When I was looking for a thickness planer I found out that excluding a few companies (like Dewalt and Makita) most other tool manufacturers have their thickness planers built for them by one and the same Far East factory that has been in planer building business seemingly forever. I have nothing against Chinese, or Taiwanese, or Korean goods if they are properly designed and executed and the fact that a manufacturer acquired good experience over years and really knows their product only adds to this perception.
Now, looking at parts diagrams for dozens of planer models distributed under different brand names it appears that three designs are most common (and all are probably reflected in three models built by the above mentioned factory).
1. A design with four guide posts and two height adjusting screws and shaft with plastic gears connecting screws at the bottom with top height adjusting dial (crank).
2. A design with four height¬ adjusting screws (no posts) connected by a chain at the bottom, – height adjusting dial (crank) on the top.
3. A design with four posts and two height adjusting screws connected by a shaft with metal gears located in the housing for motor/rollers/cutter head, height adjusting dial on a side.
Designs 1 and 2 have a fault related to the fact that plastic gears or chain connecting screw posts are at the bottom where all wooden chips and saw dust accumulate, clogging the mechanism. Design 3 has gears and shaft that connects screw posts fully enclosed above the cutter head thus avoiding contamination. This is why I decided to go with a planer based on design 3 which was first implemented when they started building an older RIDGID TP1300 model. After replacing straight knives cutter head with segmented one it was later distributed as Steel City as 40200H and now is sold by CUTECH in the US (40200H-CT) and CARBATEC in Australia (CT-330x). All 4 planers mentioned above have identical construction with progressively improved cutter head design (RIDGID – straight knives, Steel City – steel cutter head with carbide segmented cutting inserts, CUTECH and Carbatec – modified aluminum alloy cutter head with HSS segmented cutting inserts). Segmented inserts are a blessing for the planer motor and for user’s ears. Same universal motor that tends to overheat and shut down with straight knives works in a much lighter mode when only limited cutting length is engaged at a time. And the noise when planning is much more tolerable.
I ordered my 40200H-CT from CUTECH late January, they shipped it the same day and it arrived earlier then I expected. Advise: track the package and be home when UPS truck comes. The package is HEAVY! The planer was packed in a regular card box with foam inserts; there was a puncture on one side but no damage to the content.
After unpacking and reading the manual I thoroughly cleaned the cutter head. When made for Steel City earlier generation of this model had steel cutter head completely covered in grease at the factory to prevent corrosion and that grease was a pain to remove. CUTECH version does not have this issue, but I still took time removing all cutting inserts and screws, washing them in mineral spirit, wiping cutter head with mineral spirit and spraying it with non-chlorinated brake cleaner. Then I used my compressor to blow the cutter head and carefully inspected cutter insert seating places to make sure they are squeaky clean. Even a speck of dust there might prevent an insert from indexing correctly and cause lines or ridges on the planed surface. I used my Wheeler Firearm Accurizing Torque Wrench from Brownells when re-installing inserts to torque each screw to recommending setting, and then double checked each screw. The extension tables did not need to be adjusted. They had ends a penny height higher than the planer table, - exactly as I planned to have them set up to prevent snipe.
I attached my RIDGID shop vac using 2.5 inch hose, and then went on lowering the cutter head to plane a test board. I immediately noticed that the height adjusting wheel on the side is rather hard to turn, so I ran the cutter head all the way up and down a few times to break the height adjusting mechanism in. After a few runs it loosened up. I planed a cedar plank and was amazed by the quality of the surface. The thickness indicator on the side is very legible and was dead on, - I checked the resulting thickness with digital calipers and it matched the thickness indicator scale beyond the point of resolution of my eye. Then I ran a 12 inch wide pine board through and confirmed that thickness of both edges is equal. With shop vac on chips were eliminated rather efficiently, although after an hour or so of constant planing there were some chips on the stand where planer resided and on the floor. Nothing to complain about. Snipe is barely noticeable, especially if you correctly feed and remove planks. I planed 8 feet boards without any help and without using infeed or outfeed support (rollers) and did not find snipe to be an issue at all.
Overall the planer seems overbuilt and reminds me some older military equipment – built like a tank (and weights accordingly), simple to use, easy to get to all maintenance points and gets the job done, period. It feels odd in current day and age when bean counters are running the show and everyone is cutting cost causing use of inferior materials, shoddy craftsmanship and poor quality control.
Explanation is simple, though. It was originally designed and built back in the old good US of A by Emerson Tool Co after Sears (for whom Emerson manufactured Craftsman line seemingly forever) decided to source tools in the Far East and left Emerson looking for another outlet in 1997. The big orange box store saved the day, partnered with Emerson and launched the RIDGID line in 1998. Emerson then came up with the first on the market 13” portable planer with improved carriage design, cutter head lock, depth of cut indicator, and depth stop (US patent US 6585017 B1, if anyone is interested look here, very interesting reading: http://www.google.com/patents/US6585017
). The venerable TP1300 was born. Popular Woodworking, American Woodworking, Handy Magazine, and Woodworker's Journal have all recognized the planer, including a "Best New Tool" award from Popular Woodworking in 1999. A friend of mine – a professional furniture maker bought TP1300 in 2000 and is still using it in his busy shop 15 years later. The only parts that needed to be replaced were brushes and knives. He attributes that to one of the major marketing and selling points for RIDGID, their “full lifetime” warranty. If you want a tool to last a lifetime you tend to over engineer and overbuilt it. At least it used to be that way then…
By 2002 Emerson started closing US factories and outsourcing to the Far East. TP1300 production has been moved there, and then RIDGID started cutting costs and replaced TP1300 with rather horrible R4330 planer and later with an OK R4331. The factory, fortunately for all of us, continued making TP1300 following original specifications, replaced straight knives cutter head with segmented cutter head and found distribution channels which were not afraid to charge premium price for vastly superior product. So, here we are lucky to be able to purchase this blast from the past outstanding piece of American history reborn like Phoenix in a galaxy far-far away and brought back home by great folks at CUTECH. Thank you, guys, for making it happen!
I’ve used 40200H-CT for a month now, built a desk, book cases, a bed with headboard – all from cedar deck planks, framing lumber and some rough cut oak which after planning all looked glass smooth and at most required 220 grit sanding. My furniture making friend borrowed it for a day to test and compare with his old TP1300 and could not keep his excitement. He is planning to buy one now.
Will it benefit from carbide inserts, – well the future will show. Otherwise I would strongly recommend this product to any woodworker, either hobbyist or making living crafting wood products.