How to Plane Wood With an Electric Planer
Planing wood by hand is definitely an important skill to learn, but only the most stubborn traditionalists will avoid electric hand planers altogether. One of the ultimate time-saving power tools, it’s a great way to improve both efficiency and accuracy.
With razor-sharp, rapidly spinning blades, however, they can be a little intimidating for the novice woodworker. Having said that, if you use an electric hand planer a few times, you’ll realize that they’re actually not too tricky.
But do you actually need one? In this chapter, we’ll see what electric hand planers are capable of, how to use one for various tasks, and also reveal some of our top tips. And about those blades? We’ll throw in some essential safety tips as well.
What Is an Electric Planer and What Does it Do?
Like a hand planer, an electric hand planer is used to smooth and flatten surfaces, and put a square edge on wood and boards. It works more or less in the same way, but the blades spin at high speed to shave wood from the surface.
The main advantage of an electric hand planer is that it does many of the tasks that a hand plane does, just a lot faster. It’s a handy tool for everything from outdoor maintenance tasks and building projects to cabinet making and much more in between.
What Can You Use a Power Hand Planer For?
Learning how to use an electric planer can be extremely useful if you’re a regular DIYer, but it also has a place in many other projects. Here are some of the most common jobs your power hand planer can tackle.
Trimming Door Edges and Reducing Width
If your old door is sticking, or a new one doesn’t quite fit, an electric hand planer is the best way to correct the issue quickly and accurately. In the same vein, you can use your power planer to trim windows to size, as well as frames, and boards for cabinet doors. We’ll take a look at the full process a little later.
Smoothing Rough Lumber
Dimensional wood can be smoothed out quickly and easily with an electric planer. You can also use an electric hand planer to put a straight edge on an unfinished board.
Straightening Warped Wood
If your wood’s surface is warped or bowed, your electric hand planer is a great tool for straightening it out quickly.
Your power planer is great for reducing the thickness of a board, though it may struggle with wide boards — but we’ll discuss that a little later.
Planing Perfect Chamfers
Most power planers have a V-shaped notch in the shoe, allowing you to quickly make a chamfer on any edge. This is ideal for everything from fence posts to handrails.
Evening Out Joists
If you’re laying a floor or ceiling and your joists aren’t even, you’ll have problems getting a good fit. A power planer makes short work of this task though, removing the low/high spots in no time. It’s also great for wooden frame walls that aren’t quite flush.
With an adjustable fence, your electric hand planer is great for forming rabbets on the edge of a surface. Many can also do beveled rabbets, great for window sills.
What Material Can You Use an Electric Hand Planer On?
Your shiny new electric hand planer is best used on a wooden surface or edge. It can handle both hardwoods and softwoods.
In terms of plywood, MDF, and other man-made boards, technically you can use an electric hand planer for the job, but it’s not recommended. The glue used to make these boards will soon dull your blade, while the dust and stringy debris can cause blockages.
Not only that, but with plywood, in particular, the design of the board means the grain direction alternates with each layer, making it very difficult to prevent it from splitting out. In a push, you could use it on the edge, but removing the surface of man-made boards with a power hand planer is a bad idea.
Always plan your projects around the standard thickness of such boards in order to avoid having to reduce them yourself.
Can I Use an Electric Hand Planer on Plastic or Metal?
No! Never use electric planers on metal or plastic. This is extremely dangerous, as it can shatter the blade or the material you’re working on, sending shrapnel in your direction.
What You Can’t Do With an Electric Hand Planer
A power hand planer cannot replace your manual hand plane altogether. For fine woodworking jobs such as evening out dovetail joints, a finely set hand plane will offer the smoothest results. An electric planer is just too rugged for this kind of work.
It’s also not the best tool for bulk work that needs to be planed to the exact same thickness or width. In this case, beginners will generally be better off buying prepared wood, while pros and advanced hobbyists can purchase a jointer planer combo.
Some woodworking enthusiasts use an electric hand planer to remove surface-level stains from their workbench, tabletops, and even flooring. This isn’t always a good idea though, as stains such as paint and glue can soon damage your blade. Plus, there might be nails or other metal pieces in there, which can easily chip your blade.
How to Use an Electric Hand Planer
Learning how to use an electric hand planer is a matter of understanding how the tool works and following vital safety tips. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the parts of a power hand planer.
While it looks slightly different from a manual hand plane, an electric hand planer shares many of the same parts. It has a base, or sole plate, similar to a regular planer shoe in that it’s a completely flat surface. However, it is divided into the front shoe (infeed table) and back shoe (outfeed table), and cutting depth is controlled by lowering or raising the front shoe, not the blade.
The depth adjustment knob on the top of the tool simply twists to raise or lower the front shoe. As the front shoe is raised, more of the cutter head is exposed, allowing for more stock (wood waste) to be removed. On most electric hand planers, there are two blades secured in the cutter head, though some models have just one.
The top, or rear, handle features the trigger and thumb-operated safety lock. Pulling the trigger starts the motor and the blades begin to spin. The dust extraction port is where the chips and loose debris will be blown out, and normally you can fit a bag or vacuum hose to keep things tidy.
Top Features To Look For in a Power Hand Planer
While we’ve covered the basics, there are some additional features that are worth checking out when you’re in the market for an electric hand planer.
- Corded vs Cordless: Nowadays you can find both types on the market. Corded models tend to be more powerful and durable, whereas a cordless planer is much more portable. If you choose a corded planer, make sure the cable is long — few things are more frustrating than having the cord snag before you’ve finished your pass. An extension cord does help resolve this issue however.
- Depth adjustment gauge: Look for an electric hand planer that has a scale on the depth adjustment knob. This allows you to accurately select the correct depth setting. Some models have detents that allow you to click through various standard depth settings.
- Side fence: An essential feature that generally comes as standard, this ensures you keep straight and square. If you’re planning to produce consistently square edges, you’ll need a 90 degree fence, or edge guide. Some can be adjusted to different angles, allowing for beveled edges and rabbets. A long, sturdy fence is best, ensuring you stay square along the entire edge.
- Rabbet stop: This limits the depth of the rabbet to ensure you get it just right each time.
- Adjustable chip deflector: This can move to eject the shavings away from you no matter how you’re positioned or regardless of whether you’re left or right-handed.
- Maximum cutting depth: The smallest models tend to be limited to around 1/32 (1 mm), offering a rather shallow cut. This is okay for light work, but for more heavy-duty tasks, it’s best to look for something a little meatier. Most mid-range models max out at 1/8″ (2.5 mm), though if you plan to be removing a lot of stock, you can find some electric hand planers that can take as much as 5/32″ (3.5 mm) in one pass.
- Weight: Be sure to check the weight of the power hand planer that you buy. They range from around 4 1/2 to 9 pounds on average. This can make a huge difference depending on how you plan to use it. A heavy machine will take its toll if you’re planing vertically or overhead but can be great for hefty jobs. Meanwhile, a lighter model is ideal for more delicate work, such as trimming scribes.
- Length: The length of the shoe is also worth considering. A longer base makes provides better control when planing straight cuts along a board, while a shorter base is better for things like crooked scribes and working in limited space. Most models are around 11 or 12″ (280/305 mm) long.
- Blades: Nowadays, the vast majority of power hand planer blades come in a standard size and are designed to be replaced rather than sharpened when they’re blunt. Carbide tipped to cut through the densest hardwoods, they have two sharp edges so that if they’re blunt or damaged, you can take them out, flip them over, and get back to work. You can find different types of blades, the standard straight cutter, a straight cutter with rounded corners for planing wide boards, and a spiral cutter for achieving the ultimate final smoothness.
- Blade width: The blades run the entire width of the sole plate on an electric hand planer. On the vast majority of models, the blades are 3 1/4″ (82 mm) wide, although you can find models that are as large as 6 1/8″ (around 156 mm).
How to Hold an Electric Hand Planer
Always use two hands to hold your electric planer. Use your dominant hand to grip the top handle and work the trigger. Meanwhile, your other hand holds the depth adjustment knob, which doubles as a front hand grip.
Making Your First Pass
To begin your first pass, rest the front planer shoe on the workpiece, keeping the blades back. Start the machine by pressing the trigger lock with your thumb, then pressing the trigger. Allow it to get to full speed, then apply hand pressure to the front (toe) of the planer, and gradually push it into the wood at an even rate.
As you near the end of the pass, apply pressure to the back (heel) of the planer. This maintains a flat surface and prevents creating an unwanted dip at the end as the front drops off the edge.
If possible, use the side fence to hold the planer square to your workpiece. If you don’t have a side fence, be sure to check your work regularly using a try square. Always try to work in the direction of the wood grain to avoid tear outs.
How To Use a Power Planer for Trimming Door Edges
One of the most common uses for an electric hand planer is to fix up a sticking door or make sure that a new one fits just right. The power planer is a top choice for this job for two reasons.
First, it enables you to take off an even amount of waste quickly and easily. Second, the notched groove on the front shoe makes it easy to create a chamfer, removing the sharp edge and helping the door to shut easier.
The best way to trim a door safely is to support it on a bench or even a pair of trestles. With the door secured in place, check the edge that you need to plane to make sure it’s free from any staples, nails, or other metal hardware. Then:
- Mark your guide line: Make a mark on both the left and right side of the door face that measures how much you want to remove, for example 1/8″. Use a straightedge tool to draw a line across the entire face. This is your guide.
- Set your planer cutting depth: Make any depth adjustments you need to ensure you’re not going to take off too much wood.
- Fit the side fence: Use the fence to make sure you keep the edge square. Or, if you’d like to create an angle to facilitate the opening and closing of the door, you can adjust the fence to tilt the entire plane to the required angle.
- Plane from the edge to the center: When you’re ready to begin, start planing from the left side and work until about the middle, following the instructions in the previous section. Make a few passes, then start from the right side and do the same. This stops the wood from splintering at the end, which is especially important if you’re planing the top or bottom of your door.
- Work to your line: Repeat the previous step until you’ve reached your guide line, ensuring the entire edge is smooth.
- Add a chamfer: Take off the sharp edge by making a pass on each side. Make some depth adjustments to take off just a little waste, then fit the squared corner edge into the V-shaped notch on the front shoe to get the right angle. Again, work from one side to the center to avoid splits. One pass is normally enough, but you can make more if you like.
- Finish the edge: Prime and paint or stain the planed edges to apply a couple of protective coatings.
How To Use an Electric Hand Planer To Flatten Boards
If you’ve glued a board together but it’s not quite flat, your power planer can soon get it right. Set it so that you’re shaving off a small amount first. Then work diagonally one side to the center, then from the other, making sure to overlap the passes.
Finish the board by planing parallel to the longer edges in the direction of the grain. Blades with rounded corners are ideal for this task as they’re less likely to leave ridges on the wood’s surface.
How To Use an Electric Hand Planer for Evening Out Joists
When fixing drywall to joists and wooden frames, you’ll need them to be flat to ensure a good fit. An electric hand planer can fix up any irregularities in no time. Use a straightedge tool to check for low or high spots and mark them up with a marker pen.
For ceiling joists, set up a stable working platform, ideally scaffold, or at least a strong board set between two ladders. Then shave the spots until they’re level with the rest of the joists. If you’re working overhead, set the chip deflector so that it ejects the waste away from you.
How To Change the Blades on Electric Hand Planers
Modern power planers make it easier than ever to replace dull blades. Having said that, the exact process differs according to the manufacturer and exact model. So be sure to check your user manual.
The following steps offer a general breakdown of the process:
- Make sure to unplug the tool before your start.
- Manually spin the cutter head until the fastening bolts or clamps are revealed. Again, different models use different systems, but for many models, you’ll need a hex key.
- Loosen the bolts until you can slip out the blade. There’s no need to remove them altogether.
- Slide the blade out of the cutter head.
- Repeat the process for the second blade.
- If you have double-edged blades, reverse the blade and slide it back into the cutter head. If you’ve already used both edges, fit a new blade.
- Tighten the fastening bolts.
- Align each edge of the blade to ensure it’s sitting in the center. Use a straight piece of wood to do this, ensuring that each edge is flush with the shoe. If not, slacken the bolts and make your adjustments. Nowadays, many models are self-aligning, but it’s useful to double-check now and then.
When Should You Replace Power Planer Blades?
Your will need to replace your electric planer blades once they get dull. Continuously using dull blades can damage the motor and eventually become a safety risk.
If your tool is struggling to make a pass, or its not shaving off waste smoothly, it’s almost always because the blades are dull. If there are grooves on the planed surface, that normally indicates a chipped blade that you need to replace.
Tips and Tricks for Using Power Planers
By now, you’re ready to make the most of your power planer. A little practice makes perfect, but the following tips will also help you on your way to mastering power planing.
- Make sure wood is completely dry: Damp wood can cause sap to stick to the blades and damage them.
- Less is more: Gradually trim to your required thickness and make more passes rather than taking too much off in one pass. It’s easy to shave off more wood, but you can’t put it back once it’s gone. Plus, this is easier on the tool and on you.
- Correct storage: Never store your electric hand planer with the sole plate down. This is essential for safety and also for prolonging the lifespan of your blades. Instead, rest the front shoe on a block of wood to keep the blades from touching the surface.
- Use a fine cut for irregular or wild wood grain: Planing with the grain is always best. But if that’s not possible, adjust the depth setting to shave off a tiny amount at a time. This reduces any damage from tear-outs.
- Make a stand: Try to set your body in a way that means you don’t need to move from the spot you’re standing on during the full pass. With proper footing, you can apply consistent pressure, ensuring a smooth finish and avoiding any bumps and dips
Plane Sailing From Here
Now that you’ve got to grips with planing, it’s time to focus on another essential woodworking skill: drilling and boring. The next chapter will teach you all you need to know (coming soon).