The Case for Combo Machines

For years many American woodworkers have looked to Europe for quality hand tools. Chisels and saws from England, wooden planes from Germany, carving tools from Switzerland and Sweden. But we have usually stuck close to home when it comes to big power tools. We look to Delta, Powermatic, Craftsman and Jet for our table saws, band saws, jointers, planers and shapers. Though an increasing number of these are imports from Taiwan and China, these machines are almost all copies of home-grown models.

Given our admiration of European tools, it has long puzzled me why more Americans haven’t adopted one of the most common fixtures of European shops, the combination machine. Merging from two to five basic woodworking machines in a single unit, these machines are ideal for home shops where space is often at a premium. And even if your shop is roomy, a combination machine can offer features, capacity and quality found only on top-of-the-line stand-alone machines.

European-style combination machines sold in the United States come in three basic types. One combines a table saw and shaper. Another combines a jointer and planer, with an optional horizontal mortiser. The third merges all these tools: table saw, shaper, jointer, planer and (still an option) horizontal mortiser. These five-function machines are sometimes called 5-in-1s, and are available in a wide range of sizes and prices. The Zincken MIA4, for instance, offers a 6″ table saw, 6″ jointer and planer, a shaper and a horizontal mortiser, all run by a single 1hp motor and selling for about $750. At the other end of the market is the Felder CF7-41. For about $13,000 you get a 12″ table saw with state-of-the-art sliding table; a 16″ jointer and planer; a 1″ reversible, tilting-arbor shaper; and (for an extra $1,000 or so) a horizontal mortiser. Three separate 3hp motors drive the five tools.

I grew up with American-style machines in my dad’s shop and knew nothing of combination machines until I worked in English shops as a young man. Sold on their value, I looked for a combination machine when I moved back to the states in the mid 1970s. Finding none, I reverted to the readily available stand-alone models, still hoping I’d eventually find a combo.

In the early 1980s, I began to see ads for European combination machines in woodworking magazines. Since then, I have owned two 5-in-1 machines, one small and one mid-range. My experience leads me to believe that while combination machines aren’t for everyone, many more American woodworkers ought to consider them seriously.

For years, working out of borrowed or rented garages, barns and basements, I used a Zincken Compact 21 (or ZC-21), with a 9″ table saw, 8″ jointer/planer, a shaper and a mortiser. It took up less space and weighed less than a Delta Unisaw and was only a few hundred dollars more expensive. Lightweight and compact, it is an ideal tool for workshops that share space with ping-pong tables or cars. Mounted on a homemade rolling platform, mine easily wheeled out of the way when not in use.

Most important, it gave me all the basic machines I needed for solid-wood projects. The table saw ripped 1″-thick oak without lugging; 2″ if fed slowly. Its simple sliding table crosscut accurately and conveniently. The 8″ jointer/planer ensured that my material was flat and uniformly thick. The horizontal mortiser cut neat accurate mortises between ?” and ?” wide and up to 2″ deep. And the shaper profiled edges, cut joints and also functioned as a router table. With this small machine I was able to build everything from jewelry boxes to 6′-long trestle tables, including cabinets and chests of all sizes.

Of course, the machine has its limitations. The table saw is small; the jointer tables are short. A Delta Unisaw and 8″ jointer are without doubt superior. But together they cost about $2,500. Moving down-market, a 10″ Grizzly contractor’s saw and 8″ jointer cost about $1,100. Buy either pair, and you still don’t have the planer, mortiser or shaper incorporated in the ZC-21.

My ZC-21 served me well in a number of less than commodious workspaces. But when I finally bought my own house and was able to build a 500-square-foot shop next to it, I found myself hankering for something bigger. Though I’m a fan of combos, I don’t deny there are advantages to stand-alone equipment. Even Morrie Kilberg, whose company D-M International distributes Zinckens in North America, recommends stand-alone machines to people with the space and money. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I bought a Grizzly 10″ cabinet table saw and 8″ jointer and refurbished an old Parks 12″ planer. I kept the Zincken for shaping and mortising and for fine jointing and planing. In some ways, I had the best of both worlds.

But, a year ago when I got the chance to buy a bigger combination machine, I jumped at it. Since I first saw the Robland X-31 advertised about a decade ago, I have wanted one. An 1,100-pound machine, the X-31 incorporates a 10″ sliding-table table saw, 12″ jointer/planer, a heavy duty shaper and a horizontal mortiser, all powered by three 3hp motors. After traipsing 600 miles (each way) and parting with about $4,000 (a new machine costs $6,000 plus shipping), I rolled my used X-31 into the shop and sold my stand-alone table saw, jointer, planer and the trusty old Zincken, recouping half the X-31 purchase price. The X-31 occupies about 36 square feet near the center of my shop. Selling the other machines opened up space for a drill press, band saw and dust collector (as well as room for the family’s bicycles). Though it weighs half a ton, the machine can be moved with relative ease by means of a three-point caster system.

The X-31 is not without faults. But, taken individually, each of its machines are a step above every stand-alone equivalent I’ve ever owned. The machine is vibration free and the 3hp motors are more than adequate whether I’m ripping 3″ maple or planing a 12″-wide piece of oak. The table saw and jointer fencing arrangement is problematic (more about that later), but the sliding table is a joy to use.

Advantages and Disadvantages

A comparison between the combination machines I’m familiar with and equivalent stand-alone machines is useful, but not always straightforward because woodworkers’ needs and preferences are so varied. The strength of the Zincken ZC-21, for example, is not that it is a better table saw than the Delta 8″ bench saw, but that it provides a good-quality jointer, planer and shaper as well, allowing you to store an entire woodworking machine shop along the wall of your garage.

It is easier, I think, to compare larger combination machines with their stand-alone counterparts. These combos offer 10″ or 12″ table saws and 12″ jointer-planers and spindle shapers all powered by meaty motors. In my experience, these comparisons are at worst a draw and frequently yield a decided advantage to combos. The Robland X-31 outperforms stand-alones in several areas, and I’m confident that the Mini-Max, Hammer and Euro-Shop 5-in-1 machines of similar capacity and price share these advantages. In some instances, these machines exceed the X-31.

Table Saw

A sliding table is a standard feature of all these combos and of none of the American-style cabinet saws — advantage clearly to the combos. (Some smaller bench saws now offer standard sliding tables.) The X-31’s 3hp motor and heavy frame produce vibration-free operation, more so, I must say, than most Unisaw-style machines I’ve used. Other table saw features are, for the most part, a toss up.

The fencing systems on some combos, however, fall short of their stand-alone competition. As currently sold, the X-31 uses a single two-sided fence that slides on a round guide bar attached to the end of the jointer outfeed table. One side of the fence is a rip fence for the table saw, the other serves the jointer.

While accurate, the fence is ungainly, heavy and awkward to set up. This is better than some of the fences I’ve used, but it’s no match for a Biesemeyer or a fence on a stand-alone jointer. (Not all combos have fence problems — Felder fences, for instance, are superb.)

This fencing arrangement, with its guidebar-mounted fence mimicking common American setups, is the latest in a series of attempts by Robland to adapt the fencing to American tastes. As a used machine, my X-31 came with the original European fencing, which I like better. A small but sturdy and accurate aluminum fence mounted to the front of the machine handles rips up to about 10″ wide. Attaching a larger center-mounted fence to the edge of the jointer outfeed table accommodates rips up to about 2 feet wide. The same fence, mounted on the table saw table, serves the jointer.

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