When I reviewed benchtop planers about a decade ago, they were still fairly new on the scene. Most major manufacturers had just introduced their first- or second-generation machines. At the time, the hottest models boasted then new features like disposable knives, depth-of-cut indicators and depth-stop presets.
Flash forward to the end of this millennium’s first decade and surprisingly little has changed: Benchtop portable planers are still the primary lumber thicknessing tool in the majority of small woodshops. And, save an innovation or two, most models still have roughly the same feature sets they did back in 2000. What’s changed more are the economic realities governing our tool purchases. Most woodworkers these days have budgets that are tighter than a heavy-metal rocker’s leather pants.
With tool economy in mind, I was curious to see how the current crop of lower-priced planer models compared to one another. I decided to test five popular models that sell for a street price of less than $400 (sans tax and shipping, all prices as of 2010). They range from the $229 Ryobi AP1301 (remember, Ryobi was the first to introduce us to affordable thickness planers, with their 10″ model AP-10) up to the $399 DeWalt DW734. In the middle of the price pack are the Delta TP305 ($255), the Craftsman 21758 ($266) and the RIDGID R4330 ($369). (I also wanted to include the $299 Rockwell RK9010, but Rockwell chose not to participate in the test.)
A quick glance at the five planers, shown at the bottom of these pages, reveals that these models share a very similar DNA: They’re all portable units that clamp or mount to a bench or workstand and have folding infeed and outfeed tables (save the Ryobi). Each is powered by a 110-volt universal motor that drives a two- or three-knife cutterhead equipped with double-edged, reversible knives (when one edge wears out, simply turn the blade around for a new sharp edge). They all handle stock up to 121⁄2″ wide (13″ for the RIDGID and Ryobi) and up to 6″ thick. None of these lightweight thicknessers is designed to remove more than 1/8″ in a single pass; even less on wider boards.
In examining and evaluating these economical models, I kept in mind the qualities I would want in a portable thickness planer. A good machine should be able to produce a smooth, even surface on softwood lumber as well as fine hardwoods, with little or no snipe (a dip in the surface of a board near either end). It should be easy to use, especially when setting the depth of cut to the desired board thickness. A good planer should have enough power to plane wide boards and dense hardwoods without bogging down. Finally (and very important in this age of better health and safety awareness), a planer should have a dust hood that provides efficient chip capture when connected to a shop vacuum or dust collector.
After spending some quality shop time with these five portable thicknessers, I’m left
with a pretty favorable impression of all of them. When I think back on the days when you had to drop a big pile of cash for a heavy cast-iron planer that took four strong buddies to move, I’m thrilled to live in an age when a mere 230-400 dollars buys you a portable model that can be carried without breaking anyone’s back. Budget portables may be limited in terms of planing power and they may not last as long as their cast-iron brethren, but they’re still a great purchase for any woodworker, carpenter or serious DIYer.
But the real question is, which one of these five affordable machines should you be considering adding to your benchtop arsenal? If you can live with a planer with basic features, there’s no question that the bottom bracket- priced Ryobi AP1301 is a real bargain. It’s very light to carry, and its quality cutterhead makes smooth work of most planing tasks. If you need a planer that’s built to take the daily punishment of being tossed into a work truck and knocked around a jobsite, the nearly-all-metal Delta TP305 would be a fine choice. But if you’re looking for a planer that offers both top surfacing performance and has all the features that make planing lumber easier, I’d go for the DeWalt DW734. It may be the most expensive model in this group, but the DeWalt is a well-built machine that’s a pleasure to use, and so it earns my vote as your “Best Bet” purchase.