The benchtop planer, or thickness planer, is a versatile option that's light enough to be carried around for site work, an ideal size for the home woodworker, and offers the capacity and quality necessary to satisfy woodworking professionals. But with so many planers on the market, how do you find the best machine for your shop? Our buyer's guide looks at the key considerations when buying a planer and offers some product suggestions that cover both high-performance and value options. Our top pick from DEWALT is perfect for small time contractors and home handymen alike.
Considerations when choosing planers
How benchtop planers work
With a manual hand plane, or handheld power planer, you take the tool to the workpiece. They are light and effective for small jobs. It's possible to use them to flatten large posts and boards, but it requires a high degree of skill and takes time.
With a benchtop thickness planer, you take the wood to the machine. A smooth, flat bed allows you to easily slide the material through the cutter block, which is lowered from above. Rapidly rotating blades plane the surface to the required thickness. With some, the finish requires little or no sanding.
Industrial planers are huge, standalone machines that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Benchtop planers are light enough to move around, can be folded down for easy storage, and usually cost between $300 and $800.
Choosing the right planer
Most benchtop planers use a 14- or 15-amp electric motor, so they work from an ordinary household outlet.
Cutting width is usually around 12 1/2 inches (so you can accommodate 12-inch boards). Some planers are a little larger, though only by an inch or so. This is not to accommodate larger boards. It just means you don't have to be quite so precise passing them through the machine.
A maximum height is also quoted, usually six inches. More important is the amount of material you can remove with each pass. Entry-level planers might take off 1/16 or 3/32 inch, more powerful tools can cut up to 1/8 inch. Adjustment should be easy, by turning a large knob or wheel.
The cutter block usually holds two or three blades, also called knives. A more recent development is spiral or helical cutter blocks, which have dozens of tiny blades rather than a few long ones. The idea is to produce a smoother finish, and many professionals rate these planers highly, though they are among the more expensive models.
Cutter block speed is usually given in RPM but occasionally in CPM (cuts per minute). The latter might sound higher, but often it isn't. For a comparison, multiply the RPM by the number of cutter blades.
Feed rate is the speed the board moves through the machine. This is quoted in feet per minute or cuts per inch. The slower the feed rate, the more cuts and thus the smoother the board. Several high-end benchtop planers have two speeds. The faster speed allows for increased productivity when a fine finish isn't the most important aspect.
Clearing waste is important. Wood chips that aren't cleared can go back under the cutters and cause gouges that ruin the surface. Fan-assisted extraction is a major benefit.
A head lock guarantees that once set, the depth can't move. This feature is often missing on cheaper planers. Planers can be noisy, so earplugs or ear defenders are advised.
Q. What's the difference between a planer and a jointer?
A. Both can be used to smooth the surfaces of rough posts and boards. A planer will ensure that the top and bottom surfaces are parallel--that the board is the same thickness all the way across. A jointer can do a great job of cleaning up the face so that two boards can be joined together (hence the name), but it won't make them parallel.
Q. Should I choose HSS or TCT planer blades?
A. It depends on the type of work you do. HSS (high-speed steel) blades are standard on most planers and take a sharper edge than TCT (tungsten carbide-tipped) blades, so you get a better finish. However, TCT blades are considerably more durable. For softwoods, there's really no need for TCT. If you plane a lot of hardwoods, frequent changing of HSS blades can get frustrating.
Planers we recommend
Best of the best: DEWALT Two-Speed Thickness Planer Package
Our take: A well-designed, high-performance machine from one of the market leaders.
What we like: Powerful, twin-speed planer with three-blade cutter block for a superior finish. Clever chip ejection system. Comes with a spare set of blades.
What we dislike: Very little, though standard blades aren't great for hardwoods.
Best bang for your buck: WEN Benchtop Thickness Planer
Our take: This planer offers unbeatable value for the money for the home woodworking enthusiast.
What we like: Solid build, plenty of features, and a budget price. We particularly like the silky smooth granite table. Understand its capabilities and it should last years.
What we dislike: More incidents of individual component failure than we like to see.
Choice 3: Cutech Spiral Cutterhead Planer
Our take: The finish on this planer will satisfy the most fastidious furniture maker.
What we like: Well-made machine with oversize tables for plenty of workspace but really it's all about those spiral cutters. Fast material removal. Leaves a super-smooth surface.
What we dislike: Expensive. Changing 26 small blades is time-consuming.
Bob Beacham is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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