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POWERMATIC 15HH Thickness Planer
The super clean-cutting, strong and (nearly) silent type
Text, photos & video by Tom Hintz
I had resigned myself to thickness planers being the loudest machine in my shop. With long blades impacting wood several thousand times per minute, extreme levels of sound seemed understandable. Then, I began hearing about the Tom Byrd helical cutterheads and near unbelievable tales of superior cuts, incredible cutter life and super quiet operation. Logic tempered by years of experience with mainstream planers told me that all three qualities could not be found in one machine. Then I got the POWERMATIC 15HH, equipped with a real Tom Byrd helical cutterhead and what used to be fantasy became reality in my shop.
The curb weight of 517-lbs clearly demonstrates that POWERMATIC has not lost their penchant for heavy-duty construction. The liberal use of iron castings, thoughtful design and high-end machining make it obvious that the POWERMATIC 15HH is intended to remain in service longer than the woodworker using it may.
Further evidence of POWERMATIC's interest in quality is the use of a genuine Tom Byrd helical cutterhead. It would have been much cheaper to produce a similar looking but less effective copy of this cutterhead design, as many others do. However, POWERMATIC chose to stick with the real deal and the extraordinary performance of the original Byrd design, materials and manufacturing.
POWERMATIC recognized that most woodworkers are likely to use this 500lb-plus planer in different parts of their shop. To make that relocation easy they added a set of wheels housed within the base cabinet. When you get to the right place, step on the foot-operated wheel lock and the POWERMATIC 15HH stays put.
The heart of any planer is where the cutter meets the wood. Over the years manufacturers have tried curving long blades, setting them at angles, breaking them into segments and arranging all of those still-straight designs in different patterns around the head. While many worked better than full-width straight blades, none I have seen approach the performance of the Tom Byrd helical cutterhead.
The Byrd helical cutterhead (15" version in the 15HH) features 98 all-carbide cutter inserts, arranged in spiral rows. Each insert has four identical, radiused cutting edges as well as a small radius across their top surface. That combination of shapes creates a true shear cut and dramatically reduces the impact on the wood itself. The result is an exceptionally smooth cut and an astounding reduction in sound. As described later in this review, the lack of noise is so pronounced, it caught me totally off guard.
The efficiency of the Byrd Helical cutterhead, the durability of its all-carbide inserts and the near total lack of impact extends their life an incredible amount, especially when compared to the more common long knives. Remember that each insert has four identical, equally tough cutting edges. In many cases, the original set of inserts may never have to be replaced in even busy home wood shops. I suspect that many woodworkers may never have to use all four sides of the original set of inserts.
Another benefit of the relatively small inserts is that should a piece of metal find its way into the POWERMATIC 15HH, repairs will be fast and cheap because only a few of the inserts will actually have to be indexed or replaced. Even in that extreme situation, the cost of such a repair will be minimal if not free. POWERMATIC includes a set of 10 spare inserts and the T25 Torx wrench needed to replace them with the POWERMATIC 15HH.
If you have owned a planer with rubber feed rollers you know how prone they can be to contamination with dust or pitch, and how difficult cleaning them can be. POWERMATIC designed a serrated steel infeed roller and a
smooth steel outfeed roller that nearly eliminates roller contamination along with marks or scratches on the freshly planed surface. The downward pressure on both rollers is easily adjustable by the user without taking the machine apart.
A two-speed gearbox, shifted on the fly with a push/pull knob lets the operator select either 20-FPM (feet per minute) for faster dimensioning or 16 FPM for the final cuts. The feed rollers are driven by an enclosed chain drive, powered through a sealed oil bath gearbox.
You also will find an adjustable chip breaker and a row of steel anti-kickback fingers built into the cutterhead. When combined, these features add up to a very safe, trouble-free feed system.
The POWERMATIC 15HH comes with a 3HP, 1Ph, 220V TEFC (totally enclosed fan cooled) motor (a 5HP version is available) installed in the base cabinet. Because POWERMATIC rates their motors using a continuous duty cycle, power will not be an issue. Most new users are surprised by how strong POWERMATIC motors are because of their previous experience with the often disappointing "peak" or "max developed" ratings so commonly used today.
Three V-belts transmit the motor power to the cutterhead, through machined, multi-groove pulleys. The belts are located outside of the cabinet, under an easy to remove cover that makes inspection or maintenance quick and easy.
For maximum safety and protection of the motor itself, a true magnetic switch is used on the POWERMATIC 15HH. Regardless of how unlikely, a serious fluctuation in the power being supplied to a machine like this could damage the motor and this switch is designed to kick out before that happens.
Another benefit of the magnetic switch is that should the power go out and then come back on, the POWERMATIC 15HH will not restart on its own. The operator must push the On button after the power is restored to start the machine.
Tables and Cut Depth
The 20"-long by 15"-wide primary and 14"-long by 15 3/4"-wide extension tables are all cast iron with finely ground surfaces. The overall table surface is 48" in length. The extension tables have setscrew adjusters in the mounting flanges that make aligning them to the primary surface simple.
Cut depth is controlled by table position rather than moving the upper housing that contains the cutterhead. Each corner of the primary table fits around a 2"-diameter column and is connected to the lead screw within it. The lead screws are operated by a 6"-diameter cast iron handwheel on the cutterhead housing. Each full revolution of the handwheel produces just over 1/16" change in table height.
The POWERMATIC 15HH table is locked in place with two knobs, one on either end of the table. This locking system is quick, easy and effective. For those who install their planer against a wall, the locking handles can be switched to either side of the POWERMATIC 15HH.
The POWERMATIC 15HH has a pair of rollers built into the main table surface that can be adjusted up and down in very small increments. These rollers make getting rough stock through the machine easier and more predictable. Adjustments for these rollers is easily accessible without taking anything apart. When working with smooth stock, the rollers can be set below the table surface.
Like all planers, the POWERMATIC 15HH generates huge amounts of dust and chips. The Byrd helical head seems to make smaller, more consistent debris particles but there is still a bunch of it. An effectively designed, all metal dust shroud (included) is mounted to the upper housing and directs the debris into a 4"-diameter port. That port is angled to the side so that the dust collector hose stays clear of the wood as it emerges from under the cutterhead.
In The Shop
I used the POWERMATIC 15HH in my shop for several months prior to writing this review, in part because I was waiting to see even a small indication that the cutters were mortal and would begin to lose their edge. Despite planning well over 3000 feet of red oak and whatever other wood I could find in the shop over that time, the cutters (still on the original edge) continue to produce the same high quality surface as they did on the first day. I'm tired of waiting and running out of wood to run through the POWERMATIC 15HH in spare moments.
The Byrd cutterhead is very impressive in the quality of the cut and the remarkably low level of sound it creates in use. It is so quite that when I sent the first rough-cut board through the POWERMATIC 15HH, I thought I had missed the setup and had not engaged the cutters. However, when the board emerged with a nearly full-width cut, I was suitably amazed. The dust collector was easily making more noise than the POWERMATIC 15HH. After months of heavy use, that level of sound has not changed.
The feed rollers are very effective and resist build up far better than rubber versions. So far I have found nothing but a little "static cling" dust on them that had no effect on their performance and wiped away with a rag. Though adjustments for roller height and spring pressure are easily accessible, my POWERMATIC 15HH has yet to need them. It came set up perfectly right out of the box and has stayed that way.
Despite many assurances by forum experts that the serrated rollers would leave impressions in the wood, I have yet to find any marks on any of the wood that has gone through the POWERMATIC 15HH. The wood has not hesitated as it passed through the POWERMATIC 15HH either.
The 48"-long (overall) cast iron table is a pleasure to work with and makes planing even large stock very easy. The setscrew adjustment built into the extension wings is handy, works well and seems to hold their setting very well. The cut depth adjustment of just over 1/16" of change per turn of the handwheel seems to be a good compromise between speed and accuracy.
Despite using the POWERMATIC 15HH longer than nearly any other tool I have reviewed, it continues to function perfectly. Most surprising is the outright refusal of the carbide cutters to go dull. I have run at least 3000 feet of oak through this machine, plus a bunch of poplar, walnut, pine and whatever else I could find in the shop and it cuts just as easily and cleanly today as it did the first day. It appears that if you keep metal out of the POWERMATIC 15HH, you may never need to replace the cutters.
Cut quality is far better than I have ever seen, even with difficult woods with heavy figuring and odd grain patterns. I have intentionally looked for pieces of wood with problematic grain and/or knots to "stress test" the Byrd cutterhead. All I found out is that this cutterhead doesn't care about all that. It just cuts clean, smooth surfaces without complaint. I still orient the grain correctly but do not fear the odd board with wild grain directions.
With a street price of around $2,299.00 (9-25-2007) the POWERMATIC 15HH represents a major investment. Between the superior performance and long-term durability of this machine, buying the POWERMATIC 15HH is truly an investment rather than a simple tool purchase. It's cost will be spread out over a very long time if not forever. The exceptionally long life of the carbide inserts alone will offset a considerable portion of the initial cost by eliminating sharpening and replacement costs of traditional knives. Plus, there is the peace of mind afforded by having a machine that works exceptionally well and maintains that level of performance without a lot of complicated maintenance or expense.
If you want to add a planer to your shop and at the same time enjoy the fiscal sanity of buying the last one you will ever need first, the POWERMATIC 15HH should be first on your list of must-sees. In addition, going right to the Byrd helical cutterhead will save you a ton in sandpaper.
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