If you’re just beginning your woodworking journey, then you should know that one of the most crucial tools you could ever own is a thickness planer. Thickness planers, also known as thicknessers in some circles, are used to cut boards down to a consistent thickness.
Thicknessers come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Unless you plan on going large-scale, a full-size thicknesser may not be the most cost-effective tool. instead, we’re going to focus specifically on the cheaper alternatives—hand planers and tabletop/bench planers. In the end, you’ll have all the information you need to decide which thicknesser is right for your workshop.
Hand planers are those that are operated by hand (obviously). The average hand planer consists of a handle that surrounds a thin, one-edged blade. By dragging the tool against the surface of your wooden slab back and forth, you can remove thin strips of the material and eventually cut it down to a consistent thickness.
Planers serve a wide variety of purposes. They can be used on raw boards or nearly finished products—e.g. doors, cabinets, etc.—to trim them down to the appropriate size. Because they remove only a sliver of hair with each graceful pass, there’s very little risk of overdoing it and ruining the final product.
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Hand planers can be divided into two categories based on their source of power. The first of which is manual hand planers or those that we’ve been talking about the entire time. They require a bit of muscle and grace to get the hang of using, but mastering this skill is the sign of an expert handyman/woodworker.
Electric hand planers are pretty much the same thing, but because it runs off of electricity, you don’t need to exert as much muscle power by pushing down as you drag the tool across. Electric hand planers can be fine-tuned to cut super-thin layers off of the workpiece. Like manual planers, they can be used to trim nearly finished wood-based products down to the correct measurements.
Tabletop or bench planers take things several steps further. The main components of a tabletop planer are the worktable where boards slide through, roller that pass the board from the front to the back, and a series of knives that, depending on the model, deliver more than 10,000 cuts per minute. Tabletop planers can and should be mounted onto a workbench for added stability.
Adjusting the depth of each cut can be done by turning a crank that lowers or raises the knives by mere fractions of an inch. However, a tabletop planer has a maximum height clearance for boards to pass through. If your lumber is thicker than the maximum clearance, then you’ll need to first cut it down to size with another tool.
Tabletop planers are considerably more accurate than handheld tools since they rest and move past a flat, metal worktable. They’re also a heck of a lot more efficient at trimming rough slabs to the dimensions required for your project. But does all of this mean a tabletop planer totally substitutes a hand planer?
Not by a long shot. For instance, when trimming nearly finished workpieces to size, you won’t want to run it through a tabletop planer since it will remove any finishes on the surface you’ve painstakingly added. Additionally, these machines aren’t always perfect. Even the best of tabletop planers can produce snipe—a visibly deeper cut on both ends of the board. This means you’ll either need to run a longer board than you need through the planer or attach a piece of sacrificial stock to both ends of your workpiece.
Should I Get a Hand Planer or a Tabletop/Bench Planer?
If we’re being completely honest, if you can afford a tabletop planer, you might as well get a hand planer along with it. The heavy-duty tabletop machine will cut rough boards to the specified thickness, allowing you to salvage old, inexpensive lumber you’ve inherited from your grandparents or purchased at a local lumber mill. The hand planer will come in handy when making precise cuts to bring your workpiece to thickness, length, width, what have you.
HOWEVER! If you had to decide on one or the other, we’d recommend getting an electric hand planer. Sure, it will take a lot more time to shave thick boards down to size, but it also gives you full control over the tiniest of details. Plus, they’re super-fun to use, but that’s just our opinion.