Nope, that’s certainly not your grandpa’s jointer cutter head. It’s called a spiral cutter head. It is a newer design that uses the concept of insert tooling rather than traditional straight knives installed in the cutter head. Small square carbide cutters are placed near one another along a machined spiral pattern in a steelhead. This same technology is also available for other tools, such as planers, shapers, and molders. Still, since the purchasing criteria may differ for these applications, I will focus on using spiral cutter heads in jointers for this article. Spiral cutter heads are considered an upgrade for a jointer and generally carry a premium of $300 to $1,700, depending upon the size of your cutter head. Many manufacturers now offer this as an option that can be factory installed in their jointers when initially purchased. They are also available as a retrofit that you can install yourself. They are superior to traditional knife-based cutter heads in nearly every respect. Whether it makes sense for an individual to purchase one depends on whether the incremental cost is worth it to that particular woodworker, given their specific requirements. To evaluate whether or not it is worth the money to you, here are some of the key benefits to consider:
Edge longevity. Spiral cutter heads utilize carbide steel inserts, while most knife-based cutter heads incorporate knives made of high-speed steel. Carbide normally holds an edge for at least three times as long as high-speed steel, much longer than that in many cases. This translates to less time between swapping out cutters. Plus, the insert cutters for spiral cutter heads normally have four cutting edges on each one, so if one gets dull, it can be rotated, and the jointer is immediately back in production. Depending upon the cost of sharpening and replacing knives in your area, it is unlikely that this longevity advantage alone will ever singlehandedly justify the cost of the spiral cutter upgrade. Still, it is a factor that can offset some of the price differentials, so it is worth consideration.
Super easy cutter changes. Depending upon the design of a given cutter head, swapping out knives can be a cumbersome, time-consuming process. With spiral cutter heads, the process could not be much simpler. Remove one screw, rotate the cutter 90 degrees to a new edge, tighten it down, and resume jointing.
Setting knives can be frustrating. This can take a while and lead to inconsistent results in getting the knives consistently set to the perfect height. Of all the factors to consider with spiral cutter heads, this one appeals to me the most, as I am not a fan of swapping knives in a jointer.
Minimal disruption from nicks in knives. With high-speed steel knives, if you nick one of your blades, you either have to remove the blades and sharpen the set or try to slide the knives so that the nicked portions of the blade no longer align. This presents either a cost factor, hassle, or both. With spiral cutter heads, you rotate and are back in business. Plus, since the inserts are made of carbide, the likelihood of getting nicks in the cutters goes way down in the first place.
Quieter. The spiral cutter heads operate much more quietly than knife-based cutter heads. Although I don’t own a sound level meter, I can’t quantify this, but the difference to my ears is pretty dramatic.
Joint MDF or plywood. If you ever have a requirement to join man-made materials such as MDF or plywood, you can do this with confidence using a carbide insert cutter head, while this is not recommended with traditional knives (although I will admit that I have jointed plywood with knives a time or two).
Easier dust collection. A minor benefit is that the smaller cutters on spiral cutter heads break the material into smaller pieces, so slightly less suction is required to extract the waste back to a central system.
Better surface on figured wood. This is the point that seems to get all the attention around the internet. From my standpoint, I have used a jointer with HSS knives for over a decade and have had good results when face jointing figured stock, provided my knives are sharp and set properly, the jointer is tuned, and I take light cuts with a slow feed rate. I don’t rely on a jointer for a finish-ready surface, so even with a spiral cutter head, I will continue to scrape or sand to a final surface. The results I have seen so far using a spiral cutter head on figured wood have been spectacular. I have face-jointed birds-eye maple, curly birch, quilted maple, and quarter-sawn white oak, all with great results.
Helical vs. Spiral. When looking into spiral cutter heads, you will hear the terms “spiral” and “helical” used nearly interchangeably, but there is a slight difference between these two designs. Both designs feature a machined steel head with small square cutters placed along the surface in a spiral pattern. The primary difference lies in the orientation of each cutter. Spiral cutter heads position each blade, so the active cutting edge is perpendicular to the jointer’s feed direction. This would be a similar cutting action to a hand plane, taking a cut straight into a piece of the wood grain.
Helix cutter heads, on the other hand, operate more like a sheer or skew cut taken with a hand plane, as the cutters are positioned at an angle to the feed rate. Theoretically, this shearing action should provide a superior finish, as it does with a sheer cut on a hand plane. In practice, however, when applying a slow feed rate and a shallow cut, the surfaces produced on a figured stock by each style cutter head are nearly perfect to the naked eye, so it isn’t easy to substantiate a claim that one is better than the other without employing some level of magnification. And at that point, it becomes a science project rather than a meaningful measure of woodworking precision or productivity, which causes me to lose interest.
Decisions, Decisions. Is a spiral cutter head right for you? Considering this upgrade, the following simple table might help you determine the trade-offs.
Knife-based Cutter head vs. Spiral Cutter head
- Do you use your jointer for multiple weekly hours? Heavy use is a good indicator that spiral might be a good fit.
- Do you do a lot of face jointing? Face jointing is quieter with spiral cutter heads and produces a superior surface.
- Does spending a few hundred dollars make you cringe? Traditional knives can save you several hundred dollars compared to spiral cutter heads.
- Are you intimidated by changing jointer knives and precisely setting the height of each knife?
- Insert tooling is a breeze to rotate, re-seat, and resume playtime.
- Are you a tool junkie? Spiral cutter heads are newer technology with a major cool factor, and I’ll bet your neighbor doesn’t have one yet, so you will have bragging rights.
I like the concept behind spiral and helical cutter heads, and I took the plunge and ordered one with my recent jointer purchase. As a hobbyist, I consider this a luxurious indulgence. I need to use a jointer more to justify the expense based on any cost savings I will incur down the road. But the surface quality, quieter operation, ease of blade change, etc., make it an attractive upgrade for any woodworker who can afford one without cutting into grocery money.This upgrade is a no-brainer for professional woodworkers who use their jointer. Minimized downtime due to blade swaps, less sanding time on face jointed surfaces, and fewer sharpening expenses add to real savings and competitive advantage due to better productivity.
What do you think? Are you using a spiral cutter head in your jointer? If so, let us know why you bought it and what you think of it in the comments section below. Questions? Please feel free to post those in the discussion forum so we can continue to add to the knowledge base that is growing there.
Photos by Author unless otherwise credited.
Can I get a replacement helical spiral cutting head for my W2864 20″ planer?
Thank you for contacting us. Here is what the expert had to say: I would check with these folks: https://shelixheads.com/
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I use a spiral head cutter on my Grizzly jointer. Love it. Would not work with anything else.
I’ve been a hobbyist woodworker for 40+years. I just upgraded my planer ($1200) and jointer ($650) with helical cutter heads. Wish I had done it a decade ago. However, the price was always the deterrent. Every manufacturer that sells to “hobbyists” gouges them. (“Get as much money as you can as fast as you can” and “What the market will bear” are their mantras.) Any reasonable comparison with similar machine tooling removes any legitimate, (or honest), defense of the prices for this tooling. Nevertheless, if you are a professional, or you are someone for whom “money is no object”, OR you are just old and retired and have decided that you ‘deserve’ the performance in spite of the gouging, GET one of these cutter heads. You WILL appreciate it. And if you’re not happy with the performance of the new head, (ignoring the cost), you are doing something wrong.
I currently own one jointer and one thicknesser, both made by Invicta/Delta in Brazil about 30 years ago and still perform very well. I changed the cutterheads of both machines by also made in Brazil helical carbide cutterheads. I think all your remarks about these cutterheads absolutely true and I am very happy with them in spite of the cost. I am a weekend woodworker and really don’t need superior machines but rewarding myself with these upgrades made me feel very good, fixing blades is in the past and I have more time to really enjoy woodworking.
Can they be use on an old Craftsman joiner. Mine is about 30 years old and gets little use because of the pain of setting the knives.
My shaper and planer are older knife style. Where can I find out whether or not they are compatible for replacement with either the spiral or helix cutter heads? Is there a model chart of compatibility available?
I’d suggest checking with the manufacturer of your equipment to see if they have any options first. It is also worth checking with third party suppliers such as these folks https://shelixheads.com/ as they have a good handle on compatibility as well.
Woodworkers Guild of America
I have an old but beauty INCA over under 8.5″ jointer/planner. In spite of having the gauges to set the knives this was pretty much a day long job. I bit the bullet and bought a SHELIX replacement head sold by BYRD Tools. Due to the age of my machine it was a custom order. It took some effort=time to install but in the end what a difference. I buy my lumber in the rough and the first job after installation was a Lacewood and Black Walnut box. It machined the figured wood with no problem or tear out. I was so impressed that i immediately ordered a head for my dewalt thickness planner. i am equally pleased here. Noised factor is greatly reduced as you are not turning a solid blade through the air. With the cutters the air can move with less effort between them resulting in less resistance and hence less noise. My only knock on the cutters is that they tend to snipe a bit more than blades. It is an easy solution on the thickness planer by passing a sacrificial piece behind your good wood. Not so easy on the jointer. I have checked my tables and they are aligned so right now i simply leave a little extra length to be trimmed at the miter station. In the end what sold me was the ease of changing the cutter heads especially when you get the inevitable nick in a nice new set of blades. Even if you are simply a weekend warrior the price is justifiable. Think of it this way . With 4 rotations per cutter, you may never have to buy another set of blades.
And no tear out. You can pretty much forget about grain direction. This is a huge deal, and extremely important on figured woods. (At least with Shelix.)
I do a lot of work with Teak and as most folks know, teak is very destructive on sharp steel due to the silica in the wood. I traded in my jointer for a new jointer with a spiral head…. Worked so well that I also bought a new planer with a spiral cutter head. My large band saw even has carbide tips on the blade. Carbide is the only way to go in my opinion.
It’s a shear cut. Not a sheer cut.
I have an older Grizzly 20″ planer that I upgraded with a Byrd helical cutter head. An easy installation and what a difference. Much quieter and the quality of the cut is very good.
Other davantage, when Cutting large pieces of Wood, the motor work less since only a few cutters work at one time
I’ve used my traditional Delta 6″ jointer for about 25 years and recently upgraded to a new 6″ that had a longer bed and spiral cutter heads. I’ve been nothing short of amazed and would say if you have the extra few hundred bucks you will not be disappointed.
I am a box maker so my thicknesser/jointer is an important machine for me.
Bought a combination machine with spiral cutters last year and could not be happier. My next purchase was going to be a drum sander but with the finish I get from my machine I am not going to bother.
As another contributor has noted, for a hobbyist the cost of replacement is not really an issue as with four edges to each cutter and the longer life of each edge, replacement is not likely to be necessary for a long, long time. In any case the cutters can be sharpened. My woodwork club get ours sharpened by our local sharpening shop for very little money.
George, i’ am still not sure if i should go with the Helical Cutterhead or the spiral Cutterhead. I’ am a novice and would appreciate any advice you have to offer including parallelogram beads and what brand. Can you help?
Hi Wesley. I think that the differences between spiral and helical cutterheads are overrated. I would choose a great jointer, and then go with the spiral/helical option that is offered with it.
If you have space and budget for an 8″ jointer, you will never regret it. It’s amazing how much rough lumber that I buy that will fit on an 8″ jointer but not on a 6″ jointer. If I had the space I’d go to a 12″ jointer, but an 8″ serves me pretty well. When I started to exclusively use rough cut lumber and had to face joint everything, I quickly felt like I had outgrown my 6″ jointer. Learn from my mistakes: If you buy it now, you won’t have to upgrade later, and it will cost you less in the long run. 🙂 I also like parallelogram jointers quite a bit and I feel that they are generally worth the additional cost. If you ever have to true up a sagging bed you’ll know what I’m talking about.
This one would be the ideal jointer IMO: https://amzn.to/2UXel0X
Or, you could buy it without the helical head and still have an outstanding jointer https://amzn.to/2X5ueUT
Here’s a nice 6″ jointer. I had one of these for many years and loved it before I ugraded to an 8″ machine.
Paul-Woodworkers Guild of America
I have had my Grizzly G0490X Jointer for almost a year now and the only problem that it has created is that it produces such a superior surface compared to my planer(which has knives), that I have added a replacement Spiral Cutterhead to my wish list.
In a sharpener and one service I want to offer clients is resurfacing curting boards so I bought a deealt dw735. The problem I’m having is especially on cutting boards thinner than 1/2 inch, the 3 blade cutting head is grabing the board, and lifting it up into the cutting blade, ripping the board up. Will a carbide spiral blade relieve this issue. Is it worth the $300 investment to try? I was about to sell the planet and give up on tgus service all together.
It sounds like the cutting boards you are planing are not completely flat. Have you tried building a planer sled to support your cutting boards as they go through the planer? Something like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrUcHUqTSyM
I want my machine to be easy to set up, and save me time. The perfect smoothness on figured wood is the clincher. My Grizzly spiral cutter is on the way. And as a bonus, the grizzly comes with the pulley, and berings installed
Informative article. Good, solid points, and practical approach. Helped me make the decision on which way to go.
[…] cutters are also called spiral cutters. Many of the jointers on the market today are made with conventional knives but can be converted to […]
Hi Mike. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. This is being corrected.
Jean-WWGOA Video Membership
I believe you have the pictures in the wrong place to match the description of spiral vs helical.
Do you make customized cutter head ?
I am a furniture maker and have had the same 3 phase machines for all of my 28 years at work. I recently replaced the cutter heads on both my Yates American #1 jointer (1951) and my Yates American J-18 surface planer(1938). I am not sure who made the other heads that are being talked about here, my jointer head was made by Bryde, and my planer one was made at Hermance Machine Co. I have to tell you, there is a huge performance difference in the machine, both is audible loudness, but more importantly, the finished surface. I would urge any professional furniture maker to replace their straight knives to helical as soon as you can afford the time. Hermance offered me much quicker turn around time than Bryde, plus personally I felt their service overall was better. I am happy I have made the conversion. Cheers.
Hi everyone! I’m in the market for a jointer and planer for my new shop. I’m still doing my research and inquiries with either HSS blades or spiral cutterheads. One salesperson as discouraged me from acquiring any tools with spiral cutterheads as the replacement carbide cutters are expensive. By doing further research, I got to figure out that the cutterhead cutting surface will last on average 3 times that of HSS blade as for dullness. When you know that you have 4 surfaces on the cutterheads, this also tells me as a hobbyist I will never see the end of these cutterheads. Therefore it’s a no brainer, saving time removing, sharpening, installing, adjusting and re-adjusting. The cutterheads seems like an advantage that cannot be overlooked. As well I will be keeping my old portable planer to remove the real ruff stuff or dubious wood and keep my new machines well honed.
Excellent, well written article. Thanks!
Excellent discussion. One observation: the shearing action of the spiral head results in a longer cutting surface to sever the wood fiber, resulting in lower power requirement and a cleaner cut. Only analogy I see is cutting a loaf of bread with or without a sliding action of your knife. Brett 4/5/16
Edit 4/5/16 post: change the word “spiral” to “helical”. Thank you, Brett 4/6/16
I am an active hobbyist and installed a helical cutter in my Dewalt benchtop planer awhile back. It takes about an hour. All of the advantages noted are real and worthwhile. But to me perhaps the biggest advantage is that you can do way more with less power. This is not simply because the blades are sharper longer but because the machine is doing less at a time. With the helical design I have there is probably only about an inch in contact with the wood at any time, not a whole 12 inch blade. The difference is dramatic. If you have ever tried to thickness a 12 inch wide board in a table top planer you will know it is a challenge. I did hundreds of feet of hardwood recently with very low strain on the machine and a beautiful finish. Remarkable really. I’m just in the process of upgrading my 6″ jointer which is otherwise seriously underpowered.
Actually the helical cutters require slightly more power to run as they are always in contact with the board as opposed to the 2 or 3 knife configuration which is only in contact 2 or 3 time per revolution. Watch the StumpyNubs video on the Byrd Tool Shelix website & he discusses all the pros & cons. http://www.byrdtool.com/shelix
U have any dealor in india
We do not sell this piece of equipment. This was an overview of this jointer head cutter design. You can check with woodworking tool retailers in your area to see if spiral cutterheads are available for your jointer.
Clever reapplication o existing tech. Feedback fro makerspaces
would be my deciding factor. Many good points in production situations, but for hobbyists , I will rely on large anecdotal input
I’m a furniture maker from Holland and I never used these cutter heads before now I use one in the planer and the result is that you can see all the knives separately marked in the wood. There is no way you can adjust them, I mean how can this be an upgrade? We cleaned every seat of every knife but still the same bad result. Just long stripes over the whole plank. Are we just out of luck or is this a common problem?
Thank you for your comment. In Paul’s experience, the lines can be caused by making a really heavy pass. If this is followed by a lighter pass, the lines go away. If lighter passes don’t take care of this, you should check with the cutterhead manufacturer.
Hi Jacobus, In Paul’s experience the lines can be caused by making a really heavy pass. If this is followed by a lighter pass, the lines go away. If lighter passes don’t take care of this, you should check with the cutterhead manufacturer.
spiral cutters cannot do a deep as cut as conventual knives
This is clearly and upgrade for finish work! It is more durable, quieter, and gives a better result, especially in harder wood!