Nothing says "custom" like having a 450-pound shaper stationed on your shop floor. You could try to pull off radius work, trim profiles, raised panels, and fancy mantels without one, but it wouldn't be easy. And it wouldn't come out nearly as well.
The custom homes, commercial interiors, and wooden boats I've built over the past 20 years would not have been possible without a 3-hp shaper. While smaller shapers and router tables are appropriate for some jobsite setups, only a dedicated 3-hp machine can provide the utility, power, and stability to really work wood.
I tested five machines: the Bridgewood BW-310SL, Delta 43-495X, Grizzly G1026, and Jet JWS-25CS all have 3-hp motors; the Rojek FSN 300F is 3.6-hp. I set up each unit and looked carefully for ample power, stability, accuracy, and ease of adjusting the fences, and I evaluated each tool's spindle–all details that are vital for high-tolerance work. I also compared smoothness of operation, cutter changing, dust collection, safety features, standard accessories, and technical support from each manufacturer.
I was grateful to find that each shaper in the group came with clear assembly instructions and that all of them assembled easily. The Rojek and Bridgewood were the easiest: Just secure the fence to the table and you're in business. Rojek even includes a 220-volt plug that all the other machines except the Delta required me to buy separately. The Delta, Grizzly, and Jet were also easy to get running quickly. Dust collection is key. The Bridgewood, Delta, Jet, and Rojek ship with integral dust collection ports, which easily tied in with my shop system. Grizzly offers this as an option, which I would get.
Power & Motors
Power. To test power and vibration under stress, I ran the shapers through a raised-panel operation using 3/4-inch-thick mahogany. Each unit passed this test nicely, turning out abundant power. I did notice the Rojek had extra power in the hardwood, but you wouldn't want to power through finish material. It's always best when removing a lot of stock to make several passes before you get to the final cut.
Motors, Direction, and Speed. A reversing motor is vital for versatility because it enables you to match the optimum feed direction of the work with the cutter set you're using. It's best to run some work face down and other pieces face up, which the reversing motor allows you to do. Each one of these tools comes with a reversing motor.
Each shaper also offers two speeds: 7,000 and 10,000 rpm, except the Rojek, which has five speeds ranging from 1,400 to 10,000 rpm. While I like that Rojek offers choices, I find that two speeds are plenty, using the slower rpm for large cutters and the higher rpm for smaller cutters or bits.
The Grizzly and Jet machines started abruptly and vibrated more during startup than the other three machines, jumping instantly to 10,000 rpm. Delta and Bridgewood have much smoother starts. Rojek is the only soft-start machine, which really helps. If you make a mistake–a cutter is loose, the fence obstructs a cutter–you have a fighting chance to shut the unit off before the carbide is revolving full-tilt.
Fences & Hold-Downs
A shaper is only as good as its fence, which must be easy to adjust and lock firmly in place once you've got it set up. Supporting work solidly near the cutter helps prevent chatter or mill marks. And, a hold-down system for keeping stock tight to the table and/or fence (along with safety guards) should be standard issue.
I like Bridgewood's simple, well-designed system. The shroud covering its spindle moves easily fore and aft and locks tightly. You then fine-tune settings with the separate wooden fences on either side of the cutter. The hold-downs are great and the table is tapped to take hold-ins (metal "featherboards" for holding the stock against the fence). Rojek's fence is simple, but highly adjustable and very accurate. The hold-downs make sense, work well, and fold neatly away when not in use. Both fences are large and made from laminated hardwood, which I like.
Delta's fence is the best. The opening at the cutter has the greatest range of adjustment. It's the easiest to accurately adjust and use. And I really like that you can use the fence on both axes of the table (front to back/left to right), offering the most use from Delta's large work surface. I ran long runs of trim across the length of the table, and I used the short side for raised panels, which provides more support for the width of the panel, resulting in a better cut. The woodworker in me took a while to warm up to the aluminum fence, but it worked beautifully on everything I threw at it. There's only one complaint: I'd soften the fence's sharp leading edge with a file. Delta's hold-down system is over-engineered for my taste, but it works. There's a Plexiglas guard covering most of the cutter, which I–and my fingers–really like.