Chip Removal

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.

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The Bosch planers have collection bags that can fit on either of their cylindrical chip diverters.

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

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Ridgid's spring-assisted footrest pops down when the tool is lifted to protect the wood surface and the blades.

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.

Balance

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.

Winners

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
877-267-2499
www.boschtools.com

DeWalt Industrial Tool
DeWalt DW680K: $159
800-433-9258
www.dewalt.com

Festool USA
Festool HL 850 E: $440
888-337-8600
www.festoolusa.com

Freud America
Freud FE84: $129
800-334-4107
www.freudtools.com

Hitachi Power Tools
Hitachi P20SBK: $109
800-829-4752
www.hitachipowertools.com

Makita USA
Makita N1900B: $159
800-462-5482
www.makitatools.com

Metabo Corp.
Metabo Ho 0882: $249
800-638-2264
www.metabousa.com

Ridgid
Ridgid R888: $119; charger, battery, and bag: $199
800-474-3443
www.ridgid.com

Sears Holdings Corp.
Craftsman 172.26729: $120
800-235-5878
www.sears.com