Invest in a benchtop planer and it will soon pay for itself in the money you'll save by buying roughsawn lumber—often from a local sawmill—instead of plunking down full price for fully surfaced boards. And it opens the door to building projects requiring stock in thicknesses other than 3⁄4 ".
As handy as this machine is, some models save you more money—and aggravation—than others by providing greater accuracy and convenient features. To prove that point, we tested 11 models in search of the top performers, as well as some that are good enough for the money. We found both.
Power: No problem
These benchtop units can't approach the muscle of stationary planers with 3-hp-or-larger induction motors, but that's okay when you're not working on an industrial scale. All of the test models have a 110-volt universal motor that adequately powers a 12–13"-wide cutterhead. We planed away as much as 1⁄16 " from full-width red oak with each model, and they all handled it without bogging down or tripping a breaker. And yes, some will cut even deeper, but to maximize the life of your planer, don't tempt fate.
Hone in on cut quality
The cleaner and smoother the wood surface comes out of the planer, the less time you'll spend sanding or scraping your parts and projects. We evaluated each machine's cut quality on various hardwoods and softwoods, and found significant differences among machines. (See samples below.)
Of the tested models, all but one have straight-knife cutterheads using either two or three disposable knives. (See "Type of cutters" in the chart.) Instead of straight knives, the Rikon 25-130H surfaces wood with an insert cutterhead. It delivered above-average cut quality, but leaves shallow (.002" or so) grooves running the length of boards. These required moderate sanding to remove. One advantage to this type of cutterhead: Should you nick a cutter, you can turn or replace only the damaged cutter instead of springing for a new set of knives.
A planer can be only as good as its cutters. So in addition to cut quality, consider edge longevity and knife-changing ease when selecting a planer. To test the durability of each machine's cutters, we planed particleboard—a notoriously abrasive material that you should never actually plane—to accelerate dulling. The inserts on the Rikon stayed sharp longest, with the Makita 2012NB's knives finishing a close second. Knives on the Delta, Porter-Cable PC305TP, and Ridgid R4331 dulled quickest.
As a planer's cutters lose their sharp edges, whether through wear or damage, you'll have to rotate them to a fresh edge or replace them. With all but one of the straight-knife machines, the disposable double-edged knives self-index to ensure perfect parallelism with each other. The Grizzly G0505 instead uses an older style of spring-loaded cutterhead, shown below, that makes setting the knives trickier; but you can resharpen them yourself and save the expense of buying a replacement set. The Porter-Cable and both Grizzly planers lack a cutterhead lock, a feature that makes knife changes easier on the other machines. The Rikon has no cutterhead lock, either, but it's not really practical for changing the insert cutters positioned at different points around the head.
Snipe: The scourge of planing
Planers almost inevitably create a slightly deeper cut, called snipe, about 2–3" from each end of a board. This happens when only the infeed or outfeed rollers engage the board, allowing the cutterhead to gouge. To minimize snipe, start by leveling the machine's infeed and outfeed tables. All but one machine in this test use bolts or screws beneath the tables (shown below). The Makita uses a slightly different approach.
Although we could not completely eliminate snipe from any of the tested planers, we minimized it to .003" on the three leading models (DeWalt DW735X, Grizzly G0505, and Makita). This amount of snipe required only moderate power sanding or scraping to remove.
Features increase accuracy
All of the planers will get the thicknessing job done, but machines with the following features do so with greater ease and precision.
■ Reliable thickness stops. Only four machines (both DeWalts, Ridgid, and Rikon) have stops that prevent accidentally planing stock thinner than intended. Adjustable for calibration (though none needed it), we found them reliable and helpful, especially when planing multiple boards to a common thickness.
■ Depth-of-cut gauge. The same machines that have thickness stops have this gauge with a scale, indicating the amount of wood the cutterhead will remove on a particular pass. That's helpful because it prevents accidentally taking too big a bite with each pass. The Makita also has a gauge, but no scale for easy reference.
■ Easy-to-read thickness scale. Ten of the 11 machines have a scale marked in 1⁄16 " or finer increments, and all but two of those also include a metric scale. (The Grizzly G0505 uses 1⁄8 " and metric scales.) We found some scales easier to read than others, but frankly, we prefer to rely on a trusted rule or calipers when sneaking up on a board's final thickness.
More factors to consider
To avoid frequently clogging up your shop vacuum's filter with chips, add a separator between the vacuum and planer to sort out all but the dust.
■ Chip collection. Both DeWalts and the Rikon come with 4" dust ports, making them easy to connect to a typical dust collector. All three of these also adapt easily to either a 2" or 21⁄2 " shop-vacuum hose. The other models have either a single 2" or 21⁄2 " port, or no collection port at all.
Built-in blowers on the DeWalt DW735X and Grizzly G0790 help eject chips through the collection port, a helpful feature. The G0790 also comes with a collection bag, but it fills quickly and gets in the way.
■ Dual speeds. The DeWalt DW735X is the only machine with two feed speeds. Use the quicker speed for dimensioning stock, then switch to the slower one as you fine-tune the thickness (and get slightly better cut quality).
■ Noise. All of the planers are incredibly loud, measuring 91 decibels or more under no load. So always wear hearing protection when working near these machines.
When planing lumber, wear a hearing protective device with a noise-reduction rating of at least 20 NRR, but the higher the better. You can also gain protection by wearing both ear plugs and muffs.
■ Weight. Although they're "portable," you won't carry or lift any of these machines easily. The lightest unit (Delta) weighs 58 pounds, and the heaviest (DeWalt DW735X) 92 pounds. To avoid injury from lifting, dedicate your planer to a stand or bench, or lift with a friend.
The no-brainer planer
The DeWalt DW735X earned top marks in virtually every test we ran, and so it earns our Top Tool award. This version ($650) comes with infeed and outfeed tables, but you can buy it without them (DW735, $600) if you like. However, in our experience, this planer snipes more without the tables installed and properly adjusted.
For nearly $300 less than the DW735X, the Ridgid R4331 delivers above-average cut quality and comparable features. (You can buy a lot of replacement knives for the money saved.) We named it one of our Top Values, along with the Grizzly G0790, which performed admirably for its $300 price.
Download the full Benchtop Planer comparison chart