What to Look For
When shopping for a power planer, the most obvious factors are power and price. For most indoor woodworkers who need a power planer only occasionally, a 5- or 6-amp machine is a good target. If you have plans to construct a large deck, garage or home addition, consider a heftier machine. Likewise, a smaller unit like the Ryobi cordless (with its 2″ cut and a weight of only 5 lbs.) might be your best bet for light work.
Your preferences and the tasks to which you’ll set a planer should dictate other factors, but here’s a good list to consider:
• Blades: Always opt for carbide blades when available, as they last a lot longer than HSS, especially for extensive heavy-duty use. And, of course, machines that sport double-edged blades give twice the use.
• Chip direction: Some machines give you no choice, and shoot chips one direction only. For the most versatility, pick a machine that allows you to select left or right chip direction (which determines either dust bag or hose location) according to the job. If you don’t plan to use a bag or dust hose, a model with a chip chute that can be angled away from you is a good pick.
• Accessories: All planers come with a basic selection of necessary tools for blade changing and a guide/fence, but examine those fences carefully before buying. The larger and longer the fence is, the more control it gives; conversely, a too-short fence is worthless. Multiple cutterheads, angled guides, dust control add-ons, rabbeting and jointing adapters are all plusses, even if optional.
• Depth scale: The easier to read at a glance, the better. Note that Festool planers have a metric depth scale, which may require some on-the-fly calculating.
• Tool storage: When I’m king of the world, I’ll decree that all necessary adjustment tools must be stored right on the machine itself. Till that day comes, though, few manufacturers offer on-board storage. Planers that have it are far more convenient.
• Cord length: A too-short cord will constantly tangle and snag, so the longer the cord, the better. Currently, Makita and Festool are the leaders here with cords that should be an example to the others.
Safety and Maintenance
Power planers are deceptive. They’re compact, not that loud, and don’t feel like they want to leap screaming out of your hands while using them like, say, a router can. In fact, some are as easy to handle as a power drill. However, remember that they have a cutter running at a very high speed that is always exposed. That cutter should be foremost in your mind at all times.
Always allow the cutter to come up to speed before cutting, and always engage the workpiece smoothly with both hands on the machine; never use a power planer onehanded. Although a planer’s built-in kickstand keeps the cutterhead off the work surface when not in use, it’s best to let it power down completely before setting it down.
Avoid over-reaching; if the workpiece is long, walk the planer along the cut. Keep your work area free of obstacles, and be especially mindful of where the cord is at all times.
Watch those chips! It’s always best to attach the machine’s collector bag or a dust-collector hose during use. If you don’t, always pay attention to where the chips will go. You can easily spew a surprisingly large wave of chips flying five to eight feet away when planing — especially when doing deeper cuts. When using an attached bag, empty it often. Those bags fill surprisingly fast, and chips can back up into the cutterhead. If chips start flying out of the bottom of the machine as you’re planing, you’ve got either a full bag or a chip blockage in the machine. Either way, stop and fix it.
Finally, keep those blades sharp. Dull blades slow you down, give inferior cuts and overtax the tool. Check them often. Sharp blades produce large, well-formed chips and shavings, so if you notice increased amounts of fine dust — or the planer bogging down, of course — it’s time to change or sharpen those blades.