Power Planer


A power planer has two major functions. to smooth and to thickness. A power planer smooths either the top and/or bottom surface(s) of a rough sawn workpieces to a set thickness. These machines are also referred to as thicknessers, surfacers and sometimes as facers.

(The image on the left is a power planer of today, found in both professional and amateur woodshops.)

In Industrial settings, another type of planer -- a planer-matcher -- contains top and bottom cutterheads, plus a pair of vertical spindles on each side of the workpiece, fitted with knives profiled for making matched (i.e., tongue and groove) flooring, or other edge planing. Planer-Matchers -- also designed for industrial settings -- can also be configured with either single- or double-profilers, that follows the first four heads --

to make the hollow-back on flooring
to produce paneling or similar patterns
to split or rip lumber after it has been surfaced on four sides

(As Chandler Jones notes, When the expression "matcher" is used, it is understood that a planer-matcher is really what is meant. A planer-matcher can -- in one pass -- surface both top and bottom of workpiecess, and is frequently used for this purpose in plants producing shop lumber.)

A molder (or, for the English and older texts, "moulder") can surface lumber on four sides, but its usual purpose is to produce profiles -- i.e., ornamental or functionally shaped contours on the surfaces of workpieces.

Also, the molder can produce narrower pieces than the matcher, partly because molder side spindles are offset rather than opposed, as is the case with the matcher.

Source: Adapted from Chandler W Jones, Planers, Matchers and Molders in America, 1800 to 1985. Seattle: Privately Printed, 1985, page 1

From the Oxford English Dictionary , the third meaning for "planer" is, 3. A plane or (now usually) a planing machine used for smoothing wood, etc. In early use, also applied to a Chip-Axe or Adze used for this purpose:


1596 T. THOMAS Lat. Dict., Dolabra, a carpenters axe, or..a great plainer.

1601 P. HOLLAND tr. Pliny Hist. World I. 493 A man shall see the fine shavings thereof run alwaies round and winding,..as the Ioyner runneth ouer the painels and quarters with his plainer.

1614 G. CHAPMAN tr. Homer Odysses V. 78 A great Axe, first she gaue, that two wayes cut;..A plainer then.

1691 R. BOYLE Gen. Hist. Air (1692) ii. 5 Shavings of Wood (that Carpenters and Joiners are wont to take off with their Plainers).

1851 Debow's Rev. July 82 They have now a beautiful steam-engine, a furnace for melting iron, six turning-lathes for wood and iron, one iron planer, circular saws, upright drills, and every kind of machinery for carrying on successfully the above kind of business. 1883 Harper's Mag. Jan. 208/2 To them are attached planers, shingle machines..and so on.

1900 Engin. Mag. 19 670 There will be..heavy planers, boring mills, and other large tools.

1950 Landfall 4 125 The planer..spits out faced boards for the tailer-out to stack by the goose saw.

1994 Harrowsmith Apr.-May 52/2 Many small sawmills are not equipped with a kiln for drying lumber or a planer for dressing it.

2002Kenneth L. Cope, American Planer, Shaper, and Slotter Builders Mendham, NJ: Astragal Press, 2002, page 1. PLANER-A machine whose natural function is to produce a flat surface. This is accomplished by causing the work, which is fastened to a table that has a reciprocating motion, to pass back and forth under a cutting tool; the tool is fed across the work at right angles to the line of motion of the table.

The Bentham planer -- constructed in London in the 1790s -- launched woodworking technology as a major industry: the Bentham planer was able to to thickness and straighten rough lumber. However, while the woodworking industry constituted an important development in England, it is in America where the impact is greatest. In 1802, to do the same job of thicknessing and straightening rough sawn wood into more fully dimensioned pieces, the Joseph Bramah planer in England used a "face-milling cutter". In 1834, Thomas Daniels patented an improved "carriage-fed machine". Many of these machines were sold in America the period before the Civil War, 1861-1865.


One of the first manufacturers of roll-fed planers in America was Baxter D. Whitney. His company specialized in single and double surfacers, and left the planer-matcher business to others.

Whitney thus escaped the wrath of the huge planer-matcher monopoly which prevailed in America from 1836 to 1856. In addition to planers with "rotating cutters", Whitney also made a "fixed-knife planer" in 1857, as well as a power-fed scraping machine. At that time, "rotary planing", still pretty crude, often left irregular, scalloped surfaces. the rotary planing problem was corrected wiht fixed knife planing or a scraper solved. William Woodworth patented his machine for rotary planing of lumber on four sides in 1836. He and his partners built these machines, and sold them to operators who were set up in franchised territories. Franchisees charged $7 per thousand for custom planing, $3 of which went to the patent holders. This generated a huge profit and a war chest to intimidate anyone who might build or operate a machine designed for rotary planing of S4S lumber. Because of litigation costs, operators quickly settled and complied with patent-holder terms.

First Power Woodworking Machines: The Hatton and Bentham Planers

Driven by either water or steam power, woodworking machinery appeared in England, in the late seventeenth century. In 1663, an unnamed "Dutchman" erected the first sawmill near London, but not until the eighteenth century did the tecnology for power woodworking machinery become viable.

As the Wallaces note,

These were all wind-power mills with jigsaws, until, in the year 1777, one Samuel Miller patented a sawmill using a circular blade.[link to planer] Up to that time inventive progress in woodworking machinery was comparatively slow, but at the end of the eighteenth century there arose a remarkable man, Sir Samuel Bentham, who within a few years, invented and patented almost every known variety of woodworking machine.

Two years later -- while on his Russian "tour" for the English Navy -- Bentham directed the construction of the first-known planing machine, out of wood. This is, evidently, the first recorded attempt toward actually creating a planer that was operational.

[Have yet to find an image -- moreover, the details given by the Wallaces, while appearing sound, are both sketchy and undocumented]

In 1776, in England, ? Hatton patented a planer, "almost too crude to be considered", but a beginning, nonetheless.

Hatton planer

Upon returning to England in 1791, Bentham was promoted to the brigadier-general rank, a post that included the position, inspector-general of the Naval Works of England. Here, in a peculiar circumstance, he teamed with his more famous brother, the political economist, Jeremy Bentham, at the time in charge several industrial prisons. Jeremy Bentham's challenge: engage these prison "felons". i.e., criminals, in "profitable work".

Finding that they were not inclined to doing handwork in wood, but, following the ingenious industrious of his brother, Samuel, Bentham struck on the idea of the convicts operating woodworking machines: "perhaps they might be able to run a simple machine". And this is where Samuel Bentham's genius holds sway: Samuel Bentham created several different woodworking machines for use in these prisons: planers, jointers, shapers, molders, and matchers. He also invented veneer-cutting machinery, segment circular saws, tenon cutters, boring machines, and sharpening machines.

(Jeremy Bentham's home -- at Queen's Square Place, Westminster, now a part of London -- was in the 1790s first lacation for the manufacture of woodcutting machines. This Bentham factory produced machines for planing, molding, rebating, grooving, mortising, sawing-in coarse and fine woods in curved, winding, and transverse directions-and shaping wood in all sorts of complicated forms. They even made a machine which could make a highly finished window sash, and another which could make an ornamental carriage wheel, both items finished except for assembling.)

Mode of Operation of Bentham Planer

Bentham was awarded his first recorded patent in 1791, for a planing machine. As detailed by the Wallaces, in principle, this device was a large Handplane, fitted with elaborate devices for moving the knife backward and forward over the stock. Bentham described the essence of the invention as a "method of planing divesting the operation of skill previously necessary, and a reduction of brute force employed."

According to the Wallaces, no drawings are included with Bentham's inventions for his stated reason that "they tend to confine the attention to a particular mode, whereas words cover the construction in a general way." It is interesting to note that the British Patent Office of that day sanctioned the omission of drawings.

In the Bentham planer, the Knife is as wide as the stock to be planed; the board is laid on a bench longer than itself; "cheeks" extend down over the sides of the knives; and the ends of the plane are rounded to rise up on the board. As the cut starts, a movable weight presses down at the plane's front end, then -- as the stroke is finishes -- shifts to the rear. Next, for the return stroke, the knife is raised. A compound bench to support warped boards at the middle and two sides, and multiple bits to take successive cuts with one pass, are proposed. The suggested power: "wind, water, steam, or animals.

This planer, which elaborates on Hatton's ideas, predicts Bentham's development of other woodworking machines, comprising British Patent No. 1950, issued in the year 1793. Few men have had the honor to cover their chosen industry so thoroughly with patents as did Bentham with this single application. In one all-inclusive document he originated, with broad claims, practically every woodworking machine and process that is in use today. The eleven sections of the patent, each describing a machine or process in general terms and without drawings, are worthy of detailed mention.

Principle of Rotary Cutting Changed Woodworking From a Handcraft to an Industry

Historically, according to Herman Hjorth (in Machine Woodworking Peoria, IL: Bruce Publishing, 1937), while Bentham changed woodworking from a handcraft to an industry, before real progress could go forward, other developments in the operation os a power planer were needed.

Nearly all early efforts were in the direction of the reciprocating motion of the hand plane. But the idea of a continuous-fed planer using feed rolls finally did emerge, and these efforts were described by Charles R. Tompkins:

A strong wooden frame was the first thing required, and then to adapt to that frame to perform the work was the next consideration. No matter if the cylinder was composed of three triangular pieces of wrought iron fastened to a bar of iron for a shaft, with nothing to support the knives between them but their own strength, it demonstrated the principle and established the fact that lumber could thus be planed by the action of rotary cutters.

Source: Charles R. Tompkins A History of the Planing Mill, 1889, as cited by Chandler Jones, Planers, Matchers, and Molders in America, Privately Printed, 1985, page 12.

The most important of these was the principle of rotary cutting, which is used in all modern planers, jointers, shapers, molders, and matchers. He also invented veneer-cutting machinery, segment circular saws, tenon cutters, boring machines, and sharpening machines.

For ripping and crosscutting Bentham even suggested tilting the table or saw and fences. Accordingly, at least in Hjorth's view, Bentham deserves the distinction of being "the father of woodworking machinery."

The frames of the machines were heavy timbers bolted together, and only the cutters and bearings made of metal. Not until about sixty years later, Hjorth rightly notes, were woodworking machines made entirely of metal.

When Congress extended the patent protection to 1856, there was a huge outcry, and well-founded allegations of bribery. This is described in detail in Chandler Jones' 1985 Planers, Matchers and Molders in America: 1800 to 1985 A number of fixed knife planers came on the market and they did circumvent the patent, but they were so tedious to set up and operate that most lumbermen surrendered to the Woodworth group. Immediately after the expiration of the patent, the patent holders disbanded and companies such as S.A. Woods, Fay & Egan, American and Berlin (P.B. Yates) then enjoyed good sales of their planer-matchers. Apparently the Woodworth group did not choose to challenge manufacturers of moulders, which were primarily doing smaller detail work. But new moulders were being aggressively designed and sold by the above-mentioned planer manufacturers plus others, as described in the Centennial issue of W&WP.

Source: adapted from chandler jones

With the invention and patent of the Bentham planer at the end of the 18th century, and the Newberry bandsaw, innovation in woodworking technology achieved a stunning start. Progress in perfecting the products of this technolgy -- planers, jointers, circular saws, bandsaws, routers, lathes -- has continued unabated for two centuries. The upshot -- modern industrial woodworking, with its pantheon of power machinery and mass production that cuts and shapes wood with extraordinary ease and perfection -- is about to travel through still another phase, with the promise today of laser technology applied to the production of wood objects.

The "tragic moment" in woodworking -- truly, a great cultural loss -- is the passing of the great English cabinetmakers:

... [I]n England in 1718, most woodworking was purely manual. Machines were not used because they had not been invented. Mass production, industrialism, and capitalistic organization were unknown. The prevalent form of industrial organization was the guild, wherein master worked with his men; and men, in due time, all became masters.

(The "tragic moment" -- as a phrase lamenting the demise of the great cabinetmakers - is employed by the famous manufacturer of power woodworking machinery, J D Wallace.

The early furniture industry gives us ample evidence about the dates of the introduction of power woodworking machinery. Usually period for the introduction of power-mechanized processes is the 1830s and 1840s, with the appearance of the pillar and scroll style. [need images] And often the pillar and scroll style is linked with the adoption of the band saw, which Robert Bishop says was in common use by 1840. (The American source for pillar and scroll designs was John Hall, the Cabinetmaker's Assistant Baltimore: by the author, 1840. The link leads to an excellent online -- openlibrary -- version of Hall's designs.) The material culture scholar, Thomas H. Ormsbee, sets the end of the era of handwork at 1850. Click here for online biographical study by Ormsbee of Early American Furniture Makers

[need more background on this -- what about "cottage industry" furniture makers? That is, shops operated by one or two men?] Indeed, furniture historians -- as one group of scholars -- conclude that "by 1840, with a rapidly expanding market, there had been a definite change from individual assembly of furniture to the mass production of parts, which were shaped with the aid of lathes and scroll saws powered by steam-driven machines."

Between Bentham and Woodworth

Later, in England, the planers of Joseph Bramah and Malcolm Muir received patents in 1805 and 1857, respectively, and in the United States fourteen planing machine patents were issued-four of them to Pennsylvanians-between 1805 and 1828. (One of the Daniels machines is preserved at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.) They were of three usual types: having stationary planing cutters, or having planing cutters on horizontally or on vertically rotating disks. In Bramah's machine, cutters rotated horizontally in a disk-shaped path.

The Woodworth Planer, about 1847


The first of my invention relates to the combination of rotary cutters and feeding-rollers in such a manner that the said feeding-rollers shall be capable of feeding the lumber to the cutters, and also of effectually resisting the tendency of the cutters to draw the lumber upwards towards them; the object of this part of my invention being to reduce the lumber operated upon to a uniformity of thickness, and to give it a planed and even surface upon one side thereof. The second part of my invention relates to the combination, with feeding-rollers and rotary cutters, for planing one of the principal surfaces of the lumber; and of rotary matching cutters so as to form a tongue or groove, or both, upon the edge or edges of the lumber at the same time that one of its principle surfaces is planed.

Source: William Woodworth, as cited by Charles R Tompkins, A History of the Planing Mill ... New York: John Wiley, 1889, page 9.

With Rotating Action Steel Cylindrdical Cutterheads Smoothed and Flattened Timber as They Were Fed Between the Rolls

Source: Scientific American 2 1847 page 407.


Source: Anonymous, "200 Years of Woodworking" Wood and Wood Products 1976

The Power Planer as a Machine in the Amateur Woodworker's Shop

To be added -- Herman Hjorth, "The Bench Thickness Planer" Home Craftsman 1950 -- later this article reprinted under Milton Gunerman's authorship in How to Operate Your Power Tools 1950, pages 144-160.

Sources: Much of the above adapted from J. D. Wallace and Margaret S. Wallace, "From the Master Cabinetmakers to Woodworking Machinery", Herman Hjorth carolyn C. Cooper and Chandler Jones. The Wallaces gave their conference address in 1929, and Hjorth presents his details about Bentham in his classic 1937 book on maintaining woodworking machinery. My hunch is that either Wallace and Hjorth knew each other, or that what the Wallaces said about Bentham became common knowledge in high woodworking circles, details of which, when writing his textbook, Hjorth added for the benefit of his students.

"From the Master Cabinetmakers to Woodworking Machinery", by J. D. and Margaret S. Wallace, Chicago, IL, President, J. D. Wallace & Co. member of ASME, at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill; Contributed by the Wood Industries Division and presented at the Annual Meeting, New York, December 2 to U, 1929, of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers
Herman Hjorth, Machine Woodworking Peroria, IL: Bruce Publishing, 1937.)

: John Richards A Treatise on the construction ... of Wood-working Machines. London: Spon,, 1872
Joseph M. Wilson, History, Mechanics, Science, volume 3 of The Masterpieces of the Centennial International Exhibition Philadelphia: Gebbie and Barrie, 1877, pages 107-9; Manfred Powis Bale, Woodworking Machinery, Its Rise, Progress, and Construction London: Crosby, Lockwood and Son, 1880 (1894)
Herman Hjorth Machine Woodworking Peoria, IL: Bruce Publishing, 1937; Charles Singer, ed., A History of TechnologyOxford: Clarendon Press, 1958, volume 4; E K Spring, "Develpment of Materials for Wood-Cutting Tools", Proceedings of Wood Symposium: One Hundred Years of Engineering Progress with Wood, The Centennial of Engineering Convocation, September 3-13, 1952, Chicago IL
Polly Anne Earl, "Craftsmen and Machines:The Nineteenth-Century Furniture Industry", in Ian M. G. Quimby, and Polly Anne Earl, eds., Technological Innovation and the Decorative Arts Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1973, pp 307-329
Anonymous, "200 Years of Woodworking" Wood and Wod Products 1976; Carolyn C Cooper, "The Portsmouth System of Manufacture", Technology and Culture25 no. 21 1984, pages 182-225
Chandler W. Jones, Planers, Matchers and Molders in America: 1800 to 1985 1985 Carolyn C Cooper, "Woodworking Mechanization in Philadelphia", in Judith A. McGaw, ed., Early American Technology: Making and Doing Things from the Colonial Era to 1850 Chapel Hill: Uiversity of North Carolina Press, 1994
Chandler Jones, Bandsaws: Wide Blade and Narrow Blade Types Seattle: Privately Printed, 1992
Rick Peters, Jointers and Planers: How to Choose, Use and Maintain Them New York: Sterling, 2001
Kenneth L. Cope, American Planer, Shaper, and Slotter Builders Mendham, NJ: Astragal Press, 2002.

Cope's American Planer, Shaper, and Slotter Builders is not intended to be a history. Instead the book seeks to identify over 300 American manufacturers of power planers, shapers and slotters of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cope includes over 1000 illustrations -- from original catalogs and contemporary periodicals - that show these machines developed. Cope's collection begins in the early 1800's -- as crude, hand-built copies of English machines - and then, over the course of a century, develop into monster machines, "unmatched else­where in the world". Along with these planers, shapers and slotters are images identify and illustrate such accessories as chucks, dividing heads, milling attachments and keyseating attachments. Cope's compendium also includes a glossary of terms that describe types of planers, shapers and slotters. (Separate illustrations help identify the individual parts of the machines.)

Many of the builders listed are well known, and some are still operating. Most of others are obscure, known only from advertisement placed in contemporary magazines.

Information and illustrations come from such city directories, records of sales to the U.S. government, contemporary publications including American Artisan, American Machinist, American Manufacturer, Iron Age, Machinery, Mechanics, and Scientific American and countless catalogs issued by planer, shaper and slotter builders and dealers.