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Using a Thickness Planer 101


A thickness planer is a tool used for smoothing rough lumber or reducing the thickness of a board. With a planer every board on a project can be a perfect match.

A planer will not straighten a bowed board, it would have to be run through a jointer to get one side straight first.

The usual procedure is to joint the face and edge of a board, run it through a planer to get the correct thickness, then rip it to width on a table saw.

Run the board through the planer face down only as many times as it takes to make a smooth surface on the top, then alternate removing material from one side of the board then the other, this will produce a more stable product.

Types of planers

Most home workshops will have what is commonly refered to as a "lunchbox" machine, small, light duty units capable of surfacing a 12.5" or 13" wide board.

lunchbox planer

The unit shown features a cutter head with three disposable blades that are reversible when the first side become too dull to use. These units sell for less than $500.

Commercial shops will have larger units, heavily constructed with a capacity of 25" or more and capable of much heavier cuts than the smaller models.


The unit illustrated has a helical cutter head with four sided carbide inserts rather than straight knives. these units sell for several thousand dollars depending on capacity and features.

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Helical Cutter Heads

Helical Planer Cylinder

Photo from Amazon.com 

This is a relatively new concept for thickness planers, they work really well, but they are not cheap to set up initially. Once you have them installed it is another story, if you hit a nail or other hard object in the wood it is simply a matter of replacing one small, inexpensive insert rather than an expensive blade. No special tools are required, no time wasting adjustments, just tighten a screw and get back to work. Each insert has four sides so can simply be rotated to a new cutting edge.

Photo from Amazon.com

Noise is greatly reduced, by as much as 50%, instead of one big blade striking the wood 3 or 4 times per revolution you have small cutters, 1/2" - 3/4" in width that are staggered around the cylinder so that only one or two are striking the wood at a time.

You will have less tear-out working with knots, burls and figured wood compared to a traditional straight blade.

The one disadvantage to a helical head is that it takes more power to run them, many of the small lunchbox units just don't have what it takes.

To Operate the Planer

1. Make sure the planer is fastened securely in place.

2. Lower the cutting head until it just touches the surface of the board.

3. Remove the board and lower the head another 1/16".

4. Feed the board into the machine, it will automatically travel through.

5. Follow with gradually deeper passes, about 1/16" until desired thickness is obtained.

Thickness planers create a lot of wood chips, it is a good idea to hook them up to a dust collector.

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  • Keep guards in place and in working order. The guards are there to protect you, use them.
  • Remove adjusting keys and wrenches. Form a habit of checking to see that keys and adjusting wrenches are removed from the machine before turning it on.
  • Don't use power tools in damp or wet locations, or expose them to rain. Keep work area well lighted.
  • Keep children away. All visitors should be kept a safe distance from the work area.
  • Make the shop kidproof with padlocks, master swatches, or by removing starter keys.
  • Don't force the machine. It will do the job better and safer at the rate for which it was designed.
  • If you must, use a proper extension cord. Make sure your extension cord is in good condition. When using an extension cord, be sure to use one heavy enough to carry the current your machine will draw.
  • Wear proper apparel. Do not wear loose clothing, gloves, neckties, rings, bracelets, or other jewelry which may get caught in moving parts. Nonslip footwear is recommended. Wear protective hair covering to contain long hair.
  • Always use safety glasses. Also use face or dust masks if the cutting operation is dusty. Everyday eyeglasses only have impact resistant lenses; they are not safety glasses.
  • Don't over-reach. Keep proper footing and balance at all times.
  • Always disconnect the machine from the power source before servicing.
  • Feed work into the cutterhead against the direction of rotation of the cutterhead only
  • Never leave machine running unattended, turn power off.
  • Never plane a board less than 8" in length or 1/2" thick.

Colt "Peacemaker" 1875

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