Tools Part VI: Thickness Planers and Jointers

A long time ago I said I was going to continue the tool series by talking about thickness planers and jointers. Of course I forgot all about that until just now. But I did remember. Eventually. So here goes.

Both of these tools can be really useful for anyone who fiddles around with wood, but both of these tools are expensive. A decent thickness planer is going to run you about $400 – $700, depending on the brand, features, etc. A decent jointer is going to be even more pricey. Prices on decent jointers (not the bench top models, I wouldn’t recommend those to most woodworkers) are a lot more than that. Jointers with the same features and capacity as mine look like they’re going for well over $1,000. The cheapest Jet brand (which is what I own) with the same features as mine is going for around $1,400.

That’s a heck of a lot of money, so the first question you have to ask is do you really need either of these tools to begin with? There’s no hard answer, really. It’s going to depend on your needs, of course. I know a lot of people who dabble in woodworking who get along quite well with buying the wood they need pre-cut and surfaced off the shelf at the local home improvement store. But if you’re building fine furniture, gluing up boards to make panels or table tops, doing renovations to old houses or need lumber that isn’t standard dimensions, you generally are going to need these tools.

Let’s take a look at the tools themselves.

A jointer and a thickness planer look very different, but when you look at them closely they seem to do pretty much the same kind of thing. They both have wide, rotating cutter heads that are designed to shave very thin amounts of wood off the entire width of a board. But the two machines actually perform different jobs.

The planer is used for two things. First it’s used to put a nice, smooth surface on rough surfaced, unfinished lumber you might buy direct from a sawmill. The second use is to mill lumber down to a specific thickness you need. You may, for example, only have 1/2″ thick boards laying around, but you need a board that is 3/8″ thick for a specific project. They come in really handy if you’re renovating an old house where the existing lumber used in the house doesn’t match current standards.

A jointer also does two jobs. First it’s used to prepare boards to be edge glued together to make panels by putting a smooth, perfectly square surface on the edges of a board. That’s where the name comes from, the fine art of joinery where pieces of wood are prepared to be joined together.

Second it is intended to take a board and make its surface perfectly flat by removing warps, twists and cupping. (I will warn you that I have issues with some of the things people claim about jointers. But I’ll come to that later.)

You can do all of these tasks by hand using hand planes, and for centuries that is exactly what woodworkers did. And it is a royal pain in the neck. I’ve used hand planes and sanders to smooth and flatten large hardwood table tops and panels and I can tell you from personal experience that is it is very tedious, time consuming, annoying, tiring, and requires a considerable amount of practice and skill to do it right.

But let’s get on with this and look at thickness planers first.

That’s my DeWalt up there. I’ve had this one for – heck, must be at least 10-15 years now.

As was the case with table saws, I’m not going to cover the big, floor mounted machines that are more suited to a professional manufacturing facility and stick with the smaller ones intended for use by the hobbyist or small furniture maker. These planers usually can handle boards up to 12 – 13 inches wide. How thick of a board they can handle varies widely. Generally you want a planer that can handle at least 4″ thick stock. You may think you’ll never need to run 4 or 5 inch thick slabs of wood through a planer, but you’d be surprised. When building furniture I’ve had to run things like table legs up to almost 4 inches thick through mine.

Planers all work pretty much the same way. Here’s a really bad drawing of the ‘guts’ of a typical planer.

There is an enclosure in which is mounted a set of feed rollers to push/pull the board through the machine. The cutter head itself is a long roller which rotates at high speed in which there are mounted two or three razor sharp steel knives that run the length of the cutter head. As the cutter head rotates, the feed rollers push the board into the machine, and the cutter head spins along at thousands of RPM, slicing off a very thin amount of wood along the entire length of the board. There is some kind of mechanism which allows the height of the cutter and rollers to be raised or lowered as needed.

Sidenote: Helical cutters. For some years now helical cutter heads like the one over there on the right have been all the rage. Instead of straight knives running the width of the cutting head, you have the setup seen in the photo over there, rows of small, individual square carbide knives set into a helical pattern around the cutter head itself. The claim is that they do a better job than traditional straight knives, are quieter, take less power, and when they get dull, you just loosen the screw holding it down and rotate it 90 degrees to get a new edge. If you get one chipped, just rotate it or replace only that one cutter. In theory they look interesting. But my personal experience is that they don’t come anywhere close to living up to the hype. I’ll talk about these later. If I remember. I probably won’t.

When you’re looking at a thickness planer there are a few things you should be looking at.

First, how robust is the mechanism which raises and lowers the cutter the rollers that feed the wood through the machine? A considerable amount of force is needed to hold that wood down, push it through the planer, hold the cutter head absolutely straight and parallel, etc. How good is the drive system that actually moves all of that stuff up and down? On the cheaper planers what holds that cutter in place and moves it up and down are nothing more than a couple of cheap, threaded steel rods driven by plastic gears, with a lot of play in the threads, and rods that flex as soon as you start pushing wood into them.

How sturdy and well built is it in general? Thickness planers have to endure a lot of stress and need to be made well enough to deal with that. They also are subjected to significant pressures and forces that can cause it to flex and bend as wood is fed through it. It has to be sturdy enough so that the cutting head is maintained absolutely parallel to the bed of the planer when a board is being pushed through.

Next thing is those knives. Those knives in there take a real pounding. They’re spinning at thousands of RPM and are being hammered down into wood that can be extremely hard and even abrasive. They get a lot of abuse. Thanks to modern metallurgy most blades are able to handle it, but eventually they’re going to get dull or even chipped. That means they’re going to need to be removed and resharpened or replaced. So take into consideration how hard it is to get at those knives, remove them, get them sharpened (if necessary) and then reinstall them properly into that planer.

The first planer I had was a major pain in the neck. It was the cheapest one I could find at the time. And it was awful in just about every way you can imagine. Just getting at the blades was a horrible job that required dismantling half the machine. And then trying to get them reinstalled after I’d had them sharpened was a nightmare. It was a hair pullingly frustrating and fiddly job to get them aligned that required the use of a couple of special jigs and considerable foul language. And even then I didn’t get them exactly right. Same with my 2nd planer. My third, well, I’d learned my lesson and got one that required no adjustments or alignments.

Cutter head on my DeWalt. The blades are disposable, and there are pins on the cutter head that fit into holes in the blades so they are perfectly aligned when they’re installed. No need for jigs, adjustments, fiddling around trying to align things. Just unscrew about 8 bolts holding the blade, remove the old one, drop the new one in, tighten it down, and it’s ready to go.
Replacement blades. Note the indexing holes to fit pins on the cutter head so the blades are always perfectly aligned.

With mine there are no adjustments. When the blades are put into place and screwed down, they are aligned. The blades are easy to get at, too. Remove 4 screws to take off the top cover of the machine, 3 screws with “T” handles on them to get off the dust shroud, and there they are. 8 screws hold down each blade. There’s even a tool stored in the planer itself that fits all of the bolts I need to remove, and has magnets built in to handle the blades so I don’t have to risk slicing a finger off on the razor sharp blades. (You do not want to handle those blades with your bare hands. Seriously. There are still blood spots inside of my planer because I got a bit careless the last time I replaced the blades.)

There are other brands that have similar systems to make blade changing as easy as possible. I’d highly recommend a planer that has some kind of system to make getting those blades aligned as easy as possible because eventually they are going to need to be replaced or sharpened.

Sidenote: Replacing the blades is more expensive than just getting them resharpened of course, but it isn’t all that much more expensive. A set of 3 for my machine costs about $80, which sounds a bit steep but those are double sided. So you’re essentially getting two sets for that price. And to give you an idea of how long they last, I bought 3 sets of blades for mine in 2012 and I still have one set unused. A set of single sided off-brand blades is going for under $30.

Dust collection on this one is pretty good. Just about all of the dust, chips, shavings, etc. is sucked up and blown out a port on the back of the machine. I have it connected to a hose on my “dust collection system”. Well, I call it that. It’s really a whopping great shopvac

The next thing you need to consider is how you are going to deal with mountains of chips, shavings and dust these things put out. Thickness planers put out huge amounts of the stuff. If you live in a climate that allows you to work outside and just sweep everything up and toss it into the compost pile later, good for you. But I live in Wisconsin and it gets bloody cold up here, and trying to surface a dozen or so boards out in the driveway when it’s -30 and snowing is no fun. So you need to be able to deal with waste material before it gets all over your house and into your HVAC system.

The better ones will have all of the guts of the planer enclosed in shrouds with a blower that will blow everything out of a port that you can connect to a dust collection system. Most of the better ones will have some kind of provision for hooking it up to a dust collector of some sort. But a lot, especially the cheap ones, are completely open and will be spitting shavings and dust everywhere. A real dust collection system is ideal, but you can make due with a high capacity shop vac. But be prepared to empty that thing a lot.

Capacity: Most of the planers in this class claim they can handle boards up to 12 – 13 inches wide, but I’ll let you in on a little secret, a lot of them, especially the cheaper ones, can’t. You try to chuck a 12″ wide white oak board through the average $350 thickness planer, the motor is going to bog down almost immediately and possibly even stall out completely. Or blow a circuit breaker. Or overheat the motor and burn it out if you do it too often. Oh, they’ll work fine for an 8 inch wide piece of spruce or softwood. They might be able to handle a 4 – 6 inch wide hardwood board, but that’s going to be about it.

If you look close at this pic of a wood sample I got you can see the “washboard” showing up as dark streaks running from the top of the photo to the bottom. That indicates that either the feed rate was too fast, the blades were dull, or the planer was having some other problem.

Which one should you buy? How much will it cost? It’s hard for me to make a specific recommendation because a lot is going to depend on what your budget is and what you’re going to be using it for. If you’re just going to be surfacing a few 6 inch wide boards a few times a week one of the cheaper planers will do a decent job for you. Just be aware that it is going to have “issues”, as they say. It might be difficult to get adjusted properly. For example, one side of the board might be 1/32 or more thinner than the other side. You might see a sort of washboard looking effect like in that photo up there. As long as you are aware that the planer isn’t going to be perfect and is going to have some problems that you will have to deal with, you might be able to get away with one of the ‘bargain’ machines.

But if you’re buying wood straight from a lumberyard like I do and everything going through the shop needs to be surfaced and milled to the right thickness, which is the case here, then you need to be looking at the more powerful and capable planers, not the inexpensive hobbyist models.

If you’re a pro or semi-pro woodworker, as I recommended with table saws avoid the ones with prices that seem too good to be true. I did some research before I wrote this and it seems that the “sweet spot” is in the $450 – $650 price range for thickness planers. Planers less expensive than that all seem to have various issues. The really cheap ones aren’t much good at all.

But at the other end of the spectrum I really don’t see any advantage to spending $700+ on a planer when a $600 or even $500 one will do just as good a job.

As I said, research, research, research before you pull out the credit card and buy one of these.

My personal recommendation? That DeWalt 735 up there is mine, and if mine ever blew up, I’d buy another one immediately. It’s selling for around $575 or so. I’ve had it for years, it’s handled white oak and ash boards up to 13 inches wide and everything else I’ve thrown at it. It produces a nice surface, especially at the slower feed rate, the blades are easy to change and it has a decent dust collection system.

Does the DeWalt have drawbacks? You bet. It’s loud for one thing. You’re probably going to want to wear hearing protection when you run it just to be on the safe side. Infeed and outfeed tables are an extra cost option. I don’t have them on mine, and they claim you don’t really need them, but I wish I did and keep telling myself I should get them. They’d come in handy when feeding long boards through it. It will occasionally spit wood chips back into the machine onto the table, and if I don’t clear it out before feeding another board through it can embed the chips into the underside of the board or scratch it. And the dust collection system built into it blows out so much air that it can overwhelm a wimpy, inefficient dust collection system.

Jointers

As you can see, I use my jointer all the time. Makes a handy makeshift table. Just this morning I found out it makes a good spot for clamping down the light I use with my lathe.

Now let’s move on to jointers. A lot of experts will tell you that a jointer is an absolutely essential tool for any wood shop. I don’t agree. I think the average hobbyist woodworker can get along without a jointer just fine. Can they be useful? Yes. But I think their usefulness is overrated. The only thing I use mine for is edging boards before I glue them up into panels. But let’s look at what one of these things actually does.

Cutter head on my Jet jointer
The fence adjustment system on mine. It looks complicated but it isn’t that difficult to set up.

At first glance a jointer looks like it works like a thickness planer. There is a rotating cutter head on which there are mounted two or more very sharp blades which slice off thin amounts of wood as a board is pushed through it. But that’s where the resemblance ends. A jointer is open topped and has no feed rollers. You push the wood through it yourself. It has separate infeed and outfeed tables made of heavy cast iron, each of which can be adjusted independently. And it has a very beefy fence hopefully made of solid cast iron which has a rather elaborate adjustment system which lets you not only adjust the width of the cut, but also the angle of the fence.

I’m not going to waste your time and mine describing how a jointer works. A lot of people who are far better at this than I am have dealt with this. Here’s a link to an article at woodcraft.com that will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about jointers. So scoot on over there and read that, then come back. I’ll wait…

Ah, back already? So, now you know everything about jointers. Excellent. And now you probably want one. You might even actually need one. Maybe. But before you max out your credit card on one of these, read on.

close up of the working end of the outfeed table on mine. To the right of the adjustment wheel you can see the dovetail joint that the table rides on.

They are big, heavy and expensive. Good ones are going to have infeed and outfeed tables made of heavy cast iron that is machined to extremely close tolerances, mounted on more carefully machined cast iron that has been milled into very accurate sliding dovetail mounting systems. All that carefully machined cast iron is necessary because those tables and their mounting hardware have to be absolutely accurate, absolutely flat, and cannot flex or bend. Cast iron isn’t that expensive. What you’re paying for is the machining of those parts. That’s where the costs begin to mount.

Jointers are classified according to the maximum width of the board they can accommodate. A 6 inch jointer like mine can handle boards up to 6 inches wide. An 8 inch can handle 8 inch wide boards, and so on. And as the capacity goes up, so does the size and weight of the jointer, and the price. Even a 6 inch jointer is going to be at least 4 feet long and weigh over 200 lbs or more. Mine weighs in at around 250 lbs.

There is a classification of jointers that are much smaller and cheaper, the benchtop jointer. But there are problems with these. Yes, they can handle boards up to 6 or more inches wide, but what about length? How long a board you can shove through one of these is dependant on the length of the infeed and outfeed tables. You aren’t going to push a 6 foot board through a benchtop jointer. Or a 4 foot board. Or even a 3 foot board probably. Unless you’re only going to ever work with lumber that isn’t much more than two feet long, a benchtop jointer just isn’t going to work.

As is generally the case with most of this stuff, all of the name brand models are pretty much equivalent to one another and are generally of good quality and will do a good job for you. They get expensive pretty fast. I did a quick look around and the cheapest 6 inch jointer I saw that had decent reviews and good specifications was around $800, with prices going up from there. Jet doesn’t seem to make an open base model like mine any more, but it does have one that seems to be pretty much a clone of mine but with an enclosed base going for a whopping $1,500.

So the good ones are big and very heavy. That’s something you need to keep in mind if you buy one. How are you going to get it into your shop? Will it even fit into your shop? Do you have someone who can help you put it together? You aren’t going to be able to do it yourself.

Like I said at the start of this, I have some ‘issues’ with some of the things the experts claim about jointers. Oh, they work just fine and dandy and will do the things the experts claim. Sort of. But here is my primary problem with them. Yes they will ‘fix’ problems like cupped boards, but Wood moves. It is made up of fibers that swell, shrink, lengthen, shorten, all depending on ambient temperature, moisture content and other factors. Wood is always under internal stresses and tensions. Always. When those forces are not balanced, wood warps, cups, twists and bends. And that is what a jointer is supposed to cure. But does it really? In my experience what a jointer often does is similar to someone with the flu taking NyQuil. It makes you feel better by alleviating some of the symptoms, but you still have the flu. It doesn’t cure anything.

I have a special term for boards like this: Firewood.

You can run a cupped board like the one in that drawing over there through a jointer and you’ll end up with a nice, flat surface. But did it actually fix the problem, which was an imbalance of the stresses and other forces in the wood that made it bend like that in the first place? My personal experiences tell me that sometimes it will, but often it doesn’t, and after I’ve flattened that board out and put it on the shelf, I’ll come back a couple of weeks later and find that it will once again be warped, sometimes even worse than it had been before. Not all the time, not even half the time. But often enough that I am not going to risk using a board like that one in that drawing in a piece of furniture. So keep that in mind.

Let’s see, I was going to rant about something else, wasn’t I? Ah, I remember. Helical cutters.

These things are something of a fad in woodworking, and have been for some years now. All kinds of miraculous claims are made for these things. I almost bought into the hype and seriously considered retrofitting both my jointer and planer with these things. I’ve had some experience with equipment equipped with these things since then and I’m glad I didn’t give in to that temptation.

First of all, holy cow are these things expensive! If you opt for a helical cutter in a planer or jointer, expect it to add $250 – $400 or even more to the cost of the machine. There are kits available that will retrofit one of these into the more popular planers and jointers, and even those are enough to make your credit card weep. There are kits to retrofit my DeWalt 735, but I could literally buy a brand new 735 for the cost of a helical cutter head replacement. $500 to replace the cutter head on a planer that sells for $575? Seriously? When the stock cutter head system works just fine and dandy to begin with? No thanks.

I’ve worked with a few planers equipped with these things and they just didn’t live up to the hype. It’s entirely possible that the ones I worked with weren’t set up properly or something, but none of them produced a surface on the wood that was as good as what comes off my stock 735. I tried out a 735 that was equipped with a helical cutter head retrofit kit and the surface of the wood wasn’t any better than that coming out of my stock planer. And it seemed noiser and started bogging down on wide boards. I just don’t think they’re worth the money for the average hobbyist.

So to sum up:

Thickness planers – they’re nice to have, you probably need one, and unless you’re running large amounts of hardwood through it you can probably get along with one of the under $400 models if you can deal with the potential drawbacks. If you need a really good one with better capacity and need to use it a lot, look at the DeWalt 735.

Jointers – I still don’t think the average woodworker needs one. Certainly it isn’t an “absolute must have” as the experts claim it is. The cheap (sometimes not cheap because I’ve seen some of these things going for well over $600) benchtop sized ones are just about worthless if you’re working with lumber more than three feet long. The full sized ones are heavy, large, and massively expensive. They are a ‘must have’ if you are doing a lot of edge gluing to make panels. As for surfacing a warped or cupped board, yes, they will do that but I noted my issues with that earlier.

And that’s about it for now.

Author: grouchyfarmer

Yes, I'm a former farmer. Sort of. I'm also an amateur radio operator, amateur astronomer, gardener, maker of furniture, photographer.

2 thoughts on “Tools Part VI: Thickness Planers and Jointers”

  1. I’m not into woodworking so I don’t have either of these tools, although there were a few times when I wished I did. I once toyed with getting a handheld electric planer and then vetoed the idea after evaluating it further.

    It would seem that if you have one of these tools then you probably don’t need the other.

    Thanks for the great article!

    Like

    1. The handheld electric planers do have their place. They’re great for fitting doors, for example. For planing board, not so much.

      Of the two, a jointer and planer, if I could only have one, it would be the planer. A jointer just can’t alter the thickness of a board without all kinds of issues.. You’ll end up with tapered ends and all sorts of problems. There are combination planer/jointer machines out there, but they are a much more complex tool that’s designed to do both jobs. The experts say you can’t use a planer to flatten a board the way you can with a jointer, but this is one case where the experts are wrong. You can. I’ve done it and so have a lot of others. It can take some trickery and special techniques but it can be done and it’s not that hard to do.

      Liked by 1 person

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