Speed Change. Changing speeds on each of these units requires moving belts between wheels, somewhat similar to the way gears change on a bicycle. Rojek's system is great and easy to reach. The others, while not as easy, still work just fine.

Switches. The on/off and reverse switches are easy to reach on each machine, but I liked Delta's best, due to its easy-access location and the size of its buttons.

Favorites

Each unit has features that I like, and each one cut every shape and profile required, even in unforgiving hardwood stock. Any of these machines would substantially increase your abilities and the capacities of an expanding woodshop. However, for frequent use and production output, versatile fence refinements, smart table configuration, and dependable cutter settings make the difference. But picking between the top three machines is splitting the same hair three ways. Each unit shines in its own right. For me, however, the Delta model's highly adjustable fence, versatile table, smooth performance, and detailed features make it my favorite. The Bridgewood unit comes next. Everything is well-designed, easy to reach, and the toolbox is great. Plus, you can add a sliding table. Rojek's shaper is massive (in a good way) and precise, and it has the best hold-downs and a great fence. The fit and finish are flawless. It's a sweet machine that offers a sliding table option, too.

Jet is next. With its basic but functional fence, an integral dust collection port, and included router collets, it just slips past the basic, but affordably priced, Grizzly.


Tech Support and Parts

Several years ago my shaper's main switch failed. It took two weeks to find parts and get the tool running again–which amounts to one really expensive switch! So, once bitten, I called each company in the test group and asked about parts, service, and tech support. Each company offers tech support and says they stock parts, which they can ship quickly. It took a long time to get through at Delta, Grizzly, and Jet, but someone knowledgeable eventually answered the phone. Bridgewood and Rojek had real people answering the phones, quickly. Just like the good old days.

Power Feeders

There's one word to always keep in mind when using a shaper: fingers. I mean safety. Using a power feeder for shapers (and table saws, for that matter) not only improves the safety of these dangerous tools, it really cranks up your quality, too. It doesn't matter whether you're running 6 feet or 6,000 feet of molding, a power feeder provides cutting consistency that usually eliminates sanding while keeping your hands well away from the cutter. Because a power feeder presses the work tightly to the table (or against the fence, depending on need), it's particularly good for big, heavy work like edging sheet goods or cutting crown. And, the power feeder manages feed rate, so it's terrific for long runs, like casing. An appropriate feed rate also prevents chatter marks on the work. Inside the feeder, grippy rubber wheels (sort of a combination between the rollers on your thickness planer and the wheels on your kid's in-line skates) control the work. A good power feeder costs about $300 and you must learn how to set it up properly. But once you spend the money, you'll use it every time.

–Bill Thomas is a woodworker, boat builder, writer, and photographer in Stevensville, Md.