Whether you are setting up a woodworking shop or just need to dimension trim on a jobsite, a thickness planer is one of the first tools you should buy. Planers come in many sizes, however; the 24-inch width model we use in our shop weighs close to 700 pounds–not a real portable tool. Smaller 12- to 13-inch capacity planers have become popular as machines that can be used in the shop or taken out to a job. And while they won't replace a massive stationary shop planer for capacity or stability, these truly portable tools make quality wood planing available on the go or in smaller work spaces.
We tested seven planers: the 13-inch Craftsman Professional 351.217590, 13-inch Delta 22-580, 12-1/2-inch DeWalt DW734 and 13-inch DW735, 12-inch Makita 2012NB, 13-inch Ridgid R4330, and the 13-inch Steel City 40200.
We put these tools to work in my custom millwork shop where we build doors, custom moldings, and even furniture for jobs across the country. We also install our historic and custom millwork on commercial and residential projects. We used the planers in both the rough milling and the finish milling sides of the shop and tested them with various woods. It was an interesting test, and we enjoyed learning about the latest features and discovering who makes the best portable planer on the market.
Out of the Box
Capacity. All of the machines except two have a 13-inch width capacity: The Makita has a 12-inch, and the DeWalt DW734 has a 12-1/2-inch capacity. I haven't found an instance yet where a width capacity of more than 12 inches is necessary, as the widest boards available off the lumberyard shelf, and even from my millwork suppliers, are usually 11-1/4 inches wide. The same is true for height; all of the tools have more than enough thickness capacity for my work at 6-1/2 inches for the Delta and 6 inches for the others.
Design Differences. After unpacking the tools, we noticed some differences, but none stood out as much as the Craftsman planer. It's the largest by far, and the only tool that sports a digital readout and a dust-filtering bag. The DeWalt DW735 also caught our eye with its unique, squat design. Unlike all of the other planers, which have a cutter head and motor assembly that moves up and down within a boxy frame, the DW735's entire body moves on threaded posts above a substantial metal base, which is much more solid than the others' flip-down infeed and outfeed tables. The smallest planer in the test is the Makita, which is notably more compact than the others.
Weight and Portability. Weight and size can determine what capacity the machine is used in. Obviously, the lighter tools are more easily portable and may prove easier to load and transport around a job. At the same time, extra weight can provide desired stability to a planer. It's a tradeoff that must be considered depending on how you plan to use the tool, but in any case, two guys–even one if necessary–can easily carry each machine.
The Delta planer is the heaviest at 97 pounds, and the Craftsman and DeWalt DW735 both weigh 92 pounds. The DeWalt DW734 is 80 pounds, the Ridgid is 73, the Steel City is 66, and the relatively diminutive Makita weighs only 60 pounds.
And while all six models with fold-down infeed and outfeed tables can be stored with the tables up, once the dust collection fittings are installed–on all but the Craftsman–the outfeed tables can no longer be folded up. Even if you don't use the dust collection on the jobsite, the same is true with installing the required chip diverters on the Ridgid and Steel City tools. This extra footprint size may impede easy passage through doorways and into vehicles or cause the outfeed table to be knocked out of alignment, so detaching the fittings for each trip may be necessary.
Every tool has an integrated handle on each side, and most of the planers use a spring latch to keep their tables in the upright position. These work very well, but the Craftsman relies on small magnets that are much too wimpy to hold the tables securely. To avoid an unexpected slam into a doorway, it is wise to secure the tables by another means.
Manuals. All of the manuals do a good job explaining the setup, calibration, knife changing, and operation of the tools, along with providing some helpful hints. For example, snipe challenges planers of this size, and all of the manuals spend a little ink dealing with how to avoid it. Makita's manual explains setup and knife changing well, but it has less than the others on the successful operation of its tool. Some may find this frustrating if they are new to planers and how they operate.