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Thread: Thickness planer question... helical vs. knives?

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Oct 2013
    Gilroy, CA

    Thickness planer question... helical vs. knives?

    Hi all,

    There have been many threads on this topic before, but I think I'm coming from a slightly different direction, so please bear with me.

    I am a hobbyist, and my main interest is furniture. I use hand planes as much as possible. I do face jointing by hand, but am in the market for a thickness planer. However... the last thing that's going to touch a board I'm working with is likely to be my smooth plane.

    I know that there are varying opinions on the quality of finish you get with a helical cutterhead vs a traditional straight-knife cutterhead, but I think those questions don't really matter for my case, since I'm going to hand plane the board anyway after it's brought to thickness.

    So my question is: when you remove from consideration the quality of finish... do the other advantages of a helical cutterhead --- quieter, easier to maintain, easier to setup --- still make it worth the higher price? I sort of suspect that since the thickness planer isn't going to be a 'finish tool' in my shop, it's not worth it for me to get the helical head, but I'm very interested in your opinions on this.

    As far as the exact planer I'm considering, all I know so far is:
    - nothing with a universal motor (I'll end up divorced... quieter is better)
    - 15" is plenty, since I'm only going to be running boards through it, not panels
    - I'm not really interested in spending the time and money to resurrect any old arn
    - designed for dust collection, which also rules out some older arn


  2. #2
    Join Date
    Sep 2008
    Agusta, GA
    I'd say neither head makes a planer a "finish tool" as both will leave machine marks of some sort. Where the Helical head shines is in dealing with gnarly woods that are prone to tear out or have a bunch of grain reversals. Also if a individual cutter dulls or gets nicked, you can turn it to a new face and not have to replace/shift/reset the knives.

    Hand planing after machine planing only goes so far. If you have a board where the grain's been torn out by a knife machine, you'll have a ton of work with your hand plane to get rid of it.

    Helical heads are quieter, but if you're talking a HH in a lunchbox planer of some kind, the motor makes all the noise and the HH head won't make that big of a difference. (I did see you're not considering a benchtop machine)

    They may make a noticeable difference in a stationary machine, which is quieter, but I don't own one so someone else can confirm that for you.

    If the price isn't much of a consideration, I'd go with a HH all day and twice on Sunday!

  3. #3
    I just ran some 8/4 hickory through my Delta dc-33. Blades are very dull from recycling treated lumber off my deck and hitting a few nails. Little louder than usual but sure wouldn't buy a better cutter for planer. Now my situation is different than yours. I would put my money into the planer and use the standard blades. Little later maybe upgrade if you feels like it. It wouldn't be my first improvement in the shop, but I'd rather buy the Mirka Ceros

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Feb 2007
    N.E. coastal, U.S.
    Helpful to make mention here of particular varieties of furniture hardwoods you are most inclined to work with and how heavily figured these are likely to be... A root consideration is how much benefit you are likely to gain from segmented carbide cutters vs. resharpening long HSS knife edges. Helical carbide cutters fare much better with figured and curly hardwoods and those dense imported exotics especially. When reviewing specifications keep a correct use of terminology foremost in mind. There is a distressing tendency among certain manufacturers to distort the proper definition of a Helical action. Segmented cutters arranged in a spiral fashion does not a Helical cutter-head make! The real advantage of proper helical design well offsets the higher component cost with that mild slicing or shearing action diagonal to the feed vector. Like the slight angle at which you likely hold your smoothing plane relative to the direction of travel.


  5. #5
    Join Date
    Feb 2011
    Central WI
    Some helical heads require more power if that is a consideration. I put a byrd on a DC 33 as a finish planer and like it but would not recommend it as a one size fits all machine. I'd also look at simply adding an ESTA dispozablade system to a straight knife head. Easy to set after the first time and enough adjustment to take care of nicks. Inserts are nice but grit or crap on rough stock can screw them up too. Dave

    PS: I would also note that helical heads also compensate for mediocre machines. A high quality planer with good rollers, chipbreakers, and pressure bar will give as good a finish with any head. The helical does fare better with planers that compromise their design. Dave
    Last edited by David Kumm; 02-01-2015 at 2:29 PM.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Dec 2010
    South Coastal Massachusetts
    Straight knives worked well for how many years?

    The way I understood it, the helical blade design was built to answer two questions
    which rarely arise in a hobbyist shop -

    How quickly can I get a sharp blade installed, and aligned?
    How much will replacement blades cost me in down time and cash?

    If you have two new machines that are roughly the same cost,
    Helical it is. Otherwise...

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Mar 2012
    Virginia and Kentucky
    I placed a Byrd Shelix head on all my planers. They do NOT make the wood finish ready but do offer a better preparation than my machines with blades offered. Is it worth the cost to a hobbyist? That's the question. Only you can decide.

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Jan 2013
    Pittsburgh, PA
    From your original poet I can not pick up the dollar consideration.

    Anyway, from my perspective for the home shop,the helical head wins hands down.

    I will sometime convert my 15" planer to match my 8' jointer helical head. They are that much better in my opinion.

    But...Both work well though (if you wear hearing protection) .

    Helical head works best in my opinion, for my needs.


    Too much to do...Not enough is too short!

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Sep 2007
    Atlanta, GA
    What is definition of a lunchbox v benchtop planer?

    I put a Byrd Shelix on my DW735 @ Christmas. It is a lot quieter and the finish is nearly as good. The sound reduction and ongoing ease of blade changes/economy is why I bought it.
    Confidence: That feeling you get before fully understanding a situation (Anonymous)

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Oct 2013
    SE Kansas City Metro, MO
    I started with a DW735 with the stock straight blades. Ear-piercingly loud, always had to wear hearing protection. But the quality of the planed face was always excellent (unless a blade had a nick. Which they frequently did, being made of cheap soft metal).

    Bought a Grizzly 453 with the helical head last summer. It's quiet enough that you can hold a fairly normal conversation while it's working, no need for hearing protection. The quality isn't quite as good as the DeWalt, but the carbide blade inserts are hard as a rock and will last practically forever - and you can rotate each insert 3 times for a total of 4 effective blade changes.

    I don't think I'd pay to upgrade from straight to helical, but if you have the choice (and the extra funds), I don't know why you'd choose straight over helical.

  11. #11
    Join Date
    Mar 2006
    Quote Originally Posted by Janis Stipins View Post
    I know that there are varying opinions on the quality of finish you get with a helical cutterhead vs a traditional straight-knife cutterhead, but I think those questions don't really matter for my case, since I'm going to hand plane the board anyway after it's brought to thickness.
    This logic is only broken if you use figured woods or those prone to reversing grain patterns. The tearout from a machine can often be deep enough to leave you with unworkable material (by the time you hand plane the tearout out, the board is too thin).

    If you are removing enough material to compensate for the depth of the tearout without going too thin then yes, it doesn't matter. With the materials I like to work with I found that it did matter . . . too often ;-) If your experience so far has been that deep tearout is not a problem, it is not a problem.

    We're all different and do things different ways. So many variables . . . that's what makes these forums so great; lots of input from lots of different people.
    "What kind of chump do you take me for?"
    "First class."

  12. #12
    Join Date
    Nov 2007
    NW Indiana
    Another consideration is how much you will be putting through the planer. I plane at most 300-500 bf per year of mainly oak,ash and other pretty plain highly figured wood. While I agree that the HH is great, I cannot justify $500 to install one.

  13. #13
    I only use local, native woods. And the weather here is often dry, so trees are stressed at times. I like figured woods, and think stump wood is great. A 15" Grizzly planer works well for me with the helical head. If I try to hand plane, I get tear out, because grain changes often in the wood I use.

  14. #14
    Join Date
    Oct 2005
    Helensburgh, Australia
    I don't know if everyone is talking the same language here, helical straight blades (Tersa) or helical segmented head (Byrd) are two very different things and give about equal results from what I can gather.

    Everything I like is either illegal, immoral or fattening

  15. #15
    Join Date
    Jul 2007
    Seattle, WA
    My perspective:

    As a hobbyist, I'm focused on having a great time while I'm woodworking.

    I had straight knife machines for a while, but I really hated how much time it took to set up new knives. It was frustrating and tedious, and made me not want to go into my shop when I knew it needed to be done. That's what made me willing to pay the premium. I only get so many hours in my shop, and I would prefer to spend it doing woodworking rather than tool maintenance. The fact that each cutter has 4 carbide surfaces also helps with this- they stay sharper longer... and when you do have to rotate them, it's not that time consuming.

    Professionals may arrive at the same conclusion, but it will mostly be for $ reasons (downtime, labor cost of changing knives, etc).

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