How to Use a Planer?

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When starting out with woodworking, it is common to buy pre-milled lumber. Most lumber purchased from hardware stores or home improvement centers falls into this category. At some point, you’re likely to become dissatisfied with mass-milled lumber. Learn how to use a planer and you can create perfect stock in the comfort of your own home. 

What Is a Planer?

Planers are motorized tools used to flatten and smooth wood. They belong to a group of tools used to mill lumber. Milling is the process of turning rough wood into usable stock. 

A planer can be used on rough wood, or to correct imperfections in pre-milled lumber. It is usually the first piece of milling equipment purchased as novice woodworkers become more experienced. 

Planers have two or more rotating blades, inset into a perfectly flat, level surface. As wood passes or is passed over the surface, the rotating blades shave off protrusions, evening and flattening the stock. 

There are two kinds of planers: handheld, and mounted. Mounted planers are also called bench or table planers. 

Hand Planers

Hand planers can be powered by electricity or batteries. Electrical hand planers must be plugged into a grounded outlet in order to work. Their use is therefore limited to the length of the cord, although extension cords can be used to extend the range. 

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  • Battery-powered hand planers can be operated anywhere, as long as the battery is charged. When the juice runs out, you must wait for the battery to recharge before resuming planing. Some people choose to have a backup battery to prevent work interruptions. 
  • A hand planer has a handle on top of a motor. The motor turns a blade-studded cylinder. This cylinder is mostly covered by two base plates that make contact with the wood. Hand planers plane from above, by passing the machine over the surface of the wood. Raising or lowering the base plate dictates the amount of material removed with each pass of the hand planer. 

Bench or Table Planer

Bench or table planers have a flat surface that faces up. The motor hovers above this flat surface, and is raised or lowered using a crank or wheel.  Rather than moving the planer over the surface of the wood, the wood is passed under the rotating bladed cylinder contained in the motor housing.

Bench or table planers can be portable or stationary. Portable models are lighter weight, and are intended to be transported to job sites. They are usually operated on top of a work table or workbench. 

Stationary planers are heavier, and are not intended to leave the workshop. Usually made from cast iron, the extra weight helps the plates stay properly aligned. They are often mounted on frames, allowing them to stand directly on the floor. They may also be bench-mounted. 

The surface that supports the board is called the base plate. By adjusting the distance between the base plate and the housing, it is possible to change the amount of material that is removed from the board. 

How to Use a Hand Planer to Flatten and Smooth Wood

Hand planers are versatile and affordable tools that are capable of flattening and smoothing wood. 

  1. Insert and adjust the fence, if necessary. The fence is a piece of metal or plastic that attaches to the side of the planer. It serves to keep the edge of the board at a consistent distance from the base plate and spinning blades. 

You can plane without a fence if you want the entire surface of the board to be the same level. If you want the edges of the board to differ in thickness from the middle portion, you will need to use the fence. 

  1. Set the depth of the cut. Hand planers come with a knob or lever that changes the orientation of the front base plate. To remove more material from the wood, the base plate is raised up. To shave off a small amount of material, a low base plate setting is used. 
  2. Clamp the wood. Use a vise or clamps to hold the wood in place before you start to plane. Make sure the clamps don’t extend past the surface you are planing, or the blade may catch as it passes. 
  3. Prepare to plane. Hold the handle on the top of the planer, and place your other hand on the knob at the front of the machine. Place the front plate of the hand held planer on top of the surface you are planing. Squeeze the trigger to turn the motor on, spinning the blades. 
  4. Plane. Apply even, gentle downward pressure with both hands as you move the planer forward. When the planer is fully supported by the board, remove the downward pressure and allow the weight of the tool to rest on the board. Move the planer along the surface of the board until the bladed cylinder has passed the end of the board.
  5. Store safely. Most hand planers come equipped with a shoe on the rear plate. This serves to lift the back of the planer up, so that the bladed cylinder doesn’t touch your work surface when the planer is not in use. If your planer doesn’t have this, rotate the blades out of the way before setting the machine down, or use a piece of scrap wood to support the rear of the planer. 
  6. Check your work. Lay a level or straightedge along the surface of the board to check that it is flat, smooth, and even. If necessary, adjust the depth of your front plate, and plane the surface again. 

How to Use a Table Planer to Flatten and Smooth Wood

A table or bench planer is a wise investment when you have a lot of rough lumber to flatten or smooth. It gives you a high degree of control over the thickness of your wood, and eliminates many of the frustrations with mass-milled lumber. 

  1. Adjust the fence, if necessary. The motor housing is usually attached to both sides of the table. There may also be an adjustable fence. Keeping the board flush with the fence as you plane ensures that the same section of board is passing under the planer’s blade. 
  2. Choose the right depth. The most aggressive planers can remove up to one-eighth of an inch of material at one time. To make the most of your wood stock, it’s usually best to work in small increments, passing the board through multiple times and skimming off a little bit of wood with each pass. 
  3. Plan ahead to support the board. Depending on the length of the board, it may not be fully supported by the plate of the planer as it exits the machine. The weight of the board end can cause the board to tilt, pressing the opposite end against the blades and removing more material than you intended. This is called planer snipe. Avoid this by perfectly aligning the infeed and outfeed tables, and planning to support the board as it comes off the machine. 

Adjustable sawhorses and a piece of plywood can form a makeshift extension to your planer. You can also have companion support the board once it comes off the table. Caution your helper not to lift up the board, which could result in less material being removed than intended. 

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  1. Begin planing. Turn the machine on to start the rotation of the bladed cylinder. Place the board on the infeed table. Using even, steady pressure, feed the board into the planer. Use blocks or sticks to keep your hands well away from the motor housing. 
  2. Continue planing. As the end of the board approaches the motor housing, switch your attention to controlling the board as it emerges on the outfeed table. Your goal is to keep it moving at a steady, even feed, and prevent any tilting. When the board has completely cleared the motor housing, gently remove it and turn off the motor. 
  3. Evaluate the results. If you’re aiming for a specific board thickness, use a measuring tape to check your progress. If the goal is a smooth, level surface, use a level or straightedge. Make sure to place the level in several different areas to ensure the entire surface of the board is uniformly smooth and even. 

Learn about the differences between a jointer and a planer.

Hand Planer vs Bench Planer

A bench or table planer is a significant investment that takes up a lot of space in your workshop. There must be room in the front and back of the machine, so planks can enter and exit cleanly. When you have a regular need for perfectly flat, smooth lumber, or regularly need to change the thickness of boards, a bench planer is the best tool for the job. 

If you’re just getting started with planing, a hand planer is a better choice. While they take a bit more effort and brain power to operate, they also take up much less space. If you don’t have a dedicated work space, the portability of hand planers may appeal to you.

The best hand planers are relatively inexpensive and easy to find. 

Conclusion

Planers are used to flatten and smooth wood. They can also be used to change the wood’s thickness. There are two kinds of planers; hand planers, and bench or table planers. Bench or table planers can be stationary or portable. To use a planer, first adjust the depth of the cut. Keep your hands clear of the spinning blades at all times. Use multiple passes to remove the least amount of material. Always control the board by clamping it or supporting it while planing. 

Ellenkate grew up on job sites run by her family’s construction company. She earned her theater degree from The Hartt School, a prestigious performing arts conservatory in Connecticut. Her design and DIY work from her Chicago loft was featured in the Chicago Reader and on Apartment Therapy.