By Michael Springer
Photos by dotfordot.com

Specs and Tester's Comments

Anatomy of a Winner

Detailed Tool Features

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.

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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.

Winners

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.