A planer is one of the most important tools to use in woodworking. If you need to dimension a board by reducing its thickness, a planer is the only tool to consider. Without one of these, you might be left attempting to perform a dangerous cut on a vertically standing board with a jig saw, or band saw.
There are several types of planers, including hand planers and bench planers. One of the most important considerations to make when choosing between the two is price over convenience, the former being inexpensive but a pain to use, and the latter being quick and easy but costly. In this article, we’re going to discuss what these two types of planers are and how they’re used.
Overview of Hand Planers
A hand planer is a handheld tool that’s driven by manual force. It’s used to shave extremely thin layers of material off the surface of your board to reduce the thickness down to the desired size.
Hand planers have been around for quite some time, and many old-school carpenters and hobbyist woodworkers swear by this tool. We guess the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is something that these people truly believe in.
Downsides of a Hand Planer
One of the most significant downsides of using a hand planer is the amount of energy you need to exert to shave even a centimeter off the top of your board. Using this tool requires a balance between downward and sideways pressure to shave the right amount with each pass. Press too hard, and you’ll end up with more material removed than you planned. Slide too hard, and you might end up digging into your board at an angle.
If you’re a pro woodworker, then you know how important it can be to stick to a tight schedule. Unfortunately, if your project calls for reducing the thickness of a board and you only have a hand planer, you’re more than likely going to miss the deadline by a few centuries. Manually planing a board can take a lot of time. If you want one of these in your shop, we recommend using it for light-duty planing only (small boards or small-scale planing).
How to Use a Hand Planer
Here are the steps needed to begin smoothing the surfaces of your boards with a hand planer.
1. Sharpen the Blade
The blade needs to be as sharp as a razor in order to effective shave thin layers off your workpiece. Hold the blade at 30° when running it across a piece of sandpaper.
2. Adjust the Angle of the Blade
After the blade is sharpened, place it back on the hand planer and turn the adjustment wheel. The more acute the angle, the finer the shavings will be. If the angle is too steep, it’ll end up tearing your board.
3. Run the Planer Across the Surface of the Board
Begin by placing the tool on one of the edges of the board. Apply pressure by holding onto the knob with one hand and the handle with the other. Push forward and across the board until you’ve reached a point that doesn’t need to be thinned out. Use a straight edge or a high-precision vernier caliper to measure how thick the board is.
Overview of Bench Planers
A bench planer – a.k.a. benchtop planer, thicknesser, or thickness planer – is a power tool that pros and contract workers rely on to reduce the thickness of large boards. It comes with one or multiple cutter heads which go up and down on a passing board to remove less than a fraction of an inch at a time. A good bench planer is extremely accurate and produces very little snipe, something that is common in all power planers.
Downsides of a Bench Planer
The largest downside of a bench planer is that it produces snipe. Snipe is when a board’s head and tail ends have slightly more material removed from it than the center of the board. This is because the rollers shift the position of the board slightly upward, causing the cutter head to remove a bit more from the ends.
There are two ways to eliminate the risk of snipe. The first is by placing sacrificial boards on both the head and tail ends of the board. Snipe will be left on the spare boards, and your workpiece will be smoothened out perfectly. The second method is by manually tilting the board downward using your hand before the board meets the cutterheads. This method requires a bit of experience to get it right every time.
Another downside is that a bench planer doesn’t make the board perfectly flat. We mean that if one side of the board is curved, then the planer will produce a similar curve on the other side. The workpiece needs to be flattened using a jointer or even a hand planer beforehand.
How to Use a Bench Planer
Using a bench planer is simple as long as you follow these quick and easy steps.
1. Sharpen/Replace the Cutterheads
Some cutterheads can be resharpened and reused, whereas other models require that you purchase fresh blades. Whichever model you get, make sure that the cutter heads are in perfect working order and ready to chop lumber.
2. Adjust the Depth of the Cut
A bench planer is supposed to cut only a fraction of an inch per pass. If you attempt to set the depth to one inch, you could end up reducing the life of your blades or even cause the machine’s motor to overheat and die a premature death. With every turn of the depth adjustment knob/lever, you should pass the board through the machine twice to get the best results.
3. Feed the Board through the Bench Planer
After the blades are deemed sharp and the board is completely flat, you can now push the board through the machine to receive a-choppin’. Whether you want to add sacrificial boards to the ends or tilt it slightly as it enters and exits the machine is up to you. We recommend leaving the board slightly longer than you need; that way you can just saw off the sniped ends.
Which is the Better Option?
The only thing left to decide now is whether manual labor beats hiring machines. We feel that a bench planer is the better tool to get if you have the funds for it. If not, then prepare to do a ton of repetitive work for hours on end on a single board. The hand planer has no depth adjustment system to prevent the blade from cutting more than you’d like. If you end up tearing the wood because the blade is too steep or because you’ve lost focus while planing (DANGEROUS!), then all your work will be for naught.