Accuracy of Planers

A woodworker looking for the finest piece of steel he can buy sets off an extended discussion of top quality planers. March 10, 2008

I am looking to upgrade my jointer/planer combo unit. I would like to know what the finest planer on the planet is. My work is mostly residential, casework and architectural millwork demanding the utmost in accuracy and precision. 24" capacity would be sufficient. What do you think? I have always leaned toward the older types of machinery, built like a tank - for example, the Northfield jointer. Does their planer have an equally good reputation?

Forum Responses
(Solid Wood Machining Forum)
From contributor R:
The Northfield is an excellent machine, if you can find one used. Oliver, Buss and Whitney are probably the finest ever made, although I don't know if you would find anything under 30" in a Whitney or Buss. Sutton Machinery in High Point, NC could advise you on a Whitney. All things considered, an American made Powermatic is hard to beat - simple, solid design and there are plenty floating around on the used market. With any of these, make sure you get one with a grinding/jointing attachment and fit it with a Siko counter or Accurate digital display/scale for precise setting.

From contributor M:
I went to your website and from the looks of what you are showing, flexibility appears to be important rather than brawn. So I would say a Martin T45 planer and a T54 jointer. With a fresh set of Tersa knives in a Martin, you could literally wipe a board with 150 grit paper and be done with it. The precision they build into their machines is incredible. Not just digital readouts for thickness, but a control panel to input the thickness you're after, and it goes to that. No bed rollers, so no snipe. There is a Waxilit dispenser in front of the infeed that can be raised to lube the table when it's needed so you don't need the bed rollers, and double rubber outfeed rollers. And the T54 jointer has a 78" infeed table and an adjustment that lets you lower or raise the infeed table on the jointer so you can get the perfect sprung joint for glue ups when you need it, then the tables can be brought back to an accurate co-planer relationship via an indicator.

Now, the finest on the planet also comes with the finest price tag, so be prepared. But you should see them in action sometime for yourself to appreciate them.

From contributor C:
The Whitney S-290 is the finest single planer made. Set up by the book, there is no snipe. I used to guarantee a total of .0025 as far out to the corners of a small panel as you could get a mic on. That was of course with the factory tech. It is up to the owner to learn how to set it up. One of the techs will demo less than .001, but I was always careful to be conservative. The S-290 is even easier.

The only machine I [Sutton Machine] have is a 36" and it needs to be rebuilt, so it would be an expensive machine. There are machines available at auctions for much less that are good machines. Just be careful you get the grinder bar, grinder and jointer, as they are very expensive parts to purchase as repair parts.

The Buss is not nearly so accurate. The Buss cylinder head is too large in diameter, which puts the chipbreaker and pressure bar too far apart for real close thickness control. If you want a real planer, get a Whitney.

From contributor J:
How far are the chip breakers and pressure bar from the knife cylinder?

I will weigh in for the Buss 4L. I have a chip free finish on figured woods, snipe is not an issue when the feed rolls are at table height, and the boards are supported at the outfeed. The Martin is a fine machine having modern considerations, however the finish does not equal that of my Buss. Considering accuracy, the .003" the parts vary over 26" is suitable for my purposes. These older machines do require a brain and learned technique to operate, and one must at minimum follow the manual's reference to maintenance, and use.

From the original questioner:
Thank you for the input, guys. You are correct, contributor M, I do need flexibility. As far as the Martin machines are concerned, I have to admit I'm a bit skittish to buy something with so much circuit board in it, regardless of their reputation. A 20" jointer would actually be ideal versus the gap in the Northfield line, which jumps from 16" to 24", but after having used a 24" Northfield at a friend's shop, straight knives (7.5 hp direct drive) I jointed a 12' long board of rough sapele at about 18" wide, and with 7' hanging off the end of the outfeed table, the board was stuck to the machine because it was that flat! At this point, I'm committed to the Northfield jointer.

I did have a bad experience with a beautiful new sliding table shaper. It arrived with all the techie features (power raise, tilt, digital readouts, fence, etc.) and the circuit board was bad. The service department was fantastic, but nonetheless, I did have to wait a bit to get a new board from Austria... At this point I'm kicking myself for not buying two T130's for the same price, as they're bulletproof - but we all live and learn, right? Consequently, I'm more a fan of the good old American iron, but if used is not going to be accurate, it's a waste too.

I currently have a 12" Minimax (SCMI) FS30 smart which has a Tersa head. I don't like the Tersa knives at all - but it was the right size for the starter shop before I moved into the new building earlier this year. Knife changes were a major concern, too, and the Tersa certainly addresses that issue pretty well. That said, I have to exert so much effort to get a board over the jointer it's ridiculous. I do get perfectly flat boards, but it's awfully difficult with longer stock. The planer doesn't work well at all; it always needs some adjustment and it's very frustrating when boards get stuck in the middle of a final pass.

I want something that doesn't require adjustment, and that's the Northfield motto. Jeff doesn't believe in adjustments because that means that something needs to be adjusted. If the machine is engineered properly and is properly cared for and maintained, it should stay that way. For example, I also looked at the Porter 300 jointer, but decided against it because it has table adjustments, which means they will need to be adjusted. The Porter also has a short outfeed table, 3'.

I have found a NF 36" 737 20hp manufactured in 1990 for around 15k versus a Whitney 44" S-290 with 40 hp for 40k. Price is not a major concern as I only want to buy it once, but I certainly don't need a 44" wide planer. It's more the accuracy and reliability that concern me.

From contributor M:
As much as I love Martin machines, I must admit the Northfield jointers are just as good. Plus they come up on the used market often and can be had for very reasonable prices. In previous posts, contributor C and I have had our friendly disagreements over the S-290. I worked for many years as a wood modelmaker for GM and that is what they bought for their shops - the Whitneys. They are built like tanks and could run 2 shifts forever and never break a sweat. The Newman Quitecut Head is a great cutterhead. The only reason I dismiss them for the small shop is their size and weight. Just guessing they must weigh at least 7-10,000 lbs. The logistics of getting one into the shop would require riggers and heavy lifting equipment to move. There is also no doubt that the tolerances contributor C speaks of for parallelism are accurate.

What I felt would have worked much better in the modelshop would have been finesse rather than brute force. By that, I mean the ability to thickness something to within a few thousandths of an inch without having to measure and keep moving the table down a little at a time to achieve that, plus being able to go back and repeat that dimension with the exact same results. The time saved would have been enormous spread out over the number of people using the planer. To get precisely thicknessed parts we would have to take them to granite plates fitted with overhead routers to thickness. Not much fun and very labor intensive. A Martin would achieve this for us. So I agree with contributor C that the Whitney S-290 is a great planer, I just don't see one in the smaller architectural woodshops, at least in mine.

It could be argued that digital thickness readouts could be fitted on an S-290 to get results like that, but I don't think they would handle small and narrow parts as well. They are built for heavy duty planing, and they excel at that. As for the performance of Tersa knives, HSS has never held up very long, you must really bite the bullet and buy carbide. I also suspect the reason you have to use so much force on your jointer is that it has a small diameter cutterhead, that is under 125mm. It makes all the difference in the world.

From the original questioner:
Thank you. I did start out with a small car-and-a-half garage, and my little combo unit was perfect at the time, but now we're doing two kitchens a month with lots of miscellaneous millwork in between. The website is due for a major update!

I use a 5x10 Thermwood CNC and a 10' slider depending on what's more practical for the job for sheet stock, so in general processing of cabinetry, the bottleneck and incapacity falls with the jointer and planer. Space is not an issue anymore, but you're right about the weight and the rigging. You should have seen us getting the slider on to the second floor!

I've tried carbide knives, HSS, and M42 knives, and the carbide did not impress me at all. Finish quality was terrible. It's not always of the utmost importance, but it matters. What's nice is that I can slip them out for a final pass and put in the HSS because it's that easy to change them. I do have a small cutterhead; it's 125mm exactly.

I am quite frankly scared to death at what might happen if jointing a board when that tiny, thin, brittle Tersa blade runs into a stone in the middle of a pass - where do the pieces of that blade go? A planer is more confined, thus less of a hazard to the operator, but again, there's the issue of the circuit board, which could go anytime. My goal is to get something that's bulletproof and accurate, preferably electric rise and fall with some type of readout (as an add-on if necessary) but most importantly, I want a handwheel that will work if the electronics fail. If you all think the Northfield #7 or larger is an equally good machine, I'd probably lean in that direction.

What is the service like with Whitney? If I call Jeff at Northfield and give him a serial number, he can remember painting that particular machine when he was a kid. I am very comfortable with that type of service. Also, Jeff raves about the Drake Whiper cut head versus the Tersa, but I've never used one. Any experience with that head?

From contributor N:
We’ve been running a Martin planer and jointer for about 4 years now. If I had to do it over I would not change. Northfield planers are good; a couple local shops have them. One has both the Martin and Northfield. He says the Martin is a better finish planer and the Northfield a better roughing planer. They run a lot of recycle wood that is tough on knives and machine. The other shop is a cabinet door company; they replaced a SCM carpet feed planer they could not get parts for with the Northfield. It gets used a lot for planing glued up panels.

We have pretty much gone to carbide in the Tersa heads. We have not bought any Tersa brand knives for a while. Leitz makes a HSS Tersa clone that lasts almost as long as the carbide and heals itself from small nicks. They are pricy, though. We had a set of carbide Leitz in our S4S machine that went almost a year before sharpening and ran a few thousand feet of rustic white oak without tearing anything up. For the past month we have been using Tegra (sp) HSS clones in the planer and so far they seem better than the Tersa HSS. I don’t think it’s a perfect world with any of the knife or head combinations available today when all costs, cut quality and maintenance are considered. You just have to figure out what is best for your shop.

The carbide does not cut as well as the HSS. This is not so noticeable in the S4S and planer because of the hold down pressure, but on the jointer when hand facing, you can feel more resistance. We have the jointer set up with 2 knives across most of the head and 4 knives the last 80 mm where we do our edge jointing for glue up. We use the power feed a lot for facing. If I were a 1 man furniture shop I would use 4 knives in the jointer. The planer and S4S are run with 2 knives per head unless we are planing difficult grain.

For our type shop the Martins are ideal. We usually work in small batches to a set thickness that is easily achieved without test pieces. The rubber rollers produce snipe free planing without any adjustment, no knife sharpening required. The planer runs tall boards on edge squarely better than any other I have used. The planer with its rubber feed rolls does slip a little when the knives get dull. A little waxlit in a spray bottle takes care of this. The jointer is the same - low maintenance easy use, the fence is simple and accurate to set, and the outfield table only needs to be adjusted if you go between carbide and steel knives. We still use it for all our edge glue-ups, even having a straight line rip. It does a better joint and is always right on.

The electronics are a worry on these new machines. All our electronic stuff is getting 4 to 6 years old and I keep thinking some day we will blow something out. We did lose a shaper circuit board and VFD on our spray booth during a lightening storm. Got new ones quick, but it was expensive. They had an electric troubleshooting course at the Vegas show that I would have liked to attend. Looking at the electronics on the routers is very scary.

From contributor C:

Contributor J, I don't remember the distance between CB and PB exactly. I would have to measure one. I no longer rep Whitney. After 53 years, they decided to sell direct in my territory because they are located in the same city.

But if you put side guides in a Whitney so that material will butt feed without turning, you can run pieces shorter than 5". I am not going to say here how short because I don't want to get into any word battles when I no longer rep Whitney. Let them fight their own.

Contributor M, the question posted was, what is the Finest Planer on the Planet? The answer is, Whitney. The question was not, what is the best planer to fit under my kitchen table? I grant you that if you can't get one in your shop, you need not think of it as an option. I never had a customer that felt he needed it, but I have often thought that it would be possible to mount a thickness reading device so as to get the proper thickness on the first piece. Never needing that to make the sale, I dropped it at that.

From contributor N:
I had never checked for parallelism on my Martin planer and out of curiosity walked over to the shop and tried it out. Running two 4” wide 8/4 mahogany boards down the outside edges of the 25” table. Left side 1.786” Right side 1.787”. Close enough for me.

From the original questioner:
Does the Martin have any manual override wheel if the power rise and fall goes? I also wonder what's under the hood electrically - does it look like my shaper with a million little wires and a whole bunch of relays and five different circuit boards? If so, all the specs sound very attractive, but I'm still not convinced it would hold up over time, and when that board goes, how much will it cost, how long to get it, and what do I do in the meantime?

What are the models that Whitney made over the years - is the 44" their smallest model? Also, what is their service like? Are their parts readily available for a used machine?

From contributor C:
The 44" refers to the width. Most S290's are 36". You will occasionally find a narrower machine on the used market, but not often because most of the machines went into the furniture industry and 36" is just about the minimum for the big case goods plants. Do not buy a 40" or 44" unless your product requires it because the wider widths are much harder to maintain. Almost all operators will run everything through the middle, so you end up with a worn spot in the center of the center table and the pressure bar. Not good. Also the wider the machine, the harder it is to line up. Parts are on the shelf. I am not their rep anymore, so I have no comment on the service department other than the field techs are the best. For the small shop, I would look seriously at the S205 and certainly at the 105, which is an older version of the 205.

From contributor N:
There is no manual override for the rise and fall on the Martin planer. The planer and jointer are a lot simpler in the wiring department than the shaper. My Kundig sander has the most complicated electric box of all my machines. All the new equipment, dust collector, compressor and even our simple Taiwan rip saw have these circuit boards. I agree it is a major worry but this is where we are with modern machinery. I think there are devices available for the main box that protects from power surges and such. I know Martin, Holz-her, and Kaeser keep all electric parts in stock in the US. I am surprised Felder does not keep stock on these items.

From the original questioner:
Thanks - all the info is very helpful. I had a long talk with someone at Whitney today about a used S290 on EBay. What a deal! It's a 30" with helical cutter, looks brand new (from a GM pattern shop that probably never used it) and unfortunately it's the right price, but believe it or not, my 200a panel would not be sufficient to operate the 45hp worth of motors. The seller is very knowledgeable also, and knew how to handle the machine properly, which was a comfort.

I also found a Northfield #7 on EBay that seems like the right price and is much newer. I might go for that. The S205 would probably be ideal for me, but they seem twice the price of the Northfield so far. We'll see what Jeff says about the #7 tomorrow, and if no go, sounds like the 205 will peak my interest as well.

As far as Felder goes, the service was great and they had the board fast (2 days to me) so it wasn't the end of the world, but I had just taken delivery of a Kappa 40 at the same time as the shaper, so I think they felt very obligated to help me out. Overall, they are great machines, but in retrospect, I shouldn't have bought a sliding table shaper. The slider is fantastic, solid, and cut perfectly square off the pallet - I was shocked.

From contributor M:
I couldn't resist - I went to eBay and looked at the Whitney and that's the S-290 I worked with while a modelmaker at GM Truck in Pontiac, MI. It was purchased brand new in 1990 and is in perfect working condition. It had the grinder to sharpen the head while I was there, but might have been misplaced by the time it came up for auction. GM decided to consolidate their modelshops in 2004 and left that behind. That picture was taken at the old modelshop, that's how I recognized it. It was 28" if memory serves me correct. It's too bad it's too big for you. It's in great condition.

From the original questioner:
It's a 30" - and way too big for what I want to do. Also too heavy. That's a real blast from the past though, huh?

From contributor M:

I saw the tag also that said 30", but it could only handle 28" because of the side edge guards. Maybe contributor C could shed some light, although we've kicked this dead horse enough. I'd bet if you could actually get them to go measure it they would tell you 28".

From contributor C:
I did not look at eBay, so I assume from the comments that it has the Newman/Whitney Quiet Cut head. If so, it has side guides and the width is reduced by 2". The SN plate will still say 30" and that is what a seller who is a merchant only and not a planer man will put on his spec sheet.

From contributor P:
The Northfield 7 is a phenomenal machine and their service is excellent. I have the Northfield 24 in jointer and love it. My first choice would be the Whitney S205, but man are they hard to find. Can't get may hands on one.

I guess my real question is, do you really need that much of an industrial machine? Are you a one man shop that will take care of it? Or are a bunch of monkeys abusing it for 12 hours a day? That extra precision will cost you if you do not really need it.

A decent planer like an old Powermatic will work if taken care of. Since I only have a very annoying Taiwanese planer, I bought a widebelt. That added the accuracy I needed. Now the planer is really only used as a rougher, and all final dimensions are handled by the widebelt. Interlocked grained woods like widebelts better than any planer, in my opinion.

From contributor G:
How about the new planer/sanders? I have looked into them and to me they seem like the perfect planer. Insert heads, conveyor feed, digital readouts, 5000 lbs for a 36" machine and the ability to sand also.

From the original questioner:
Well, if you're referring to a Whitney S209-BF, it's about 55k, and I wrote earlier that money wasn't an issue to obtain the finest planer of the planet, but that's just too much for me!

The way I see it, you have all provided the most valuable information one could ask for, and that's sharing your experience. From a business standpoint, the volume must justify the purchase and there must be a return. If I were to spend 55k (or close to that if used) on a Whitney planer, regardless of what or how good it is, versus 20k on a Northfield (or closer to 10k used), then it's a no-brainer - maybe one is a little better than the other, but one will reap a return on the investment much sooner than the other. Any piece of machinery vital to a business should be the finest the business can afford and necessitate, which is why I posted this message originally. Personally I would love nothing more than to buy a brand new Whitney, but it would be awfully hard to make any money if I did.

I think I've settled on the Northfield planer as well. It seems that all agree it's a superb machine. Regardless of how much better the Whitney is, it doesn't make as much sense for my shop. The weight alone would cost a fortune to ship and rig/haul into the shop, the knives cost 4k to replace, and most of the used Whitney's I've seen so far have had motors too big for my electrical service to handle. We also don't run the planer two shifts a day, more like 3 or 4 hours a day.

Bottom line is I think there's a good return on the Northfield immediately without sacrificing the quality of the machinery or the product.

From contributor Z:
Our Martin jointer has an electric brake to make the cutterhead stop quicker. We've had it for about six or seven years now. About two years into it we had to replace the brake. We sometimes failed to let the brake disconnect (electrically) before we would start it up again. The brake would be in "brake" mode, doing its best to clamp down on the arbor, and the motor would be in "motor" mode, which of course was much more powerful than "brake" mode. Hence the need for a new brake. The original dealer we bought it from never mentioned this issue to us. The man that represents Martin in the Seattle area today (Vance @ Coast Machinery) was the one to fix it and he did a great job. He is the most responsive machinery salesman we have ever dealt with.

As it turns out, what you have to do is give it about 20 seconds to completely brake and unbrake before you start it up again. There is a definite audible "click" when the brake disengages. As I understand it, the newer models have a different braking system that doesn't have this problem. This issue, however, might apply to a lot of other machines with electronic brakes.

From contributor N:
That click with the Martins is one of the easier things to get new employees used to.

The questioner should have titled his thread “finest planer I can afford.” That is the best and safest way to approach machinery purchases. We have really good equipment now but got the business to where it is with used American and German iron bought for pennies on the dollar at bankruptcy auctions. A lot of shops have gone under that went deep into debt for the “latest and greatest,” when in reality their business could not afford it.

Most of us that frequent these forums are small shop (less than 5 men) operators that have found profitable niches in the ever changing and global construction world. I think the NC and CNC machines are a perfect fit for the small shop that needs to be versatile and react quickly to changing designs. Especially the one or two man shop. The technology is a double edge sword with employees, though. It takes a lot of training just to get the basics and things can be broken easily by careless actions.

An example of this in our shop is our numeric controlled 4 side planer-moulder. To me it is the simplest machine to operate and very effective at saving labor when properly used. It will face, straighten edges, plane to finish dimensions and with the push of a button the side head will float for glue jointing random width boards into panels. Solid wood is a living natural material with a lot of variables and takes a certain feel to work successfully even with high tech equipment. It's been hard to teach with this machine to enter your settings before turning on the heads and using electricity, when you need to face a board on the jointer first, how much to take off with the facing and jointing heads, etc. A person really needs to know the basics of preparing stock with a table saw, jointer and planer before mastering this machine. But even then, some never grasp what it can do.

I had this same discussion just recently with a German friend of mine. Most of the high technology equipment designs come from Europe where they never lost their woodworking traditions and the schools, business and machine manufacturers work together on this new technology. Basic woodwork schooling over there now includes cad and electronic basics, project management and less but still some with hand tools. The new technology is easier for them to get productive with than here. We’ve lost our high school shops for the most part and they were not that effective for technology anyway. The woodworking schools like Pitt State are doing a great job and improving all the time. Added to all this our main woodworking employee pool in the US is now immigrant (legal or otherwise). While hardworking, most have no technology grasp and can be a disaster when introduced to modern machinery. In a shop heavy with this type labor, I can see the old iron as a better option.

From contributor Y:
Our shop has used an S-205 for about 25 years. Other woodworkers in the area, as they've upgraded their shops, have often bought the Martin. The Martin is quieter, much easier to re-sharpen (Tersa head), but its knives do not stay sharp nearly as long as the knives in the Whitney. When we purchased the machine, the geared shaft for the upper outfeed roller was bent. I took it to a machinist, thinking it would have to be re-turned. He put it in his lathe, and just whacked the shaft until it was straightened out. Occasionally, planing a board with a long taper, I've looked at the underside of the head to see that the planer was cutting a 1/4" of material, without complaining!

We also have the latest Martin jointer, which replaced an earlier 1985 version. It's wonderfully flexible, quiet, easy to set up, and when the knives (M-42) are new, gives a great finish. We process mostly hardwood, with some semi-exotics, and it seems that the cutting edge and cut quality go downhill pretty quickly, at least compared to the planer.

For us it's a great combination, as we do a wide range of things on the jointer, and appreciate its flexibility, while the tasks done by the planer are always more or less the same. There we like the machine's ruggedness, great knife (M-2) life, accuracy and utter dependability. On the note of knife life, it may be that the planer is just so strong that we keep using the knives long past the point where they should be sharpened. With a jointer you can't do that.

From contributor K:
I love my SCM 21'' planer. I have put 300lb pieces of hardwoods through it many times. As with all their tools, quality is never an issue. They keep on going.