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Surface Planers - Thin Your Stock Down to Size

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Surface Planer (c) 2006 Chris Baylor licensed to About.com, Inc.
Years ago, when a woodworker was working with a piece of stock that was too thick, they used a large hand plane to shave thin, even strips of material until the piece was the right thickness. This method was arduous and time consuming, but in the hands of an experienced craftsman, extremely effective.

Fortunately, technology has improved upon this time-honored method with the advent of the power surface planer. The planer uses rollers to smoothly move the stock past two or three evenly matched, very sharp knives spinning at high speed, which remove a very thin layer of material from the board.

Parts of a Surface Planer:

A modern surface planer typically has a small infeed and outfeed table that helps guide the stock through the planer. The table on most surface planers is between 10 and 14-inches in width, which would be the maximum width that a board could be planed on the unit.

Surface planers have a hand-crank that adjusts the cutting depth, most often up to a maximum of six inches. The idea is to set the blade height so that every pass of the board through the planer removes a very small, but even amount of material.
There are two rollers inside the planer. The first roller is above the infeed table, while the other roller is above the outfeed table. When the board is inserted into the planer on the infeed side, the infeed roller grabs the board and guides it past the knives at a controlled, even rate of speed. Once the board has passed the knives, the outfeed roller assists with the forward motion until the board has completed it's path through the planer. The relatively slow, even motion of the board through the planer combined with the high speed of the knives produces the best possible finish.
Because it is possible for the infeed and outfeed rollers to lose their grip on the stock, many surface planers are equipped with an anti-kickback system that utilizes pawls, or very small spikes that grab the stock if it moves opposite of the feed direction.

Surface Planers are also typically equipped with a dust collection port that can be connected to a shop vacuum or dust collection system. This is generally a good idea, as surface planers can create a lot of sawdust.

Using a Surface Planer Safely:

As with all power tools, always read and completely follow the operating instructions that accompany the power tool. Not only will the documents show you how to utilize all of the features of the planer, they will give you specific tips for how to safely use the woodworking machine.

Because surface planers are very noisy, it would also be a very good idea to incorporate your preferred method of hearing protection in addition to your safety glasses.
When using a surface planer, you'll get the best results if you hold the stock as evenly with the table as possible until both rollers have grabbed the stock, which will guide the board through the unit. When working with very long stock, the use of feed rollers or extension tables on each end of the planer are extremely useful. If the stock is not fed into the planer on line with the table, the knives may gouge the face a bit deeper than desired until the outfeed roller is able to grab the stock and even out the cutting depth. Feeding the stock flat against the table will help prevent this gouging.
When feeding the stock, always stand beside the stock rather than behind it. If the stock kicks back and the pawls don't grab the wood in time, the last place you'll want to be standing is behind the stock.

Also, never attempt to feed a piece of stock that is too small for you to be able to hold with both hands, or is so thin that it may disintegrate when being planed. The planer's documentation should describe the minimum sizes of stock that the planer can work with.
Should the stock ever become stuck in the unit, do not use your hands to force the wood through the planer. Instead, use a push stick where necessary, as you should never get your hands anywhere close to the infeed or outfeed when the planer is in operation. In the event that sawdust or shavings need to be cleared away, you should use a scrap piece of stock to clean remove them.
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