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How To Choose a Jointer



If you’re into woodworking, it’s not a matter of if you need a jointer, it’s a matter of when. A jointer turns rough lumber into something usable by flattening sides and creating perfectly angled corners. This finished lumber fits together perfectly, improving the quality of your projects. How does a jointer fit into your wood shop, and how do you pick the right one for your needs?

Do I Need a Jointer?

If you do any amount of woodworking, you need a jointer. Owning one can save you considerable time and money on your projects, and improve the results of your work.

A jointer smooths the surface of wood, squares the sides and removes rough edges from rough-hewn pieces. This creates the flat sides and perfect angles you need to successfully join pieces of wood together for your woodworking projects. Once the jointer is set up, you can push piece after piece of rough stock down the infeed table and get wood that’s ready to use.

It is possible to do everything a jointer does by hand, but this turns jobs that take a few minutes with this tool into hours of work. You can also buy completely finished wood, but this can get pricey for large projects. Having a jointer lets you buy rough or partially finished wood and turn it into finished stock quickly and easily. You can recoup the cost of the jointer through lower lumber costs, while also saving time over hand-finishing.

What Should I Look For When Buying a Jointer?

Jointers aren’t cheap, but if you go for the lowest-priced option, you can quickly find your new purchase going in the garbage. Picking the right model is a matter of balancing quality and useful features against your budget.

If you want a jointer to last, you need one made of as much metal as possible. Cast iron offers the best durability for infeed and outfeed tables. Aluminum is common for other components because it’s durable and lightweight, keeping the total weight of the jointer down without compromising reliability. There are people who argue that parallelogram beds are better than wedge and extendable beds because they offer better weight support. However, in practice, you probably won’t see a difference in wear or sagging between these designs over the life of the jointer.

A straight knife head is cheaper than a spiral cut head, but the compromises aren’t worth the savings. A spiral head has more points of contact, letting each blade slice off less wood per pass than a straight knife. This all but eliminates the scalloped surface you get with straight knife cutting. Spiral cutter bits have four sharpened points. Once one wears down, you can loosen the bit, turn it and screw it back in. Knife heads have just one surface, requiring frequent sharpening and replacement. Spiral cutter heads are also quieter, making them easier on your ears over long milling sessions.

Fences are either fixed at 90 degrees or adjustable. With a fence that can reach 135 degrees, you can make boards that end with a 45 degree angle. While long tables improve stability when milling the faces, a tall fence improves stability when milling edges.

When it comes to dust collection, look for a port that fits your shop vacuum. Most vacuums use a 2 ½- or 4-inch hose. If you have a choice, go for the larger port/hose combination.

One factor that’s easy to overlook is ease of maintenance. No matter what model you decide on, you will need to make periodic checks for straightness of various components, including the fence, tables and blades. Straight knives need to be adjusted to make sure they’re parallel with the table every time they’re installed, but spiral bits drop into place perfectly every time. Motor belt replacement can be straightforward with an open design, or require an extra pair of hands and X-ray vision to get the motor tightened and correctly positioned if it's inside a cabinet. Before you buy a jointer, take a look at the owner’s manual so you know what you’re getting into.

What Size Jointer Should I Buy?

The division between amateur and professional jointers used to be obvious. Full-size jointers could handle large boards, but even the smallest models cost thousands of dollars. Tabletop models were affordable but couldn’t stand up to serious use. However, quality and power improvements make modern benchtop jointers practical for small projects at professional woodworking shops. These small jointers are light enough to be moved around the shop, giving you options on where best to use and store them. This makes them a great choice if your shop space is limited.

How big should your tabletop jointer be? The wider a jointer is, the wider boards it can handle. The infeed and outfeed tables are also larger, so it’s easier to keep long boards stable. Cost limits most of us to 6- and 8-inch-wide tables, but that doesn’t mean you’re stuck with small boards. If you occasionally need to finish boards that are too wide for your jointer, you can rip them and mill the pieces, then glue those pieces back together. Ideally, you should get a jointer that’s large enough that you rarely need to split wood before milling.

Bigger isn’t always better. How often do you think you’ll need to move your jointer? While an 8-inch model can handle longer, wider boards, you may find that you’ll use a 6-inch model more often because it’s easier to pull out and set up. That makes the smaller jointer a better choice if you have a cramped workspace or if your jointer will be stored most of the time.