicals such as ammonia can be used if required.
Do not use cleaners with solvents on acrylic or polycarbonate sheets.
A clean micro fibre or 100% cotton cloth is the best thing to use when cleaning the panel as it avoids scratching the surface of the material.
Which material is more durable?
Both materials are a good durable sheeting option. Both have excellent weather resistance and can expand and contract with temperature without longer term permanent shrinkage.
Polycarbonate and to a slight lesser extent, acrylic, both can and do scratch. You must try to avoid touching them with any abrasive substance.
Perspex is a lot more likely to chip than polycarbonate with it being less impact resistant but it is less likely to scratch.
Polycarbonate is also class one fire rated, so is the ideal solution where this is of paramount importance such as airports, train stations and shopping centres.
Which is material is the most cost effective?
Acrylic is far cheaper than polycarbonate, it tends to be 30-40% cheaper overall. You can see our online price calculators for an accurate quote.
I hope the above information has allowed you to make an informed choice for your clear plastic sheeting purchase. Do not hesitate to give one of the GJ Plastics team members a call or email as they will be more than happy to assist with any further enquiries you may have.