A thickness planer is one of those tools you can live without. But once you have one, you just may find yourself using it on more home improvement and woodworking projects than not.
How does a planer work?
Planers remove a thin, uniform layer of wood — typically 1⁄16 in. or less per pass — from one side of a board.
They’re self-feeding, with rollers that move boards past revolving cutter heads holding two or three long, sharp blades.
The motor raises and lowers to accommodate different thicknesses of boards and is cranked down in small increments when several passes are needed to thin a board.
Why should I buy a planer?
For woodworkers, owning a planer means being able to:
- create 1/2-in. thick boards out of 3/4-in. stock,
- turn rough-sawn lumber or boards with chatter marks into smoothly planed materials,
- make a single board a uniform thickness from end to end, or
- make five boards a uniform thickness before gluing them up for a tabletop.
Some planers can also create moldings.
For those who are home-improvement oriented, a planer will:
- create silky smooth deck railings from ordinary boards,
- quickly strip finishes from painted boards (although this is hard on the blades), and
- make crisp edges on boards and moldings.
Planers are referred to by the length of their blades; most benchtop models are around 12 in. with a 6-in. maximum thickness capacity.
Photo 1 below: Turn rough-sawn timbers into smoothly planed wood. Let the planer’s self-feeding mechanism pull the board through. Use an outfeed roller to catch the board on the other side.
Photo 2 above: Adjust the cutting depth by increments of around 1⁄16 in. per pass. For maxi-mum smoothness, make the last pass paper-thin.
Photo 3 below: Convert weathered or painted wood into usable lumber. Make certain all screws and nails are removed first.
Photo 4 above: Minimize end snipe (gouges at the ends of boards) by feeding boards through the planer one after the other.
Portable Planer Tips
Planers, also called surfacers, used to be huge, heavy and unaffordable. Now most portable tool manufacturers are marketing powerful, lightweight, portable planers. These babies fall into the “How did I ever get along without this thing ?” category.
A few tricks to help you get the most of out of this tool:
6 tricks and 1 jig to reduce planer snipe
Sniping sometimes occurs at the beginning or the end of a feed. You can see gouges made by the cutter blades when a board drops after passing through the planer. You can’t always prevent it.
- One expensive solution is to never cut pieces to length until planing is complete, but that increases wood waste.
- Use rollers, an outfeed bench or helper to keep boards level from start to finish.
Portable planer jig to OBLITERATE sniping
You can dramatically increase the board control and cutting quality of a portable planer with an 11-in. wide x 8-ft. standard piece of Melamine-covered particle-board. This white plastic-covered shelving product costs $10 at home centers.
Longer, heavier boards will slide smoothly across the slick surface, and you don’t have to run around in circles to support them as they leave the planer. You’ll also notice an absence of “snipe” (divots on the end of the board as it exits the planer) thanks to the increased support.
You can set up the jig on a long workbench or countertop, but I use mine right on the shop floor or, in good weather, on the deck. With the planer unplugged, slide the Melamine particleboard between the planer bed and cutter head, and screw blocks underneath to level it and hold it tight against the infeed and outfeed tables.
You’ve lost only 3⁄4 in. of overall height capacity while increasing the board length your planer can efficiently plane. If you can’t find Melamine particleboard, glue plastic laminate on a piece of particleboard or plywood.
Because of the space it requires (a 10-ft. board requires more than 20 ft. of space), the piles of sawdust it creates and the noise it makes, I set up my planer outside for big jobs.
How do I make tapered legs without a table saw? Use this planer jig
It’s an easy thickness planer project! Here’s how:
- Using plywood or particleboard, make a skid for the legs, elevating them on one end with a wood strip to control the amount of taper. (This is the red strip in the inset photo.)
- Screw cleats on the skid to hold the legs while they go through the planer.
- Taper one side, taking 1/16 in. per pass, then rotate each leg one turn and taper the next side.
- Add a second strip (shown in blue) and taper the remaining two sides.
Note: Stop the taper 2 in. from the end when planing the last two sides so you’ll have flat areas for attaching apron boards.
How do I plane small pieces of lumber?
Never feed boards that are shorter than the planer body through a planer. Plane long boards to the right thickness, then cut them to length.
Here’s a way to safely plane small pieces of lumber on your thickness planer. Use hot-melt glue to fasten a scrap piece of lumber to each side of the piece to be planed. When you’re finished, the scrap pieces will break free with just a tap on the ends.
As you work with a planer, keep in mind the following:
- Send all similar parts through before lowering the knives (cutting blades) for the next pass.
- When you're planing edges, the work can easily tip, resulting in a less-than-square edge. Cluster materials of similar thickness and send them through, holding the pieces tightly together.
- When ripping stock you intend to plane, rip it 1/8 in. wider than the final dimensions to give extra width for planing. If you plan to plane both edges, add 1/4 in.
- Make a series of gradually deeper passes rather than one hulking one. For soft woods, like cedar and pine, remove about 1/16 in. per pass; for hardwoods, like oak or walnut, remove even less. For the smoothest surface, make your last pass a paper-thin one.
- Planers won't take the warp out of a board, only make the board thinner. Use a jointer or hand plane to flatten one side of a warped board, but plane the convex side first. (The convex side looks like an arch, not a bowl.) Then, run it through the planer, flat side down.
Planer knive maintenance tips
- Remove nails and staples from boards; if the cutter blades are nicked, your boards will have small unplaned ridges along their length. If you do nick the blades, loosen and shift one blade slightly in one direction to eliminate the ridge.
- Thoroughly clean all dirt and grit from used wood, and remove old fasteners. The cutting knives in your planer are expensive to replace and a hassle to get sharpened. Really dirty wood should be power-washed or not used. Sometimes it isn't worth jeopardizing a $50 set of knives to rehabilitate a $15 stick of oak.
- Use all areas of the knives to evenly distribute wear and prolong their life.