If you are serious about your woodworking hobby or career then eventually you’ll reach the point where you’ll have to choose between buying a jointer vs planer first. While woodworking can be an extremely enjoyable hobby without either tool having at least one of them at your disposal can open up a whole new world of possibilities.
When I was first outfitting my shop, the first major tools I bought were a table saw, and miter saw. Shortly after that, I wanted to move on from buying s4s lumber (lumber that has been jointed and planed, so all four sides are square) to buying more rough lumber. Rough lumber at most hardwood stores will vary from having extremely rough edge faces on all 4 sides to moderately straight edges with skip-planed faces.
Buying lumber rough is generally cheaper and offers a far larger variety of options than buying s4s lumber. While both tools have their advantages in taking rough stock and turning it into straight, flat stock, there are some important differences to consider.
Differences Between a Jointer vs Planer
Well, the key differences between a jointer vs planer are how the wood is oriented and how the wood is fed through the cutter heads.
Lets start with the jointer first.
What is a Woodworking Jointer?
A jointer is a woodworking tool with long infeed and outfeed tables and a spinning cutterhead in the middle. The infeed table is set slightly lower than the outfeed table so, as the cutterhead removes wood, the lumber will exit level with the outfeed table.
Jointers also have a fence that can be set square to the infeed and outfeed table or at an angle.
The primary purpose of a jointer is to get a flat and square faces on two sides of a piece of wood. Typically this is done by running the wide face of a board through the cutterhead until the face is totally flat. That face can then be held against the 90 degree fence to get a straight, square edge.
From there you can run the other edge through the table saw to get a board with parallel sides and one flat face. The remaining side of the board that has not yet been touched can either be left as is or it can be run through a planer to get a board with 4 flat, square faces.
If you are in the market for a jointer then there are a few different options to consider.
Starting at the lower end of the price range you’ll find small, benchtop jointers.
Benchtop jointers, like this 6-inch Porter Cable, are surprisingly effective for their small size and price. While these aren’t the best option for jointing long boards they can easily be used in a pinch for smaller projects. You can even purchase benchtop jointers with carbide cutting heads which reduces the noisiness of the machine, improves the cut quality, and eliminates the need to sharpen the straight knives found on most jointers.
Next up in size and price are free-standing 6-inch jointers. At the lower end of the price range, these jointers will have straight knives in the cutter head and a shorter infeed and outfeed table.
This is an updated version of the jointer I use in my shop. With straight knives, independent tables, and a short length, it is the perfect combination of size and price for my needs.
If you’re looking for a 6-inch jointer but want to look at a more top-of-the-line model, then you’ll want to keep an eye out for carbide cutter heads and a longer infeed and outfeed table.
Jointers with these options will be at the top end of the price range for 6-inch jointers. Usually around double in cost from the base 6-inch models. But the cutterheads will last ages longer than straight knives and the long beds make running longer boards over the cutterheads a breeze. As someone who has run some really long boards over their short bed jointer I can attest to the fact that you don’t always end up with a perfectly straight edge in those situations.
From there you can look at 8-inch, 10-inch, 12-inch, etc sized jointers. These make working with wider stock a breeze but do end up taking up quite a bit of room in the shop and can easily run $5k+ in price.
Why can’t I just run all 4 sides through the jointer?
The jointer can only be used to square up two faces of a board that are next to each other.
Almost all rough lumber is going to have faces that are not exactly in parallel. Use this highly detailed drawing below as an example.
If you run the top and bottom sides of this board through the jointer you are going to have a board with nice flat sides but the top and bottom will still be out of parallel. That is because the only reference face for a board going through a jointer is the face being cut or the adjoining face against the fence. The opposite face on a board is out of the picture when taking a pass over the jointer.
This is why, after you have two flat, square adjoining faces, you will need to use the table saw or planer to bring the opposite face into parallel.
When would you need a jointer but not a planer?
If you aren’t building projects where having perfectly flat, square boards are a necessity then a jointer is probably all you need.
Heck, if you have a table saw and a jointer, then you can get 3 of the 4 faces into square. That only leaves one face on the board that could be cleaned up with a hand plane or, if the boards are narrow enough, the table saw.
I do a ton of woodworking projects where I only use the jointer to clean up an edge before breaking down the boards into smaller pieces with the bandsaw.
Are there any alternatives to a jointer?
Well I’m glad you asked!
If you have a table saw and don’t need to joint 8 foot long boards then you can easily build a jointer sled. A jointer sled is designed to hold a board and run along the table saw fence. The blade will cut the exposed face of the board leaving it nice and straight.
Note, though, that this only really works for putting straight edges on the sides of boards and not the wide faces. But if all you need is two straight sides for a glue-up and aren’t worried about the faces, this can be a great option!
Here is a wonderful tutorial on building your own jointer sled.
What is a Thickness Planer?
A woodworking planer is a tool that automatically feeds wood through a cutterhead to remove stock and bring it down to a final thickness.
Thickness planers typically have a short infeed and outfeed table as the cutting depth and material feed are controlled by internal rollers. While these rollers can occasionally cause problems called snipe (Snipe is where the cutter head cuts a divot into the end of the board. Most woodworkers will leave their material a little long when running it through the planer, so any snipe can be cut off when the board is cut to the final size); it can usually be minimized or eliminated with a well-tuned planer.
The reference face on a board being fed through the planer is always the opposite face of the one being cut. So, if you ran one side of a board through the jointer to get a nice straight face. The other side can then be run through the planer which will get you two faces that are both flat and parallel.
Note that this typically only works on the wide faces of boards. Running a 6 inch wide by 1 inch thick board on its side through the planer is most likely a very bad idea. With that said, if the board is thick enough then both faces could conceivably be run through the planer.
Like the jointer, planers come in several different size and cutterhead configurations as well.
The base model will be your basic lunchbox style planer that can (somewhat) easily be stored away when not in use. These planers typically have a cutting capacity of between 12 and 13 inches.
Most planers in this style are freestanding, so they only take up a footprint of ~24″ x 24″ x 20″. I keep mine on a furniture dolly and roll it under the table saw wing when not in use. These planers typically come equipped with straight knives, although most can be upgraded with aftermarket carbide heads.
The DeWalt 735 is easily the most popular model of planer in this style. I have used mine for years now and it just keeps going strong. The one downside is the obscene amount of noise this planer makes so keep a set of hearing protection on hand!
From there you get into freestanding planers with cutting widths of anywhere between 13 to 24 inches. These planers also come with either straight or carbide cutter heads. Once again the carbide heads are great for reducing noise and minimizing the amount of sharpening required on straight knives.
Choosing which model best meets your needs is all a matter of space, size, and budget as these planers can run anywhere from around $1,000 to over $10,000.
These 15-inch freestanding planers with a carbide cutting head are a nice combination of size, features, and price for those looking to upgrade from a lunchbox model.
Can I run a board through the planer if I haven’t run the opposite face through the jointer?
Of course! With that said, if you try to run a board like this through the planer then the face being cut will be as curved as the face being referenced.
While this may be an extreme example, you get the picture. A more realistic example would be running a board that is bowed through the planer. If the bow isn’t removed beforehand, then you’ll get an equally bowed board out of the planer. If you need absolutely flat, parallel sides for glue-ups or detailed projects then you need to run boards through the planer with a flat face for reference.
With all that said I run plenty of wood through the planer without flattening the other face. Often for my projects I’m just looking to get the wood reasonably flat and smooth for finishing but having a perfectly square board really doesn’t matter.
How can I get flat, parallel faces on a board on a planer without a jointer?
Another great question!
Just like we talked about earlier with using a jointer sled on the table saw you can also use a planer sled on the, well, planer. If you have a board that is wider than your jointer or you don’t have a jointer at all but need to get a board flat and parallel then a jointer sled is your best bet.
I keep one of these around the shop myself as they really come in handy when working with wide boards that my measly little 6-inch jointer can’t handle.
A planer sled is typically made from MDF and is just a long, straight piece of wood that your board can sit on. You can then run it through the planer by attaching it with double-sided tape and shimming any wobble out of the board. The bottom of the sled will be the reference face, so the top of the board being cut should get a nice straight face.
The board can then be flipped over, and the side that was just planed becomes the reference face. Now you have a board with two nice flat and parallel. Add on a jointer sled for the table saw, and you’ll be ready to glue up your boards.
You can find a great guide to building a planer sled here.
Should You Buy a Planer or Jointer First?
I get that both jointers and planers are big, expensive machines, so buying both at the same time often isn’t an option.
Personally, I started with the planer first. I went with the DeWalt DW735 13-inch planer. This planer is pretty much ubiquitous in the woodworking world. Its a perfectly solid planer than is more than enough for most garage woodworkers.
I was able to get by for a time by either buying lumber than had been ripped with a straight face or had parallel sides. I could then run it through the planer on a planer sled and, after some cleanup on the table saw, the boards were ready to go at that point.
With that said it wasn’t long after buying the planer that I added on an old used 6-inch jointer as well. This really expanded my wood processing capabilities and the options I could buy at the lumber yard.
For most woodworkers, it really comes down to the projects they are doing, but I would say it is harder to get by without a planer than without a jointer. Flattening the faces of boards without a planer means breaking out the hand planes or sanding it flat, which means you aren’t going to have a very flat board in the end!
What about a Jointer/Planer combo machine?
If, and a big if, you can afford it, then these machines are starting to become much more prevalent and dependable in the United States. In years past buying a combo jointer/planer meant either buying a many many multi-thousand dollar industrial machine or buying a pretty poorly designed machine that would not do either job all that particularly well.
There are few low-cost options in this space that, frankly, I would still avoid. But if you’re willing to extend your budget to the $3k+ range, then there are some great machines to be had that will take up a bit less room than buying both a jointer and planer.
Hammer is probably the most popular company in this space that makes these machines. Although Jet, among others, also offer these dual-purpose tools.
Final Thoughts on Choosing Between a Planer vs Jointer
Fully outfitting a power tool woodworking will eventually mean buying a jointer and a planer. If you can only buy one, for now, I would look at the projects you are working on and have upcoming and see which tool will make your life easier. Taking the time to afford the best tool you can buy will also make a huge difference. More expensive options like spiral cutterheads or additional width on the jointer or planer can make your woodworking life so much easier down the road.