Wood may have natural beauty, but to bring it out in furniture and other fine carpentry projects, woodworkers must operate within tight tolerances, attempting to achieve machine shop-type fitment from their joinery. A bench planer is a highly useful tool for attaining this level of craftsmanship.
Benchtop planers, also known as thickness planers, are box-shaped power tools with rotating blades inside that allow you to adjust the thickness of a piece of wood. By passing the wood through the planer, two or three high-speed blades inside the machine cut off tiny layers from the surface of the workpiece. By adjusting the cutting height, you can remove a layer at a time until the wood meets your specifications.
Having a consistent thickness allows you to create level tabletops, joinery, and all-around better projects. Using a benchtop planer also makes it possible to reveal the beauty of the grain hiding inside an old, weathered piece of wood—one of the most significant benefits of the best benchtop planers. Keep reading to understand the features to look for in a quality benchtop planer and learn why the following models made our list of picks.
- BEST OVERALL: DEWALT 13-Inch Thickness Planer
- RUNNER-UP: CRAFTSMAN Benchtop Planer
- UPGRADE PICK: DEWALT 13-Inch, Two Speed Thickness Planer
- BEST WIDTH CAPACITY: POWERTEC 15 Amp 2-Blade Benchtop Thickness Planer
- BEST THICKNESS CAPACITY: Makita 2012NB 12-Inch Planer
- BEST FOR LIGHT DUTY: Porter-Cable Benchtop Planer
What to Consider When Choosing the Best Benchtop Planers
A benchtop planer is very use-specific, meaning it only serves one purpose—and as a one-trick pony, it’s not the most common tool present in the average workshop. If you’re interested in owning one but don’t have a lot of experience with this instrument, keep the following factors and features in mind when shopping for the best benchtop planer to suit your needs.
A benchtop planer’s motor needs enough power to get the job done. How much is enough depends on the projects you’re likely to take on.
If you work primarily with softer woods like pine, cedar, and fir—for building country-style furniture or birdhouses, for example—a less-powerful motor in the 1 to 1 1/2 horsepower range might suit you well. A planer doesn’t need much juice to shave a layer off the top of these materials.
However, if you’re into arts and crafts type joinery or cabinetry, you’ll probably work with species like oak, maple, and even walnut. These hard materials will require more from a planer to shave them down, so look for a 2-horsepower planer.
Regardless of your planer’s horsepower rating, be sure to choose one with a 15-amp motor. Planers can draw a lot of power, and a 15-amp motor helps ensure that they can handle the task at hand without breaking down.
Thickness planer blades, also known as knives, come in two styles: straight and spiral. Each has a set of pros and cons.
- Straight knives look similar to long safety razors. They bolt onto the cutterhead (the spinning barrel inside a planer) to slice off layers of material in one quick pass. One drawback to a straight knife planer is that it provides somewhat rough and inconsistent results. Because a large amount of surface area comes in contact with the wood at once, the friction can slow the motor down at each swipe, causing choppiness and ripples that must later be sanded off the surface. Most straight knife planers are less expensive than those with spiral blades.
- Spiral (or helical) knives work very differently. Instead of one long straight blade, spiral cutterheads have multiple smaller knives, offset from each other in a spiral around the cutterhead. Spiral knife planers yield more consistent results than straight knife planers do. As well, the blades are reversible when they dull, and if you run into a stray nail or screw with your planer, it will only damage one blade as opposed to the entire knife. Not surprisingly, spiral knife planers are often significantly more expensive than straight knife models.
Cutting depth refers to how much material a planer can remove in one pass. Generally speaking, the more powerful the planer, the more material it can remove in one pass and the larger the depth of cut. However, pieces of wood that are much thinner than the maximum capacity that the planer can handle (width-wise) may draw less on the motor, allowing the blades to remove more material accurately and smoothly than if the piece was very wide.
Planers that can remove up to ⅛-inch at a time tend to be the best for speed’s sake, as you can remove a lot of material in a few passes. If your project calls for you to remove more than that, it would probably be faster to run your material through a band saw or table saw first to remove as much material as possible, and then use the planer to remove the last bit and bring it to your desired thickness.
Your planer’s capacity, or allowance, is the major factor determining its capability. While manufacturers label most planers with ranges between 12 and 13 inches (plenty for most woodworking hobbyists), this metric doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, a 12-inch planer can handle a board 12 inches in width, but that does not say how thick a piece of wood the planer can handle. This metric could be quite helpful to know, so look for a planer that can handle materials as thin (height-wise) as 1/4-inch and as thick as 5 or 6 inches to get the most use out of your planer.
Snipe refers to a line, sometimes very noticeable, left on the front or back of a workpiece where the planer has removed more material than throughout the field of the board. It’s an unsightly element that many benchtop planers leave on workpieces that pass through them.
Because snipe is a matter of leverage, it can be complicated to avoid. Planers use overhead rollers before and after the cutterhead to hold the workpiece as flat as possible while giving the cutterhead something to register against the board. These rollers work incredibly well in the middle of the board, but not so well at the leading or tail end when only one roller is touching the wood. Due to gravity, the long end of the board can cause enough leverage to lift the section inside the planer into the cutterhead just slightly, removing more material than you intended.
Snipe may be unavoidable to some degree, but some planers do better than others to minimize its effect. The best way to avoid snipe on your finished product is to leave your boards longer than necessary when planing so you can cut the sniped ends off before you use it for your project.
Gauge and Depth Stop
Shaving the intended amount of wood off your workpieces can be tedious. Bringing a hardwood board from a 1-inch thickness to a 5/8-inch thickness, for example, could take five or six passes. You could measure the board’s thickness before each pass and make adjustments to the cutterhead using your tape measure or a combination square—a time-consuming process. The better option is to use a built-in gauge and depth stop to work your way down to the intended thickness more quickly.
Planers with built-in gauges will allow you to quickly determine the height of the cutterhead from the planer’s deck. This measure expresses how thick a piece of wood will be once it passes through the planer. A depth stop will allow you to lock in that measurement, then lift the cutterhead and pass several boards through, lowering the cutterhead between passes until you reach the desired thickness. It won’t go any lower than your depth stop will allow.
Thickness planers create a good deal of dust. These machines rip off and spit out tiny pieces of wood, and the floor under a thickness planer will resemble a child’s sandbox after only a few boards.
The best benchtop planers have dust ports that attach to a shop vacuum or dust collection system to minimize the mess. These collection systems also do a good job of removing the dust from the machine before it can settle in the cutterhead, helping to maintain its usable life and cutting speed.
There are a few different speeds that apply to a benchtop planer: cutterhead speed, cutting speed, and feed speed.
- Cutterhead speed refers to how quickly the motor spins the cutterhead. Many planers use pulleys and belts from the motor to spin the cutterhead. Look for speeds above 8,000 RPMs for the best results.
- Cutting speed refers to how many times the blades strike the surface of the board per minute. For example, a cutterhead speed of 8,000 on a two-blade cutterhead will produce a cutting speed of 16,000 cuts per minute.
- Feed speed refers to the speed the board passes through the planer. Some manufacturers allow you to increase or reduce feed speed, an adjustment that changes how many times the blade strikes the board within every inch. The higher the feed speed, the fewer times the blades will strike, causing a rougher finished result. The lower the speed, the smoother the board will come out.
Our Top Picks
Now that you know how these machines work and what to look out for when choosing the best benchtop planer for your woodshop, check out the following products. These planers are considered among the best in their respective categories.
If you’re in the market for a high-capacity planer with plenty of features, consider the DEWALT 13-Inch Thickness Planer. This planer can handle materials up to 13 inches wide and 6 inches tall. The 15-amp motor spins the straight three-blade cutterhead at 10,000 RPMs. It can shave off up to 1/8-inch of material per pass and features an easy-to-read material removal gauge. You can also choose between two speeds: 96 cuts per inch and 179 cuts per inch.
One of this planer’s best features is its 19 3/4-inch cast aluminum base. Not only is it a smooth surface for running your materials along, it can be twice as rigid as some other models. This reduces snipe and creates far more consistent results. In addition, the DEWALT planer comes with extra infeed and outfeed table wings. The tool uses a fan-assisted chip ejection to vacuum chips off of the surface of the material and shoot them out of the dust collection port, making it more efficient than some of the competition.
As a reasonably priced planer that can handle up to 12-inch boards, the CRAFTSMAN Benchtop Planer is worth a look. It has a 15-amp motor that produces cutterhead speeds up to 8,000 RPMs. Thanks to its two-blade design, this provides 16,000 cuts per minute, which is enough for most light-duty hobby work.
If you won’t be using your benchtop planer that often and are a bit short on space, you might appreciate the fold-up infeed and outfeed tables that make storage a bit easier. These tables do sacrifice a bit of rigidity over solid cast bases, however. The CRAFTSMAN can handle materials up to 12 inches wide and 6 inches thick. For boards up to 8 inches, there’s a maximum depth of cut of up to 3/32-inch. Beyond 8 inches, depth of cut will vary.
This 13-inch, two-speed thickness planer from DEWALT has a 15-amp motor that creates a 10,000-RPM cutterhead speed and two feed speeds (96 and 179 cuts per minute). It has a 13-inch-wide capacity, as well as a 6-inch height capacity. The tool has a three-blade cutterhead and features DEWALT’s fan-assisted chip ejecting for hooking up to your dust collection system.
If you don’t use your planer enough to warrant a dedicated space on your bench, you might appreciate its 24-inch wide by 22-inch long stand, which sits 30 inches in height from the floor. It has a set of lockable casters, allowing you to lock it into place when feeding heavy materials through and then roll this heavy tool out of the way when done.
The POWERTEC 15 Amp 2-Blade Benchtop Thickness Planer is worth a look if you want mid-range capability from a planer. This planer has a 12.5-inch-wide board capacity and a 6-inch maximum thickness. The extra half-inch in width provides a little extra room over some of the 12-inch competition. It has a 15-amp, 2-horsepower motor that produces up to 9,400 RPMs at the two-blade cutterhead, and it has a depth of cut of 3/32-inch for boards less than 5 inches wide; above that, the depth of cut reduces to 1/32-inch.
The POWERTEC has foldable infeed and outfeed tables for easier storage. This model’s main drawback is its lack of a built-in dust collection port, though you can buy one separately.
If you need a thickness planer that provides extra maximum thickness—for timber frame mailbox posts, say, or heavy furniture—check out the 2012NB 12-Inch Planer from Makita. This machine has an above-average 6 3/32-inch maximum thickness capacity, which could help you avoid running back and forth to the bandsaw; in fact, you may be able to pass your thick workpiece through and avoid the bandsaw all together.
This planer has a 15-amp motor that produces 8,500 RPMs. It has a two-knife cutterhead and a depth of cut of up to 1/8-inch. The Interna-Lok head clamp holds the workpiece in place better than standard rollers, minimizing snipe. Though the 2012NB doesn’t have a built-in dust collection port, you can buy an attachment separately (available here).
If you’re looking for a light-duty 12-inch planer for your home woodshop, the Porter-Cable Benchtop Planer might be just the ticket. This benchtop planer features a 15-amp motor that produces 8,000 RPMs and a maximum self-feed speed of 26.2 feet per minute. It has a two-blade cutterhead as well as a depth of cut of 3/32-inch for boards under 8 inches and 1/32-inch for boards above. It also has a maximum thickness of 6 inches.
The Porter-Cable also has fold-up infeed and outfeed tables, taking up less space on your workbench when it’s not in use.
FAQs About Your New Benchtop Planer
A benchtop planer can bring added value to a woodworking workshop, but you may still have some questions about this tool’s best use and operation. Ahead, answers to some of the most common questions about benchtop planers. If you still have questions about your benchtop planer, refer to your user’s manual or contact the manufacturer.
Q. What is a bench planer used for?
Benchtop planers reduce the thickness of a board. You can use them to create consistent thicknesses on several boards for woodworking purposes or to uncover the beauty hidden underneath reclaimed wood.
Q. How do you use a benchtop planer?
With the benchtop planer turned off, lower the cutterhead onto the board to get a starting point. Remove the board, turn on the machine, and run the board through the planer. The planer will remove very little of the board’s thickness on its first pass, so you’ll likely need to remove the board from the outfeed table, lower the cutterhead a bit, and run the board back through. Continue to lower the cutterhead for each pass until you’ve shaved the board down to the desired height.
Q. What is the difference between a jointer and a planer?
Thickness planers adjust the thickness of a board, while jointers ensure that a board is flat across its width and length on one side. You can use a jointer to adjust the thickness of a board, though it will be less accurate and possibly take longer than with a benchtop planer. You cannot, however, use a benchtop planer to flatten a board across its length.
Q. How much does a planer weigh?
Planers can be some of the heaviest tools in your shop. Benchtop planers weigh between 60 and 100 pounds on average, so it may be wise to keep it on your benchtop rather than moving it around.