Combination machines are not a new concept by any stretch of the imagination. The idea of using the same motor and frame to power a couple of different applications has a commonsense appeal that is right up many woodworkers’ alleys. However, these machines are rare in U.S. woodshops.
Here in the U.S., if you could talk to most woodworkers and ask them about a combination woodworking machine, the picture that would come to mind is the Shopsmith Mark V. And while that particular tool has a faithful following, many of whom would rather lose a body part or a beloved pet rather than give up their Mark V, its reputation in the craft is that it does a couple of things well, and other tasks in a sub-optimum manner. In other words, dedicated machines (for example, table saws, drill presses, disk sanders, etc. ) will outperform their combo machine counterparts in almost all cases. (Shopsmith owners take note: I am reporting here, not editorializing. Please keep your complaint letters professional.)
Across the pond in Europe, combination woodworking machines are an entirely different kettle of fish. Companies like Felder, Rojek, Robland and Laguna have built sophisticated combination machines that perform at unquestionable levels of excellence. These machines combine various components: for example, a planer/jointer in concert with a table saw or mortising appliance. There might also be a shaper and even a panel saw combined with a table saw and almost any other mix-and-match combo you can think of. I don’t think I would be wrong in asserting that in Europe, a woodworker would find it odd to purchase a machine that did just one task. Here, of course, it is just the opposite situation. I could speculate as to the reason, but I would just be guessing. Having been reared in a traditional American shop, I grew up suspicious of combination machines — European or otherwise. But when I really started to consider the benefits of combination machines, I had to admit that my prejudice was without merit. This is especially true when it comes to jointer/planer combination machines.
The Perfect Marriage
Leaving aside for the moment all the other considerations involved in the combo machine discussion, when it comes to the planer/jointer, there is little room for argument regarding its practicality. There is much to be said when it comes to having a jointer that has as wide a cutting head as your planer. Indeed, planing is a task that can’t really be done well without a good jointer. And as your stock gets wider with more exaggerated cupping, bowing and twisting, face-jointing becomes even more important. With all that said, it is clear that the concept of putting both functions into the same tool is a good one. But how does it work in reality? When you blend both machines, do you lose functionality that we have come to expect in the dedicated machines? Is the execution as good as the theory? That is what I set out to discover in this shop test.
A Tale of Two Machines
To test these questions out, I brought two planer/jointer machines into my shop, purchased a variety of roughsawn hardwood in various widths and thicknesses and started making woodchips. The machines, a JET JJP- 12 ($1,999 in 2008) and Laguna’s A175003 ($1,495 in 2008), from their new Platinum series of tools, are typical of the genre. At a casual glance, these floor-standing, stationary tools look very similar to your run-of-the-mill jointer. The metal cabinets are a bit bulkier and the infeed/outfeed tables a bit shorter than you would expect, but neither to a large degree.
The first significant difference you will see is the cutter guard. The spring-loaded, swing-out cutter guards ubiquitously seen on jointers are not to be found. Both of these machines have a T-shaped guard mounted on an arm (see photo, page 78). They are adjustable to accommodate the thickness of the wood you will face-joint (this is done by adjusting the arm). The T-shaped guard slides in and out in a collar to adjust for fence placement and the dimension of the stock you will edge-joint. The guard is made of an aluminum extrusion, finished with plastic end caps. Because they are aluminum, these guards won’t injure your knives if they were to accidentally get mixed up with each other. Functionally, I found them to be effective and easy to adjust. They kept my fingers clear of the blades but were still easy to get out of the way when I needed to address distortion in my stock.
The fences on both of these machines were a bit underwhelming. Again, made of extruded aluminum stock, they are not up to the standards I am used to on the good quality 6″ and 8″ jointers I have used over the years. There is nothing fancy about how they are attached to the machines. The Laguna has a key-way collar bolted to the cabinet that captures a polygonal steel bar; the JET has a hefty sheet metal housing that’s slotted to accept stud bolts topped off with L-shaped ratchet knobs. Adjusting the fences square to the table was putzy, and I felt the need to check the fence’s adjustment regularly. To be fair, although neither fence was really to my liking, they both performed perfectly. I edge-jointed hundreds of lineal feet of hardwood stock, and I got consistently square, smoothly cut edges.
Infeed and Outfeed Tables
The cast-iron tables on the Laguna tool were machined and polished to near perfection. The JET’s tables were also of very good quality. Both tools came with the tops properly aligned; no adjustment was needed. In both cases, the tables were shorter than I would have expected them to be. There are 6″ and 8″ jointers with much longer tables. Longer tables provide more control when you are edge- or face-jointing long and heavy pieces of lumber. So, I was concerned about my ability to handle large stock on these machines. I purchased some hard maple planks, 2″ thick by 11-1⁄2″ wide and 10 feet long. They were big monsters and very heavy.
The short story is that I had absolutely no problem with the face-jointing task. Even without the benefit of an auxiliary roller stand, I was able to hold the stock flat to the outfeed table and control the cut without undue difficulties. The same was true of the edge-jointing operation. Would I prefer a longer outfeed table? The answer is yes. But once again, the tools both performed very well, even with those huge timbers I was surfacing.
It took me less than a minute to switch the machines from their jointer configuration to the planing setup. (And about the same to switch them back — I did not time that procedure.) One tip I have for anyone considering these machines is to have a sufficiently long dust collection hose on the tool.
When you switch over from one task to the other, you need to take the hose off and move it from one end of the machine to the other. If the hose is too short, something has to move, either the machine or the dust collector. And one other obvious point: you absolutely need dust collection with these tools.
So what are the answers to the questions that spurred this article? Do these combination machines perform as well as the concept would dictate? In my experience, the answer is yes. Both of the machines I use performed at a superior quality level and met or exceeded my expectations. The only caveat I have, and it is very slight, is that you need sufficient infeed and outfeed space for the tool. That is true of a dedicated jointer as well, but it is a consideration.
Are there negatives to these machines? Well, you do need to flip the tops up and the dust collection over before you can move from jointing to planing. But I did not find that to be an onerous task at all. Both of these machines, and I believe it to be true across the category, require a 220-volt circuit, but that is also true of my 8″ jointer. These tools are not cheap, but when I combine the price of my 8″ Delta jointer and my 13″ RIDGID planer, it comes to around $2,200, as of 2008. And 12″ dedicated jointers generally come in right at the two-grand mark. So in my mind, the cost is at worst a push, or actually leaning towards being in favor of the combo machines.
After all the pros and cons are considered, I feel completely comfortable recommending these machines to my fellow shop rats. Would I have one in my shop? In a heartbeat.
As in any other tool purchase, personal preference is an important factor. Before I had the opportunity to put these tools through their paces, I would have had reservations about them. They were outside of my experience. With this comparison under my belt, they will be in serious contention should I find myself in the market for either a planer or a jointer. It’s just common sense.