Tool review: Benchtop Planers
Here's the skinny on thickness planers: They'll all dimension wood accurately, but the best machines leave less cleanup work for you to do afterward.
Give top priority to cut quality and snipe
Think of buying a benchtop planer as an investment that pays dividends in lumber savings. By using it to surface less-expensive, roughsawn stock, you free yourself from buying costly presurfaced lumber. Although these machines get the job done, don't mistake them for heavy-duty planers with beefy 3-hp and larger motors, which can chew through hardwoods quickly and handle deeper cuts without bogging down. Benchtop planers have universal motors and typically work best removing 1/16" or less at a time, thus creating longer work time to surface lumber. That said, a benchtop model works great for most home shops that aren't working on a production-like schedule. To make sure you get the right planer, we put 11 benchtop models through extensive testing to sort the smooth operators from the roughnecks.
Only a few of the tested planers relieve you of the burden of power sanding or heavy scraping to remove scallop marks or snipe (the scooplike gouges on the ends of a board created when it's when gripped by only one feed roller.) To check cut quality, we ran poplar and red oak through each machine, removing 1/32" with each pass. We then rubbed chalk on the just-planed faces to reveal scallop marks (photo) caused by the cutterhead knives. With sharp knives, a few machines produced turned out boards that needed only light sanding to remove any barely noticeable scallops. On the rest of the models, it took sanding with coarse sandpaper to remove the scallops, and then with finer grits to erase the sanding scratches just to match the unsanded surface quality of the category leaders.
As for snipe, we could not get any of the planers to crank out snipe-free boards as they came from the factory, although the amount of snipe varied from so minimal it removed easily with light sanding, to stuff you'd just have to cut off. We reduced sniping on almost all the machines by fine-tuning (or adding optional) infeed and outfeed tables. The two machines that sniped least have cutterheads that lock on their posts automatically when a board engages the infeed roller, preventing the carriage from moving up or down during the cut. We found no clear advantage to cutterheads you must lock by hand, as machines so equipped sniped about the same whether we engaged the locks or not.