Purchasing a Helical Planer

      Extended discussion of the fine points of various new and used planer options. August 21, 2006

I am currently in the market for a 20"- 22" planer. I really like the pros of the helical cutterheads. I'm considering the Powermatic Model 201 and getting the Byrd Shelix cutterhead to fit it. I'm also looking at the General Model # 30-360HC. They both are in the $5500-$6000 range. From what I can see they both are comparable in features and weight. I can maybe see an advantage to the General, in the fact it comes with the helical cutter as a factory option. Please let me know if you have any experience with either of these machines, or if there is a better helical planer out there for the $5000-$6000 range. I mainly build cabinets right now, but wanting to expand into furniture making in the near future. I currently work out of a 600 SF shop, but will be building a 2500 SF dream shop next year.

Forum Responses
(Solid Wood Machining Forum)
From contributor A:
Recently there have been auction sales of two Whitney S290 36" single planers sold complete with the Newman Whitney Quiet Cut carbide head. This is the best single planer made in the world. One went for $3,600 and the other for something like $4,100. If you have or can get 3 phase, why not look for one?

From contributor B:
They are quiet and donít tend to tear out in figured woods but before you leap you would be advised to consider the disadvantages of this style head.

1. You will generally not achieve the finish quality you would normally get with a straight knife cutter head. They tend to leave slight lines in the finish. This can be accentuated by turning one nicked insert in a line. I have a friend that has one and is very happy with it but he runs out the planer and through a wide belt.

2. Knife changing and maintenance are not as easy as the salesman would have you believe. There are a lot of small inserts and tiny screws. Careful attention must be paid to cleaning, torquing etc. or things will get ugly fast.

I would go with a Terminus or Tersa style cutter head. It is much easier to maintain and, with the exception of highly figured woods, will give a better finish. Carbide and high speed steel knives are both available for these heads. I have no experience with the Newman quiet head other than a quick glance or two in years past. If Iím not mistaken it is a contiguous helix formed by a number of carbide inserts and sharpened in the head on the machine. It would seem this would give the best of both worlds

From contributor C:
I have a 20", 7.5HP 3 phase, spiral cutterhead planer from Grizzly, and I have been very pleased with it. The part number is G9740Z, and it weighs 1700 lbs. This evening I just finished planing about 800 linear feet of rough-cut pine, poplar and sweetgum and the surface finish is fine. Some of my cuts were 3/8" and it did just fine.

From contributor A:
I neglected to say that for that $4,000 or so, the people that purchased the Whitney S290 planers got an $80,000 machine (new). That makes a Grizzly a bad buy for the money.

From the original questioner:
I've seen the spiral cutterheads as well. How are those sharpened? I think contributor B mentioned something about being sharpened on the machine. The one thing that drew me to the helical was not having the need to sharpen the blades, but simply rotating or replacing the knife. I worked in a college workshop while going through school. One of my duties was to joint and sharpen the 24" Powermatic planer we had. It had the quiet head consisting of I believe 36 knives. I remember what a tough and time consuming project it was. The unit was equipped with the machine mounted jointing stone and sharpener- what a work out that was!

Maybe I should rephrase my original question. What type of cutterhead is the best of all worlds - meaning ease of changing blades or sharpening in place, quality of cut, etc. At this present time I don't foresee a wide belt sander as a finishing process.

To contributor A: You've got my attention with the Whitney. What kind of shape are these units in that are selling for $4,000, if new they are $80,000. I've heard of Whitney, but not familiar with them.

From contributor A:
I did not attend the auctions at which these machines were sold, but I know the companies well and they maintained their machines in first class shape. The Newman Whitney head is ground and jointed in the machine. It is carbide. Even in high production plants where the machine is run 8 hours every day, it is common with a good operator for the head to go 3 months between grinds, with maybe a light joint between grinds. So in a smaller plant, the knives would go much longer. The machines are going cheap only because so many plants are closing that machinery is a glut on the market. Of course, there are some bad ones out there as well, so the buyer does have to have some knowledge. Also, a warning - even though the carbide in the Newman Whitney head should last a small shop for a long time, it is expensive so one needs to take that into consideration. Whitney is the top name for quality. All of the big plants; Thomasville, Henredon, Broyhill, Stanley, and the quality manufacturers such as Henkel-Harris, Council Craftsman, etc., use the Whitney Planer.

From contributor D:
Here's my take on the Whitney vs. the spiral head planer. As a wood model maker at GM, we had a Whitney with their Quitecut cutterhead in it, and in my shop, I have a SAC 530 with the Byrd Shelix head in it. It was usually I who had to resharpen it. It was a two person job just to mount the grinder on the machine and it used a diamond wheel to grind the carbide segments. There is a finger that that tracks in the cutterhead that rotates it while the grinding wheel traverses across the head. Total time to resharpen and make sure everything was adjusted properly, about 4 hours. Now I'm not saying some one couldn't do it faster, but that is how long it took me. To change or rotate the inserts in my Shelix head, it is about the same. As a previous poster said, the head does have to be clean of all pitch and the seats have to be clean as well as the inserts, otherwise your surface quality will suffer from having some of the inserts higher than the others.

The Whitney is a massive machine for doing some serious planing, it's not a finesse machine. I never thought the surface finish from the Whitney cutterhead was all that great either, but it did remove material efficiently and easily. With the Shelix, if an insert gets nicked, you just rotate the one a two inserts and you're back to work. I find the Shelix to have a better initial surface finish than the Whitney, although in my case it doesn't matter as everything is going to get sanded anyway. Even with a Tersa or Terminus head you have to sand, so you're not going to get away from it. As mentioned the Whitney inserts are expensive, the Byrd inserts are about $2.30 each. For a small shop I think the way to go is with the spiral insert head. For a large mill the Whitney would be the one. I can't speak for the Grizzly spiral heads as I've never been able to compare one to mine, but I do trust American manufacturing more then I do Asian at the moment. The downside to the Tersa and Terminus cutterheads in my opinion is the cost of knives. With HSS you might get maybe 4000 ft. before they are dull, carbide is much better but are very expensive. For the cost of a set of carbide knives I can buy the 230 inserts and get the benefit of reduced tearout, plus four cutting edges versus two with the Tersa. That's my spin on the whole issue and I hope it helps.

From the original questioner:
Can someone maybe describe the roughness that the helical produces? I have never seen one operate or the product of one. What I'm picturing are a series of very small scallops. Is it something that will catch your fingernail if run across? I think with most planers, or at least the ones I have used, sanding is a constant for all, but just different degrees of sanding are required to achieve the desired finish.

From contributor D:
With a good helical head such as the Shelix, you'll see small lines in the board about every 15mm. The inserts have a radius to them in order to minimize this effect, but they are there. You won't have any more of a problem sanding these out then you will the ridges left by a straight knife cutterhead. My take on the Newman head is that the surface of the board had more of a crushed fiber look to it, that's the best description that I can come up with. It wasn't terribly bad, but would take more effort to sand out with hand sanding tools then the others. A widebelt would take care of it in no time at all. I'm not being critical of the Newman planer. It's an awesome planer and to find one for $4000, as long as the knife grinder is with it, makes it a much better buy then a Grizzly. In a production environment it is so much better than what I'm running, there is just no comparison. But in my shop, I'm very happy with the choice I made. But to answer your question one more time, you will not have any more problem sanding a board run through a helical head than you will one run through a straight knife head.

From contributor A:
I can speak only to the Newman Whitney head. The finish is the typical finish you get from any carbide knife. It is not the slick glassy finish that you get from a high speed steel knife. It is not rough, as we usually think of rough knife work - that would be knife marks that give the wash board look.

The finish from the Whitney head might be better described as grainy - smooth but not slick. It sands well. I have sold a huge number of these heads and never ever had one single complaint where the material was to be sanded as in a normal furniture manufacturing process. It is true that when selling a planer, usually the S282 or S382 Roughing Planer to a lumberman, you have to ask him if he is selling lumber to people that do not sand. If he is, you have to be careful to show him the two different finish knife results and let him make his decision. There are some lumbermen who dry and plane for a market that requires the high speed steel. If you are making furniture and sanding your parts as you should, you will have no problem. As for nicked knives, the way most Whitney users resolve that is by swapping the nicked knife with one on the very end of the head. It will be a learning process for you, but if you get a good machine, you will not live long enough to wear it out.

From contributor E:
My perspective is that of a custom furniture maker and cabinetmaker. I have a SAC 53 also, but with a Tersa head running HSS knives. It is the best choice for me because it has by far the fastest turnaround of any of the systems mentioned. It is so fast that I will sometimes flip the knives to run a small batch where I want a perfect finish, then flip back for run of the mill production. One can also flip one or two knives if a knick has developed, or shift the knives slightly in the head. This takes less than one minute, no screws or bolts to tighten since it locks by centrifugal force, no adjustments to make. This last point also saves time on the rest of the settings since the cutting circle is always the same. I never have to adjust the rollers, chipbreaker or pressure bar. This will also be true of the insert heads, but not of the heads that require grinding or knife adjustment. To me, helical heads and carbide tooling are for high production environments. Carbide can't be ground to as sharp a cutting angle as steel, and helical heads leave a rougher surface. When the steel Tersa knives are fresh, I get a surface that is so smooth you can barely tell it isn't sanded. There may be other factors involved which contribute to the finish I get from my SAC, such as low vibration, the configuration of chipbreaker and pressure bar, and cutterhead geometry, but the result is superior to conventional heads with steel knives that I have seen. As a custom craftsman this is important to the way I work because in addition to less time sanding (I have a stroke sander but not a widebelt) there are times when I can do minimal sanding, for example with a hand block. Handblock sanding or minimal machine sanding yields surfaces and edges that are flatter and closer to dimensional tolerances. I can go right from the planer to a light touch with 180 on my edge sander, sanding right through frame joints pre-assembly. Many custom builders I know are doing far more orbital sanding to get those knife marks out, while I make snide remarks about the mushiness of the results.

From contributor C:
To contributor A: I do disagree with you in one aspect. Comparing a new planer from Grizzly to one from Whitney that costs over 10X as much new is like comparing apples and oranges. I have personally toured one of Whitney's production facilities and without question they make excellent equipment. However, for many of us the value that Grizzly provides for very good new equipment at a budget conscious price is a real enabler. Additionally, finding a specific piece of quality used equipment at 5% of new cost is not something that you stumble across every day.

Conceptually, I concur with your premise that it's beneficial to pick up a great deal on a piece of top line used equipment. That does not make the Grizzly a bad buy - it just means that you stumbled across a better deal.

From contributor F:
To contributor C: I think you are missing contributor Aís point. If you look around a little you can find good used iron that is ten times the machine at possibly less cost than some of the new imports. Whether it is a Whitney that is ten times the machine or a Powermatic at five times the machine, it is worth looking into. If you dismiss this option you are only hurting yourself.

From the original questioner:
The Tersa head that has been brought up a couple of times has caught my attention. Are there any companies that offer it as a factory option or is it an aftermarket add on? I think I'll continue to check out the helical heads as well. I'm always a little concerned about buying used machinery. If it is up for a great price, either something is wrong with it, or it is gone by the time I get to it- maybe just my luck though. But I'll keep my eyes open.
You all have given me more to consider in this search for a planer.

From contributor B:
There are a lot of used Powermatics floating around at reasonable prices. Retrofit a Terminus an you will have a quality setup. Itís ideal for a small custom shop and much higher quality than a Chinese import. If fitting a Tersa you must be aware the knives load in from the side so make sure you have the clearance to get them in. A terminus is just about as fast to change but it loads like a normal cutter head. If you have the money, a Tersa is standard on a MiniMax, and available as an option on Felder among others.

From contributor D:
I don't mean to sound like a shill for the Byrd Shelix cutterhead, but go to their website at www. byrdtool.com and take a look at all the options for retrofitting various machines with their head. If you choose to go the Tersa/Terminus route for a retrofit, then the Terminus is a better choice because of the way the knives load. To answer your question, both SAC and SCMI offer those as options but they are in the 10-12K range.

From contributor G:
I ordered a Shelix head for my 24" Powermatic in August and I'm still waiting but Iím frustrated and am thinking about a Terminus or Tersa head. It sounds like you guys have had some experience with Terminus and Tersa. I thought, by looking at the literature at their websites, that the knives were replaced by rocking them and removing them from from the broad side of the head. Are you saying that they are removed by sliding them to the side/end? This seems impractical. Hopefully I just misunderstood your postings. Please clarify for me.

To add to the original post here, I purchased this planer for under $2000 then paid $600 shipping to get it to NY. It was a machine used at a high school shop (very little use) and in very good shape. It was one of the first built around 1950. I've got my moneys worth and more - what a machine. It had the quiet head which did a great job but sharpening is a real chore without a grinder so it's new head time.

From contributor E:
Yes, the knives must be removed from the side. Many older machines have been altered to accommodate this need by grinding a notch into the casting. Newer machines are built that way. It is crucial to the Tersa concept because the knives are trapped by the head geometry, and centrifugal force pulls the gibs into position. Many conversions were done by Simantech Inc. but I don't know if they still do them. The result is no screws to tighten or adjustments to make, a huge time saver.

From contributor B:
Only the Tersa loads from the side. The Terminus loads like a conventional head.

From the original questioner:
I've looked at the Tersa and Terminus websites over the last couple of days. I really like the Terminus. I've got questions though - how does the cutting circle stay the same after knife sharpening? I can't get my head around that. Also, regarding the Terminus heads, which one should I get, the 9000 or the 9500?

From contributor E:
The term 'insert cutter' (Tersa and Terminus) generally means disposable knives that are not resharpenable, hence the cutting circle stays the same, a major plus. It does happen sometime that such cutters are sharpened, particularly if they are expensive materials such as carbide, but then adjustments must be made to the feed system and calibration to reflect the new cutting circle.

From contributor H:
If youíre considering a used machine maybe you'll stumble across a Delta RC63-N. Give it a look. The "N" stands for Newman as in Newman-Whitney. It is the same as the Whitney quiet head with fewer rows of cutters. If youíre lucky enough to find one with an auxiliary grinder you can sharpen the head on the machine; if not, you can ship the head to Newman-Whitney and they will sharpen it for $250 plus shipping. It takes about an hour to remove it from the machine. The finish is very good, not glasslike though, on figured woods and very flat but there is a fine raised line about every inch. It is easily removed with a cabinet scraper or a fine sanding. I'm told that as the cutterhead dulls there is tearout at the right edge of the board. It is a solid machine and should provide years of service.

From contributor I:
I have a generic 4 post 15" Jet with the standard straight knives. I have it in a 1-2 man custom shop, doing entry doors, face frame cabinets, etc. The Jet works fine but I have always been planning to put a Byrd Shelix on it, and I canít decide if I should upgrade the planer to accept a thicker workpiece first, as mine only takes 6" and doorframes are usually 6-5/8 at least nowadays.

What would be the next step up without losing a lot of floorspace? The small diameter cutter leaves a little tearout in some woods, and I donít have a wide belt to sort it out quickly so I thought the Shelix would help and cut down on some downtime (constant cutting circle). Or should I upgrade to a bigger cutter diameter?

From contributor G:
I thought I would post an update to an earlier post I made to this discussion. I stated that I had ordered a Shelix head back in August for my older Powermatic 24" planer and hadn't received it yet. Well, it arrived last Monday the 27th. I was busy with some work for the local museum here in Rochester, NY so was not able to complete installation of the head including total realignment of bed, feed rollers and pressure bars etc. until Friday. I used a dial indicator to make all adjustments. I also fabricated a new dust hood prior to receiving the head because I wasn't happy with the dust pickup. Saturday I was able to run some ash and hickory through the machine. One of my concerns before ordering the Shelix head was the fine lines that I kept hearing about. After running some of the above boards my concerns were laid to rest. The planed stock was some of the best or maybe the best I have seen - no fine lines anywhere. As an aside, I could barely tell when the wood was under the cutterhead because there was virtually no noise from the cutters on the stock and no little chips that escaped the DC. To sum it up, the head surpassed my expectations and I wish I had ordered the head sooner.

From contributor D:
That's been my experience also. I'm glad to hear someone else is as pleased with it as I am.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor J:
I have owned the PM 201 for three years now. It leaves a very fine finish due to the four knife setup and its massive weight. If I want to plane figured wood I take a slow feed and angle the stock going through. I leave it just shy of a finished thickness and then move it to the drum sander for a couple of passes. I have fellow shop teachers who have had also been amazed at the finish my planer gives.

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