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Woodworking shapers

Or should I use a router table?

Background

A few years ago I "retired" to full time woodworking. In the process I reconfigured my shop to allow me to work alone, more efficiently and safely, including purchase of a large European combination machine. I wondered what I was going to do with the 5 hp shaper that was part of that machine, other than being a substitute for the router table that I had built into the wing of my old table saw (sold to make room for the new machine).

Now that I have the shaper, and have invested in some good cutters, I can't imagine a shop without one. Since this page was originally written, I bought a second (separate) shaper... once you experience the power and precision of a shaper, there are lots of new opportunities.

Shaper vs. Router Table

I participated in a program for our local woodworking club several years ago, comparing router tables to a "basic" shaper, with the idea that a basic shaper may be a better, more economical, alternative to a table mounted router. Three different "good" router table configurations were considered, and compared with four different shapers. In the comparison, all prices were "every-day" prices - by waiting for a special sale, any of the options may be cheaper.

Router Tables

The first router table configuration was a club member's home-made system, based in part on the New Yankee Workshop router table. The router was a PC 7518 with no base ($325.99), a commercial lift system that was added ($289.99), and materials to build the table that brought the total to $838.98

The second system was a commercial table, installed in the Woodcraft classroom where the club meets. It also consisted of the PC 7518 router ($349.99), a commercial lift system ($289.99), and the Kreg Precision Router Table (that includes a steel table, top, and fence) for $499.99, bringing the total to $1,139.97

The third system was a basic bargain system. The router was the Hitachi MVP 12 - assuming that a high power variable speed unit would be required - initially or eventually ($249.99), a base plate to mount the router in a table, no lift system or precision fences, and an estimated $85 in materials for a basic cabinet, for a total of $384.98.

After the club discussion, several people pointed out that most router tables started with existing routers, then grew over time with more powerful routers, lift systems, better tables and fences, etc. The total cost of the router table may eventually be higher, and the features may be less than a shaper, but the cost was incremental, while the purchase of a shaper is a significant "all at once" investment.

Shapers

The shapers needed to be compared on the basis of features, not just components. Comments about many of the features appears below the table.

Shapers Grizzly
G1035
Jet
JWS22CS
Grizzly
G1026
Powermatic
PM2700
1280101C
Horsepower 3.0 5.0
Shaper Spindles ½", ¾" ½", ¾" ½", ¾", 1" ¾", 1¼"
Max cutter under nut 2" 2 3/16" 2" 6"
Vertical Travel 3" 1 7/16" 3" 4"
Router Spindle $49.95 2 included $49.95 $76.68
Speed (rpm) 7,000 10,000 7,000, 9,000 7,000, 10,000 7,500, 10,000
Reverse yes yes yes yes
Micro Adjust Fence Independent yes "smooth" yes
Dust Collection 3" $15.95 4" 3" $15.95 two 4"
Height Setting scale manual scale digital
Extension Table $79.95 n/a included n/a
Mobility no $119.99 $69.95 Built in
Weight 220 192 353 690
Base Price $495.00 $779.99 $895.00 $2,856.00
Shipping $76.50 bought locally $96.50 free
Total Cost $717.35 $899.98 $1114.40 $2932.68

Power: Most routers use the lighter universal motors (with brushes). The rated power and speed cannot be sustained under continuous load. Most shapers use induction motors, a heavier motor common in fixed machines, but with more consistent power output and speed. Any motor consistently producing over 1½ horsepower cannot normally be run on a household circuit - the higher power motors require 230 volt power (since the current required for a 2 hp or larger motor at 110 volts exceeds that capacity of normal household wiring).

Spindle: A wide variety of shaper cutters are available for a ¾" spindle. The commercial grade cutters generally require a 1¼" or larger spindle. The common metric size cutters require a 30mm spindle, close to the American 1¼" size. Most of my cutters came with free adapters to use them on smaller spindles (e.g. my ¾ inch cutters have adapters to use them on a 1/2 inch spindle).

Maximum Cutter under nut: How tall a cutter, or combination of cutters, can you use at a time. Some people like to mount both rail and stile door cutters at the same time, and simply change the height. A rub ring (bearing, guide bushing) adds to the height. I bought a 2 inch high cutter to trim along a pattern. With spacers and the bearing, the combination was close to 3 inches. I had considered a 3 inch high cutter, but it would not have fit on my original MiniMax shaper.

Vertical travel: This is important if you want two cutters mounted simultaneously, or if you want to use a cutter for part of a larger profile.

Router Spindle: Router bits can be used in a router collet that replaces the spindle, or a separate router spindle, or a router collet on one of the other spindles, on a shaper. This allows existing cutters to be used, as well as specialized profiles that are only readily available as a router bit. Normal router speeds are about 18-25,000 rpm, but larger router bits must be slowed to 10,000 rpm. Most shapers cannot go faster than 10,000 rpm, which I have found adequate down to about a 1/4 inch roundover router bit; for smaller bits I switch back to the hand-held router.

A router bit designer warned me about the "slow" 9-10,000 rpm speed on normal router bits... I made the argument about "just feed slower." He pointed out that the cooling of the cutter worked by the chips carrying the heat away, and with the slower speed, the chips wouldn't be thrown as well. Therefore watch out for burning with the slower speed and slower feed rate. (I haven't had a problem, but I watch for it, or for cutters getting hot).

Shaper Speed: Just as a router needs to be slowed (to perhaps 10,000 rpm) for larger router bits, a shaper needs to be slowed even farther for the larger shaper cutters - 7,000 rpm is common for large shaper cutters, but even slower may be needed for very large cutters. This is often done by moving a belt on the drive pulleys.

Reverse, Tilt: It is common to mount a shaper cutter upside down, reverse the direction of rotation, and reverse the normal direction of feed. This makes other parts of a shaper cutter accessible, and allows work to be fed face up rather than face down (or vice versa). Some shaper spindles also tilt to expand the opportunities with cutters. There are arguments (and very strong opinions) whether a forward or backward tilt is better, but inverting the cutter and reversing rotation gives the profile opportunity that the "other" tilt might have offered.

Dust Collection: Many shapers have a separate dust collection port for chips that are thrown under the table, in addition to those thrown into the hood behind the fence.

The first three shapers might compare favorably with a router table, but as I became a committed shaper user, with quality shaper cutters, I found the fourth shaper in the table above quite attractive - it was the one I bought as my second shaper when Powermatic was having a sale. (When I was picking it up, a Woodcraft salesperson muttered "I don't know why anyone would want a shaper." I replied "this is my second." His jaw dropped as he wandered off, clueless.)

Two shapers?

Actually many commercial shops have 3, 4, 5 or more shapers, so they can leave them set up for a function and just walk over and use them. I "only" have two.

My MiniMax combo machine includes a tilting spindle shaper. I can switch between functions on the combo in seconds, except installing the shaper hood and fence takes a long time (up to 20 minutes). If I would like a sliding table with the shaper, or need a tilting spindle (rare), or are doing pattern cutting or edge profiles (no fence), the MiniMax is the shaper of choice.

My Powermatic shaper has a more sophisticated fence that is NOT easily removed. Therefore if I am using a fence, I almost certainly go to the Powermatic shaper. I bought it because it wasn't much more expensive than the mounting gizmos for a feeder on my combo, and the power feeder mounted trivially on the corner of the new shaper. I found that a few jigs were quicker to use that setting up the power feeder, so I sold it, but kept the shaper.

Power Feeder

A constant feed rate, with consistent pressure of the work against the fence/cutters, allows the shaper (or router) to give the best quality cut. Power feeders are often used with shapers - the wheels of the power feeder straddle the cutter, and provide the pressure in addition to the movement. The control provided by the power feeder allows climb cuts when that would be preferable.

A real world example: I have a large router bit to create crown mouldings for furniture. When used in a router table, a significant amount of sanding was required. The same cutter in a shaper produced smoother cuts, with far less sanding required, apparently because of the heavier table and larger bearings reducing vibration. When the power feeder is used, almost no sanding is required.

It doesn't seem like much power should be required in a power feeder. Not true. I have (had) a "small" ½ hp Steff 2033, which I now consider barely adequate, replaced by the 1 hp 2034 Steff power feeder. If you are considering a feeder, be sure it has multiple speeds, forward and reverse. The mounting arm, with multiple pivot points, needs to be very strong and stiff, and may weigh well over 150 pounds. I only do very short runs (custom work) so rarely set up the feeder and finally sold it. A few simple jigs give me comfort to use the shaper without the power feeder.

Cutters and Accessories

You are probably familiar with the use of ¼ inch vs. ½ inch router bits... in theory they should work the same, but the smaller shaft leads to more vibration and a less perfect cut. Same with shaper cutters. The ¾ inch spindle has a wider variety of inexpensive cutters, often used by hobby woodworkers. The professional cutters are usually at least 1¼ inch spindle... in theory they should work the same, but the smaller spindle leads to more vibration and a less perfect cut. For lightly used profiles, I am happy with the cheaper cutters using a ¾ inch spindle. For my good cutters, I go with the 1¼ inch spindle.

There are a variety of technologies used for shaper cutters, each with pros and cons

Cabinet Doors

A modest quality rail and stile cutter with braised carbide tips might cost $100 for a one piece or $125 for a two piece set. For example, I have the Woodline WL-1501 single piece. The single piece allows you to trim the end of the tenon, and do both rails and stiles without changing cutters, but makes it hard to do curved rails, since there is no bearing to follow the curved wood. I have had great luck with Woodline, but there are other brands considered by some to be better quality (at a much higher price).

I skipped the head with "insert" high speed steel cutters and went directly to carbide (more on that below). I got a top of the line stile cutter with 3 replaceable carbide tips (from DeHart USA, but I am no longer confident about them as a company). They cost $375, but a set of replacement carbide inserts are only $75. The similar rail (cope) cutter was an additional $375. I would consider the similar but modular Garniga (Gar KNEE ga) cutters - more setup time, but more flexibility. There are reportedly multiple Garniga distributors, but the primary USA distributor is DeHart (darn). Despite the "take your breath away" price, now that I am over the sticker shock, I consider it a good investment because of the extremely smooth finish and precise cuts. My doors got significantly better, and are easier/faster to make.

Glass doors require a dado rather than a slot. This can be accomplished with special rail and stile cutters (normally $375 each from DeHart) or by cutting the back off the groove after the door is assembled. Try the WL-1213-1 or WL-1213 cutters from Woodline.

A modest panel raising cutter with braised carbide tips might cost $85 (see Woodline WL-1606), with better quality cutters going up in price from there. The same cutter can be used with a shallow cut as a "back cutter" if required, or a dedicated back-cutter or under-cutter can be purchased and mounted at the same time as the panel raiser.

A separate bearing is required for curved-top doors. The "top of the line" panel raiser, with bearing and dedicated back cutter (the three are stacked together on the shaper), with replaceable carbide tips, from DeHart, cost $1,150.

HSS Insert Cutter

I have a Flury (Switzerland) insert cutter system that was provided as a "starter set" with my combination machine. This is a picture of the head with one pair of cutters installed, and a couple other cutters outside the head as examples. To put the size in perspective, the Woodline rail and stile cutter is beside it. The good news is that the heavy head - over 5 pounds - is very stable (sounds like a jet engine when it spins up), and cuts very smoothly.

The cutters are 4 to 5.5 mm thick, and 40 to 50 mm tall, with alignment holes as you can see. This seems to be a European standard, or at least a very common size.

I have been concerned about starting a bigger project using these High Speed Steel cutters because, not being carbide, I was not sure they would last for an entire project. (I have been assured by vendor experts and other users that my fear is unfounded.)

All is not perfect:

  1. the inserts were quite expensive for years - a pair of high speed steel inserts costs about as much as the conventional braised carbide rail and stile cutter that is in the picture for comparison. That has changed. Jim Eddy of James Eddy Woodworks suggested Router Bit World had CMT knives for about $15 per pair - certainly worth checking out. Woodline (my favorite inexpensive cutter vendor) has recently added a complete selection of insert knives (193 different cutters) for about $14-$17 per pair.
  2. the cut grooves (to hold raised panels) of the knives in my set are 4 mm (0.16 inches) or 5 mm (0.2 inches), not 1/4 inch that is traditional in the USA. The 1/4 inch (actually 0.26 inch) space balls don't work. Someone may make HSS cutters for American sizes, but I haven't found them, and now that I have an alternative, I have stopped looking.
  3. the head doesn't have the anti-kickback safety shape - the rough profile of the cutter that is slightly less than the depth of the cutter, to keep the cutter from taking too big a bite, and to provide extra support to the cutter.
  4. Now that I am older and wiser, I would give more consideration to using this option if I were starting today.

One bit of good news, though. I needed a custom profile for a project. I drew an engineering sketch (all the dimensions, but not a pretty drawing, and emailed an image of my sketch to W. Moore Profiles. In a couple days I had a pair of custom cutters, "standard European size" that fit my Flury head and worked perfectly, for $75 plus shipping. Some friends said I should have been able to get the custom cutter much cheaper than that.

Recommendation

After giving you too much information - too many options - and telling you that I am happy with the most expensive option for myself, one woodworker/friend spent an hour on the phone with the tech rep from Freeborn (they make cutters but only sell through dealers, so this really was a tech rep, not someone trying to make a sale). He advised that a hobby or semi-pro woodworker (not someone using the shaper 8 hours per day) should focus on braised carbide tooling. In this type use, a head is likely to last 7-10 years until it needs to be sharpened, and then can be sharpened 4-5 times.

Pattern Routing

I bought a Byrd Shelix head, model 48300802-5, to use with a guide bearing for pattern routing... FAR better than router bits, even 1 inch bits in the shaper, because of the larger diameter cutter and bearing (better angle of cut), and the reduced vibration from the 1¼ inch shaft. The guide bearing (sometimes called a ball bearing rub collar) from my panel raiser happened to be the right diameter, but if you don't already have a guide bearing of the proper diameter, be sure to buy one when you get the head. I spoke to Byrd, and they have them, but not on their web site... see fine print at the bottom of page 3 of their paper catalog, on the web as a PDF file.

Profiles

I have a variety of cove (concave) and bead (convex) cutters that I picked up "on sale" and use far more than I expected. I have multiple roundover cutters. I still use my router bit in the shaper to cut furniture crown moulding. I even have some dado cutters that I use for things like grooves in the side of drawers.

Tenons

European safety rules prohibit non-through cuts on a saw (which also rules out dado blades). Therefore European woodworking practice is to cut tenons on the shaper, rather than the American tradition with a saw. A 1 inch long tenon might easily require a 4 inch diameter cutter (or two cutters with a spacer, to cut both sides of a tenon at the same time. Since the cutter tries to pull the work into the blade, special fences and/or jigs are required to control the workpiece. This is not a task for a beginner. I do not do this since I normally use floating tenons, in conjunction with my slot mortiser.

Sanding

I know some people who get a sandpaper spindle for their shapers, for sanding curved surfaces. I rarely have the need but one time I put the sanding drum intended for the drill press into the router bit collet in the shaper, set the shaper speed very slow, and had a sanding drum that created an edge perfectly perpendicular to the table.

Comments on Brands

I certainly have not tried all the vendors and their cutters, but they are companies who were suggested to me by folks I respect.

The standard European cutter that I use in my Flury head is 40 or 50 mm wide and 4-5 mm thick. I have gotten great service and advice from "Steve" at W. Moore Profiles in Florida, New York, 800-228-8151 - they provided the custom cutter I needed, and sell a variety of heads and cutters.

Both Freeborn and Schmidt are highly regarded by professional woodworkers.

Garniga is imported from Italy, and at various times has been distributed by DeHart, Martin, Laguna, and MiniMax. Their cutters are more modular, meaning more flexible, but take longer to set up. For a custom shop like me, they may have been a better investment than DeHart.

Lockedge apparently makes the cutters sold by Felder, and some by Amana. When I search, I find lots of vendors who mention Lockedge.

Leitz, Leuco and Oppold are highly regarded German heads and cutters.