the Carpentry Way: The Best a Man Can Get?                                                          

The Best a Man Can Get?

    
I had a little windfall of cash recently, a gift from my mother out of the blue. I was to spend it on whatever I wanted, so, yep, it was time to look at tools!

While there is always another plane or chisel that would be sweet to acquire, I'm not looking for hand tools at this time. I need a few more power tools. The gift wasn't quite large enough to go after the full-on cast iron hulks I might like to get, especially a 16" or larger jointer, so I have confined my musing and searching to portable power tools, or job-site power tools. There's quite a few possibilities in terms of which machines to get, and many choices and brands within each type. I can't get one of everything, unless I buy the cheap crap (not happening), so I will have to prioritize and make some hard decisions. Ah, the torment of having a bit of money to spend!

So far I have gotten close to the point of saying 'yes' to a used hollow chisel mortiser. If that goes ahead, then I'll post up some pictures of the unit when it arrives.

In the past couple of weeks I've been trolling the home improvement stores, looking through catalogs, and reading online reviews of various products. For a portable table saw, I'm liking the Ridgid, which has a nice fence and easy adjustments for the saw blade height and tilt.

What I want to talk about today though are planers. For those that find the terms 'plane' and 'planer' confusing (and there would appear to be many judging from the classified ads I have perused), the former ('plane') is the hand-operated tool without motor. I've got lots of those, some of which cost quite a bit more than the powered kind ('planer').

I've had experiences with many makes and models of planers, from small to gigantic. It was when I worked on the billionaire's place in San Francisco a few years back that I got acquainted for the first time with the newer type of little portable planer, or 'shoebox' planer as I have come to call them. I didn't really take them seriously when they first came out, but that little Ryobi they had on the jobsite changed my perceptions. It was used and abused by dozens of people, and like the Timex watch, took a lickin' and kept on tickin'. After 6 years of torture it finally needed the infeed and outfeed rollers replacing, and the parts were available. It was a tough little sucker, no doubt about it.

By the way, it might be of interest to some readers to find that Ryobi, a company which in North America sells low-end hobby grade, Sunday DIY type of equipment, and tends to suffer a low estimate for quality among professional tool users, actually makes very nice cast iron woodworking equipment, you know the stuff weighing in the 1 ton range. For some reason, Ryobi doesn't sell that sort of equipment outside of Japan and seems comfortable occupying the low end market niche over here. Go figure. I guess they think that we North Americans with our love of a discount and anything made in China wouldn't be much of a market for high quality woodworking machinery, and I' would say they probably estimate correctly in that regard. Toyota doesn't bring in their workhorse LandCruiser to North America for the same reason - we seem happy driving crummy disposable Ford F150's and Chevy pickups. That's another topic for another time though....

Yes, yes, planers.... After the work in San Francisco, I returned to Gabriola Island B.C. with my Hitachi bandsaw and a Felder combination machine in tow. The Felder, Austrian-made and of 1983 vintage, seemed like a good solution to having limited shop space, and being European-made, and normally quite expensive, I figured it was a good investment. It was and it wasn't. I came to realize in time that the quality of the machine was not all that great. All the cast tables were significantly warped and I had to spend some $1500 getting them re-planed flat at a machine shop. Then there were the crude grub-screw and nut mechanisms for doing adjustments, which tended to slip from time to time, and in certain critical areas weren't provided at all. The carrier for the sliding table on the saw, for example, could not be adjusted as it was solid-pinned to the cast iron chassis of the machine. While one could adjust the sliding table itself and the main tablesaw table to co-planer, that then proved to be mis-aligned as a set from the jointer tables attached to the side of the main table. You could have one or the other set up true, but it was not possible to get everything co-planer. I looked at a new Felder which had some jazzed up appearance, welded steel chassis instead of heavy casting, and aluminum sliding table instead of cast, but I noticed the same cheesy grub screw adjustments, so I remain skeptical of their stuff. Felder ≠ Martin.

More to the point though is the entire ethos of the company and its efforts to sell you on the "quality". In my mind, what goes along with 'quality' in terms of a woodworking machine is precision in operation, low vibration, safety, durability, and capability of being adjusted should things move out of whack by wear or damage. I've already covered the adjustment capacity with the Felder. The machine seemed durable enough, and was robustly built in most respects, but what goes part and parcel with true durability in a manufactured product are three things:

1) at time of manufacture care in the selection of materials and their processing to ensure their stable performance over time

2) commitment of the manufacturer to support older products with spare parts.

3) the machine is designed in such a way as to be repairable and adjustable

I've mentioned the Felder does not cut it with the adjustment mechanisms. Felder also falls down on the first count due to the warped castings I had, which were present in the jointer tables, and the planer table. I'm talking about a solid 1 mm of warp in the surface here folks, not some few thousandths. A jointer with that much warp absolutely cannot surface a timber flat, end of story. The fact that the tables were warped like that - and it wasn't due to wear and tear - was that the castings hadn't been properly seasoned before they were ground flat at the factory. That suggests that Felder is in more of a hurry to crank stuff out the door than in producing a quality product. It is, or was, the norm to let castings sit in the yard for a couple of years prior to being machined, so that any stresses in the casting could work themselves out.

On the second count, product support, Felder somewhat fell down as well. One time I needed a second set of knives for the planer, knives being among the most common sorts of replacement parts, I would imagine, and while they were available from Felder, the knives had to come from Austria and were a 4 week wait. It was a pain dealing with Felder as the west coast office didn't handle parts and I had to call the East coast office, and the time zone difference meant that messages often weren't replied to until a day later. The parts guy at Felder seemed to be at trade shows all the time and was hard to reach as well and no-one else at the office seemed to be of much help. The wait for the blades was a little inconvenient, but I muddled through. Unfortunately the knives were of a particular size and mounting hole configuration which I could not source through the aftermarket. They call that a captive market.

One day I was planing a piece of rough-cut maple. It had a bulge in it that was a little fatter than anticipated, and when the planer got into the thickened section (a bulge of about 1/8") it bogged down and then there was this exciting exploding sound and metal shredding. Oops! I pulled the machine apart and found that the planetary drive gear was broken. Well, my bad. I was, though, surprised that the machine was configured like that, as one would think it would make sense to have a shear pin or similar on the drive shaft for just such breakage issues, which are common enough in power planing. The winch on the front of my truck, for example, has such a shear pin.

I contacted Felder and the part was available, but too had to come from Austria, and was apparently the last one on the shelf. Not a good sign for the future. I was faced with another 4~5 week wait, and was at that point in the middle of a furniture job. Well, I had no choice, so I ordered the part (a whopping $375) and, remembering my positive experiences with that Ryobi shoebox planer back in California, decided to look around for a used unit like it to serve in the interim.

I came across a Dewalt 733 12.5" planer with a 2-knife cutterhead (w. sharpenable blades), for $300. It had light use and seemed in good shape so I thought I'd give it a try. I found it to be a pretty decent little machine. In fact, I found it performed better than the one on the Felder in most respects except for power. The Felder has a 3hp motor - however I had already found that while the motor could feed the wood through, the drive gears could also blow up. The Dewalt couldn't really take much of a pass on any board more than 8" or so wide, especially in hardwoods, but it did get the job done eventually, 1/32" at a time. One feature I really liked about that planer were it's rubber infeed rollers which allowed me to creep right up to a dimension. I could reliably plane a board to the nearest 0.005", without leaving marks on the surface as happened when trying to take light final passes with the Felder, which had the serrated metal infeed roller.When the planetary gear finally arrived for the Felder, I reinstalled it and all was well but I essentially stopped using that planer on the machine, kept it configured for jointing and used the Dewalt instead. It served my needs better for the most part.

When I moved from that shop a year or two later, I sold the Felder - good riddance! - and, less enthusiastically, the Dewalt planer. I got $275 for the little shoebox, so it really had only cost me $25 for over a year of use. Not a bad deal, and I had a positive impression of the product.

A few years later I was back on Vancouver Island building a Mansard roofed timber structure and made some use of the newer Dewalt 735, a 13" portable planer with three-knife cutter head, two-speed feed rate, and all the other bells and whistles. I was planing Douglas Fir and Yellow cedar, which are relatively soft. The machine seemed decent enough, though I couldn't see much difference in the surface quality of the wood as a result of either the three-knives or the two-speeds as compared to the older two-knife model. And when you put a board wider than about 8" though, the machine bogged and could only take light passes.

Here we are today, and I've been looking around at what there is to buy in a shoebox planer. When I looked on Amazon.com at the reviews I found much useful information. The Dewalt 735 with three-knife cutter had around 130 reviews or so and I was surprised to see that some 34 of them were absolutely negative - '1 star'. I read carefully through all those negative reviews, and was further startled to see that the reviewers were griping about the same three things:

1) the planer blades would dull quickly (in some cases within the first hundred linear feet of material fed through) and replacement sets cost $54, so people were finding that it wasn't long before the cost of replacing blades equaled and then exceeded the machine's purchase price.

2) the drive gear on the machine seemed prone to breaking and was a hassle to repair, especially for those who did not live near a factory-approved service center. Once out of warrantee period, the cost of the gear at $90 or so was also a point of detraction, and sometimes Dewalt didn't have the part in stock.

3) there were many similar stories of poor customer support at Dewalt and that the company did not acknowledge that there were any problems inherent to the machines, with either the drive gear or the soft blades. When asked, they deny any problems. Hmmm. Does this sound like a company I want to deal with?

I was in the local newly-opened Lowes building supply yesterday, seeing what sort of stuff they had in the tool department. They carried the Dewalt 735 planer, and I noticed that the other model which I used to have, the 12.5" Dewalt 734 now also comes with a three-knife cutterhead.

Hmm, curious. So the company has, from all accounts, received numerous complaints about soft blades in the 3-knife model and yet they have now made the other model of planer accept the same disposable blade sets?? Now, what does this remind me of?

The light went off for me - Dewalt is taking a page from the Gillette razor company.

Shortly after I was old enough to shave, Gillette introduced a 2-blade disposable shaver. I used those for many years until they all changed over for 3 blades, with much accompanying marketing hype, and the two-blade parts were suddenly not available any longer. That's a superb example of making something obsolescent. Having little choice, or so I thought, I bought the 3-blade sets, where you are enticed by an apparently cheap initial purchase price for the shaver and two 'free' blades. In use, while the blades when fresh seem to offer a clean shave all right, one would have thought that moving from 2 blades to 3 would have meant a 50% improvement in durability as well, but not so. I found the 3-blade units lasted just the same amount of time before they had to be thrown out as the older 2-blade units. If you have 3 blades lasting as long as 2 blades, that can only mean that the hardness of the steel has been precisely adjusted in the 3 blade model - ie., the metal has been made softer.

Now, there is a 5-blade shaver with battery-powered vibration, for the best a man can get™, and I have been using that for a few months now. Guess what? It only lasts as long as the old 2 and 3 blade models, but the replacement blades cost even more. What a neat little marketing model they have there. And I have fallen for it.

It's the same method used by a lot of crystal meth dealers (from what I understand), where they often give away 'free' initial samples to new customers, as they know that once that user is hooked they will be quite prepared to reliably pony up a lot of money for the product later. That comparison may be a little extreme for some folks out there, but I believe I have made my point.

That sweet marketing model would appear to have been taken up by Dewalt in terms of the three-knife planer feature. They hook you in with the buzz about the great features, and the fairly low purchase price, then make their money off you later on with the replacement blades. And, besides, the other selling points, the 2-speed feed rate and 13" capacity really amount to nothing. These little shoeboxes really are best suited to clean material less than 8" wide. Whether the machine can 'handle' 12.5" or 13" seems rather moot.

Theoretically, a replaceable blade, or insert-tooling as it is termed, can offer harder and more durable cutting material (in tooling such as shaper cutters where the brazing of the cutting material (be it HSS or carbide) to the head would result in a slightly softer cutter), and, significantly offers quick changeovers of tooling reducing machine down-time. Reducing machine down-time is critical in a production context, but even in a small shop fiddling around with precisely setting knives on a planer or jointer, a process which can easily occupy an hour, gets a little tedious after a while. Many woodworkers, professionals and non-professionals alike, avoid the blade changing because of the hassle, or because they lack the tools or skill to do it correctly, and thus tend to go on for long periods with dull blades in their machines. Could this be true? Yah, folks, I've seen it in more than one shop on my travels.

On a conventional planer with re-sharpenable knives, the move from a 2-knife cutter to a 3-knife cutter brings definite improvements in surface finish (that is, more cuts per inch of wood fed through) and the interval between replacement of the knives generally increases. This is what helps to sell the 3-knife system I believe, the perception that surface quality will be better on the material and the knives will last longer. That could well be done, but that is not what is done, at least with the Dewalt product.

I think I'll steer clear of Dewalt from now on. If they're selling the best a man can get™ approach with the planers, one must presume the same apparent fuck-the-consumer let's make a buck approach for their other products in some way or another. Excuse my language friends, but this does annoy me to no end. Even if their product defects are rectified, the tales of poor customer service are pretty off-putting for me.

I've looked around a little more and have now settled upon the Makita 2012NB, which has gotten excellent reviews, including from long-term owners who report continuing satisfaction after 6 and 7 years of use. The only two negative 1-star reviews on Amazon were one fellow who was pissed because the machine had suffered damage in shipment (now, why he blames Makita for that and not the shipping company I have no idea), and another fellow who found it did not perform so well on his pile of rough-sawn wood. Well, duh! If you want a planer to run green rough-sawn material through, then you need one with serrated metal infeed rollers, along with bed rollers. Isn't that common knowledge?

As for shaving, I've had enough with this best a man can get™ shlock, and the environmental aspect of throwing those disposable bits in the landfill is harder and harder to ignore. I think I will be moving back to the future, and that my friends is the good old straight blade. Imagine that, a blade you can sharpen yourself which lasts for years. A piece of steel, no plastic. Completely recyclable. It seems like a natural for any woodworker familiar with sharpening at least.

Thanks for dropping by the Carpentry Way on your travels today. And, Happy Birthday to me! I'm 45 years old today.

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