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When purchasing a thickness planer, what are some features that are essential? Some nice-to-haves? Anything that is just fluff, especially for a beginner woodworker?

I see specs indicating the number of cutting heads / knives, the rotational speed, one- or two-speed, width, material thickness, and a whole lot more that's a bit overwhelming. Which of these are important? Is there a big difference between the "portable" or "benchtop" planers as compared to the big floor-standing models (I now know there is with table saws!)?

I don't have a jointer, so the ability to use a planer sled to flatten faces of boards would be nice - is that just a function of the size of the opening?

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When purchasing a thickness planer, what are some features that are essential? Some nice-to-haves? Anything that is just fluff, especially for a beginner woodworker?

  • type of cutterhead
    • knives: straight, spiral, or segmented; disposable vs. able to be sharpened
    • segmented cutterhead: spiral/v configuration, helical configuration; typically reduces tearout vs. straight knives
  • number of cutters - usually more cutters provide a smoother finish, given the same style of cutterhead and feed speed
  • speed of cutterhead - faster speed allows faster feed rate
  • number of speeds - refers to the feed rate; faster for initial dimensioning, slower for smoother finish
  • width - determines widest board you can plane
  • maximum height - determines thickest board or widest ganged-up boards
  • infeed/outfeed tables
    • preferred, but on some lunchbox planers they are an add-on option
    • some have rollers instead of smooth tables--rollers potentially allow you to be pinched if you are careless
  • exhaust blower - some lunchbox planers have a blower to help prevent clogging
  • electrical requirements (e.g., 240V vs 120V)
  • price
  • size
  • cut quality (see magazine reviews for head-to-head comparisons--but keep in mind you should not expect a finish-ready surface; better cut quality just means less scraping or sanding before finishing)

I see specs indicating the number of cutting heads / knives, the rotational speed, one- or two-speed, width, material thickness, and a whole lot more that's a bit overwhelming. Which of these are important?

All aspects are noteworthy in different ways, but at the end of the day, just a few features (as marked in bold above) will narrow your options dramatically.

Many models with straight knives can be upgraded with a spiral or helical cutterhead. Typically knives are HSS (high speed steel) and require periodic sharpening. Segmented cutter inserts are usually carbide, last longer, and are either 2- or 4-sided, allowing you to rotate individual cutters as they become nicked or dull.

Is there a big difference between the "portable" or "benchtop" planers as compared to the big floor-standing models (I now know there is with table saws!)?

The main difference is that stationary planers are more heavy-duty, often run quieter, and can remove more material in one pass (1/8", vs. 1/16" for a lunchbox planer).

Segmented cutterheads are not as common on lunchbox planers, and installing an aftermarket segmented cutterhead on a lunchbox planer is not necessarily advisable since the segmented cutterhead forces the motor to work harder (because the cutters are constantly in contact with the material). Also a lunchbox planer's cutterhead has a smaller diameter so the cutters perform a more severe scooping motion against the material, as opposed to a stationary machine with a larger-diameter cutterhead.

I don't have a jointer, so the ability to use a planer sled to flatten faces of boards would be nice - is that just a function of the size of the opening?

Yes, you can use a planer to do face jointing, but a table saw would be better for edge jointing unless ganging up many pieces. Jointing on a planer requires some extra setup and typically involves attaching your workpiece to a sled or rails.

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