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6/6/2007

Plate Joiners


Plate Joiners
5/1/1997

I have to admit it. I felt a bit guilty when I first started using a plate joiner. After all, making a plate joint almost seemed too easy -- like there should be more to it than just cutting a pair of curved slots and then gluing in a simple wood plate or “biscuit.”


DeWALT DW682K $219
800-433-9258

Freud JS-102 $179.95
910-434-3171

Makita 3901 $210.00
800-462-5482

But the more I use a plate joiner, the more I've come to appreciate it. I can lay out and cut the matching slots in a matter of seconds. And gluing in the biscuit creates an incredibly strong joint.

So I guess you could say I've changed the way I look at plate joiners. And that's not all that's changed.

NEW MODELS. Recently, a number of manufacturers have come out with new plate joiners (or added improvements to existing models).

To find out which one of these plate joiners is best, we bought and tested five of the most popular models, see photos at left and below.

TEAM. As usual, we rounded up our team of three woodworkers to test the plate joiners. Both Ken (a professional cabinetmaker) and Steve (an advanced woodworker) have used plate joiners extensively in their shops. And Cary (who has been working wood for a couple of years now) has assembled a number of projects with plate joints.

One of these plate joiners looks quite a bit different than the others. What's the reason for that?

Ken: I'd say the biggest reason has to do with the position of the motor inside the plastic housing of the plate joiners. With the Porter Cable, the motor is directly above the blade. To cover the motor, the housing and handle are shaped like a ‘D,’ see photo.

But the motor in the other joiners is behind the blade. So the housing is shaped more like a barrel.

With these “barrel grips,” my hand is down low -- right behind the blade. So it feels like I have more control than with a D-shaped handle.

Virutez AB-11C $235.00
800-868-9663

Porter Cable 556 $139.95
800-487-8665

Steve: I like the barrel grips too. But with the Virutex, Freud, and Makita, the barrel is too thick for me to wrap my hand around comfortably. The slim barrel on the DeWalt is just about right for me.

Ken: Another thing I like about the DeWalt is that the on/off switch is right under my fingers when I pick up the joiner. So all it takes is a little squeeze and I'm off and running.

The slide switches on the Virutex, Freud, and Makita aren't quite as handy. I have to shift my grip a little. But of all these slide switches, the one on the Virutex makes the most sense. It's right on top of the barrel, so either a right-hander or left-hander can get to it.

The switches on the Makita and Freud are on the left side of the barrel. So if you're a left-hander, it's going to be a two-handed job to turn on the plate joiner.

At least with the trigger switch on the Porter Cable you can use either hand.

What about the plunge operation of these joiners? Are any of them smoother than the others?

Ken: No doubt about it. The plunge operation on the Makita is the smoothest of the bunch. That's because the body of the joiner slides on two machined steel rods in the base -- like a plunge router.

All the other joiners are designed with tracks that slide in grooves in the base. These tracks aren't quite as smooth. But they work fine.

Cary: The only one I had a problem with is the Porter Cable. There's quite a bit of slop in the fit between the body and the base. So every once in awhile, it binds as I make a cut.

Ken: What bothers me more than that is the Porter Cable has a tendency to bog down when I'm making a cut -- especially in hardwood.

Since it has about the same size motor as the other joiners, I thought the problem might be the blade. When I checked, I found it had twelve teeth instead of six like the other joiners.

To find out if the number of teeth might be the difference, I called the guys at Porter Cable. They told me the wrong blade had been installed at the factory. But when they sent a new one (also with twelve teeth), it didn't cut any better.

Do any of these plate joiners make it any easier to change blades?

Steve: It's a snap with the Makita. All I have to do is loosen one knob and the base flips up out of the way. Changing the blade on the DeWalt, Freud, and Virutex is pretty easy too -- just remove a few screws to get to the blade.

But changing the blade on the Porter Cable was more involved. I had a pile of parts on the bench by the time I got to the blade. And even then, getting the blade off is a pain. There's only one wrench. So I have to slip a screwdriver between the teeth of the blade to hold it in place while I loosen the arbor nut. The Freud and Virutex both come with two wrenches which makes it easier to change blades.

Ken: Even so, when it comes to changing blades, it's hard to beat the DeWalt and Makita. They're the only joiners with a spindle lock. So all I have to do is push a button and loosen the arbor nut.

Performance

What's the most important thing to look for when it comes to the performance of a plate joiner?

Steve: The biggest thing for me is the accuracy of the fence. It has to lock perfectly parallel to the blade. Otherwise, the slot that's cut in one piece won't align with the slot in the other one when I glue in a biscuit.

Ken: With the fences on these joiners, each one did lock parallel. But they go about it differently. The DeWalt and Makita both use a rack and pinion gear that guides the fence smoothly up and down the face of the joiner. It keeps the fence perfectly aligned. And it makes it easy to “tweak” the height of the fence.

Cary: I also liked the guide systems on the Freud and Virutex. Each of these joiners has a “key” that fits in a groove to keep the fence aligned.

Steve: The Porter Cable takes a different approach to keep the fence aligned. A pair of slots in the fence fit over Allen screws in the face of the joiner. This works fine. But fiddling with the screws each time I adjust the height of the fence is a hassle.

Ken: At least with the Porter Cable, the fence stays put when I tighten it down. I can't say that about the fence on the Virutex. The problem with it is I need to adjust two separate levers to change the height of the fence. And one of these levers also locks in the angle of the fence. When I retighten this lever, the fence “creeps” just a bit which changes the angle. So every time I adjust the height of the fence, I need to double-check the angle.

How do you adjust the angle on these joiners?

Ken: Each joiner has a fence that adjusts for the desired angle. And except for the Virutex, the knobs (or levers) that lock it in place are independent of each other. But what's different is how the fence is positioned on the workpiece. Say I'm cutting a slot in the mitered end of a workpiece. The Freud, Makita, and DeWalt “trap” the long point of the miter. So the location of the slot is referenced off the outside face of the workpiece. This way, I know that the outside face of each piece will be flush -- even if the pieces vary in thickness.

Cary: I can't count on that with the Virutex. That's because the fence rests on the inside face of the workpiece. Besides the possible alignment problems, I always get this feeling that the joiner is going to slip up onto the workpiece.

Steve: The same thing is true for the adjustable fence on the Porter Cable. But it also comes with a second “fixed” fence that traps the workpiece.

What about cutting slots in the face of a piece?

Steve: With the DeWalt and Virutex, I just flip the fence up out of the way. That's handier than having to remove the fence like on the other joiners.

All these joiners have some type of system that grips the workpiece and keeps it from “walking” as you make the cut. How well do they work?

Ken: When the workpiece covers the front of the base completely, all the “grips” work great. But I noticed a big difference when cutting a slot in the end of a narrow piece. The Makita is the only joiner that provides a positive grip on narrow stock. The rubber “bumpers” on the Virutex and Freud and the metal pins on the DeWalt and Porter Cable are too far apart to be of any help on a narrow piece.

Cutting the slots for the biscuits creates lots of dust. How well do these joiners control dust?

Cary: The DeWalt, Makita, and Freud all have dust bags. But the bags fill up fast. So I'm glad these joiners also have a hook-up for a shop vacuum.

Ken: That's your only option with the Virutex. But that's okay -- the vacuum hook-up works great.

Steve: What surprised me is the Porter Cable doesn't have anything at all to help control dust.

Recommendations
Ken: I picked the DeWalt as the best plate joiner. And the reason is simple -- it's a quality tool. That quality shows up in every detail -- a precision fence, a switch that feels like it's part of the barrel, and even a spindle lock.

Steve: Deciding between the DeWalt and Makita was tough. But I finally chose the Makita. The fence adjusts easily and accurately. And the plunge system is incredibly smooth when I'm cutting a slot.

Cary: I'd buy the Freud. It's a good, solid plate joiner that gives me a lot for my money. The most important thing is the fence. It's simple. But the height and angle adjustments are well-thought out and easy to use.

Note: This article was originally published in ShopNotes No. 33, May, 1997.

(c) 2002, August Home Publishing Company. All Rights Reserved.

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