We bolted each machine securely to a portable stand of our own design, opting not to use the accessory stands available from the manufacturers. A solid attachment to any base will help reduce vibration during use, as well as being necessary for safety.
Then we adjusted the infeed and outfeed tables flat with the planer bed and calibrated the thickness scales. To check that the cutterheads were aligned, we ran a wide board through each unit and measured the thickness at each side. The Craftsman is the only planer adjustable by the user and was more than 1/16-inch out of parallel–which required about an hour to remedy.
Making the Chips Fly
After setting up the tools, we started planing 6-inch-wide pine boards. Instead of taxing the machines' power, we used this part of the test to evaluate performance features and the tools' overall ease of use, getting a real feel for each tool. After eating up the pine and taking notes along the way, we switched to 12-inch-wide oak planks for the power test. Oak is hard stuff, and a 12-inch-wide board can really challenge these small machines. We started with light passes–about 1/32-inch–which they all handled well. We then set the depth of cut to 1/16-inch, which proved to be a real performance separator. While the others all made it through with relative ease, the Ridgid and Makita both had a tough time with this test. The Ridgid's motor slowed drastically, and the planer left a ragged cut that required an additional pass to clean up. The Makita barely made it through, suffering fits of vibration while struggling to finish the pass.
All the tools produce a little bit of snipe, which is a short section of overly planed wood at the end of a board that happens as it comes out of the planer. As it clears the infeed roller, the weight of the wood that is cantilevered out past the planer has a tendency to lift the opposite end up into the cutterhead, causing the last few inches of the board to have a deeper cut, or snipe, and rendering it unusable. Carefully supporting the board as it exits the machine can reduce this gouging and protect the machine from the resulting extreme load, but you should plan on cutting a little off both ends of a board for accuracy, so plane first and then cut to length. The Delta is the only tool that allows for its infeed and outfeed rollers to be adjusted to help minimize snipe, but any board being planed should be supported flat the entire time.
Knives, Speeds, and Feeds
All the tools have three-knife cutterheads, except the Delta and Makita, which have two knives. At the same cutterhead rpm, three knives will provide 1-1/2 times as many cuts per minute as two knives and, therefore, can be used to get smoother finishes at the same feed speed. Conversely, at the same cuts-per-inch rate as a two-knife planer, the feed speed can be increased and the same job done faster. In either case, three blades will last longer between changes, because there will be less wear on each blade for the same amount of work done.
A two-speed feature is found on the Craftsman, Delta, DeWalt DW735, and Steel City machines, which essentially adds a lower gear. The slower the feed rate of the board, the more tiny cuts there are per inch and, therefore, the smoother its finish. In our tests, the difference in finish quality between feed speeds isn't huge, but there is a difference. But as the knives start to go dull, the difference should become even more apparent.
Cuts per inch alone do not determine the finished cut quality, because the amount of wood removed in a single pass has a lot to do with the resulting smoothness, too. Very light depth cutting is the traditional way to achieve a fine-planed finish, but combining more cuts and a light depth provides the best of both techniques. Having two speeds is a time and quality advantage. The importance of this really comes into play in a production situation, where it's key to be able to hog off wood and then slow down for the final pass. It means less sanding and a more uniform quality in the wood. And as long as the machine has the power to take the bigger bites associated with higher feed speeds, an advantage of several feet per minute for rougher dimensioning passes can add up to a lot of time saved in a long day of planing.
The cuts per inch (cpi) and feet per minute (fpm) of the single-speed tools are as follows: DeWalt, DW734 96 cpi @ 26 fpm; Makita, 51 cpi @ 28 fpm; and Ridgid, 96 cpi @ 26 fpm. For two-speed planers: Craftsman, 91 cpi @ 22 fpm and 182 cpi @ 11 fpm; Delta, 60 cpi @ 30 fpm and 90 cpi @ 20 fpm; DeWalt, DW735 96 cpi @ 26 fpm and 179 cpi @ 14 fpm; and Steel City, 85 cpi @ 23 fpm and 130 cpi @ 16 fpm. These are fairly accurate approximations based on a no-load condition of the motor.
Regardless of the hard specs, all the planers could surface wood evenly and smoothly without leaving visible knife marks when used as directed by the manufacturers. By taking a recommend maximum cutting depth of about 1/16-inch for softwoods and less for hardwoods, all of these tools were capable of great results.