Helical Cutterhead Makes Better Tenons - Popular Woodworking Magazine

Helical Cutterhead Makes Better Tenons

 In Joinery, Shop Blog, Techniques

I’ve told this story to many woodworkers, but I have yet to post it in a blog. One day before Dad passed, he called me to complain that he was having to fit every tenon to it’s mortise by hand. (Many woodworkers choose to work that way, but to us it was a detriment in that the process is slow, takes too much time and lengthens what is a mundane process at best.)

We formed our tenons in a two-step process at a table saw – one cut made with a board flat to the saw top (shoulder cut), and a second cut made with the board standing vertical (cheek cut). From the saw, we were ready to assemble the joint.

When he told me he was fighting the fit, I asked what he had changed. He had changed his planer knives. He had installed the three knives so there was a slope in the cut; his knives were not parallel to the planer bed. This is a problem even if the knives were out only .003” because lumber pushed through the planer held toward the right of the bed would be a different thickness from lumber run through held toward the left side of the bed. Those small differences change the thickness of a tenon completed using a two-step method. We reset his knives and he was back in the game.

If you set your planer knives and don’t wish to fuss to get the settings right-on, there is an end-around method. Cut your tenons with a dado stack then trim each tenon to fit into the mortise. If this is the method you choose, you have to cut your tenons oversized in thickness because of the nonparallel settings of your knives – you cannot dial in a perfect fit due to the lumber being different thicknesses. (That’s more shop production time lost as you fit each tenon.) If you do get lucky enough to hit a few of your tenons at the correct thickness to fit the mortises, your surface is not as smooth off a dado stack, as shown in photo below.

Where else can you lose production time when cutting your tenons with a dado stack? How about your tools? If you need to, you can work a precisely cut tenon with a rasp or shinto (that band-saw-blade looking tool in the photo below). If you have to fit your tenon, you’ll need a shoulder plane due to the amount of material you need to remove. That requires set-up and sharpening. More time.

What does all this have to do with helical cutterheads? If you install a helical head in your machine, or purchase a planer with one installed, you do not need to set the blades. The head is set parallel to the planer bed and if you get a nicked knife, you can rotate the insert and get back to work. (Read about that here.) As a result, the possibility of your planer giving you different thickness of lumber is nil. That means you can use a two-step method to accurately cut your tenons so the fit is dead-on. Therefore, a helical cutterhead makes better tenons.

— Glen D. Huey

For more information on woodworking joints, check out:

“Woodwork Joints” by William Fairham. It’s a revised edition from the first quarter of the 20th Century that discusses both the major and minor woodworking joints.
“Illustrated Cabinetmaking: How to Design and Construct Furniture that Works” by Bill Hylton. This is one of the most prized furniture constructing books in my collection.



Recommended Posts
Showing 4 comments
  • norton7910

    Me too. Best upgrade I ever made. I even gave my son one for his jointer.Too bad he will never know how frustrating and time consuming trying to set up new blades is and I even hated to use my newly set up blades for fear of nicking them.

  • Mitch Wilson

    Glen- last year, when you replaced the shop’s planer cutterhead with the helical one (do you do auto transmissions, too?), didn’t you say that with the multiple knives that you had more surface ridges and irregularities than with standard straight knives? Wouldn’t this, in turn, require further surface preparation with your hand planes, thus negating the time saved? Also building in a higher chance of getting inconsistent thickness due to operator error.

    • Justin Tyson

      I’ve never used helical blades, but I’ve actually read here and elsewhere that lumber dimensioned with them requires less smoothing with hand planes because there is less tearout than with straight knives. Tearout would be a lot trickier to deal with than the tiny ridges left by the helical cutter head.

    • Steve_OH

      The ridges are on the thousandths-of-an-inch scale. I have a Shelix head in my jointer. With my smoothing plane at a fine setting (about 0.002″ shaving thickness), it takes only two passes across the surface to completely remove any traces of the jointer cutters. There’s not much chance of operator error causing a problem in that scenario.

      (That said, there are apparently some other insert-based cutterheads around that are worse–in some cases much, much worse–than the Shelix head, in terms of how much clean up is required.)

      To put it into an overall perspective, I hand plane virtually all of the surfaces of my projects, and after using a Shelix cutterhead in my jointer, I will never, ever go back to steel knives. And as soon as I can justify the cost, I will replace my planer with one that accepts a Shelix head, too.


Start typing and press Enter to search