Skip to main content

Cast iron wins out

I have always loved old, heavy, cast iron woodworking machines. The "vintage" Tannewitz band saws, Cresent "aircraft carrier" jointers, Oliver table saws … these things have a quality that is lost in today's machines.

Even the really good quality new stuff has a "plain Jane" look. The bases may be heavy steel structures and perfectly sufficient for their intended purpose and there is no doubt that cast iron could be considered overkill. But there is no denying the appeal of the old "built like a tank" machinery.

But as much as I love those older machines, most of my own machines date back no more than around 1985. I do have a beautiful 1950's model DeWalt radial arm saw that was completely rebuilt right around the turn of the century (this one, not the last one!). But most of my other machines are of the newer "steel box" variety.

When I set up my current shop in 1988, I needed a planer. Since I was on a fairly tight budget, I opted for a small (13") Delta planer with the idea that I could upgrade to a bigger one after a few years. It has been 22 years since then and that Delta planer is still in my shop, having planed thousands of board feet of lumber. But it's pretty worn at this point and badly in need of an overhaul. I decided that this might be the time to finally upgrade. Over the last few weeks, I have been looking at new machines in the 20" range and there are unarguably some pretty nice planers available. But I kept coming across ads for some pretty fine old machines and the temptation finally proved to be too great. I ended up buying a good old "made in USA" restored Powermatic 160 16" planer.

There is something a bit nutty about having a machine with a total width of 52" (including the huge motor hanging off the side) that will only plane a 16" wide board. And that weighs 1,200 lbs.! (I am mounting it on heavy duty casters but it will still probably take two people to move it around). But there is also a great deal of satisfaction in looking at all that fine cast iron. And since I paid roughly the same price as I would have paid for a 15" made in China machine, I figure I really came out on the good side if you figure cost per pound. I was looking at a Byrd head for it but that would cost more than the planer cost me! So for now, I'm sticking with good old straight knives.


Related Articles