Joint Chiefs

I reluctantly put my sweet, ‘lifetime’ Martin jointer up for sale last year, and while it sold eventually, there were a number of false starts and stops. Most of the interested buyers were from the west coast and the shipping portion of the equation proved to be a stumbling block. While I eventually found a buyer (MIT), I had a back-up plan to put the machine down into my basement if I could not make the sale happen. Now, lowering a 2500lb (1200kg.), near-11′ long machine down a flight of stairs was hardly an activity lightly contemplated – some would say ill-advised – however it was actually do-able. The machine would have just squeezed through the door. I’m glad I didn’t have to do that, not to mention the not-so minor matter of how much space the machine would consume in my modestly-sized basement.

With that machine gone, I am still left though with the need for some sort of surface planer. What makes sense for me is a somewhat smaller machine if it is to be a traditional jointer, or even jointer/planer machine. So, that’s what I wanted to look at in today’s post.

For me the smaller and probably shorter machine is not the most welcome prospect, as once you have driven the Ferrari, or walked the deck of the aircraft carrier, so to speak, the other smaller and possibly worse-performing options are somewhat unappealing. I have found that finding something suitable, in terms of good quality, sound design, and desirable features has proved to be challenging.

I last wrote on jointers in 2012, in a post titled ‘Joint Decisions‘. Since I am once again faced with decisions concerning jointers, I will omit covering exactly the same ground again.

And before I go on further, be prepared for the fact that my narrow and perfectionistic outlook, and critical demeanor generally may have the result that certain machines receive a dose of criticism. If a reader happens to happily own such a machine they may take umbrage. Nothing personal is intended – I have no idea what machine you may own or why you chose to buy it. I can even find things to criticize on a Martin jointer, though these are nitpicks at worst…. Also, this post is meant as a general survey, not an exhaustive study, as there have been many different jointers made over the years.

North America.

In terms of domestically-produced machines, the jointer choice is not extensive or very inspiring. The biggest market for jointers in N. America are hobby users, and thus the bulk of what is available are 6 or 8″ models, a lot of them imports, but American-produced models from Sears Craftsman and Northfield can be found. These smaller models are not even in consideration for me. If someone made one with a decent design, say in a modest 10″~12″ width, I could certainly see a use for one. I’ve even thought of designing and importing such a machine, just to fill what looks to me like a gap in the market, but that won’t be happening in this lifetime. Besides, the market here is littered with deceased entities that tried to sell woodworking machines, the most recent being Steel City, so it would be presumptuous of me to think I could do any better. Besides, except for a narrow slice of the buying public, the notion that ‘building a better mousetrap’ will result in business for your enterprise is not always as successful a strategy as one might hope. The trick, it seems, is building something that looks like it is better or at least the same as the rest, maybe flashier looking, but is in reality a cheap piece of junk designed to die shortly after the warranty expires. And while the warranty is in force the wise business move seems to be to find any pretext possible to provide appallingly bad customer support. Buyers have become hypnotized by this routine, or at least capable of convincing themselves they are making a good choice somehow.

Anyhow, not my concern here to belay that point further. Obviously, it does not apply in every case.

USA.

In terms of US-produced larger jointers that are not of the hobby variety, what presents mostly is old ‘arn, like Oliver, Porter, Crescent, and so forth, none of which have been made for more than 50 years now, and the designs of which, regardless of production year, seem stuck in the 1920s or earlier.

One cool and interesting design, of which there appears to be but one example, ws made by Baxter Whitney in the early 1900’s:

Very interesting to see the planer wedge-bed approach used with a jointer. It’s a 16″ wide model, with total bed length of 96″, divided evenly infeed to outfeed.

There is one domestic manufacturer of jointers remaining, namely Northfield, but their design remains archaic and the price, astonishingly, on a par with a new Martin, so I fail to see the attraction generally:

Given that the number of buyers for an expensive classic machine is never a large number, that the company remains in business, I suspect, by virtue of being the last man standing among manufacturers and the benefit of government contracting and the ‘buy American’ clauses common to that. That’s my guess about it, as otherwise cheaper products imported from China and Taiwan would presumably take all their business. I wonder too about the loss of shop programs in schools nationwide and how orders from that sector for new machinery are probably rather scant these days.

While I really like with Northfield is the use of cored castings on the tables and fence, an approach which should give good stability over time. The points I don’t like are:

  • the table length on all models is ‘only’ 96″ (2438mm), which is on the short side if you ask me for a machine 16″ or wider. Another foot added to the infeed side would make it more competitive it seems to me, but I wonder if their table support mechanism would handle a significantly longer table?
  • direct drive motors, the most common to find on these machines, are smooth spinners but increase the overall width of the machine significantly, so the machine will not position close to a wall. There are belt drive versions, but these set ups look every bit like afterthoughts, design-wise, and have long v-belts which tend more towards adding vibration than do short belts.
  • no slotted table lips mean they are a bit louder than they need to be
  • cutter head options seem confined to straight knife set ups, or some sort of in-house produced helical. I prefer Tersa above the other options, and I am guessing they are not licensed to produce it or chose to ignore it for some reason.
  • electrical components are poorly integrated on some models, with ‘BX’ type armored cables hanging off and super-clunky on/off switches stuck on the front of the machine.
  • dust collection is not well considered or cleanly integrated, as the machine design is from an era where the norm was that chips simply dumped out on the floor below the machine. The machine design comes from the pre-electric motor era, so if you picture a line shaft belt drive, it starts to make more sense,
  • the fence mounting is straight out of 1890, and makes for a fence which is not the easiest to move, something shared with Oliver.
  • the tables are carried on inclined ways rather than having a 4-point parallelogram mechanism, and with that design as the gibs wear, most especially with the frequently-moved infeed, the table will eventually begin to sag down away from the cutter head. Sometimes gib tightening can resolve this, but it is just not an ideal design.

Canada.

General, of Drummondville, Quebec made decent jointers, having a 12″/300mm model (the 780), and 16″ (the 880) but they ended production of their machines, or shall I say ‘under-performing SKUs’, more than 10 years back. Now their business concentrates exclusively on off-shore imports for the hobby market, which has kept their boat afloat:

Not a common machine on the market though. General once made a machine of a similar-looking type to Oliver/Northfield/Porter wit the 3-footed base, but they made the decision to modernize the design at some point. I say ‘modernize’, however I am being slightly facetious as their machine design is to me strongly reminiscent of German designs from the 1950s, like this one, a Kölle HA 51:

Another with similar lines was made by Stricker, also looks to be 1950s vintage:

While likely derivative, the General is a fine design. Standard type cutter heads predominate on these machines, with helical heads available but uncommon to find. Beds are of 96″ length (how did this come to be the ‘continental’ standard?), and no slotted table lips. Best option though it seems to me among N. American machines, though not produced in large quantities it would appear.

If I were to buy a NA-made machine, General would be my preferred choice, and if I drank enough some night (not that I drink anymore) maybe even the Northfield, in a ‘distressed seller, local sale’ type of situation. Yes, for sure it would do the job -excuse my snobbery. Porter would be the other one I would look at, if choices were narrowed to that extent. After owning an Oliver 166 years back, well, ‘never again’ applies to that brand as far as I am concerned.

Europe.

Let’s start with Germany. The machine market is significantly different there than here, with almost all machines being of the industrial variety. The standard jointer size is 20″ (500mm), with a smaller number of 16″/400mm machines to be found, as well as a smattering of machines over 24″ width. Table lengths are typically in the 2750~3000mm zone. Quality of the German stuff is more or less unimpeachable – not that one can’t find nitpicks – and if the machine is of post-1998 production, a Tersa cutter head being common to find. Machines by Martin, Hofmann, Panhans, Kamro, Kölle, F. Meyer & Schwabidissen, Okoma, Fleckenstein, Bäuerle, Aldinger, Weinig, Rex, and others, make for a market crowded with quality choices, however, in 9 out of 10 cases these machines are too large (that is, too wide) for my situation. And most of the manufacturers in the above list are either defunct, are in business, but no longer make jointers (like Weinig) or went broke and are now basically importing machines and putting their label on them (Panhans for example).

One machine I came across that is stunning long is a Gubish AL 4 from 1959:

At 410mm width, the length is 3250mm (128″), with a nearly 2m infeed. It’s a 2-sided jointer. I like those table proportions a whole lot better than machines with tables the same length front and rear, and the Gubish has full chassis support for the tables as well, another plus. It’s an old girl, made in 1959, so old school cutter head, no slotted table lips.

It is possible to obtain an even longer jointer than that one mind you….

England.

The country had a few larger manufacturers who made jointers back in the day, namely Wadkin (later under the Wadkin Bursgreen name) and Robinson. You’ll also come across machines by a company called Wilson and another called Sagar (later Sagar Bursgreen). Also there was Dominion, which started out, funny enough, importing machines from Canada. The ‘glory’ days of these companies are long gone, and if at one point they made some big jointers, then that does not correspond much with finding examples these days. I hypothesize that the second World War took a lot of these machines out of the picture, as they were melted down for the iron.

My grandfather buried a motor cycle in his back yard during WWII, to keep the authorities from seizing it for the metal but when he dug it up after the war it had largely rusted away.

Here’s a picture identified as a Robinson machine, from a source in S. Africa:

No idea as to the model; looks cool but good luck finding one.

Wadkin machines continue to be sold by a company that bought the rights to the name and sells machines made, uh, elsewhere. I can’t say I care much for most of the older machines. Outdated in many respects, and featuring relatively short working tables cantilevered off a narrow base by way of sloped gibs, no slotted table lips – these design aspects seem to characterize most of the examples if not all. I did come across one example with a better chassis design:

Image courtesy of Mark Hennebury

The model above is the ‘RQ’, 20″ wide and with slow-helix knives.

In terms of more recent offerings, Wadkin-branded surface planers included the ‘Super 400’ (2600mm/102″ length, but only a 2-knife cutter head) and ‘Super 500’ (2800mm/ 110″ length) models at one point. Neither featured a Tersa cutter head or anything other than the standard 2 or 4-knife head. The current offering is the Wadkin SJR, which comes in either a 430 or 530 width, and features an impressive table length of 3050mm (120″):

I think Tersa is an option on this machine, but I suspect a new one is above my budget line at this point and have not come across a used one for sale. I wonder where it is made? Likely China or Eastern Europe. In terms of looking further, my past negative experience dealing with Scott and Sargeant in the UK has also left me rather wary of English machinery dealers, though I’m sure there are some good ones out there.

France.

One maker there is Utis, which is still in business. I find their surface planing machines frankly a bit on the odd side, but then this is a country also famous for its oddly-designed automobiles. Take a look at this example, a D52 model:

Why such a comically small base? And it appears the same base is used on two different sized machines, given the ‘D40/D52’ badging – surely they could afford to have two separate decals? Comes with rather short 2500mm table length, though 2800mm is an option. Tersa also an option. The stock fence is not the best design I have seen, but a linear rail guided fence is listed as an option, so that would likely be a better way to go.

There is also the manufacturer Chambon, which is now owned by a Belgian company. They make a 400mm machine (2700mm length) and a 500mm version (2850mm length). Slotted table lips, Tersa option – they look decent.

One other French manufacturer I came across is Dubus, still a going concern, mostly focussed on CNC machining centers. There is nothing special or unique to report about the few jointers of theirs I have come across.

Sweden.

Jonsered, the outdoor power tool company, once made jointers (I’m presuming the same company but I could be wrong), and the name once had an ~s:

Nice deep table castings, but that safety device for the blade epitomizes ‘clunky’. I wonder when these were last made?

Italy.

Heaps of choices to be found, in 300-400-500 and larger options. There are the brands everyone and their dog has heard of, like SCM, Griggio, and SAC. Of those, the older Griggio with planed tables and fence is most appealing. Later Griggio machines, before they went belly-up, went to cheaper ground tables. Lesser-known, perhaps, among Italian manufacturers of surface planers include Steton, Sicar, Casadei, Paolini, Casolin, I.M.A., and Aderna, who make, or made, a 730mm wide machine which I post for interest’s sake:

That’s quite a tank, though I remain somewhat less enthralled with the Italian options in general, though I may have to consider them more seriously as time marches on.

The Far East.

China.

It can be a little difficult to determine exactly which entities in that country produce the machines, as our interface with them is via marketing companies like Grizzly. Most of what is produced is for the US hobby market, however I could find a couple of larger machines.

Grizzly markets a 12″ machine and a 16″ machine. Here’s the 16″:

It has a table length of 99.25″ (2520mm), which is getting more reasonable. A cast base pushes the overall machine weight up to 1700lbs (800kg.) which is respectable to be sure. It’s got slotted table lips (they appear non-replaceable though). Parallelogram table mechanism, and uses a flat poly belt drive which is nice.

Cutterhead options though comprise only conventional 4-knife or what appears to be Grizzly’s ‘in-house’ spiral cutter head, neither of which interest me. The price is certainly attractive, but these are not for me.

The thing about Chinese manufacturing through is that some companies there could certainly produce a jointer on a quality par with the best European machines. I imagine if you doubled the price of the current Grizzly offering, you might be able to obtain a really good machine, and at $10,000 less than a Martin surely somebody would be interested(?). That doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon though.

Japan.

There are the Japanese manufacturers that everyone is familiar with here, namely Makita, Hitachi, and Ryobi. Makita and Ryobi both made or make industrial-grade jointers, none of which are exported. Hitachi does not appear to have ever offered a stand alone industrial jointer for some reason, though they make, or made, many other classic type woodworking machines. That’s a curious thing.

I would certainly put Japanese industrial machinery on a par with European machinery in terms of quality of product overall. Japanese designs in general are a bit dated though. One interesting thing I have found is that the standard Japanese jointer is narrower and shorter than the standard German ones. A ‘big’ jointer in Japan is 400mm, with sizes common in the 250, 300, and even 350mm widths. I have seen the odd larger jointer, but these appear to have been special order machines for the most part. Only one Japanese manufacturer today offers larger sizes (500mm and 600mm), and that is Matsuoka.

The other curious thing about Japanese surface planer manufacture is that the Tersa cutter and helical cutter types do not appear to have caught on. There is a Japanese version of Tersa, called ‘Enshin Block’. It is similar, however not interchangeable. The Enshin Block knife is 12mm in height, while the Tersa knife is 10mm. And only two manufacturers offer a model with Enshin Block, one of which is Makita, and they do not allow the machines to be exported. Everything else on the market is conventional 2-,3- or 4-knife cutter head.

Shimohira makes a good looking machine in a 300mm and 400mm width:

I like their version of a segmented ‘pork chop’ style guard. Table length of the 300mm wide model pictured above is a little on the short side at 2350mm. The above machine is about $4500.00, which I think is a good value.

My favorite Japanese manufacturer of jointers is Matsuoka. The company specializes in metal casting generally, and makes machines in a wide variety of sizes, and they have a pleasing aesthetic to my eyes, and core-box construction on their castings:

Not terribly common to come across, especially in the larger sizes. The 250mm wide model appears the most often on the market. I can’t find any Matsuoka jointers for sale at this time. I like the machine in a lot of ways, but drawbacks include the conventional cutter head and no slotted table lips, along with an unimpressive bed length.

Another view:

Back side shows the long fence and belt drive:

The fence coring is also done crosswise. I’ve been keeping my eyes of for one, but not holding my breath. Dealing with Japanese used machinery sellers can be difficult I find. Even though I read and write Japanese just fine, because I am a foreigner and far away they just won’t even give a reply to most enquiries. Fortunately, I have an intermediary in Japan to bridge the gap.

The search continues. Does the ideal machine exist at all? I know it is likely I will have to compromise, but I might get lucky you never know.

This post leaves aside the question of getting a jointer/planer combo. Maybe I’ll take that up in a future post if anyone might find it of interest. All for now, thanks for visiting!