521 Thickness planer “Death Match”

March 15, 2014

Steel City Thickness planer

Now that I lured you in with that “misleading” title here’s what today’s episode is really all about, a side-by-side comparison of my old Rigid 13” thickness planer and the new-to-me Steel City Tool Works 13” thickness planer with helical-style cutter head.

Actually that description is also a little misleading considering the only thing being compared are the cutter heads. The Rigid planer has a traditional 2 straight-blade cutter head while the SCTW has a helical-style cutter head, which features numerous smaller cutters laid out in a helical pattern.

Really my goal today was to demonstrate (to myself and you of course) that there is a noticeable difference between these two styles of cutter heads. So to achieve this goal I grabbed some scrap highly figured curly-maple, ripped it in half and fed one through each machine. The result? I guess you’ll have to watch to find out.

***FOR THE SAKE OF COMPLETE TRANSPARENCY: I originally received the Steel City Tool Works 13” planer for a review segment in 2013. Then after working with the staff of SCTW for an event at their Head Quarters, I received the tool as partial payment for my time and assistance. But I can assure you, my opinions on the tool are completely my own and cannot be altered by the manufacturer***

***NOTE: Jan. 2015 Currently this model of Steel City Tool Works planer is no longer available, but if you find it used…it might be a great investment?***

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  1. wilbur says:

    Nice side-by-side demo, Matt. One thing I noticed was that the helical head was much less annoying in terms of the noise than the straight blade cutter. Did you notice that at all?

    • Matt says:

      I can’t say that I did…but now I’m curious to confirm it.

      • Callum says:

        I might be able to help here. I don’t have a helical planer in the shop right now but I’ll see if I can get my one back from the engineers (who took it for some R&D and never gave it back, the bastards) I can run a side by side test between one of our straight knife units and the helical and see how they stack up. I recently invested in a decibel meter for exactly this sort of thing so it makes sense to do it.
        I’m not sure where my one is so I’ll have to go to the boss, Oliver Twist style and ask for some more, Helical head planer please.

  2. Paul says:

    I thought you couldn’t just replace one blade because it would have more metal than the others which have been dulled from use. Resulting in the new blade protruding slightly more than the rest.

    • Matt says:

      I’m not sure if that’s a major concern or not? I can see where it might be considered a problem if the newest was considerably larger, but it’s not mentioned in the manual.

      I’m sure the blade manufacturer would like it that way LOL!

  3. dylan says:

    Have you seen the Craftsman 15 amp 13″Planer with Spiral Cutterhead (81158)? I don’t own it and cannot find any reviews on it. Since i doubt craftsman developed their own cutterhead, I wonder if it has the same cutterhead as the Steal city?

    • Matt says:

      It’s very possible. This cutter head is actually made be Accuhead, so it could be in multiple manufacturers and models.

  4. Jim says:

    I have been interested in this Steel City planer, but I was concerned by some reviews that said that the cutter head area was filled with grease on delivery. Some people returned it after being unable to get the planer from leaving grease on the board.
    Did you have this problem?

    • Matt says:

      I didn’t notice anything on the board. But I only ran this one through and none others.

      I will admit there was a LOT of grease on the cutter head when I inspected it. Maybe mine was under greased?

  5. Kevin says:

    I’ve joked about having two planers and hanging one upside-down behind the other to plane both sides at the same time. You could live the dream. And I bet the video would get lots of views. What could possibly go wrong?

  6. tom says:

    I wondered if one type takes more or less power than the other, if less amps are drawn wouldn’t the motor last longer

  7. Dan says:

    Does the 40200H take the standard size insert (it would be nice to replace them with carbide down the line)?

    Also, it appears that Highland is no longer selling the 40200H and they are redirecting to the lighter/less expensive 40300HC (exclusive model with carbide 2 sided inserts and slightly different features). Have you had a chance to work with the 40300HC? I’m on the fence between the two.

    Any thoughts?

    • Matt says:

      I didn’t have an opportunity to try out the 40300HC but when you compare the specs side-by-side it appears the biggest difference (aside from the overall dimensions of the body) is that the cutterhead spins at 10,000 RPM versus the 40200H’s 9000 RPM.

      I know that Highland Woodworking will frequently order very specific tools from a manufacturer to sell to their customers. In this situation, it appears they opted to only sell the Carbide insert version of the 40300H, the 40300HC. Otherwise, this same model would come standard with the HSS inserts already on the 40200H.

      And speaking of carbide inserts, it appears it is possible to get them for the 40200. While they’re not listed under the accessories at the website, if you download the PDF with all the specs for either model you’ll see the Carbide inserts listed as an option to purchase. I’ll let you know what I think about upgrading to the carbide version as soon as I wear these HSS inserts down.

      • Dan says:

        I ended up buying the 40300HC Planer from Highland, and while the cuts are great so far, it was packed to the brim with cosmoline. On the positive side, there was no rust to be seen whatsoever. However, even after cleaning per the instructions the cutterhead would drip freshly melted grease down on the table and wood. I have a fleeting suspicion that the Steel City factory may have been inspired by creme filled donuts filled the cutterhead with grease in the same fashion.

        I took of all the guards and cleaned everything deeply (everything except for taking off every single cutter) and while clean, it still has a bit of residual grease drippage. I’m going to run some 2x4s through it when I get a chance and see if I can get everything soaked up from the cleaning power of home center pine.

        Aside from the grease issue which is prevalent in most equipment I’ve purchased coming out of Chinese factories (I’m looking at you Grizzly (and every other major manufacturer it seems!)), the quality of the machine is great. The raise/lower mechanism is smooth, accurate and responsive and the cut quality is great.

        I have a good feeling that I’ll beat the grease issue soon and then enjoy the glassy/smooth cuts, but I will drop a note if it is a continuing thing.

        • Matt says:

          Wow! Maybe that was someone’s first day on the job lol?!

          • Dan says:

            Hah! It may have been. I like to think it’s a salty veteran that invented a new feature – it treats the first few boards you plane to a fine oil finish.

            I really do like the planer and would recommend it as it truly is a great value for a sturdy segmented cutterhead planer. Snipe is minimal, especially now that I’ve mounted it on my chop/miter saw stand (making use of all that infeed/outfeed support).


  8. Callum says:

    Nice writeup Matt, you’re right about the chip size from the helical. When I plane wide stock on the straight knife my dust extract always gets blocked but with the helical it never does. I’ve noticed a slight difference in finishing time too, but I tend to sand finish with a pneumatic random orbital so it’s the difference between starting at 150# and 240#.
    I also don’t mind sanding (I finish to #600 pretty often) so it’s really a non-issue for me. The one place it does matter is for doing edges for glue up. I try to avoid sanding them because you can never be sure to get them straight and those scallops make for a slight glue-up gap which is a little less than ideal.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks for the feedback Callum! I’m really impressed with the surface. It could almost get me to stop thinking of the thickness planer as a rough tool only LOL!

  9. Larry Thayer says:

    Nice, concise, information. I give it five stars.

  10. I have a Sears 6″ thickness planer, circa 1950s. It’s on a stand and works fine. I don’t need it and want to sell it. What is it worth? Any help would be appreciated. Thanks Bill

  11. John L says:

    Matt, have you been aware of some of the problems associated with Steel City’s planer above? The folks at LumberJocks were not all that happy. It seems that new thickness planers were arriving with way too much grease, and in one case, the helical blades were not aligned properly. Another member mentioned that he was actually talked out of purchasing one, by the salesman on the phone. Also, Home Depot has taken this model off their listing, with no explanation.

    I’m in the marked for one of these lesser expensive planers, and have not made up my mind. But the problems associated with the Steel City planer were two or three years ago, with time to correct the problem. Are you aware of this potential handicap, and what do you think here?

    • Matt says:

      I can’t say for certain that all the issues mentioned have been taken care by Steel City. I know when I was at their HQ last year there was a lot of talk about them with the retailers that showed up to see their “then” new line of tools. The folks at SCTW were doing a lot of explaining and reassuring they were being addressed.

      Last I knew they had put in place a QC system in their main warehouse that allowed them to open randomly selected tools to inspect, assemble, and then prep for shipping. In other words, they were making attempts to ensure they were delivering what they advertised.

      I don’t know for certain if they’re continuing this process as robustly as what I saw, but I haven’t had a major issue so far with my own model.

      As far as I’m concerned, I think every manufacturer runs into a bit of a bad run from time-to-time, I would simply suggest to carefully inspect your new tools and to not be afraid to remind them of that warranty card if things start to go bad.

      • John L says:

        Matt, I’ve pretty much decided what I’m going to do. I have been looking most favorably at the DeWalt dw734, or the Ridgid R4331. All of them are made by the same factory, but with different lipstick applied. It truth, I am pretty certain it will be the Ridgid, because they have the free lifetime service warranty, which is really hard to walk away from. I’ve checked with HomeDepot and they gave me the authorized service company here in the Raleigh area.

        If so, I’ll put an Accu-Head on it later. A Shelix is perhaps just a bit much, if you know what I mean. Either way, a helical will be the way to eventually move. I’m just attracted by the security of that lifetime warranty. 😉

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