Planer (metalworking)

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A typical planer

A planer is a type of metalworking machine tool that uses linear relative motion between the workpiece and a single-point cutting tool to machine a linear toolpath.[1] Its cut is analogous to that of a lathe, except that it is (archetypally) linear instead of helical. (Adding axes of motion can yield helical toolpaths; see "Helical planing" below.) A planer is analogous to a shaper, but larger, and with the entire workpiece moving on a table beneath the cutter, instead of the cutter riding a ram that moves above a stationary workpiece. The table is moved back and forth on the bed beneath the cutting head either by mechanical means, such as a rack and pinion drive or a leadscrew, or by a hydraulic cylinder.


Linear planing[edit]

The most common applications of planers and shapers are linear-toolpath ones, such as:

  • Generating accurate flat surfaces. (While not as precise as grinding, a planer can remove a tremendous amount of material in one pass with high accuracy.)[1]
  • Cutting slots (such as keyways).
  • It is even possible to obviate wire EDM work in some cases. Starting from a drilled or cored hole, a planer with a boring-bar type tool can cut internal features that don't lend themselves to milling or boring (such as irregularly shaped holes with tight corners).

Helical planing[edit]

Although the archetypal toolpath of a planer is linear, helical toolpaths can be accomplished via features that correlate the tool's linear advancement to simultaneous workpiece rotation (for example, an indexing head with linkage to the main motion of the planer). To use today's terminology, one can give the machine other axes in addition to the main axis. The helical planing idea shares close analogy with both helical milling and single-point screw cutting. Although this capability existed from almost the very beginning of planers (circa 1820),[2] the machining of helical features (other than screw threads themselves) remained a hand-filing affair in most machine shops until the 1860s, and such hand-filing did not become rare until another several decades had passed.

Prevalence of current use[edit]

Planers and shapers are now obsolescent, because other machine tools (such as milling machines, broaching machines, and grinding machines) have mostly eclipsed them as the tools of choice for doing such work. However, they have not yet disappeared from the metalworking world. Planers are used by smaller tool and die shops within larger production facilities to maintain and repair large stamping dies and plastic injection molds. Additional uses include any other task where an abnormally large (usually in the range of 4'×8' or more) block of metal must be squared when a (quite massive) horizontal grinder or floor mill is unavailable, too expensive, or otherwise impractical in a given situation. As usual in the selection of machine tools, an old machine that is in hand, still works, and is long since paid-for has substantial cost advantage over a newer machine that would need to be purchased. This principle easily explains why "old-fashioned" techniques often have a long period of gradual obsolescence in industrial contexts, rather than a sharp drop-off of prevalence such as is seen in mass-consumer technology fashions.

Configurations and sizes[edit]

There are two types of planers for metal: double-housing and open-side. The double-housing variety has vertical supports on both sides of its long bed; the open-side variety has a vertical support on only one side, allowing the workpiece to extend beyond the bed. Metal planers can vary in size from a table size of 30"×72" to 20'×62', and in weight from around 20,000 lbs to over 1,000,000 lbs.


Early planing ideas are known to have been underway in France in the 1750s.[3] In the late 1810s, a variety of pioneers in various British shops (including James Fox, George Rennie, Matthew Murray, Joseph Clement, and Richard Roberts) developed the planer into what we today would call a machine tool. The exact details have been contentious and will probably never be known, because the development work being done in various shops was undocumented for various reasons (partially because of proprietary secrecy, and also simply because no one was taking down records for posterity). Roe (1916) provides a short chapter that tells the story as thoroughly as he was able to discover it.[4]


  1. ^ a b Parker, Dana T. Building Victory: Aircraft Manufacturing in the Los Angeles Area in World War II, p. 73, Cypress, CA, 2013. ISBN 978-0-9897906-0-4.
  2. ^ Roe 1916, p. 52.
  3. ^ Roe 1916, p. 50.
  4. ^ Roe 1916, Chapter V: Inventors of the Planer, pp. 50–62.


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