When I was working as a wooden boat builder, there were times that I couldn't tell where my hand ended and my portable planer began; no tool got used more. Since I've used these tools so much, I'm sensitive to their features and performance, and I take poor design and false promises about them almost as a personal insult. Several years ago I tested this category for Tools of the Trade, and when the editors said it was time to evaluate them once more, I thought it would be interesting to see what has changed. Once I got into the test, I realized that some of these new tools have really evolved.
The corded tools included in this test were the Bosch 1594K, Craftsman 26729, DeWalt DW680K, Festool HL 850 E, Freud FE84, Hitachi P20SBK, Makita N1900B, and Metabo Ho 0882. Also included were two cordless tools: the Bosch 53518 18-volt nicad and the Ridgid R888 that runs on either a 24-volt lithium-ion battery or an 18-volt nicad battery.
All except the Metabo and Ridgid came with a plastic case or duffel bag. The cordless Bosch came with a charger and one battery; a starter kit with a charger, one battery, and a bag has to be purchased separately for the Ridgid.
My jobsite testing this time was spent preparing and finishing a pitch pine floor. The wood came rough sawn, so first it was thickness-planed, jointed, and ripped to width. Then I routed its edges for a tongue-and-groove joint. The last step didn't go as smoothly as I would have liked, so I had to go over the stock and correct any inconsistencies in the milling. (I really should stick to wooden boats.) The tongue on every one of more than 150 boards was trimmed for width and the two adjacent rabbets were tuned up. After installation, the floor–about 400 square feet of it–needed to be flattened by these planers. The project provided situations that tested just about every aspect of these tools.
Rabbeting & Chamfering
All of the planers allow rabbeting, but some will go much deeper than others. The Hitachi, Makita, Ridgid, and both Bosch tools only allow for a cut about as deep as the sole thickness, between 1/4 and 1/2 inch.
The Craftsman, DeWalt, Freud, and Metabo have side guards that retract and expose more of the cutter head for deeper rabbets of 1/2 to 1 inch.
The Festool's cutter head is attached at the inboard side only, so its end sits flush with the tool's side, allowing unlimited rabbeting depth. There is a handy remote lever to manually raise the guard during use that also can lock it open and out of the way. This was the tool I picked up the most to do the rabbeting even though it is the largest by far.
Craftsman, Festool, Freud, and Metabo also include a removable depth stop to limit the rabbeting cut.
While trimming the tongues and cleaning up the rabbets, I really appreciated the cordless tools. I was only doing light trimming and most of the boards were more than 8 feet long, so it was nice that there was no cord to slow me down. I don't think there's ever been a power planer in my shop that hasn't had its cord cut. These tools have no guards on their bottoms; when I'm teaching, I call them "the most dangerous hand tool" because of the exposed spinning blades. Luckily, their most frequent victims are themselves, but there's no such problem with a cordless tool.
In the forward part of the sole, all the tools have at least one groove, which serves as a guide for chamfering. This is useful for shaving off the corners of stock at a uniform 45-degree angle.
To keep your rabbet's shoulder cut in a straight line or to stay on track on a narrow board, a fence is usually used. My views on fences are simple: They need to be easy to adjust, they shouldn't move once set, and I don't care if they are marked with distance or angle graduations–I won't trust the markings.
All of the fences in the test group worked well enough, but some had extra features that stood out. The corded Bosch planer has the added utility of a fence that tilts, allowing you to plane at a fixed angle. This is useful when beveling the strike edge of a door–probably the major use of these tools in trim carpentry–and made it the best fence. Festool's and Metabo's also are nice, although they don't tilt. On each of these three, the cast-metal attachment bracket felt sturdier than the stamped-metal of the others, the knobs are big enough to grip, and the surface of the fence is large enough to be useful. The Festool also has a very large tilting fence available as an accessory that I tested and found to be quite sturdy and accurate.
Smoothness, Blades, & Depth Adjustment
Once the crew installed all the pieces, the floor needed to be flattened. Sanding proved impossible due to the pitch in the wood, so the solution was power planing, and I had the tools! The floor was laid with a three-plank border surrounding a diagonal field. The woven corners of the border all had to be flattened and many of the long edges throughout also needed attention. During this job, three major performance aspects of the tools became very apparent: smoothness of cut, accuracy of depth adjustment, and chip deflection and collection.
Smoothness. Smooth cutting is all about the blade and its angle. Typically, planer blades are set perpendicular to the length of the plane, but the Festool and Ridgid planers skew the blades by spiraling them around the cutter head, which effectively lowers a blade's angle of attack without thinning its leading edge. This is the same planing geometry that allows skew-angle block planes to shear end grain in feathery wisps.
The spiral blades on the Festool (a single helical blade that's the only single cutter in the test) and Ridgid (straight spring steel blades curved by the blade clamps) allowed for a finished surface that didn't have the wavy look left by the other tools' choppy bites. Even the waste was different–shavings instead of chips.
Both Bosches and the Craftsman, DeWalt, Freud, Makita, and Metabo tools come with double-sided, carbide "mini blades"–the new industry standard–that are disposable and make blade changing dead simple. Their only downfall is that the carbide is brittle and will shatter if you hit a nail, forcing you to pick out pieces of sharp blade from the holder.
Only the Hitachi still has the older, resharpenable high-speed steel blades.
Depth Adjustment. Accuracy in depth-adjustment proved important when I was planing down floorboard edges that were curled up. I had to make precise, flat cuts while being careful not to dig into the adjacent surface.
Since there is no true "zeroed-out" position on the Freud, Hitachi, and Makita adjusters, these required double-checking with a straightedge or a test pass on scrap wood and were therefore almost useless as accurate indicators of the blade depth. The Festool is at the other extreme: You click and lock its adjustment to a tenth of a millimeter by twisting the front handle and then sliding a locking lever, so you can't accidentally shift the setting during use.
The Ridgid and Bosch cordless tools also have depth adjustments, which at least "click," and the Ridgid is the only tool to have its depth adjuster separate from its front grip. The Craftsman, DeWalt, Metabo, and corded Bosch planers all have decent front-knob adjustments that have gradient dials with scales and all have a fixed zero position. The Metabo, Festool, and Freud are marked with metric measurements.
Of course, shaving off the slightest amount of wood in each pass leaves the smoothest finish, but for quickly hogging off stock, here are the maximum depth-of-cut ratings for these planers: Hitachi and Makita: 1/32 inch; cordless Bosch and Ridgid: 1/16 inch; corded Bosch and DeWalt: 3/32 inch; Craftsman, Freud, and Metabo: 1/8 inch; and Festool: 9/64 inch.
Planing into corners and along finished walls requires good control of chip ejection and effective chip collection. The ability to direct it out of your way or keep it off your work altogether is important.
The DeWalt, Hitachi, Makita, Freud, and Ridgid only have an exhaust port on the right side, which is fine, unless you're left-handed or the chips are being thrown in the way of your work. The Freud and the Ridgid can have a vacuum hose attached to the right side.
Both Bosches and the Craftsman, Festool, and Metabo have a diverter that allows you to choose right or left chip ejection. The first three tools use a rotating cylinder with an angled baffle inside; the last two use a simpler directional gate. In use, I found that the gate-style diverter clogged less often and was easier to clean out when it did. All of these models allow for vacuum attachment on either side (although if you are dragging a hose around with a battery-powered tool, you might as well be dragging a cord, too).
Both Bosch tools and the Ridgid came with chip collection bags, but the Bosches had the advantage here because of their right or left connection option. The bags were effective but may slow you down; they filled up very quickly–sometimes in less than a minute–and will clog your planer if not emptied quickly enough.
Taking a Stand
Working on a nearly finished floor reminded me that these tools lack blade guards. And while the automatic brakes on both cordless models are a tremendous help, when you put any planer down on a surface, it could cause a gouge while idling down or can even just dull its blade on some surfaces. To prevent this, you can set the back of the tool on a scrap of wood or just use a tool that has a built-in drop-down prop. Craftsman, DeWalt, and Freud rely on gravity to drop theirs down into position while the Bosch corded, Festool, Metabo, and Ridgid are all spring-loaded. Festool's can even be locked up out of your way for starting in the middle of a board. All were adequate, and any is better than none. Surprisingly, the Bosch cordless, Hitachi, and Makita planers don't have this seemingly mandatory feature.
Power & Performance
Surfacing the thicker boards in the floor really helped to separate these 3-1/4-inch power planers into two distinct groups: those capable of heavy work and those designed strictly for small trimming. I love a stronger planer's ability to remove large amounts of wood quickly, and, not surprisingly, those rated at 6.5 amps and over–the corded Bosch, Craftsman, DeWalt, Festool, Freud, and Metabo–all performed this job well. However, even though the Freud had the highest amperage of 7.5, the tool's electronic cruise control made it surge noticeably–even under very slight loads–which I found disconcerting and counterproductive. I didn't have any such problem with the electronic controls in the Festool.
The corded planers rated at 4 amps or less, the Hitachi and Makita, tended to bog down and heat up when worked hard. Between the cordless tools, the 24-volt Ridgid had more power than the 18-volt Bosch, but I wouldn't look to a cordless tool for doing heavy work.
Just like hand planes, these tools have to feel right in your hand. If they're out of balance and make you work awkwardly, the wood can be ruined, your muscles may ache, and your work will suffer. The balance for one-handed work was good for all the planers except
for the Craftsman and Festool, whose rearward handles cantilever a lot of weight forward and require two hands.
It took me an entire day to finally flatten out the 400-square-foot floor. By the end of the afternoon, I wasn't thinking about the test, and I had ceased taking notes; I was just reaching for the best tools to get the job done. The two tools I reached for most were the Festool and the cordless Bosch. This "pick-up test" was the culmination of everything I had evaluated about these tools, and it reflects the new reality in handheld 3-1/4-inch power planers.
For trim and other light work, there's no reason not to go with a cordless tool as long as you spring for the extra battery and always have one charged. I liked both the Bosch and the Ridgid, but for me, the Bosch's ability to throw chips to either side outweighs Ridgid's extra 6 volts and its spiral blades. After all, I'm only going to use it for small work, and I want it to be versatile.
The other tool that I reached for was the Festool; its depth adjustment, power, precision, smoothest finishing, and feel made it the clear choice–especially as a shop tool. It's physically the biggest planer in the bunch and the most expensive by far, but its features and performance clearly make it a step above its competitors. It's a real winner. And even though the Festool requires two-handed operation, I didn't mind; it feels like a bigger tool that deserves two hands.
The other tools I would enjoy using, in order of preference, are the Metabo, the corded Bosch, the DeWalt, and the Craftsman. The Metabo is very well made, has all the functionality, good accessories, and a proven design. A great jobsite tool, it is the most capable planer that can be used one-handed. Similar things can be said for the Bosch and at a much lighter weight. I also recommend the DeWalt because it has about the same power as my favorite in a smaller package and proved to be a well-made workhorse. The Craftsman seemed to be a solid tool, but was hard to use with one hand.
The Freud's overactive motor speed control kept it lower on the list. I wouldn't bother with the Hitachi and the Makita; instead of these lighter-duty corded tools, just get a cordless.
Joe Youcha runs the Alexandria Seaport Foundation in Alexandria, Va., which helps train apprentices for the Carpenters Union. He is a contributing editor for Tools of the Trade.
Sources Of Supply
Bosch Power Tools and Accessories
Bosch 1594K: $150
Bosch 53518: $250
DeWalt Industrial Tool
DeWalt DW680K: $159
Festool HL 850 E: $440
Freud FE84: $129
Hitachi Power Tools
Hitachi P20SBK: $109
Makita N1900B: $159
Metabo Ho 0882: $249
Ridgid R888: $119; charger, battery, and bag: $199
Sears Holdings Corp.
Craftsman 172.26729: $120