A thickness planer is a worthy investment if you need to reclaim old lumber or dimension boards for a project. It beats painstakingly using a hand planer every time if you need to alter the thickness of long, hardwood boards. However, most thickness planer models have one thing in common: producing snipe.
What is snipe?
Snipe is a deeper cut made onto the leading and trailing ends of a board when fed through a thickness planer. It is much more common and more severe on the leading end. Snipe can be quite detrimental to your project, especially if you need the entire surface of the board cut to a certain thickness. If one or both ends of the board have slightly more material cut out, you’re basically left with an unusable piece of scrap board that’ll probably find life in another job.
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What causes snipe?
Running a board through a thickness planer will almost always guarantee at least one sniped end. However, don’t think that the manufacturers are all in it together to piss you off or are in cahoots with lumber retailers in order to increase their sales volume. In fact, lumber producers are probably also victims of snipe from time to time.
Although there are several reasons why your board can end up with sniped ends, the main cause is the feed rollers. As you feed a board through a thickness planer and under the cutter head, the rollers will latch onto the board, pushing and pulling the board completely through the machine.
If you’re not careful, the board will enter the machine at a very, VERY slight angle, causing the leading end of the board to lift very slightly before meeting the second roller. When this happens, it pushes upward toward the cutter head instead of directly beneath it. The result: more material chopped off at the leading end of the board, i.e., snipe.
The reason why the entire board isn’t cut at a depth of the sniped end is that as the second roller catches the leading end of the board, the board becomes balanced, allowing the cutterhead to cut at the right depth. As the board passes and is released from the first roller, your problems begin anew with the trailing end.
Another cause of sniped ends when passing a board through your thickness planer is that the infeed and outfeed tables aren’t set flush with the work surface. As the board passes through, it’ll either drop or climb in order to pass through the machine before dropping or climbing again as it meets the outfeed table. This is an extremely rare cause of snipe, though it’s something worth noticing, especially in models with detachable/folding infeed and outfeed tables.
So what can I do to stop sniped edges?
If you’re ready to invest in a large, industrial thickness planer with multiple infeed and outfeed rollers and 10-foot long tables, your snipe problems will be over. However, for the average hobbyist or even small-scale commercial worker, this just isn’t feasible. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to prevent or reduce snipe.
Checking the flatness of the board
What you can do is pay attention to the flatness of the board. You’ll need to run the board over a jointer several times to get the surface as flat as possible. If flattened perfectly, the board should sit flush with the thickness planer’s table, preventing or at least reducing the amount of snipe.
Using a sacrificial piece of wood
What many people do to prevent producing sniped edges on their project pieces is by attaching a piece of scrap wood several inches long to both ends of the board. You can use screws (BE CAREFUL! Make sure that the screws are deeper in the wood than the thickness planer’s cutting depth) or glue to attach the sacrificial board. As the board enters the thickness planer, all the snipe will be on the scrap wood and not on your precious board. It’s an extra step in the furniture-building process, but it’s necessary in order to guarantee snipe-free results.
Fighting leverage with leverage
If you don’t have the feel of the degree and length of snipe, you shouldn’t do this step. Instead, we recommend sticking to using a scrap block of wood to take the hit.
The lift of the board is what causes the leading end to run right into the cutterhead. You need to add negative leverage against the board in order to ensure that it sits flush with the table while it passes under the cutterhead. As the board reaches the second roller, move to the outfeed side of the machine and repeat the leveraging process as the board releases from the infeed roller and exits the machine.
This is easier said than done, especially if you don’t quite get the hang of lifting the trailing end of the board ever-so-slightly to prevent the leading end from lifting into the cutterhead. Practice makes perfect so try a few runs with an unused board.
What about “locking” the cutterhead?
Marketing reps might try and trick you into purchasing a lock in order to keep the thickness planer’s cutterhead fixed at the correct depth to prevent snipe from occurring. First of all, this is all just noise; they’re assuming that the cutterhead, if not locked by using an external system, will go bouncing all over the place, intentionally causing sniped ends on your board. We have yet to find a thickness planer model with gyrating cutterheads, so a height lock makes absolutely no sense.
Almost every thickness planer model will produce snipe; there’s really no way around it unless you get the super-mega-industrial thickness planer that’ll set you back tens of thousands of dollars. Instead, there are three things you can do to reduce the degree of sniped edges: ensuring perfect flatness of your board by passing it over a jointer multiple times, attaching scrap blocks of wood to the leading and trailing ends of your board to absorb the snipe, and slightly leveraging your board to prevent it from running directly into the cutter. Don’t fall for external cutterhead height locks for your thickness planer since they don’t make sense.