There’s a steady trend unfolding in the world these days, and it crosses all technological boundaries. It shows up in everything from how we listen to music while we walk down the street, right through to the tools used to complete the largest commercial construction projects. Implements, appliances and devices of all kinds are getting smaller, lighter, more effective, easier to use and less costly. In fact, quality is skyrocketing across the board. And when it comes to home workshops, thickness planers offer one of the premier examples of design improvements that make a big difference.
Thickness planers are a class of woodworking power tool designed to smooth the faces of boards by shaving off a thin layer of wood with a set of rotating blades. Feed an ugly, grey board into one end of the machine, and out comes a smooth, gleaming, slightly thinner board from the other. Thirty years ago you needed a forklift to move the smallest thickness planers around. Twenty years ago a couple of people could do it. Nowadays the lightest machines weigh in at about 50 lbs., while costing less than you’d pay in tax on one of those old 1970’s models bought new.
But if a decrease in price and weight were all there was to talk about, then the story wouldn’t be worth telling. What really makes thickness planers shine right now is performance. Amazingly smooth boards currently come out of benchtop thickness planers costing between $400 and $800. They can even beat high-output lumberyard machines in a contest of quality. With a fresh set of blades in place, the best planers create an almost finish-ready smooth surface on wood. They’re amazing.
I doubt there’s anyone interested in woodworking who hasn’t wished at least once that they owned a thickness planer. Besides the substantial savings you can realize by turning low-cost, rough lumber into furniture-ready boards, there’s also the design advantages. When wood of a non-standard thickness is really the best option visually, a thickness planer makes that wood available, practical and easy to get.
Couple a modern benchtop thickness planer with a hand-held metal detector and you’ve got a terrific combination for salvaging wood from the “urban forest”. Shipping crates, pallets and even junked pieces of furniture become valuable resources when you can find hidden nails reliably, take them out, then plane the wood into excellent lumber for small and medium-size projects.
Back in the early 1990s I bought (and have since almost worn out) my first thickness planer, and since then I’ve completed published shop tests on this tool category several times. One recurring problem with all thickness planers up until now has been the tendency to clog up with shavings when operating without vacuum dust collection. Typical planers rely on incidental air movement from the spinning blades to shoot shavings out of the machine. But when the shaving load gets too high, they clog up, marring the wood surface as it’s planed.
You can solve this problem by mechanically removing shavings with a vacuum system connected to your planer, but there’s a better option. DeWALT now offers the first major improvement to have appeared in thickness planer design in a long time. In addition to a three-blade cutterhead (typical machines have two), and dual-speed operation, their DW735 includes an on-board fan that aggressively ejects shavings. Clog-ups are virtually impossible. I know from several planing jobs that the power of this fan-assisted system is more than enough to propel planer debris through a 6-foot long flexible hose connected to a cloth-topped waste can. At the moment, the DW735 is the best benchtop thickness planer I’ve seen, but perhaps not for long. The pace of competition is fast, and I expect someone else to up the ante soon in the thickness planer game. That’s the way the world goes these days, and it’s not a bad thing at all.