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 116 " 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 116 " 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.


Features to look for in a benchtop planer

Self-indexing knives. Nearly all straight-knife cutterhead models feature self-indexing, double-edged knives. (Knives that don't self-index prove fussy and time-consuming to set.) An automatic cutterhead lock helps, too, preventing the head from rotating while you remove the bolts and knives. Some portable planers now come with (or offer as an option) a segmented cutterhead, (photo), composed of 12 "-thick segments, each with a high-speed-steel insert cutter, and each cutter with four cutting edges. The chief advantage to this head is that, should you nick one or more cutters, you simply rotate the affected inserts a quarter-turn for a fresh cutting edge.
Gauges and stops. Many planers have a gauge that indicates the how much wood will be removed with each pass. These gauges help you avoid taking too large a bite, which might result in tear-out or deeper snipe. We also like the adjustable preset depth stops that prevent planing a board thinner than a targeted thickness, a handy feature when planing multiple project parts to identical thickness.
Dust collection. A planer generates loads of chips that make a mess if you don't hook up a dust collector or vacuum. Some feature built-in fans that suck chips away from the cutterhead and blow them out the dust port for the most effective dust collection. This proves helpful if your planer sits far from your dust collector and needs that boost. Most come with dust hoods that connect to a 4" hose, a 2-12 " hose, or both, but a few offer a hood only as an accessory.
Power. To our surprise, power was not a critical factor. All planers showed enough oomph to handle even 18 "-deep cuts in 12"-wide hard maple and oak.

Seg Cutterhead

Here's what we'd buy

Two planers stood out from the field in this test: The 13" DeWalt DW735 and 12" Makita 2012NB. Both produced exceptional cut quality that needed little sanding, and both left boards nearly snipe-free, although the DW735 needed its optional infeed and outfeed tables (an extra $50) to do this. The DW735 features two feed speeds, easy-to-use depth stops, a depth-of-cut gauge, and a built-in chip blower powerful enough to clear nearly all chips and inflate the bags on a dust collector by itself. The Makita offers few frills, but exhibited the second-longest knife wear and lowest noise level; however, a dust hood will cost an extra $25.

If you can't pay $500 or more for a planer, we recommend the Ridgid R4330. Although not the lowest-priced unit in the test, it delivers nice cut quality with manageable snipe, with accurate and easy-to-use scales and gauges. If that's still too steep, consider the Craftsman 21758. It's a bare-bones unit that thicknesses wood accurately with respectable knife wear, although you will have to sand a little more to clean up board surfaces.

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