I first used a hand-held power planer when I was learning how
to build wooden boats. The job required a lot of planing, which
was faster and easier with a power tool than by hand. Later,
when I went back to doing carpentry, one of the first new tools
I bought was a 3 1/4-inch power planer. It saved time and
muscle power whenever I had to plane doors or scribe cabinets
and casings to the wall. It was also handy for straightening
bowed joists and studs before installing the drywall.
Power planers are a lot like the jointers found in woodworking
shops. Both tools can be used with or without fences and have
cutter heads that are mounted between an infeed and an outfeed
bed. On a power planer, the beds are referred to as shoes or
bases. The blades are fastened to the head and spin on a
Power planers come in a number of sizes, but the most common
professional models weigh 5 to 10 pounds and have blades that
are 3 1/4 inches wide.
Depth of Cut
With a hand plane, depth of cut is controlled by raising and
lowering the blade. But with a power plane, it's controlled by
raising or lowering the front shoe. Raising the bed increases
the depth of cut by exposing more of the cutter head. When the
shoes are in the same plane, the depth of cut will be zero
because the blades will spin just over the surface of the
The maximum depth of cut on the models I tested was just over
1/8 inch, but many tools are limited to cuts as light as 1/16
or 1/32 inch. Shallow cuts are fine if you only want to remove
a small amount of stock. But if you have to remove a lot of
material, it's better to have a planer that can make deeper
Scales. On most planers, you
change depth of cut by rotating a knob-like grip on the front
of the tool. Some of the knobs spin freely, while others click
through a series of detents. Most of the tools have markings
that indicate the depth of cut. About half are marked in
fractions of an inch; the rest are metric. I have a slight
preference for the planers with detents because once you get
used to a particular tool, you'll know that popping it over to
the next setting will remove a hair, or half a hair, more
Indexed detents make it easy to keep
track of how much material you're about to remove.
Precision. One thing that
bothered me about some of the planers I tested was that the
front and rear shoes didn't stay parallel to each other in all
settings. If the beds aren't in parallel planes, the tool
removes more stock at the beginning and end of the cut than it
does in the middle. As a result, edges that are supposed to be
straight end up with a hump. You might not notice it if you're
planing framing, but it's a serious problem if you're doing the
edge of a door.
Rabbeting. Most power
planers can be used to cut rabbets. I usually make this kind of
cut with a router or on a table saw, but for some reason
Europeans — who design and manufacture most power
planers — are really big on doing this with planers.
You might use this function if you wanted to make shiplap
joints, rabbet frieze boards and exterior window aprons, or
mill door and windowsills.
Most power planers can be used to cut
rabbets on the edge of stock. The fence is used to set width of
cut, and the rabbeting stop determines depth.
The way to make this cut is to plane only a portion of the
surface. If the rabbet is narrower than 3 1/4 inches wide, a
portion of the base hangs off the edge of the stock. Normally,
you'd perform this operation with a fence so the cut comes out
straight. The width of the rabbet is determined by how much of
the base you allow to ride on the stock. There's no limit to
the width of this cut, but depth is strictly limited by the
design of the tool. There are bearings on either end of most
cutter heads, so the housing overhangs the base and will bottom
out when you get to a certain depth. The maximum depth of
rabbet is typically somewhere between 1/4 and 1 inch deep, with
the exception of Festo's planer, which has unlimited rabbet
Many power planers come with something called a rabbeting
stop. This adjustable bracket screws to the side of the housing
and limits the depth of the rabbet by bottoming out on the
Weight, Power, and Size
Except for one of the cordless models, which was tail-heavy,
none of the planers felt noticeably out of balance. The tools
all handled differently, mostly because they ranged in weight
from 4 1/2 to 9 pounds — a huge variation. If you're a
big, strong guy or spend a lot of time planing doors and
horizontal surfaces, weight shouldn't be a big issue. But if
you've got a lot of miles on you, or plan on using the tool to
plane vertical surfaces and cut scribes, you'll be happier with
a lighter machine.
You might assume that the heavier the tool, the deeper the cut
it can make. But if you look at the chart on page two of this
article, you'll see that some of the lighter planers can be set
deeper than tools that weigh half again as much. The choice to
limit the depth of cut is made by manufacturers. In the absence
of those limits, the amount of stock you could remove per pass
would depend on the power of the motor, density of the wood,
and width and depth of cut. A planer that has no trouble taking
a deep cut off a narrow edge may bog down if you try to take
the same bite across the entire width of the blade.
Length. Other things being
equal, it's easier to make straight cuts with a long planer
than with a short one. On the other hand, it's harder to plane
to a crooked scribe line with a long tool. Porter-Cable's
Porta-Plane is 16 inches long because it's designed for planing
doors. Other planers are designed to perform a variety of
tasks, which is why most of them are 11 or 12 inches
Planer blades used to be made from high-speed steel (HSS), but
10 or 15 years ago manufacturers began to make them from narrow
strips of carbide. Most planers now accept the same standard
inserts, or mini-blades. These inserts are 82 mm long, 5.5 mm
wide, and 1.1 mm thick. Both edges are sharpened, so when one
side gets dull you just flip them around in the machine. The
blades cost $15 to $20 per set and are designed to be thrown
away rather than resharpened.
Quality of cut. Most of the
planers use two blades, so they make two cuts for each
revolution of the head. A couple of planers use single blades.
At 13,000 rpm, a two-blade machine would make 26,000 cuts per
minute. In theory, the more cuts you make, the smoother the
finish will be. But in reality, the type of blades and the
speed at which you advance the tool have a greater impact on
the finish cut. Equally important is how well the blades are
aligned in the head.
One way to get less tear-out is to use spiral blades. Spiral
cutting action is like slicing, whereas straight action is like
chopping. Only two of the planers I tested use spiral cutters.
The Porta-Plane has a two-blade spiral head that can be
resharpened. Festo's planer uses a single disposable spiral
carbide insert. Both tools make noticeably smoother cuts than
the other machines.
The Porta-Plane has a two-blade spiral
cutter that can be removed for sharpening.
Festo's spiral cutter uses a single
removable carbide blade.
Changing blades. On most
planers, the blade holders fit in slots milled in the head and
are secured with bolts or Allen screws. I have a slight
preference for tools that use screws because there's not much
room to get a wrench on a bolt when it's in a slot.
Some manufacturers use bolts to fasten
the blades directly to the head (top), while others use blade
holders that fit into slots in the head and are secured with
Allen screws (bottom).
A few manufacturers bolt blades directly onto the head or hold
them in place with surface-mounted clamps. The blades are easy
to change because the fasteners are out where you can get at
Alignment. A planer won't
cut straight or smooth if the blades aren't aligned. Luckily,
most tools are now designed to be self-aligning. Mini-blades
are usually slotted so they index to the head.
The way to tell if planer blades are aligned is to unplug the
tool, hold a straightedge against the rear shoe, and rotate the
blades by hand. The blades are aligned if they skim the
straightedge at both ends of the head. Most of these tools have
alignment screws that are adjusted in the factory. When I say
aligned, I mean aligned to within thousandths of an inch, so
don't mess with the settings unless you absolutely have
On early planers, chips were always ejected from the right
side of the machine. That's fine if you're right-handed and
always use the tool in the horizontal position. But if you're a
leftie, it means being showered with sawdust every time you use
the tool. Right-handers run into the same problem planing right
to left on vertical surfaces. Chips are ejected upward, and
what goes up must come down.
Most current models allow you to eject chips from whichever
side of the machine you want. Changing sides is simply a matter
of turning a knob, flipping a lever, or in the case of one
tool, reinserting a removable chute. Many power planers can be
connected to shop vacs for dust collection. Some tools come
with the necessary adapter; others can be equipped with
optional bags or hose connectors.
Some power planers tend to bite off more than they can chew.
This happens when the chute is too small to eject all the chips
that are generated during heavy cutting. Your only choice is to
slow down or stop every now and then to clear the chips. Either
way, productivity suffers, and that's not the point of using a
Cords. When it comes to
cords, longer is better. There's nothing more frustrating than
to have a plug get hung up on something part way through the
cut. Except for two cordless models, the planers I tested had
cords anywhere between 6-ft. 8-in. and 14 feet long. The cords
also varied in quality. Most power planers have rubber-like
cords that are flexible at all temperatures, but the Craftsman,
Freud, and Virutex planers have cords that are stiff and
Parking feet. Many of the
planers I tried had a parking foot that swings down from the
back end of the base. The foot's there so you can put the
planer down without waiting for the blades to stop turning. I'd
appreciate this feature more if I was new to the trade, but
I've been propping my planer on a scrap of wood for so long
that it's impossible to break the habit. And I have my doubts
about the durability of such an exposed piece of plastic, in
fact, one of the tools arrived with a broken foot.
A parking foot, standard on many
planers, allows you to set the tool down without waiting for
the blades to stop turning.
The fence is the most important attachment on a power planer.
If you want to produce consistently square edges, you need to
use a 90-degree fence. Most power planers come with this
attachment, but a few have fences that can be adjusted to any
angle you want. An adjustable fence is very handy for planing a
bevel onto the strike edge of a door. If you do it without a
fence, you end up with a crooked door or a bevel that's all
over the place.
The best fences are simple, rigid, and long. Simplicity is
good because it's a drag to have to search for lost parts or
use a clunky contraption. Rigidity is important because it
allows you to be precise. And length matters because short
fences often run off the end of the stock before the blades do,
and this makes it easier to botch the end of the cut.
The Porter-Cable Porta-Plane has the best standard fence. It's
adjustable and runs the full length of the base. But it's not
removable because the tool is specialized for planing doors.
The 90-degree fences that come with the Freud, Hitachi, Makita,
and the DeWalt DW680K are very simple and rigid. They're short,
but you can extend them by screwing on a strip of wood. If you
want, you can put a 3- to 5-degree bevel on the strip for
planing doors. The 90-degree fences that come with the Festo,
Metabo, Bosch 3365, and the DeWalt DW678K aren't quite as
simple, but they're rigid and long enough to extend onto the
rear shoe. Craftsman's planer has the simplest fence of all.
It's a flat piece of steel formed to a 5-degree angle that
screws to the side of the housing. It doesn't look like much,
but it works. Bosch's model 3296 and Porter-Cable's model 125
come with fences that adjust to any angle. They both work, but
they're not up to the level of what's on the Porta-Plane.
If I were in the market for a general purpose planer my first
choice would be DeWalt's DW680. It's light, powerful, and will
make a 3/32-inch-deep cut. I also liked the Bosch 3365. It's
extremely light and maneuverable, and it has an adjustable
exhaust port. Another tool worth looking at is Metabo's model
0882. It's very well-made and is bigger and more powerful than
many other planers.
If the only reason you want a planer is to hang doors, then
the choice is a no-brainer. Buy Porter-Cable's model 126
Porta-Plane. It doesn't cut rabbets and it won't plane studs,
but it's the ultimate door-planing machine.
If you need to perform specialized functions, the Festo and
Virutex tools are worth a look. Festo's planer is beautifully
made and has the unique ability to cut rabbets of unlimited
depth. It comes with a smooth-cutting spiral head. Optional
cutters allow you to produce a variety of rustic surface
effects. The Virutex power compass planer is another
one-of-a-kind tool. The vast majority of the world's carpenters
will never need a tool like this. But if you're one of the
select few who builds curved stairs or does a lot of other
curved work, this planer could be just what you're looking
for.David Frane is a former finish carpenter
and a contributing editor atThe Journal of Light