Warning: are Benchtop Jointers worth it? How can I use them?

Posted in Home Improvement on June 4, 2018

I do woodworking as a hobby and I want to take it up a notch. I recently decided my next tool purchase will be a jointer. My main issue is dealing with a very small shop, so I want something compact.

A benchtop jointer is great for beginner or hobbist woodworkers or even professionals in smaller shops. If your woodworking consists of smaller-to-medium items, you can rely on 6- or 8-inch jointers to accurately true smaller or shorter stock, say up to 4 feet or so. Benchtop jointers are also faster than hand planing and much simpler than constantly setting up multiple jigs to start processing your rough lumber on your router table or table saw. They are also cheaper than buying S4S lumber (all faces and edges smooth), and give you more flexibility in species, lumber dimensions, and even wood figure. Keep on reading as I expand all of these arguments in my article.

Is the investment in a Benchtop Jointer worth it?

Convenience sure is expensive. This is what you trade when you choose to build using home center S4S instead of milling your own wood at home.

Wood magazine did an interesting math using a branket chest project a few years ago. Given that S4S wood costs between 50% and 100% more when compared to rough sawn stock, they chose their blanket chest project and a few woods in order to determine how many chests you would have to build in order to save enough money to get a "free" benchtop jointer AND a benchtop planer, both new. The math was simple and based on two shopping lists:

  • Home center
    • 8 pc 1x6x72",
    • 1 pc 1x3x48", and
    • 4 pc 1x6x48"
  • Lumberyard
    • 41 board feet rough-sawn, which accounted for 25% waste during the milling process.

Their results were more than clear:

  • if you used red oak you only needed to build 5 chests to get your "free" machines;
  • using maple you needed to build 6 chests for your "freebies"; and
  • 16 chests if you used pine.

The numbers don't lie and the savings are immense. If you do one single batch of Christmas presents for your family, you can already earn your very own "free" tools from lumber savings.

Any other savings after these are more money you can save towards new tool purchases, which will certainly contribute to increase your woodworking skills and encourage you to tackle even bigger, more complex projects.

Unexpected benefits

Working with rough lumber gives you so much versatility.

First of all, it allows you to use other wood species, instead of being restricted by the lumber selection available at your local home center.

Second, the home center also limits you in lumber thickness and dimensions for your panels as you see fit for your project, enabling you to achieve more proportional results.

Third, you will be able to experience and work with different wood figures and grain and incorporate those in your design. This will unlock yet another world of possibilities for your woodworking skills and projects, where the wood itself will add beauty to your work.

You can also go to different places to find cheaper/free lumber for milling, such as going to lumberyards and getting to know experienced people who can teach you more about wood, searching for rough lumber ads on eBay, and even posting ads on Craigslist for searching fallen trees that you can mill yourself.

Alternatives for owning a Benchtop Jointer

You can buy a bigger machine, you can joint boards by hand, or you can simply buy pre-surfaced boards. Two of these make you spend more money, and two of these make you spend more time.

  1. Buying a bigger machine will give you extra capacity, a bigger motor, and more stability, however a stationary jointer costs you more initially.
  2. Jointing boards by hand gives you, well, nice wood shavings... Right? Jokes aside, it is a time-consuming method when you can simply use a power tool and get more accurate, much faster results. Unless you are really anti-machinery, it doesn't make much sense to rely on hand planing in place of a jointer.
  3. Buying S4S pre-surfaced boards, in my opinion, is the worst of both worlds. Often these boards won't even be perfectly finished and parallel. Even if they are, you still need to take them from the store to your shop, and leave it there to acclimate to your shop humidity levels. Once this process is finished, it is unlikely your lumber will still be flat. In the end, you just pay more for the pre-surfaced lumber convenience, but then you need to re-surface it again and end up with thinner boards. In other words, the only warranty you have when buying S4S is that you spend more money, because chances are you will have to mill your stock at your shop because the boards will still be not perfect.

Benchtop or stationary models?

I can tell you very clearly from the start: stationary jointers have bulkier build quality and have motors that work at lower speeds. And they are much, much pricier. Not to mention they need more floor space as well, which is always a rare commodity if you have a small shop or you simply like to park your car inside your garage.

I think it's quite pedantic to say that any and all benchtop jointers are useless and that only stationary jointers are worth your money. That is just like saying that used economy cars are all trash and the only good cars worth buying are brand-new Audis.

Sure, I would also love to live in the best of the worlds, but sometimes life just doesn't work like that. Life is a journey, where we can make gradual improvements over time.

I don't think it's wise to go into debt for buying a more powerful machine - my ego does not rely on my tool brands, or car brands, or any other brand for that matter. Spending too much money on power tools surely helps, but is not a warranty that my woodworking quality will suddenly improve.

You can also save more money before finally buying a better-quality jointer, but why should you wait that long?

Meanwhile, you can get a basic model and get access to a wider variety of wood species and lumber dimensions. Why should you spend more money for a limited assortment of wood species and dimensions?

You can buy right now a cheap benchtop jointer and start working with exotic woods and make beautiful projects.

Final Considerations

This will sound stupid, but with all being said, there is no best answer between hand planing, table saw and router jigs, benchtop jointer, and a stationary jointer. It depends a lot on personal factors such as space availability, money you can spend, your style of woodworking, the time you can dedicate to it, the types of projects you build, and so on.

In my case, I decided for a benchtop model because I have limited time in the shop - and I want to make the best use of it, limited space, and I simply want to make some exotic dust in my spare time, instead of making a living by selling period, handcrafted furniture. I also tend to do smaller woodworking projects, many boxes for gifts, some wooden toys for all my friends who are having children these days, and the occasional furniture project for personal use.

While the price can be mostly recovered on lumber savings, my tiny shop is the final determining factor that prevents me from buying larger stationary tools.

If you became interested in reading more about specific models or brands, I have spent 47 hours reviewing 13 of them - all models currently for sale - in search of the best benchtop jointer. Go read it if you are interested in finding more details about them.