Busy production shops usually need industrial-sized or mid-sized thickness planers, but smaller woodshops and home hobbyists may find that a benchtop planer will handles most jobs that they undertake. More than a half-dozen manufacturers offer benchtop planers that do a uniformly excellent job of surfacing wood yet come in a small package at a relatively small price.

What Counts:
• Machine accuracy
• Dust collection capability
• Ease of setting knives accurately
• Availability of cutter head lock

Sorting out planers
Other than the paint schemes, the machines look very much alike. A benchtop planer is basically a sheet metal box with a movable motor and cutterhead assembly that’s adjusted up and down over a fixed bed by means of a hand crank. Planers in this category are compact and weigh less than 100 lb. -- some of them much less -- so they can be tucked beneath a workbench when they’re not needed. Maximum cutting capacities are roughly 6 in. in thickness and 12 in. to 13 in. in width. Prices range from about $300 to about $450.

Catch the dust
Planers produce a lot of shavings, so some kind of dust collection is a virtual necessity. Dust collection hoods are often sold as accessories (priced below $50), although a few manufacturers include one for free. Some planers have no available dust hood, which is a disadvantage.

Blade changing varies in difficulty
Some planers use two-sided disposable knives; others have blades that can be resharpened. In either case, changing dull knives is a regular part of machine maintenance. It’s a potentially time-consuming and fussy process that takes anywhere from five minutes to nearly a half-hour. It’s worth comparing the process on a few machines and making that evaluation part of the decision-making process.

Accuracy is essential
The quality of stock the planer can produce has a lot to do with whether the planer is likely to create an unwanted divot at the beginning or the end of a board (called snipe) and whether the cutting head runs perfectly parallel to the bed. A cutterhead lock, available on many machines, reduces the risk of snipe, while parallelism is a factor of the quality of the tool.

Presets are useful for repeating cuts
The thickness of a cut is adjusted by moving the motor and cutter head assembly up and down, while a gauge reveals the finished dimension. However, some planers have a thickness preset, making it easier to reproduce the same thickness on different batch runs of lumber. After the stop has been set, the cutterhead can’t be lowered any farther.