Buying a Thickness Planer
By Joshua Farnsworth
After you have flattened one face of a board on the power jointer, then that board can be taken to a thickness planer. The newly flattened board face lays face down on the perfectly flat cast iron bed of a thickness planer. As you send the board through multiple times, the board is planed to a perfectly uniform thickness along the entire board.
Some traditional woodworkers skip buying a power jointer (and flatten the first face and edge with hand tools) but still use a thickness planer. Why? because getting a uniform thickness is harder than merely flattening one board face with hand planes. And quite often I use boards that are too wide for my jointer, so I plane one face and edge with hand tools, and then send the wide board through my 15-inch thickness planer.
A thickness planer is safer to use than a power jointer, because the cutterhead is hidden inside the machine. I even have my two older sons remove lumber from my thickness planer’s outfeed table without too much concern.
What Features to Look for in a Thickness Planer?
So what should you look for when buying a thickness planer for your workshop? Much of my advice is similar to items and features that I mentioned in the above section on power jointers, so be sure to read that section. And yes, you can buy an older planer (like the planer in the photo above), but it will require more maintenance, and won’t have a spiral cutterhead. If you can find a great deal on a vintage or newer used thickness planer, and you don’t mind doing mechanical work, then go for a used thickness planer. But if you prefer to make furniture rather than figuring out machinery, then just buy a new thickness planer. Below I’ll mention some other features to consider when buying a thickness planer:
Stand-alone Thickness Planers vs. Benchtop Thickness Planers vs. Planer/Jointer combos
I have owned multiple thickness planers over the years, and prefer the larger, stand-alone thickness planers as opposed to the benchtop thickness planer models. Yes, the benchtop models are a lot more affordable, but they also don’t have nearly the support, the power, the capacity, or other features that the larger models have.
Should I Buy a Normal Dedicated Thickness Planer or a Thickness Planer/Jointer Combo?
For smaller workshop spaces, some woodworkers have to make a compromise. A combination jointer/planer is one example of this type of compromise. While a combo jointer/planer is often cheaper and takes up less space, it may not be as specialized as having a separate jointer and planer. Unless you buy one of the higher-end models mentioned below. The short beds on many combo machines don’t allow for as much support, and while you would get a wider jointer than normal (12-inches wide is common) the planer would be the same size, and 12-inches is more narrow than many planers, like my 15-inch planer. But if you don’t plan on planing boards wider than what you joint, this isn’t an issue. And a 16-inch jointer/planer combo would handle almost any project you may have.
A combo machine also requires switching the machine back and forth between jointer and thickness planer. If you’ve got a shop where multiple people will be jointing and planing at the same time, then you’d want two separate machines. But most people don’t need to use a jointer and thickness planer at the same time. So the inconvenience would just come down to switching the machine from jointer mode to planer mode. The higher-end jointer/planer combos (like Felder) make this simple and very quick. At the end of the day, if limited finances and space are more important than having the flexibility of jointing and planing independently, then a jointer/planer combo may work for you.
I must say, if you have a huge budget for woodworking machines, then some combo machines are excellent. My friend recommends his Felder AD 941 16-inch jointer/planer machine. The beds are just as long (or longer) than many jointers, and he can joint and plane boards up to 16-inches wide, which is astounding. Felder also makes a 20-inch machine (the Felder AD 951). These machines have incredible tolerances and accuracy. The 16-inch Felder runs around $11,500, but it’s still less expensive than buying a separate 16-inch jointer and large thickness planer from companies like Grizzly. And the quality is higher than Grizzly. You can see some of the Felder woodworking machines here. Minimax jointer / planer combos are also high-end. Here’s a Felder video to make you drool:
Felder also makes the “Hammer” series of jointer/planer combos that are more than enough for most woodworkers, and less than half the cost of the Felder line. You can see them here. And here are some comparably very affordable hobbyist jointer/planer combo woodworking machines that you can check out at:
Thickness Planer Capacity
Most benchtop model thickness planers will only allow for about 12-13-inch wide boards, which I find limiting. Whereas the larger thickness planers typically allow 15-inch wide boards and higher. If you don’t plan on planing wider boards, then a benchtop thickness planer may work for you.
Thickness Planer Power
Larger thickness planers, like mine, have more powerful motors (mine has a 3HP motor), compared with benchtop planers that may bog down with a smaller motor. If you just plan on planing smaller boards, and don’t plan on sending multiple boards through at the same time, then a benchtop planer may work alright for you.
Thickness Planer Support
Larger thickness planers like mine have very strong and long cast iron infeed and outfeed tables, which are required for planing heavy pieces of lumber. The length of the bed also gives better support for any size of lumber. Benchtop models, on the other hand, have rather flimsy infeed and outfeed tables, which can’t handle heavy pieces of lumber, and which are more difficult to make dead flat. This can lead to more serious planer “snipe” on your boards.
Other Features to Consider
In addition to the above-mentioned features, the other major feature that benchtop thickness planers lack is a spiral cutterhead. Yes, some benchtop models can allow for the addition of a spiral cutterhead, but to keep the price low they usually use three knife cutterheads (and sometimes 2 knives in cheap models). I mentioned the difference in these cutterheads in the power jointer section above. Not having a spiral cutterhead (or helical cutterhead) is, in my opinion, a major drawback and can cost an additional several hundred dollars to upgrade to a spiral cutterhead. And some of the benchtop planer manufacturers advertise the three knives as “disposable”. Hey, there’s another $50 you can spend on replacement blades! I’m almost positive they can be resharpened.
In addition to the cutterhead, the larger thickness planers use little or no plastic in their construction, have easier and finer adjustments, and are engineered to last longer under heavier use.
But if you don’t plan on using much figured wood (like curly maple) and you don’t plan on running thousands of feet of lumber through a planer, then like I said above, a benchtop thickness planer may work suitably for you.
My Thickness Planer
After much research, about five years ago I purchased a new Grizzly thickness planer. You can find it here on Amazon. It is the Grizzly G0453PX 15″ Planer w/ spiral cutterhead. Mine is the white “polar” version. The green version of this thickness planer can be found here on Amazon (model G0453Z), but may be a bit more expensive.
I have planed thousands of board feet of lumber with this thickness planer and haven’t experienced any problems or seen things that I don’t like about it. It has plenty of power (3HP motor), very supportive tables, and great adjustability. And the spiral cutterheads leave a nice surface with minimal machine marks and very little tearout (only a little on highly figured wood).
The only reason I would upgrade in the future is to get a really wide thickness planer, or a higher-end 16-inch or 20-inch Felder Jointer/Planer combo. But upgrading would have increased the price, which wasn’t within my budget at the time I purchased this planer. But honestly, 15-inches is almost always plenty wide. You can see prices on some of these larger thickness planers here:
If you really want to buy a thickness planer, but really can’t afford a larger stand-alone thickness planer like mine, then you can certainly look at buying a benchop thickness planer. Here are my recommendations on benchtop thickness planers:
- The most popular benchtop thickness planers are these Dewalt thickness planers. I have used them several times, and they seem to do pretty good work. Like I said above, the size is limited (12-13 iches) and they can bog down if you try to remove too much wood in one pass, but they leave a pretty good surface. Some of the Dewalt models will tearout figured wood, because they lack the spiral cutterheads, so you’ll have more handplaning and sanding ahead of you. But one of the models is actually pretty good with figured wood, despite it not having a spiral cutterhead: This Dewalt model won the award for best benchtop thickness planer from a well-known magazine review. Of all the benchtop models reviewed, it left the best finish on figured wood.
- Another good and popular thickness planer is this Makita 12-inch thickness planer.
- Delta used to make good 12-inch benchtop thickness planers, which were quite popular, but the new Delta planers aren’t nearly as high quality.
- Stay away from any benchtop thickness planers that don’t offer indexed knives. Planers with indexed knives allow you to slip new knives into slots, rather than messing around with trying to set the knives at the correct height.
- Stay away from any benchtop thickness planers that don’t offer a dust ports, as it’ll become clogged up without dust extraction.
- You can compare a wide selection of thickness planers here at Amazon and here at Rockler Woodworking.