grizzly helical cutter

Electric Planer For Wood

Benchtop Wood Planer vs Stationary Planer

In terms of an electric planer there are many options on the market for wood planing solutions. The question becomes what will better serve you in terms of your work. Benchtop planers have become popular in past years as compared to a stationary planer. Part of this is the difference in cost between the two.

We need to look into how effective the benchtop wood planer is as a wood shaping tool when compared to its bigger brothers. You need to know if it is a good solution for your needs and what you can realistically expect from its service.

Additionally you need to know what to stay away from in the market that will cause frustration and ultimately send you back shopping for another tool.

The Benchtop Planer

benchtop planer

The advantages to the benchtop version is immediately noticeable. Portability and space saving jumps out right away. I have never seen a shop that space was not an issue. These planers can be supported by stands you attach them to and then placing wheels under them they can be moved from place to place within a shop. Most allow some kind of dust and chip gathering attachment to be supported and that is a nice bonus.

I do personally own a benchtop planer and I love mine despite the detractors I will soon discuss. My favorite feature of the planer is its wheels I custom installed under the base. It rolls across my studio floor into the corner when not in use. This may be a bit silly when compared to other very important features such as power and width of cut but there some benchtops can offer decent solutions.

Size Matters

When selecting a planer of this variety there are things to watch out for. Of course the wider the better. Try to find one with no less than 13 inches of infeed and this is pushing the upper limit of what these portable models will offer. Even at 13 inches the reality is that often it is not enough. When processing lumber down for wood art I can find myself trimming a bit more than I like to feed into the planer.

For smaller projects the 13 inch is ideal. Once you have gotten past the larger breakdown of the lumber and are cutting to project specific needs this is where the benchtop will shine. In reality it is more of what it was designed for. Not everything a wood artist will do is desired to go through bigger machines.

An example of this is my box art. We are looking at pieces that are often a few inches wide by maybe 5 to 7 inches long and often around 3/8 of an inch thick or less. I prefer to use my benchtop in these cases. The ease of control when planing wood at this point is preferred as I can fine tune the results with little effort.

This aspect of a wood plane is very critical especially when it pertains to fine wood art. Consistency between the pieces are essential and that control becomes important across feed to feed going into the machine. Later when doing things such as box joints where the dado blade is making precision cuts an error will be magnified if it was not planed to specification.

Helical Cutting Head A Must

Forget anything that uses blades or knives for cutting. Just ignore them and do not even entertain the idea of that planer. Please just move on. One of the core purposes for a benchtop planer is efficiency in small projects. The only way to get this is with helical cutting heads of some variety.

Knives or blades in these smaller planers will dull far too quickly and create a lot of inconsistency. They will frustrate you to no end and you will soon replace the machine because of it. This knocks out most of the popular machines such as the Dewalt 735x or similar. In fact once you toss in this helical cutting requirement you will find your options fall to a few machines.

There was a time when Steel City produced a machine that had a helical head. Many complained that it was not a real helical and in fact this is true. It was a modification from a true design which allowed for the small blade to be flipped and a new sharp edge to be used. The truth be told is that this is most common in benchtop designs to use this similar modification.

In order to get a true helical cutting head you have two options. Pony up for a real stationary wood planer for a few thousand dollars or accept the benchtop modification. Why is it this way? Until improvements in technology allow for improved machines on a smaller scale we must accept these modifications to smaller designs. This is our reality.

The Dewalt planer version does offer some custom modification with their models. Naturally this will void any warranty of the blade or knife versions but who cares anyway because the knife versions are junk in my opinion. Thankfully a company such as Grizzly at the present time sells this modification for the Dewalt 735x at an additional $345. It can be had from other places as it is Byrd Tools which makes this but the price can vary depending on where you source it from.

To get the modification in the Dewalt 735x you will not only spend half what the machine itself cost just to get the helical head but then you also install it yourself.

There are other options thankfully for those who do not want to go this more expensive route. If Steel City does not offer their older version any longer at the present moment I know Rikon does offer a 13 in helical planer for about $700. Again this is likely not a true helical but that matters less than getting away from the old knife system.

Any helical like system will be far more consistent in cut and finish to give a clean true wood plane across the surface. A blade system will cause problems such as chatter marks and inconsistency along with marring the surface to the point that heavier sanding is needed. For wood art this is not desired when accuracy is a must.

Problems With Benchtop Planers

As already discussed the cutting systems of most benchtop planers are one of the major issues when looking at blade to helical cutting heads. The problems do not end there. Aside from the obvious matter of how wide the feed system is the next major issue is power. A little 120v motor just is not going to give any power.

chatter marks

With the benchtop version you are left taking off small portions of material slowly working the wood down. If there is a lot of planing to do this creates a time consuming job so that the motor is not stressed beyond its limitations. It doesn’t take a lot to smoke out these smaller motors if one is careless.

Motor life really depends on how well you take care of it in this regard. If it is cared for the motor will last for quite some time. Additionally the helical head modification will also last for much longer before the teeth need to be flipped. I have had years of use from my Steel City version and have not yet needed to change the blades. Note not everyone can say the same of this experience.

This story would be true of any of these lightweight machines. This is their ultimate issue in design. People attempt to use them as a full size planer and when this happens they break.

One quick note to help those who may use a benchtop version. If you ever feed a wood plank into the planer and notice it hangs there is a solution to help.

The cause is often the rollers that try to push the wood through cannot do so due to resistance. Use paste wax to coat the metal bottom the wood slides across.

Doing this will help to slick up the surface helping the rollers to do its job more effectively.

Stationary Wood Planers

Let’s compare the benchtop version to a bigger brother I personally like. The Powermatic 15in 4500 rpm with 3hp and helical cutting head. This is a good personal machine for any shop. It provides the power needed while still being small enough to get the fine tuning that the benchtops can offer for wood art.

In my opinion this is the best of both worlds. It is still small by comparison to bigger machines but it comes with the power needed to get a job done with a clean cut. Keep in mind though for this machine you are looking at spending over $3k usd.

When looking at a stationary planer opt for a 240 single phase 3hp no matter the brand for the home shop or wood art studio. Alternatively if you do not want to spend as much for the Powermatic know that Grizzly has a model with similar specifications and helical cutting head. The Grizzly will run around $2k usd.

I would advise to not go below this range in brand and price for a machine of this nature. If I had the ability to make up the difference in price between the two I would definitely go with the Powermatic over the Grizzly. Nevertheless the lesser of the two would still serve well.

These machines are still small enough to fit onto a smaller footprint within a shop but large enough and with enough power to be really functional. I speak of function in terms of fine and smaller work. I am never processing 2×4’s or other general lumber. Each tool has its purpose.

While it is small enough for a home shop know the physical size of the machine is significantly larger than a benchtop. If this is an issue but you need the power you may need to look at your shop and plan a renovation to fit it in. Nevertheless the end result of these larger machines once placed within your shop you will smile at having them.

The disadvantage is that it is stationary. For garage shops if you still park your car in the garage this would definitely be a problem. The machine can be modified to be supported by a rolling stand. Despite this keep in mind these machines still typically weigh in excess of 500 pounds. Roller or not that is a lot of weight to move around a shop.

Which Is Better?

There is no doubt that the larger stationary machine wins on every front with the exception of space saving. If I were to be asked which one to buy I would say both if you can afford it. Yet that is usually not an option for most. I enjoy having the small planer in my main work area tucked into a corner for fast modifications when needed. Being 120v I just plug in and go right where I stand.

Yet if I had to choose only one I would opt for the larger stationary machine. Having that power is really a necessity. Being 3hp it will last a long time with little worry about failure unless one really abuses the planer. The 15 inch models still allow for smaller pieces to be fed within reason and precision to be achieved without it getting sucked in and chewed to bits. Meanwhile larger boards can be handled with ease and speed decreasing your work time giving you confidence that the machine can handle the work load.

It really comes down to what you can afford or fit into your workspace. This is an essential tool for starting woodworking but there are other essentials that weigh more heavily in need. If affordability is an issue but the need is a must I wouldn’t hesitate at buying a benchtop to get me by for a while. As long as you stay within its limitations you will be fine. Yet it will not give the same service nor lifespan of their bigger brothers. So plan accordingly at investing into a bigger machine later.

My benchtop was purchased for the very fact that when I started I could not afford the bigger equipment. As time goes buy you upgrade as needed. If you do this there are benefits to having both. It will not sit in the corner of your shop collecting dust like most peoples jointers that rarely see action. When mine does finally die I may not buy another benchtop but I can say that it will be missed.