These machines reduce boards to final thickness quickly and accurately.
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DeWalt benchtop planer with oak board

When we last reviewed benchtop planers (issue 246, May 2017), only one machine featured an insert cutterhead rather than the traditional straight knives. Fast-forward to today, and at least a half-dozen benchtop planers cut with an insert head. We wanted to see how these machines fare against models equipped with straight knives, so we rounded up 15 planers to test head-to-head in the WOOD® magazine shop. Here's what we found.

Cut quality: Straight makes great

In a perfect world, a planer would leave a board so smooth that you wouldn't have to sand it to a final finish. But that's never the case, so the best you can hope for is to minimize sanding. To grade each planer's quality of cut (see the chart below), we planed walnut boards and gently rubbed them with a flat piece of white chalk: The chalk sticks to high spots and leaves low spots bare. On the smoothest surfaces, below left, left by the DeWalt DW734 and DW735X—each with a three-knife cutterhead—we could start sanding with 150-grit abrasive. At the opposite end of the spectrum below right, we had to start with 80-grit sandpaper or a scraper to smooth the more pronounced milling marks left by the Grizzly G0940, Laguna PX12, Oliver 10044, and Ridgid R4850.

Cut quality sample on walnut from DeWalt DW735 benchtop planer
Cut quality sample on walnut from Oliver benchtop planer
Left: White chalk reveals minimal milling marks from the DeWalt DW735X when planing at its slowest feed speed.
Right: Though more obvious on this board planed by the Oliver machine, insert cutterheads typically create ridges and grooves along the length of the planed board.

Three models—DeWalt DW735X, Jet JWP-13BT, and Rikon 25-135H—provide two feed speeds. Use the faster speed to remove material quickly, then switch to the slow speed for the final passes to achieve the best quality of cut. (The quality-of-cut grades in our chart below reflect the slow speed for these machines.)

Cut to the advantages

Although none of the insert-cutterhead planers (below right) produced an "A" cut, you may find their advantages worth a little extra cleanup time. For example, the carbide cutters found on four test models should dull slower than steel inserts or straight knives. And, the 1⁄2"-wide insert cutters create smaller chips than do straight knives, lessening the load on your dust collector. These smaller bites also reduce the cutting noise on planers and jointers with induction motors, but the universal motors on these benchtop machines negate that benefit: at 90–104 decibels, you'll still need full-time hearing protection.

Should a knot or piece of grit nick your straight knives, you're in for flipping, replacing, or sharpening the knives (held in place by lots of screws). But with insert cutters, you simply rotate or replace only the nicked cutters—a one-screw-per-cutter job. Replacing a full set of insert cutters takes longer than replacing or flipping the disposable self-indexing straight knives, but you'll rarely replace or rotate all the cutters at once. 

We downgraded the Laguna when it comes to changing cutters for two reasons: First, the motor housing interfered with the included T-wrench. And second, the screws holding the insert cutters were so tight from the factory that we were unable to loosen them. Laguna's Benjamin Helshoj said he had no difficulty loosening screws on multiple planers at his location, so ours might be an isolated problem.

The Grizzly G0505 uses traditional resharpenable knives that rest on springs within the cutterhead and require using a spanner tool (included) to set accurately, a fussy and time-consuming process.

Comparing the cutters head-to-head-to-head-to-head

: Straight-knife cutterhead on Grizzly G0505 benchtop planer
TRADITIONAL STRAIGHT KNIVES Resharpenable knives rest on spring-supported jackscrews (not visible), and secure to the cutterhead with a multiscrew gib plate.
Straight-knife cutterhead on DeWalt DW735X benchtop planer
SELF-INDEXING STRAIGHT KNIVES Disposable knives register on pins on the cutterhead, and secure with a gib plate and screws. When one edge dulls, flip the knives to their fresh edge.
Insert cutterhead on Laguna benchtop planer.
STRAIGHT INSERT CUTTERHEAD Instead of full-width knives, these use short, replaceable insert cutters. Staggered cutters progressively cut the full width of the head. Jet's model uses a similar style, but with cutters twice as wide.
Byrd Shelix spiral cutterhead on Oliver benchtop planer
HELICAL INSERT CUTTERHEAD Square insert cutters wrap helically around the cutterhead shaft.

Shoot down problem snipe

Snipe often proves more frustrating to deal with than a less-than-stellar cut quality. If you can't remove snipe (shown below) by sanding, scraping, hand-planing, or cutting it off entirely, it inevitably shows up in your finished project. Adjusting the planer's infeed and outfeed tables usually lessens the severity of snipe—a trial-and-error process that's ultimately worth the effort.

Photo showing a snipe on a chalked board
Snipe is a slightly deeper cut about 2–3" from each end of a board, resulting when only one feed roller engages the board, allowing the cutterhead to gouge.

From the factory, each planer sniped, and in general, planers with beds shorter than 30" sniped deeper. But we dialed in five machines (both DeWalts, Jet, Laguna, and Ridgid) so they gouged no more than .0015", an amount we quickly sanded away. Snipe from the other planers required varying amounts of greater effort to remove. Although seven planers provide a manual carriage lock intended to minimize snipe, we found mixed results: some helped, but don't expect a carriage lock to eliminate snipe.

side view of Craftsman benchtop planer
Short infeed and outfeed tables, shown here on the Craftsman CMEW320, lack the support needed to decrease snipe.
DeWalt DW734 benchtop planer
Longer tables, shown on the DeWalt DW734, provide greater support and subtle elevation at the ends to decrease snipe.

Power forward

All of the planers demonstrated sufficient power to plane 1⁄32" from full-width red oak boards, a very reasonable performance expectation. When we challenged the machines to cut as deep as 1⁄16" from those same boards, we stalled the Laguna and both Grizzly machines. The DeWalt DW735X, Rikon, and Triton models exhibited the most muscle.

Chip collection a big must

All but two tested machines come with a chip-collection hood and port for either 2-1⁄2" or 4" hose. Of the seven machines that earned top marks for chip collection, all but the Grizzly G0940 have 4" ports; that model has a 2-1⁄16" port with a 4" adapter. Built-in blowers in the DeWalt DW735X and Oliver evacuated chips so effectively, you almost won't need to turn on the connected dust collector.

The Grizzly G0505 and Makita 2012NB do not include a chip-collection hood and port. Instead, they spew chips out the back. Both sell optional chip-collection hoods.

Shortcuts to accurate planing

Thickness stops. Six machines lack preset stops for common thicknesses. These stops help to prevent you from planing a board thinner than intended. We like Ridgid's, shown below, best.

Photo fo Rigid planer dial control

Depth-of-cut gauge. When you insert the end of the board beneath it, this mechanism tells you how much material the planer will remove. We find it most helpful when making the first pass or two, especially with rough lumber. The gauges on the DeWalt DW735X and Ridgid worked best.

Thickness scale. Each planer comes with a scale and adjustable indicator, but not all prove easy to use. We like the systems on the DeWalt DW735X, Grizzly G0940, Laguna, Oliver, Ridgid, Rikon, and Shop Fox W1877 best. Delta's scale was applied too high (vertically), making it impossible to calibrate the cursor accurately. Curiously, Craftsman's scale measures in confusing 1/10" increments.

Photo of Makita stop rod settings
Makita's stop rod works well enough, but you must reset it for each thickness. To do so, lower the carriage to the desired thickness on the depth scale, then drop the stop rod fully and lock it in place.

An inside straight wins the pot

Since its launch in 2003, the DeWalt DW735 (no "X" version until recently) has consistently outperformed the portable planer pack, but at a premium price. Now priced in the middle of the range, and facing competition from insert cutterheads, it's once again our Top Tool. It scored among the highest grades in every test category, and when you factor in the blower-assisted chip collection, two feed speeds, and the extra set of knives (a $55 value), it's a better value than ever. If you prefer an insert cutterhead, we recommend the Jet JWP-13BT and Rikon 25-135H.

Our Top Value award goes to the Wen 6552T. It offers few frills, but but offers more power and better cut quality than many higher priced machines in the test. 

Comparison chart of planers

Produced by Bob Hunter with Tom Brumback