Jointers are the go-to tools for straightening and squaring lumber, and standard-length 6-inch-wide capacity models are a great choice for most carpentry and trim uses in the shop and on the job site. These 46-inch bed machines are the entry-level size for stationary jointers and, as the smallest, represent the best possibility of a "serious" stationary tool that is still portable enough to load up and take to select jobs. All the tools plug into line voltage, further enhancing their all-around utility. An old rule of thumb states that a jointer is accurate for truly straightening boards up to twice its bed length, so with a 6-inch face-planing width and an 8-foot (or so) straightening capacity, these machines can handle all the wood many guys mill, even if they remain shop-bound.
We tested six jointers on hardwoods and softwoods, with tasks ranging from straightening the edges of 8-foot-long 1x12 pine shelf boards to facing and squaring 6-inch-wide slabs of walnut and ash. All of the machines were capable of doing a good job cutting whatever we threw at them. On our first passes some models left a rippled surface at brisker feed speeds, but double-checking the cutter heads quickly revealed a high knife responsible for these pronounced mill marks. As for cutting power, we were duly impressed that even hogging 1/8 inch off an ipe 4x4 while pushing as fast as possible didn't slow any of the jointers down.
For our initial testing, we zeroed the outfeed tables flush with the highest knife, calibrated the scales on the infeed tables, and checked the 90-degree fence stops; this is the least the owner of a new jointer should expect to do. With our minimal tuning, all the tools were capable of delivering an 8-foot edge straight and square enough to glue up or ready to be finished with a touch of 220 grit. We found that setting the individual knives evenly is necessary for the machine's best results. And as our furniture-maker tester pointed out later in the process, the best finish cuts couldn't be obtained without professionally sharpened knives – factory edges not being sufficient by his standards. So cut quality boiled down to meticulous setup, careful passes, and appropriate feed speed rather than major differences between the machines themselves.
A word about flatness. We took dozens of measurements of the infeed and outfeed table surfaces in all directions, both separately and in relation to each other. Variances up to .005 inch were found in places, but the ups and downs have a way of cancelling each other out. What could be proved on cast iron with a machinist's straightedge, feeler gauge, and dial indicator wasn't recognizable in the finished product of wood.
Accuracy and productivity – not to mention ease of use – depend on the function and convenience of the features you rely on most. We found that fences, infeed table adjustments, and switches are at the core of a user's experience.
All of us testing the tools preferred larger fences as a rule; a one-inch-taller fence noticeably helps to steady a wide, thin board like a 1x12 when edge-jointing. A long fence is nice, but it doesn't help for it to be much longer than the area of the board you push against when feeding. Moving the fence in or out means a simple sliding action for some tools and the cranking of a geared drive for others. The sliding fences move faster and allow you to lift the fence slightly off the outfeed table while adjusting. Taking this precaution will keep the bottom of the fence from dishing out the outfeed surface over time, especially if the fence has a lowered "foot" section. Only our winner's fence is easy to set to an exact angle.
Infeed tables sometimes have to be adjusted to an exact cutting depth, and the scales on the tools are not accurate enough to rely on. To accurately set the depth of cut with a precise spacer or dial indicator, you must be able to move the infeed table in tiny increments. The crank-type adjusters are easy to dial in with your fingertips spread around the perimeter of the crank wheel for precise control. The lever-type adjusters also require fingertips, but you must tap delicately up and down against the lever's handle in a frustrating trial-and-error effort to hit the mark.
And speaking of frustration, pesky lockout catches are found on every tool to keep the user from setting the depth of cut past 1/8 inch. Some were easier to deal with than others.
For safety's sake, it should be easy to reach the power switch while operating the machine. All but one of the models have a shielded On button that requires a deliberate push to activate, and most have an Off button that can be hit without looking, though one requires you to do so with your leg. Another nice feature is the elevated switches (46 to 51 inches above the ground) on some of these tools. Having the controls chest-high makes them easily accessible and means you don't have to move your hand down past the cutter head to turn the machine off. They might make the units harder to load into your rig, though.
A surprisingly important factor was whether the motor belt is easy to access and remove so that the cutter head can be safely rotated by hand to inspect, remove, or set knives. V-belts take a set and will spring back into that set position with enough force to chop into a finger. Only our winner has a flat belt, which can be easily rotated while still connected.
Setting outfeed tables and knives is important, too, but these tasks are performed less frequently. Each machine's outfeed table is easy enough to set within a minute or two, and all of the knives are set – though not so quickly – with two jackscrews each. Our winner alone offers the use of either jackscrews or springs.
In a shop full of well-matched, capable machines, the Rikon was a real standout, with modernized feature improvements that seem to challenge the more dated designs to catch up. Besides the gee-wizardry of its complex and precise fence, the Rikon integrated many other innovations into its design, making it the complete package. Even if you don't expect to use your jointer fence at an angle very often, it stands to reason that a tool with superior precision capabilities will also work well for simple tasks, while a simpler tool may fall short when more precision is called for.
Our second choice was the Grizzly, for its solid performance and quality, great features, and attractive price. We especially liked the extra-large fence and the integral mobile base.
We liked the Delta, Jet, and Ridgid tools and could use any of them if our top picks weren't available. Each of us appreciated various features on these three, but there was no real consensus, particularly when the prices were figured in. However, all of us found the strong-but-outclassed Craftsman to be lacking; its fence and cabinet designs required too much compromise.
Custom woodworker Karsten Balsley of Boulder, Colo., and Donek Snowboards manufacturer Sean Martin of Watkins, Colo., contributed to this test.
Helical Insert Cutter Head
Grizzly offers a few different helical cutter heads with solid carbide inserts as optional accessories for its jointer. There are some benefits to paying a premium for this type of head. With all 32 cutting edges made up of four-sided inserts, you have four sets of sharp knives ready to be refreshed without the downtime and calibration work required with standard knife replacement. If you get any knife nicks or worse from embedded grit or metal in wood, you only have to rotate or replace the affected inserts. The carbide cutters are much harder than steel knives, so they should last longer between "sharpenings," but to a trained eye they don't leave quite as polished a finish as a freshly sharp steel knife. For gluing up or sanding edges, though, this is not an issue. There are also advantages to the way a helical head cuts. Instead of taking one big bite all the way across the wood like a standard knife, the inserts make a lot of little cuts in sequence. This cutting action avoids rippled mill marks, runs relatively quietly, and demands a little less from the tool's motor. (Grizzly H7653, $245. Grizzly T10125 [shown], $325.)
Some of the tools in the test share the same fence designs and components. The Grizzly (below left) and Delta [below right] fences are basically identical crank-out types. You move the fence position with a notched tubular arm that engages with the teeth of a drive gear. After loosening the ratcheting lock lever found on top of the arm's housing, you turn the adjacent plastic knob to crank the fence in or out. This method is slow, but more accurate for setting rabbets or other exact cut widths. To set the fence angle, you simply loosen the lever to the right of the arm and tilt the fence forward or back manually. Black 45- and 135-degree stop bolts are clearly visible, as is the 90-degree stop bolt and flip-up stop plate. Though the arm locks the fence very solidly, its length takes up a lot of space behind the machine and keeps it from being placed close to a wall.
|*Grizzly and Delta have the tallest and longest fences.|
The Ridgid [below right] and Jet (below left) sliding-type fences also share many components. Moving the fence position in or out is as simple as loosening the vertical locking bolt on top of the fence-adjustment mechanism and pulling the fence into place. And with the bolt loose, it's easy to lift the fence slightly off the outfeed table to keep the fence's support foot from wearing a groove in the table surface. A keyway between the fence-adjustment mechanism and its support bracket keeps the fence straight and makes it lock down without play. The fence angle is adjusted by loosening the horizontal locking bolt and tilting the fence manually. Both models have similar 90-degree stops with a flip-up stop plate and similar 135-degree stop bolts. For 45-degree angles, Ridgid has a stop bolt, but Jet relies on jam nuts at the back of the connecting rod that holds the fence up.
Ridgid's large padded knobs and levers are more comfortable to use than the all-metal controls of the Jet. And because Ridgid's position-locking bolt fits through an elongated slot, it doesn't have to be moved between two different holes for the full range of fence movement as with the Jet.