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The best way to surface figured or difficult woods is to use a jointer or planer with an expensive cutterhead that’s equipped with “insert tooling.” Insert tooling is when the cutterhead is made up of an array of small, easy-to-replace knives arranged in (usually) a helical or spiral pattern around the cutterhead.

These fancy cutterheads have been available on industrial machines for a long time, and in recent years, they also have been trickling onto the bigger workshop machines for the home, such as 15″ planers and 8″ jointers.

After poking around the booths at the International Woodworking Fair today, we’ve also learned that these fancy cutterheads are about to make a leap into uncharted territory: The 15-amp suitcase planer you can buy at a home center.

Two manufacturers are either developing or currently building these cutterheads, and we got to take a look at them in action or in place on the machines.

First up is Steel City Tool Works. This Tennessee-based manufacturer of machinery is upgrading its model 40200 13″ planer to use a special investment-cast cutterhead that accepts insert tooling. The company is also planning to offer a 16″ portable (yes, portable) planer that uses the same cutterhead technology, plus that machine will have granite tables.

The 13″ planer will have 26 knives arranged in a spiral around the cutterhead. Unlike other manufacturers, Steel City will be using high-speed steel for the knives instead of carbide. Company officials estimate you would have to run about 10,000 linear feet of lumber using the high-speed steel knives before you had to change them out – that’s a lot of wood for the home woodworker.

The cutterhead is unlike anything we’ve seen here at the magazine. Instead of being made from one piece of metal, the cutterhead was comprised of many layers fastened together. Think of it like a stack of doughnuts.

Craig Walls with Steel City says the planer should be ready for sale by Christmas and should cost $749. That’s an interesting price. It’s $200 more than the premium DeWalt DW735, but it’s much less than an entry-level 15″ planer with an insert cutterhead.

The Aftermarket Solution: Byrd Tool
If you already own a suitcase planer, you might be able to buy an aftermarket carbide-insert cutterhead for it from Byrd Tool of Leitchfield, Ky. Byrd Tool makes premium helical cutterheads for jointers and planers and has been making some cutterheads for portable planers.

“The customers have been asking for it,” says Garry Jackson with Byrd Tool.

Thomas Byrd showed off a DW735 that was equipped with a helical cutterhead with 39 knives. After running an oak board though the machine, its surface looked like glass, with just a few little lines running through the surface. In other words, it looked nothing like the cut you’d get with a cutterhead with straight knives.

In addition to the DeWalt, Byrd says they’ve made cutterheads for both Ridgid and Craftsman machines and more are in the works. The price? For the DeWalt, Byrd says the cutterhead would cost about $400 to $410.

Is it difficult to replace the head on a portable planer? I’ve replaced the heads on a couple stationary machines and found it to be surprisingly easy. But after looking at the instructions Byrd wrote up for the DW735, I’d say the process looks more complex. There are more gears and chains to mess with. But it still looks do-able for anyone handy with a wrench. PW

Chris is the editor of Popular Woodworking.

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