Planer Selection, Maintenance, and Performance

Better (and more expensive) equipment can provide better results, but setup and maintenance make a difference with high-end as well as low-end machinery. December 29, 2008

I bought a 20" Jet about 7 years ago. The bed rollers go out of adjustment regularly, pieces get stuck, so we stop and raise the bed rollers again. I have pretty much stopped trying to get rid of the snipe because the rollers move so much. It bogs under heavy load. I keep the knives sharp. I have tried the knives with micro bevels as well as standard grinds. The tear out on the planed finish is usually so bad that we stop somewhere between 1/32-1/16 and sand on the wide belt to get to the desired thickness.

I am considering either an older Powermatic 225 or an SCMI s520, but having never used these, I am not sure what benefits I will see. Any advice? Will any other more expensive machine warrant the expense? I see the advantage to the segmented infeed rollers, the bed rollers. Is the chip breaker better? Will there be less tear out? Is the finish going to be noticeable?

Forum Responses
(Solid Wood Machining Forum)
From contributor K:
Everything you have mentioned about the Jet that is wrong, I would expect to disappear with a PM 225 if it's in good running condition. I have a PM 180 which I wouldn't trade for anything except a Northfield. The only problem I have with this machine is the clutch jumps out once in a while, but it's rare. Your sharpness issue probably is due to poor steel quality in the knives. That's an easy fix. The other things... well, just buy the PM and be done with it.

From contributor J:
I can't give you any really good advice except to say that the difference between lighter duty and heavier duty machines is pretty significant. I have a 20" Bridgewood planer with 5 hp motor and carbide insert cutterhead that I just bought last year. It works well but doesn't take a very big bite, so I tend to make more passes than I'd like to. I definitely wouldn't want to have a crew of guys feeding it all day, as I don't think it would hold up.

On the other hand I just picked up a 20" SCM L'invincible S-50 planer. It's an older unit with a 9 hp motor, a 4 knife cutterhead that's at least an inch bigger than the Bridgewood, and is just a massive machine. I haven't got it fully dialed in yet, but even with the test cuts it's well ahead of the Bridgewood in terms of capacity in depth of cut.

The Bridgewood at $3500 is probably a slightly better machine than your Jet, but when the opportunity came to buy the SCM, I couldn't pass it up. So I'm going with the 30 year old machine over the brand new one.

Another thing to look out for with a good older machine is a knife grinder. I haven't used mine yet, but from what I hear it makes a significant difference being able to grind the knives on the head.

I think either of the planers you're looking at will solve your problems. But if you do still have issues with tearout, you can always swap out the cutterhead for a carbide insert version. I can say for sure they work well at virtually eliminating tearout and are very quiet.

From contributor R:
I suspect your Jet isn't set properly. I work on machines and haven't worked on that Jet model, but have adjusted many imports to be snipe free. The PM is a good machine but must be adjusted properly or it will do the same thing. On the other hand, the SCMI is designed to be idiot-proof by having all the rollers preset and using spring loaded knives and a setting gauge. That's the one you should look at. Keep the bedrolls set a few thousandths above the table and you will run snipe free. Wax the bed often also. On half the service calls I made on planer feed problems, waxing the bed was all that was needed. All the adjustments were right on. You should have seen the look on some of these guys' faces after I serviced the machine with a simple wax and showed them all the settings were where they should be. I used a special indicator and verified the settings with the manual.

Knife grinders are far over rated and a lot more work than people realize. With the right indicator I can change the knives faster and keep them within .0005". The problem with grinding knives is you keep changing the cutting circle in relation to the pressure bar. Many machines have a fixed setting on the pressure bar so it must be adjusted or will stop dead at the pressure bar. Most of the newer machines have spring loaded pressure bars so precision settings aren't required. The bigger and older machines with grinders had a lever to quickly adjust the pressure bar. After so many grindings you had to pull the knives out or all your roller settings go off. Most planers are called single knife machines where one knife does all the cutting. Jointed moulders would be more akin to a planer with knife grinding capabilities and all the knives would be doing the cutting.

Getting a planer with an indexed head would be the simplest solution for most shops if you don't have a wood machinist on staff. I still suspect the SCMI S520 would be the better machine for you if it's been maintained.

From contributor J:
I couldn't agree more about waxing the beds. I've found that to be key in keeping stock running through my new planer successfully.

If you were around my neighborhood (Northeast), I could use someone with your knowledge to come by and give me a little help with setting up the SCM. I know the knives have to be reset, as I believe they've been ground a couple times without adjustment. When I tested the machine it had a pretty decent snipe on the leading edge. I haven't quite figured out how to adjust the pressure bar yet, as it's been difficult tracking down a manual for my older machine (S-50). But having given it a good once over, I'm pretty sure it's not lever adjusted. With any luck I won't need to adjust it once I get the knives reset.

From contributor P:
I have a Bridgewood 20" spiral head machine. It came with the 5HP 1ph motor. Wouldn't handle a 20" cut in white pine at 1/16". After calling Bridgewood a couple of times and taking the 5 HP to a Marathon motor shop for testing (it was fine) and then traveling to York to show them that it didn't have the oomph, they replaced the 5 with a 3PH 10. I then put a phase converter in my shop for about $700 and it works okay, but still stalls in a heavy cut on many woods. If I had it to do over I wouldn't purchase the spiral head but would have gone with a true helical (Byrd, etc.). I used to use a Jet 15" which was a pretty good machine, but had a little problem with snipe, especially when I used the bed rollers. I just used the bed with frequent waxing.

From contributor J:
I tried to get one with a 3 phase motor in it, but they weren't making them at that time. Probably should've taken that as a sign. I didn't bother making a big deal over the machine not being able to hog off a lot of material. I figured for an Asian knock off planer it worked well enough. If I did a lot of heavy milling I'd look into something industrial, but for me the Bridgewood is adequate and hopefully the SCM will be a good step up in performance.

I don't have any problems with the spiral head, in fact I mill a lot of maple and it works great. It's just the machine itself is underpowered and definitely bogs down easily. What's the advantage of going with the helical?

From contributor P:
I don't have a problem with the finish that my Bridgewood produces, just the number of passes required.

My understanding is that a true helical head has the insert faces at an angle to the piece being planed, thus slicing instead of chipping the material being removed. Also regarding rotating the inserts, it takes a long time to do. I have broken a few, probably due to not cleaning the seat well enough.

The "T" handle wrench furnished by Bridgewood broke the first time I used it and I have broken several more bits when rotating. I now use my cordless Makita drill set on low torque.

The head is quiet alright, but I get a loud noise that I think is coming from the outfeed roller, which I can't seem to get rid of even after lubrication. I thought it was the bed rollers at first, so lowered them all the way, but the noise persisted. I haven't called Wilke yet regarding this problem.

Perhaps contributor R has a diagnosis on this noise.

Another point on the lack of power... A knowledgeable fellow who has a woodworking equipment business in Syracuse NY has offered the opinion that the reason for the light cut required is that there is always a cutter in contact with the piece being planed instead of the split second interval that the knives in a conventional head are not in contact.

From contributor L:
Yes, another thumbs up to contributor R about table waxing. I was in the machine shop one day and was watching the lads running some 6 inch skirting on the 5 head. The guy on the feed side had a red face and was moaning about the feed rollers being worn. I went over and stopped the machine and gave the table a rub of Wurth Woodslide that is kept beside the machine. Production doubled instantly. Also, no finishing problems yet with this product.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all your responses. Has anyone had experience with both the cheaper import planers - Jet, P-matic, etc. - and heavier duty planers with segmented infeeds? If so, do you feel they provide better planed finish in figured lumber, knotty lumber, and (I would guess) save time because you could send multiple pieces side by side without chattering?

From contributor B:
If you want to plane figured lumber, then you need a true helical head such as the Byrd. Find a good quality used planer and retrofit the head. One can be gotten to fit most on the market. I have a General with a spiral head. Nice but not as nice as the Byrd. Mine has segmented rollers and I find I don't feed many parts side by side. Goes through quick enough it's not the issue I thought it was. You still have to pick up the parts on the back side.

I'd look for an old Powermatic 18" cast iron machine and do the re-build yourself. You'll get a better machine for about the same money as a new import and have the understanding of how it works.

From contributor M:
I have a Powermatic 18" and a Bridgewood 20". They both have 3 phase 10 hp motors. If you are planing rough lumber, the Powermatic is definitely the way to go. The knives protrude from the head farther and allow for a bigger bite. Also the Powermatic has a handle to adjust the bed rollers. The Bridgewood requires a wrench from below the bed. If you are planing lumber that was planed at the mill, then the Bridgewood will give you a better finish because the knives are set closer to the head. This also allows you to plane wood to a much thinner finished dimension. I can easily plane to 1/8" with a good finish on my Bridgewood. I need to mention that I purchased the variable speed control on the Bridgewood.

From contributor T:
I have a Woodmaster 725 with spiral cutterhead and a 7.5 hp continuous duty motor that would not take much of a cut at all the way it came from the factory (64th of an inch on sun-dried white oak per pass). Turns out the factory techs set it up wrong as far as the motor position under the machine. Once I figured it out and slid the motor from the outfeed side to the infeed side, the twin drive belts could be tightened properly, and I was getting the power of the motor transferred to the spiral cutterhead. What a difference in the machine. Then 1/8th inch at a pass in the same wood if I wanted to. Check your drive belt tension maybe.

From the original questioner:
Bought a used SCMI s520. Here are the immediate differences I found. It planes faster, cleaner, way quieter. 4 position feed control which I would never do without again. I can hog off on the fastest setting, and then slow down to the slowest setting on the final pass and clean up any tear out around knots! I can send 2 rough boards side by side with no bounce or chatter. Lever controlled bed rolls easily adjustable - up for rough and drop them for smooth material. I have not only sped up and improved my planing, but cut time on the wide belt by over half by being able to plane closer to the final thickness cleaner. I hope this helps someone else considering a planer upgrade.

From contributor O:
I just bought an SCMI s520 and I must say... wow. I have been buying a lot of industrial tools lately because everything I've used that's industrial grade has saved me so much time and effort. SCMI's tools have been in a completely different ballpark than pro hobbyist stuff. It's not even comparable. The 520 is so quiet that it's arguably as quiet as the Powermatic 20" with the helical heads. Having that extra power and stability from precision machinery like the 520, though, is totally worth it. They rarely come up used, but if you find a good one... buy it. You won't be disappointed.