Recently, I finally upgraded my Powermatic 180 planer to a spiral cutterhead, and I am here to tell you how much I love it. And yes, I do want to marry it.
I bought this machine at auction when I moved into the new shop, after I burned up my last planer in the fire. I’ve had it for about 8 years now, and for most of that time fought with keeping the blades sharp. I was excited when I bought it because it was made in America (not like the ones from Taiwan today), had a strong 7-1/2 horse motor, and I knew it would last the rest of my life. I especially liked the warning sticker on the front, which reminds me not to remove more than 1/2” of thickness at a time (like that is going to happen). The coolness continued with the fact that it had an on-board grinder to sharpen the knives without removing them from the planer. The coolness ended, however, with the blade setup.
A normal planer has three or four long blades, the width of the planer to shave the wood. This particular Powermatic planer, “The Quiet One” was outfitted with 27 short blades, which were placed in a staggered pattern in 9 slots, presumably to not have as much smacking of the blades against the wood and reducing the noise. Instead of three or four hard smacks per revolution, it would be broken down to 9 smaller smacks per revolution, running with more consistency in the noise level. I found this set up to NOT reduce the noise and to make knife setting and resharpening almost impossible, which explains why this design was not long-lived.
The little, 2” long knives, were held in with Allen screws which were supposed to also allow for height adjustment, but they were always jammed with wood and would take an act of God to get them loose. Even after we made a special hook-shaped tool to get them out, it would still take me at least a full day to reset all of the knives, and I still felt like they were subpar. Finally, after the last time resetting the knives, I told myself that once they were ground down enough to need resetting, I was going to replace that cutting head. I hadn’t done it up to that point because I am cheap and the new cutting head was in the $1,500 range, which was $500 more than I paid for the planer.
I ended up buying a Byrd Shelix carbide insert cutterhead. It has around 150 little carbide inserts with four cutting edges on them. When I opened the packaging it was quickly evident why it was so expensive – it was a thing of machining beauty. There are so many little cuts and angles and crazy geometry that it would make your head spin if you really had to figure it out. Even the little inserts have a little bit of bend along the cutting edge to make up for the fact that they are set up at an angle to make a shear cut. Nothing about it is straight or simple.
I had a friend of mine from the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, former shop teacher Dan Coleman, install it for me. You would know (like I did) after talking to Dan for just a minute about machines and machine setup, that he was the guy to do it. It took him less than a day to dismantle my planer and swap out the new cutting head. I’m sure if I did it alone it would have taken much longer and I still wouldn’t be sure everything was right. After listening to several presentations by Dan about machine maintenance, I was sure it would be done perfectly, which it was.
When we ran the first board through the planer, it was amazing! It was so quiet, I didn’t even think it was cutting the wood! Even now, I need to look at the wood coming out of the planer sometimes just to make sure it is doing anything. The hum of the motor is usually about the same noise level as the actual planing. The funny thing is, going into this, I wasn’t so worried about the noise level, or at least I didn’t think I was. If I just got good planing results without having to fight with those stupid knives, I would have been happy, but the reduction in noise makes it almost unbelievable.
So, “What about the finish quality?,” you ask. Also, AHH-MAZING! Since the cutters are set at an angle and designed to make a shear cut, there is almost no tearout like normal planer blades, which hit the wood straight on and lift out chunks of wood while they are cutting. Even difficult-to-plane species, like hard maple, come through almost entirely unscathed. Now, I feel confident sticking boards in the planer, knowing they will come out the other side with the surface fully intact and not blown to bits. This speeds things up in the shop because we don’t need to spend so much time at the wide belt sander cleaning up after the planer.
Since the cutterhead was switched out, I have had a chance to test out the resharpening process, and it is so easy. Twice, I have rotated just a few of the carbide teeth, which got damaged by hitting a nail in the wood, and I had it back up and running, with a perfect finish, in just a few minutes. I have rotated all of the teeth once so far, and that was done in about an hour. The teeth loosen and rotate easily and fall right into perfect position – it is super simple. The sharpening process has gone from something I hated with every bit of my being to something I don’t even think about – a 100% non-issue. It just works, and works better than I could have ever imagined. I can’t believe I waited so stinkin’ long to do it.