Jointer vs Planer

Beginning woodworkers all ask this basic question; what is the difference between a jointer and a planer? The answer is simple, a lot! Each machine does a completely different surfacing operation. A jointer flattens a face or straightens and squares an edge, and a planer thicknesses wood. Whether you need one, the other, or both can easily be answered by knowing how they work, what they do, and how much wood surface preparation you pay your lumberyard to do for you. And honestly, you probably could be a great woodworker without either machine. They are just time savers. Heck you could use hand planes! Ultimately, you need to convert your wood stock to usable pieces for your projects. A jointer and a planer will help you get there.

What a jointer does and how it works. A jointer is used to make the face of a warped, twisted, or bowed board flat. After your boards are flat, then the jointer can be used to straighten and square edges (Guard removed for photo).

Jointers work this way: There’s an infeed table and an outfeed table. The tables are aligned in the same plane. A cutter head with knives is mounted between the tables, and its cutting circle (tops of the knives) is aligned flush with the outfeed table. The infeed table is lowered to a depth equal to the amount of wood you want to remove. Passing a board across the running machine (with guard in place) removes the wood, and the cut portion of the board is then supported on the outfeed table. A fence is used as a guide when flattening a face, and as a support when jointing board edges. The fence is adjustable for different angles, typically up to 45-degrees.

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What a planer does and how it works. A planer is used to make a board that’s been jointed flat equal thickness from end-to-end. Mechanically it’s more complicated than a jointer, but functionally it’s simpler. A flattened board is placed on the planer table (bed) and pushed in. The machine’s feed roller grabs the board and pulls it through and past a rotating cutter head set above the bed, which removes wood. The distance the bed is set from the cutter head is the resulting thickness. All planers have limits to how much wood they can remove in one pass, so to achieve your finished thickness will likely require multiple passes.

Different levels of lumberyard-produced surface preparation. Your lumberyard can do none, some, or all of your required surface preparation to the boards you purchase. The more they do, the more it costs, and the less control you have. You could take this to the extreme, give them a cut list, have them size all the pieces, but you’d go broke and have no fun woodworking. I’ll start by telling you how both machines are used to surface rough lumber, and then give three more scenarios where your lumberyard does increasingly more of the work for you.


Rough. I buy my lumber rough (no surfacing), or surfaced hit & miss, which is how almost all the lumber I buy today comes. That removes 1/16″ and planes the wood so it’s easy to see the grain and color. The pieces I need for my projects are “inside” the boards I buy, and I have to machine the boards to make my pieces. I have much greater control over the shape and flatness of the wood I use when I machine a rough-cut board just prior to using it in my project. One thing is for certain with surfaced wood, it will not be the same size and shape tomorrow. Sizing rough lumber requires a jointer to flatten one face, and a planer to cut the thickness. To cut the width you use a jointer to square and straighten one edge, and then rip the width on a table saw. I rip my boards 1/32″ wide, and then joint off the last 1/32″. See my article, 9 Steps to Sizing Rough Lumber.
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Surfaced Two Sides (oversized)- S2S. Example: You ask your lumberyard to surface your 4/4 boards to 13/16″ even though you know you will eventually use them as 3/4″ thick boards. They surface the boards using a doubled head planer that cuts both faces at the same time and does a pretty good job of flattening. Doing the surfacing this way can save you a lot of time. Then just prior to using your boards in your project you will “kiss” the boards down to 3/4″ to clean up any rough surfaces left from the lumberyard machining, remove any dirt and oxidation that might have accumulated over time, and provide a fresh surface, which is critical for gluing. With this type of surfacing you’ll need a planer for final thickness-ing, and a jointer to straighten edges.


Surfaced Two Sides (final thickness)- S2S. All is the same as above but this time your lumberyard surfaces your boards to their final thickness. All you need now is a jointer to straighten edges.
S2S with Straight Line Rip – SLR. All is the same as S2S but this time your lumberyard cuts one edge of every board straight and square. You can now mange without either machine, but even so, having a jointer to remove saw marks and smooth edges is nice.

Conclusion: A jointer can be used to make a board’s face and edge straight and true. A planer makes your boards uniform in thickness, with two parallel faces. The operations aren’t interchangeable between the two machines.

Owning both machines gives you the greatest control over the flatness and smoothness of the wood you use in your projects. My jointer is a monster at 12-in. wide and 84-in. long. It’s really nice for flattening long and wide boards, but may be overkill if your projects will be small. My planer is 13-in. wide making it the perfect companion to my wide jointer.

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  • Dennis Zembower

    Can you edge with a power hand planer?

  • Dennis Zembower

    Can you edge with a power hand planer?

  • Bruce Kieffer

    Dennis, I’ve never used power hand planer. You could smooth an edge with a power hand planer, but from what I understand you can’t easily straighten an unstraight edge. The bases of these tools are too short to flatten edges. The long beds of jointers are what makes them effective edge straightening machines.

  • Bruce Kieffer

    Dennis, I’ve never used power hand planer. You could smooth an edge with a power hand planer, but from what I understand you can’t easily straighten an unstraight edge. The bases of these tools are too short to flatten edges. The long beds of jointers are what makes them effective edge straightening machines.

  • John

    Very good article. Well explained. Thanks.

  • John

    Very good article. Well explained. Thanks.

  • Paul Weatherby

    I bet there is always a little anxiety that you might hit a small nail or staple which will mess up the cutter knives.

  • Paul Weatherby

    I bet there is always a little anxiety that you might hit a small nail or staple which will mess up the cutter knives.

  • kdouglaslee

    For hardwoods, I buy wood from a cabinet shop, they charge a very nominal amount to plane it to 7/8″. If I need to flatten a long board, I use the jointer, then run all the pieces (flattened face down) through my planer, to get them all uniform. I can usually get them to come out around 3/4″ that way. Mostly, though, the jointer gets a lot of use, the planer very little.

  • kdouglaslee

    For hardwoods, I buy wood from a cabinet shop, they charge a very nominal amount to plane it to 7/8″. If I need to flatten a long board, I use the jointer, then run all the pieces (flattened face down) through my planer, to get them all uniform. I can usually get them to come out around 3/4″ that way. Mostly, though, the jointer gets a lot of use, the planer very little.

  • jHop

    You can use your planer as a jointer, but it takes a little thought. It boils down to needing a “carrier,” or sled to rest your workpiece on. This sled needs to already be flattened, and straight. Here is the one place I absolutely love melamine coated MDF: the base slides through easily on most planers, and you simply wedge the work in place. (There’s a variety of methods out there.) One thing I will add: remember to take the height of the sled into account when setting the height of your first cuts. Once you’ve got the top coplanar with the bottom of the sled, you can remove the workpiece from the sled and start using the planer normally. (Now you just need to find a flat shelf or wall to store your sled on…)

  • jHop

    You can use your planer as a jointer, but it takes a little thought. It boils down to needing a “carrier,” or sled to rest your workpiece on. This sled needs to already be flattened, and straight. Here is the one place I absolutely love melamine coated MDF: the base slides through easily on most planers, and you simply wedge the work in place. (There’s a variety of methods out there.) One thing I will add: remember to take the height of the sled into account when setting the height of your first cuts. Once you’ve got the top coplanar with the bottom of the sled, you can remove the workpiece from the sled and start using the planer normally. (Now you just need to find a flat shelf or wall to store your sled on…)

  • Anonymous

    This is very interesting.

  • Anonymous

    This is very interesting.

  • Anonymous

    Great information. Thanks for the detailed comparison!

  • Anonymous

    Great information. Thanks for the detailed comparison!

  • jdallender

    Jhop, that is a pretty creative way to flatten both faces. i will have to try that out. How do you connect the workpiece to the carrier? Double sided tape?

  • jdallender

    Jhop, that is a pretty creative way to flatten both faces. i will have to try that out. How do you connect the workpiece to the carrier? Double sided tape?

  • Bruce Kieffer

    jdallender,
    I put a short cleat at the back end of my carrier. Glue it down, no screws.

  • Bruce Kieffer

    jdallender,
    I put a short cleat at the back end of my carrier. Glue it down, no screws.

  • don franklin

    Great information. Thanks for the detailed comparison!

  • don franklin

    Great information. Thanks for the detailed comparison!

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  • sean

    No matter how many times I read this article the two machines sound the same to me,except one has the blade below and one has blade above. I don’t see why either machine can’t do exactly what the other does.

    • krkeegan

      Agree, the introduction says that the article will explain how they work. But it really just explains what they are used for with very little explanation about how they work. Importantly, it fails to explain why a thickness planer cannot be used to produce a flat surface.

      The difference between the two machines is how the wood is held in place against the cutter head.

      In a jointer, there is nothing compressing the board into the cutter head. When using a jointer, you should only be applying enough pressure to keep the board in contact with the table, but not so much pressure as to take the bow out of the board. You place the concave side of the board facing down. In this orientation, the outside edges should be touching the table, but the middle will not be. Again, press down on the board to keep it on the table, but don’t press so hard that you compress the center of the board onto the table. As you slide the board across the jointer, it will cut more from the ends of the board and less or none of the middle of the board. Repeat until that side of the board sits flat on the table.

      A thickness planer (called a planer in the US) has roller on either side of the cutter head. These rollers compress the board while it is being cut. This compression temporarily removes the bow from the board while it is in contact with the cutter head. When the board exits the rollers and the compression is released, the warping will return.

      I hope that helps.

      The following wikipedia articles and the accompanying diagrams were helpful to me:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jointer

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thickness_planer